August 14, 2019

Community Remembers PU Theoretical Physicist Steven Gubser

               Steven Gubser (Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite)

By Wendy Greenberg

The Princeton University and greater Princeton communities are mourning the death of Steven Scott Gubser, and remembering the beloved professor of physics and highly accomplished scholar of string theory and black holes.

Gubser, 47, died as a result of a rock-climbing accident on Saturday, August 3, in Chamonix, France, where he was on vacation with his family.

Not only was Gubser an academic whose research was impactful and influential, but he shared his passion for science with everyone, and was an innovative teacher who impressed students with his wit and depth of knowledge, according to posts by students on the University website.

Besides being a prolific scientist, Gubser used his talents to communicate science to the general public. Among Gubser’s books are The Little Book of String Theory, published in 2010, and The Little Book of Black Holes, published in 2017 in collaboration with Professor Frans Pretorius. Both books were published by Princeton University Press, and they have successfully communicated abstract theoretical ideas to general audiences, particularly in a poignant letter to Albert Einstein at the end of The Little Book of Black Holes.

The father of three daughters, Gubser was known in the community for unicycling around town with his two younger daughters, as well as at the annual alumni P-rade at University Reunions and the Princeton Memorial Day Parade. He was an accomplished pianist and regularly performed at the Princeton Physics Department’s annual recital, most recently accompanying and singing with his oldest daughter, who sings in an a cappella group at Princeton High School.

It was at the physics recital in 2000 where he met his wife, Laura Landweber, a biology professor at Columbia University in New York City, who was on the Princeton University faculty until 2016. She said that at any event with 1940s big band jazz, she and her husband would be dancing the Lindy Hop, which they learned while on leave at California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Gubser was the valedictorian of the Princeton Class of 1994. For his senior thesis he was awarded the LeRoy Apker Award of the American Physical Society, its highest distinction for undergraduate research. After completing a one-year master’s program in a Fulbright fellowship at Cambridge University, Gubser returned to Princeton in 1995 as a graduate student, and earned his Ph.D. in 1998, according to information provided by Princeton University.

His graduate research during that period included original and influential papers on exact relations between string theory and quantum field theory, which have continued to reverberate for over 20 years since their publication.

After two years as a junior fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows, Gubser returned to Princeton as a faculty member. He was also a professor at Caltech in 2001 while on leave from Princeton. He was granted tenure at Princeton in 2001 and promoted to full professor in 2005.

Gubser’s research has broken new ground on the connections between theoretical models of black holes and the real-world many body systems, such as the quark-gluon plasma produced at the heavy-ion colliders. His work has also shed new light on the mysterious aspects of superconductors with high critical temperature. In 2016 Gubser pioneered a new version of the AdS/CFT correspondence that applied techniques from number theory to quantum field theory.

Gubser has received a number of awards and honors for his research. They include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists, a Gribov Medal of the European Physical Society, and most recently a Simons Investigator Award. Gubser was one of the founding members of the Princeton Gravity Initiative. He also served as associate chair for undergraduate affairs in the physics department.

“This is such a loss for everyone,” said Herman Verlinde, the Class of 1909 Professor of Physics and department chair, through Princeton University. “I have known Steve for over 25 years, first as a stellar student and then as an equally stellar faculty colleague and scholar. He truly loved physics and was amazingly good at it. He deeply cared about teaching and sharing his enthusiasm for physics with his students. His energetic presence, disarming humor, and cool style made him into one of our most popular teachers and mentors. Princeton was his home and he contributed to the University in many ways. We will dearly miss him.”

Gubser was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 4, 1972. Soon after, his family relocated to Aspen, Colorado. Gubser attended secondary schools in Aspen and in Denver, and established himself as a star student of physics and mathematics. As a member of the U.S. team at the 1989 International Physics Olympiad held in Warsaw, Poland, Gubser achieved the top individual score.

In addition to his wife, Laura Landweber, he is survived by their daughters, Cecily, Heidi, and Lillian.

A celebration of Gubser’s life and work is planned for September 14. Donations in Gubser’s memory may be made to the Princeton Department of Physics.