Remembering Arthur Wightman

Arthur Wightman

Arthur Wightman

Arthur Wightman passed away this past January, at age 90. He was one of the great mathematical physicists of the past century.

Two of Arthur’s most renowned students, Arthur Jaffe and Barry Simon, wrote an affectionate obituary. I thought I would add some reminiscences of my own — Wightman was my undergraduate thesis advisor at Princeton.

I loved math in high school, and like many high school students before and since, I became convinced that Gödel’s incompleteness theorem is the coolest insight ever produced by the human mind. I resolved to devote my life to set theory and logic, and somehow I also became convinced that Princeton would be the best place in the world to study the subject. So there I went. I had a plan.

As a freshman, I talked my way into a graduate level course on Advanced Logic taught by Dana Scott. (I cleared the biggest obstacle by writing an essay to pass out of the freshman English requirement.) The course was wonderful, but by the end of it I was starting to accept what I had already sensed while in high school — I lack the talent to be a great mathematician.

A door was closing, but meanwhile another was opening. I was also taking a course on Electricity and Magnetism, based on the extraordinary book by Ed Purcell, taught by the charismatic Val Fitch. Chapter 5 contains an unforgettable argument explaining how electrostatic forces combined with special relativity imply magnetic forces. Meanwhile, while learning advanced calculus from the lovely (but challenging) little book by Michael Spivak, I realized that the Maxwell field is actually a two-form! Physics can be almost as cool as logic, so I would be a physics major! I had a new plan.

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