Renowned mathematical physicist and Princeton University Thomas D. Jones Professor Emeritus Arthur Wightman died of Alzheimer’s disease January 13 at Veterans Nursing Home in Edison. He was 90. He was best known for his pioneering and far-reaching research on the mathematical foundations of quantum field theory.
Wightman grew up in Rochester, N.Y. He attended Yale University, and had Henry Margenau and Leigh Page as advisers. As a doctoral student at Princeton, Wightman studied under John Wheeler before earning his PhD in physics in 1949. Wightman joined the University’s faculty in 1949 and was granted emeritus status in 1992. He was widely known as an excellent teacher and mentor, generous with his time and ideas. He advised more than 20 graduate students.
Wightman is one of the founders of modern mathematical physics. He provided for the first time a mathematically elegant and axiomatic approach to quantum field theory in which all-important physical results such as the parity-charge-time (PCT) symmetry and the connection between spin and statistics became theorems. The Wightman theorems on the reconstruction of a quantum field theory from the Wightman functions and the Bargmann-Hall-Wightman theorem on the structure of their analytic continuation are unfading foundation stones of modern physics. Together with Rudolf Haag in Germany, Wightman brought quantum field theory to a fully axiomatic description, fulfilling at least in part the dream expressed by David Hilbert in his sixth problem of 1900.
For his work, he received the 1969 Dannie Heinemann Prize for Mathematical Physics from the American Physical Society and American Institute of Physics, and the inaugural Henri Poincaré Prize from the International Associate of Mathematical Physics in 1997. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, London, Fellow of the American Academy of Art and Sciences, a Doctor of Science of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (1968), and Doctor Honoris Causa of Göttingen University (1987).
Like much of Wightman’s work, the axioms stemmed from his pursuit of a deeper understanding of how physics worked, said Arthur Jaffe, a Harvard University professor of mathematics and theoretical science. Jaffe earned his doctorate in physics from Princeton in 1966 with Wightman as his adviser (Jaffe also earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University in 1959). Wightman enjoyed delving into existing physics ideas to illuminate those elements that were actually not understood, Jaffe said.
“There is an enormous difference between what you think you know and what you really know, and it was the latter that Arthur strove to uncover,” Jaffe said. “His work set the standard for a high road to understanding the deeper meaning of physics.”
Jaffe described Wightman as a rigorous researcher who always acknowledged past scientific ideas, yet relentlessly pushed himself and his students toward the next steps in their work. Though he studied under Wightman for four years, the two had frequent contact for decades about their work. Jaffe is well known for his work in constructive quantum field theory, which focuses on showing that Wightman’s axioms could be realized with concrete examples.
“I can say I’ve been a student ever since,” Jaffe said. “Arthur set me on the path of what I spent most of my life doing. I think of Arthur as the spiritual leader of mathematical physics and his death really marks the end of an era. It’s hard to think of who will step into Arthur’s shoes with the same wonderful breadth of interests, insights, understanding of people, and ability to inspire the best from others. In the meantime, I mourn his loss.”
Despite his work in the dense and esoteric field of mathematical physics, Wightman’s wife Ludmilla said her husband was sociable and well read on many subjects. Ludmilla, a fellow physicist who specialized in high-energy physics, said the couple “never stopped talking from the moment we woke up to the moment we fell asleep.” His reputation and rapport with scientists around the world kept them in touch with a string of colleagues and students.
Princeton Professor of Mathematics Edward Nelson often sought Wightman’s input on his recognized work in mathematical quantum field theory. Approachable and helpful to his colleagues, Wightman would turn a seemingly simple answer into a fascinating and sprawling exploration of the topic at hand, said Nelson, who joined Princeton’s faculty in 1959.
“He was a tremendous source of information to his students and colleagues,” Nelson said. “I frequently went to him with questions and got a very full and comprehensive answer. Many people had that experience with him: Ask a simple question and get a very complicated answer. I often got much more than I asked for, but it was worth it.”
Princeton Professor of Physics Chiara Nappi recalled that conversations with him on any subject were delightful. “There is nothing such as a quick answer by Arthur to any question,” she said.
“He knows so much, he has so much to say, so many details to reveal, so many connections to make. You sit there listening to all these facts that he remembers in exquisite detail, totally fascinated. You have forgotten where you started from and have no idea of where he is going. It takes you by surprise when finally he closes his multiple loops and sub-loops in his discourse, and gets back exactly where he started from. Hours later, you finally have the answer to the question you asked long ago, and in the process you have learned an awful lot about a lot of things you did not even know existed, and enjoyed every moment of it.”
In addition to his wife, Wightman is survived by his stepson Todor Todorov. A memorial service will be planned. The Princeton department of physics is collecting remembrances of Wightman for a memorial web page.
George Lovitt of Princeton, formerly of Baldwin, N.Y., passed away peacefully in his sleep on February 6, 2013. Loving husband of the late Nancy Lovitt (nee Posner) and more recently, Judith Bronston of Princeton, he was also the beloved father of four children and their spouses, Alison and Ken Reinfeld, Chip Lovitt and Lori Gale, and Robert and Michele Lovitt, and Patricia Barrier.
Born in Bridgeport, Conn., on June 7, 1922, George grew up in Freeport, N.Y., where he was a student leader and standout scholar. He attended Hamilton College and New York University. During World War II, he served as a lieutenant in the United States Army, and was awarded the Purple Heart after being wounded in combat in Germany.
He began his book publishing career in 1946 in the publicity department of Prentice Hall Publishers, then was named advertising and sales director at John Wiley & Sons in 1948. In 1952, he joined the pioneering book-advertising agency Franklin Spier as account executive, and rose to the rank of president and chairman of the company. Throughout his career, George Lovitt was a respected and popular figure in the book and advertising industry, working with publishing houses such as Little, Brown, Doubleday, Simon & Schuster, New American Library, and Harcourt, and a variety of illustrious authors including Norman Vincent Peale, Adlai Stevenson, Kurt Vonnegut, Herman Wouk, Robert Kennedy, John LeCarre, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Thor Heyerdahl, and many others.
After he retired, he was active in a variety of groups in the Princeton area such as Community Without Walls, and he helped organize and honcho the local 55+ organization. He loved music, especially jazz (and was an accomplished pianist), enjoyed interests such as art, literature, woodworking, and travel, and was known to all as a witty and delightful conversationalist.
Besides his children, he is survived by his wife Judith, his adoring stepdaughters and their spouses, Baila and Dovid Grinker, Jan and Arik Gorban, Deb and Michael Bronston-Culp, Sue and Jim Griffis, and Ruth Bronston and Charlie Bose; nine grandchildren, Erika, Greg and Tim Reinfeld, Keith and Liane Lovitt, Keren and Ben Gorban, Chaya Mushka Grinker, Marda Barrier, and one great-grandchild Margot Reinfeld.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made in George’s memory to the Anti-Defamation League, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and Doctors without Borders.
With great sadness in our hearts, the family of Livia Plaks would like to announce her death on February 2, 2013, of a sudden heart attack at her home in Princeton.
Mrs. Plaks, known professionally as Livia, but to family and friends as Lilly, was born in Baia Mare, Romania in the shadow of the Holocaust in April, 1947. Her parents, Coloman (Kalman) and Cecilia (Tsili) Basch, both suffered tremendous losses due to Nazi persecution. Kalman lost his first family — his wife Lily Freund, and their children Estuka and Öcsi; while Tsili lost her parents and several siblings in the hell of deportation and concentration camps. Tsili survived Auschwitz, and Kalman survived by escaping from a forced labor camp. After returning to Romania and learning that his entire family — wife and children — had been killed, Kalman was in deep despair, but was eventually persuaded to try a second start at life by marrying Tsili, the sister of his first wife, Lily, in 1946. Kalman and Tsili had two children, Lily (born 1947) and Vera (born 1949).
Despite the traumas of war and persecution, Kalman, Tsili, Lilly, and Vera Basch lived a normal family life in Baia Mare, where they spoke Hungarian and Yiddish at home, but Romanian in school and other public places. But with the intensification of anti-Semitism in Romania, the family began the process of attempting to leave, finally succeeding in 1964 with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). After spending six-months in a refugee transit center in Rome, the Basch family arrived in the United States, settling in Highland Park, New Jersey. Lilly attended her senior year of high school in a strange country while learning a new language.
The following year, she enrolled in Douglas College (Rutgers University). During her freshman year, 1965, she met Andrew Plaks, a Princeton undergraduate, who would become her husband in 1968. The Plakses spent most of the subsequent 45 years of their marriage in Princeton, where Andrew continued his studies as a graduate student and later joined the faculty, serving as professor for many years. Mrs. Plaks earned a Masters Degree in Russian Literature from New York University, but began her own professional career only some years after the birth of her two sons, Jason (born 1971) and Eric (born 1974). It was not until 1984 that she began working full-time, first in interpretation and translation services, then in the field of academic exchanges with Communist countries through the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) as assistant to the executive director. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, a rare opportunity presented itself to make a difference in conflict resolution between ethnic groups in the new and chaotic world of former Soviet bloc countries, and Mrs. Plaks joined founder Allen Kassof in creating the Princeton-based Project on Ethnic Relations (PER), serving as executive director. When Dr. Kassof stepped down as president in 2005, Mrs. Plaks succeeded him and led PER until the organization closed its doors in 2012. During her years with PER, she was a key player in mediating ethnic disputes in her native Romania, as well as in several other countries in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. She was awarded the Order of Merit by the president of Romania in recognition of her work.
Her passing is felt with the profoundest sorrow by communities in Princeton, Eastern Europe, Israel, and beyond, but most deeply by her husband, Andrew, professor emeritus of Chinese literature at Princeton University and currently a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, her sister Vera Moreen, a scholar in Persian studies based in the Philadelphia area, her son, Jason, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto and her son Eric, a music teacher in the New York City public schools. She also leaves three grandchildren.
Although Mrs. Plaks’ sudden passing leaves a void in a place where there was so much hope and excitement for the years to come, her life story — rising literally from the ashes of the Holocaust, through the trials of the American immigrant experience, and culminating in professional and personal fulfillment and a career of service — has served as an inspiration for everyone who knew her. Known for her radiant smile and contagious charm, Mrs. Plaks will be deeply and sorely missed.
Memorial contributions may be sent to the Alliance for Peacebuilding at https://afpb.site-ym.com/donations/fund.asp?id=6854, or by check to AfP Plaks Fund, 1320 19th Street, NW, Suite 410, Washington, D.C. 20036.