Referred to as a “founding father of modern mathematical physics” by those who knew his work, the University’s Thomas D. Jones Professor Emeritus Arthur Wightman GS ’49 died of Alzheimer’s disease on Jan. 13. He was 90.
Originally from Rochester, N.Y., Wightman attended Yale University before coming to the University as a graduate student in physics under prominent physicist John Wheeler. After earning his Ph.D. in 1949, Wightman joined the University faculty and spent the rest of his career in academia at Princeton, where he was granted emeritus status in 1992.
For his half-century of influential work in mathematical physics, particularly his axiom approach to quantum field theory, Wightman has received numerous honors, including the 1969 Dannie Heineman Prize for Mathematical Physics and the 1997 Henri Poincare Prize from the International Associate of Mathematical Physics. Wightman was also elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and was a fellow of the American Academy of Art and Sciences and the Royal Society of Arts, London.
Wightman’s wife and colleagues frequently described his academic presence as “remarkable” and “brilliant.” Barry Simon GS ’70, one of Wightman’s students who later became his colleague in the University physics department, recalled his first time meeting Wightman while visiting the University. Simon was trying to decide whether to come to the University as a physics graduate student.
“I was actually home from spring break, and I went down to Princeton to meet Professor Wightman,” Simon said. “I was struck enough that I decided to come. He had this mixture of not being a pure mathematician but thinking a lot like one.”
Beyond his own work, Wightman was known to dedicate a significant amount of time to mentoring and advised more than 20 undergraduate and graduate students over the years. Simon described Wightman’s treatment of students as remarkable. Calling him “incredibly generous,” Simon noted that there were ideas and areas of research in which Wightman never published because he wanted his students to pursue them instead.
“There was an idea regarding normalization theory, and he had the basic idea coming out of discussions he had when he was a post-doc and interacting with famous mathematicians,” Simon said. “The first thing he did was he gave it as an undergraduate thesis to his student. And then he gave the full thing to the student.”
However, Wightman did not completely bury himself in academia, as Simon emphasized Wightman’s “great sense of humor and broad interests.” For part of his long tenure at Princeton, Wightman was on the editorial board of the Princeton University Press and edited some of the physics-related material. He also helped collect the early volumes of the Albert Einstein papers for the University Press, according to Simon.
Ludmilla Wightman, Wightman’s second wife of 35 years and a physicist herself, described Wightman as a man who experienced misfortunes in his personal life, such as the deaths of his first wife and their daughter from cancer. Despite such tragedies, she noted, Wightman was a social and widely accomplished man.
Mentioning Wightman’s work with the University Press, Ludmilla added that Wightman was widely read and thus “always impressed them with his wide knowledge of many subjects.” She added that through books, Wightman’s interests extended into the history of science, art and languages. He could read in French, German, Italian and Russian.
Wightman was also a traveler who visited many places with his wife, including a nine-month stint in Australia and a six-month stay in Pisa, Italy. Ludmilla recalled walking to the famous tower in Pisa almost every night of those six months and being able to meet the “who’s who in science.”
Reflecting on Wightman’s Alzheimer’s in the last decade of his life, Ludmilla recalled that before the disease he was extremely systematic and had an office that was organized and filed. “Everything was filed — it was really a wonderful thing to watch. Unfortunately, once you start getting Alzheimer's, it is hard to stay tidy,” she said.
But Ludmilla remembers Wightman as a remarkable man, both academically and personally. Simon agreed. “He was a remarkable man, just remarkable,” Simon said. “He certainly had a large impact on me.”