The Nobel Prize in Physics 1979
The Nobel Prize in Physics 1979 was awarded jointly to Sheldon Lee Glashow, Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg "for their contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, including, inter alia, the prediction of the weak neutral current."
According to modern physics, four fundamental forces exist in nature. Electromagnetic interaction is one of these. The weak interaction—responsible, for example, for the beta decay of nuclei—is another. Thanks to contributions made by Steven Weinberg, Sheldon Glashow, and Abdus Salam in 1968, these two interactions were unified to one single, called electroweak. The theory predicted, for example, that weak interaction manifests itself in “neutral weak currents” when certain elementary particles interact. This was later confirmed.
[Curator’s note: The following material quotes and paraphrases extensively from articles posted by the Nobel Prize Committee and the Daily Princetonian and the Princeton Alumni Weekly; see Sources below for details.]
Steven Weinberg was born on May 3, 1933 in New York City to Frederick and Eva Weinberg. His early inclination toward science received encouragement from his father, and by the time he was 15 or 16 his interests had focused on theoretical physics where he attended Bronx High School of Science.
Graduate studies at Princeton
Weinberg received his undergraduate degree from Cornell in 1954, and then went for a year of graduate study to the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen (now the Niels Bohr Institute). There, with the help of David Frisch and Gunnar Källén, he began to do research in physics. He then returned to the U.S. to complete his graduate studies at Princeton.
While at Princeton, Weinberg was a student of Eugene Higgins Professor Physics Sam B. Treiman. "He was a delightful, slightly brash person. He looked bright from the very beginning." Treiman said that Weinberg was easy to teach. "He came in and told me what he wanted to do. With students like that, teachers can learn a lot."
"I've never been in any graduate school where the relations between the graduate students and the faculty were better than they were at Princeton," said Weinberg.
His Ph.D thesis, with Sam Treiman as adviser, was on the application of renormalization theory to the effects of strong interactions in weak interaction processes.
The New York native said that he "worried about it" in his thesis but it wasn't until 1967, ten years later, that "things came to a climax" and he published his theory. It was while at Berkeley, said Treiman, that Weinberg did the bulk of his work on the unification of the weak interaction with the electromagnetic interaction.
Weinberg returns to receive the Madison Medal
Upon accepting the Madison medal in February 1991 during Princeton’s Alumni Day, Weinberg who taught physics at the University of Texas, lauded Princeton for its great tradition of excellence in mathematics and physics, as well as its strong personal relationships between students and faculty. "I don't think any place that I have been at has had the easy going feeling between faculty and students (as Princeton has)."
In his speech in Richardson Auditorium, Weinberg discussed his hopes for one unified theory that would explain all properties of matter and radiation. He used the analogy of a Shakespearian sonnet to describe the final theory that he was seeking — "not one world can be changed" without disrupting it. He said that though a final unified theory is far from reality, the superstring theory, which combines gravitational forces with quantum mechanics, is "capable of being the final theory."
Steven held faculty appointments at Berkeley, Harvard, and MIT, and spent the majority of his career at the University of Texas, Austin.
Acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost theoretical physicists, Steven won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979 for showing how to unify two of the principal forces of nature. He won lasting renown as a creator of an electroweak theory that unifies electromagnetism and the weak force that operates on the subatomic scale and is one of the four forces that govern the universe.
A cultured man fond of poetry and the theater, Steven gave attention to the philosophical and metaphysical aspects of the scientific quest and speculated on the meaning of scientific discovery for human life and the human place in the universe.
Weinberg died on July 23, 2021. He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Louise Goldwasser; and their daughter, Elizabeth.
Awards and Honors through 1979
Honorary Doctor of Science degrees, University of Chicago, Knox College, City University of New York, University of Rochester, Yale University
American Academy of Arts and Sciences, elected 1968
National Academy of Sciences, elected 1972
J. R. Oppenheimer Prize, 1973
Richtmeyer Lecturer of Am. Ass’n. of Physics Teachers, 1974
Scott Lecturer, Cavendish Laboratory, 1975
Dannie Heineman Prize for Mathematical Physics, 1977
Silliman Lecturer, Yale University, 1977
Am. Inst. of Physics-U.S. Steel Foundation Science Writing Award, 1977, for authorship of The First Three Minutes (1977)
Lauritsen Lecturer, Cal. Tech., 1979
Bethe Lecturer, Cornell Univ., 1979
Elliott Cresson Medal (Franklin Institute), 1979
Nobel Prize in Physics, 1979
Awards and Honors since 1979
Honorary Doctoral degrees, Clark University, City University of New York, Dartmouth College, Weizmann Institute, Clark University, Washington College, Columbia University
Elected to American Philosophical Society, Royal Society of London (Foreign Honorary Member), Philosophical Society of Texas
Henry Lecturer, Princeton University, 1981
Cherwell-Simon Lecturer, University of Oxford, 1983
Bampton Lecturer, Columbia University, 1983
Einstein Lecturer, Israel Academy of Arts & Sciences, 1984
McDermott Lecturer, University of Dallas, 1985
Hilldale Lecturer, University of Wisconsin, 1985
Clark Lecturer, University of Texas at Dallas, 1986
Brickweede Lecturer, Johns Hopkins University, 1986
Dirac Lecturer, University of Cambridge, 1986
Klein Lecturer, University of Stockholm, 1989
James Madison Medal of Princeton University, 1991
National Medal of Science, 1991