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Steven Weinberg (1933-2021)

August 23, 2021

Most people have heard the expression, "gone south," to describe a worsening situation. One possible etymology for this expression is that maps are usually created with south as the downwards direction; and, downward movement, like toast falling butter side down onto the floor, or a fall in the Nasdaq Composite Index, is bad. About thirty years ago, physics started a migration away from the Northern States and Pacific Coast States to the Southern States.

The North was the putative center of US physics for most of the 20th century. This is clearly evidenced by the places in which military research was done during World War II. The MIT Radiation Laboratory developed microwave radar systems from its creation in 1940 to its closure in 1945. Physicist, Karl Compton (1887-1954), was president of MIT at the time, and Columbia University physicist, Isidor Rabi (1898-1988) was an important member of the Radiation Laboratory staff.

The modest start of the atomic weapons Manhattan Project was at the University of Chicago, where physicist, Leó Szilárd (1898-1964), who had conceived the idea of the nuclear chain reaction, and able experimental physicist, Enrico Fermi (1901-1954), created the first nuclear reactor in the Metallurgical Laboratory of Arthur Holly Compton (1892-1962). I wrote about this reactor in an earlier article (The Chicago Pile, January 24, 2014)

Artist's recreation of Chicago Pile-1 (CP-1)

An artist's recreation of the Chicago Pile-1 (CP-1) first sustained reaction on December 2, 1942, at 3:22 PM. The world's first nuclear reactor was housed in the Racquets Court under West Stands of Stagg Field, the University of Chicago. No photographers were present, possibly for security reasons. This recreation was done fifteen years after the fact. (National Archives and Records Administration image, via Wikimedia Commons. Click for larger image.)

The Manhattan Project was staffed by many physicists from Cornell University. Among the Cornell notables were Hans Bethe (1906-2005), who was the director of the theoretical physics division, and Richard Feynman (1918-1988). Princeton University was represented by John Archibald Wheeler (1911-2008) and Robert R. Wilson (1914-2000). The University of California, Berkeley on the Pacific Coast was the home institution of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) and Philip Morrison (1915-2005). Morrison assisted Harvard University physical chemist, George Kistiakowsky, in research into the development of shaped charges for the Fat Man bomb.

In an early 1990s competition for a new national magnetism laboratory, MIT's Francis Bitter Magnet Laboratory lost to Florida State University (Tallahassee, Florida) in creation of the $60 million National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. This victory of the south over the north pales in comparison with the 1992 funding for the Superconducting Super Collider a particle accelerator at Waxahachie, Texas, proposed as an advance over the existing Fermilab's Tevatron at Batavia, Illinois near Chicago. However, after two billion dollars were spent on construction by 1993, the project was canceled due to a rising final cost estimate of $12 billion. Compare this to the hundreds of billions of dollars spent by the US government because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Coincident with these events was the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s arising from the failure of about a third of savings and loan associations. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated the cost to American taxpayers of $132.1 billion. The net flux of public money represented a huge wealth transfer from the North to the South.

At the end of his life, Paul Dirac (1902-1984) spent a little more than a decade as a professor at Florida State University (Tallahassee, Florida). He published 60 papers while at FSU, including a book on general relativity. Some of my physics colleagues have migrated from the Northeastern United States to such Southern States as Florida, Texas, and Louisiana. In 1982, American theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate, Steven Weinberg, moved from Harvard University to the University of Texas at Austin to start a theoretical physics group. Weinberg, who was a proponent of the aforementioned Superconducting Supercollider,[1-2] died on July 23, 2021, at age 88.[3-6]

Steven Weinberg at the 2010 Texas Book Festival, Austin, Texas

Steven Weinberg at the 2010 Texas Book Festival, Austin, Texas.

(Wikimedia Commons image by Larry D. Moore, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

Steven Weinberg was born in New York City in 1933 to Jewish immigrant parents. His father was a court stenographer, and his mother was a housewife. Weinberg credited his father with encouraging his interest in science.[4] He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, where he taught himself calculus, in 1950.[3] At the Bronx High School of Science, he was a classmate with Sheldon Glashow (b. 1932), with whom he shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics. After receiving his undergraduate degree from Cornell University (Ithaca, New York) in 1954 as the first of his family to attend college, he did a year's graduate research at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and then attended Princeton University.[3] At Princeton, he attained a Ph.D. in physics for a 1957 dissertation on the strong nuclear force under Sam Treiman (1925-1999).

After a year's postdoctoral research at Columbia University (New York, NY), and another at the University of California, Berkeley, he joined the Berkeley faculty, where he continued research on the quantum aspects of elementary particles, developed an approach to quantum field theory, and developed an interest in general relativity. Weinberg left Berkeley in 1966 for a lecturer position at Harvard, and he was also a visiting professor at MIT. During that time in the late 1960s, Weinberg developed a model for the unification of electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force.

His 1967 paper, "A Model of Leptons," in Physical Review Letters was just three pages long, but it combined elements of gauge symmetry, symmetry breaking and the classification of particles.[3-4,7] Importantly, this paper predicted properties of elementary particles that had never been observed.[3] This theory, now called the electroweak unification theory, predicted the existence of the Higgs boson. His theory, which linked the weak nuclear force and electromagnetism, was the starting point for what is now called the Standard Model.[3] In subsequent years, the Standard Model combined this electroweak unification with the strong nuclear force.

Weinberg used his scientific fame to advocate against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and he was a consultant for the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.[3] Weinberg was an atheist who believed that science should eradicate religion. He is quoted as saying that "Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization."[4] Physics Nobelist, Frank Wilczek (b. 1951), recalls that Weinberg "... paid close attention to other people's work. I remember several rather terrifying phone calls during which he quizzed me about details of mathematical derivations in my or others' papers."[4,8]

Weinberg was interested in physical cosmology as well as elementary particle physics. His 1977 book, "The First Three Minutes," introduced the topic of the Big Bang to the general public.[4-5] His many honors include the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics that he shared with Abdus Salam and Sheldon Glashow, a Fellowship in the American Physical Society (1971), membership in the National Academy of Sciences (1972), foreign membership in the Royal Society (1981), election to the American Philosophical Society (1982), the National Medal of Science (1991), and a Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics (2021). He is survived by his wife, Louise Weinberg, a law professor at the University of Texas Austin.[3]


  1. Steven Weinberg, "The Crisis of Big Science," New York Review of Books, May 10, 2012. {Note-This article is unfortunately paywalled. However, an excellent summary can be found in the next reference.
  2. Steven T. Corneliussen, "Steven Weinberg in the New York Review of Books: "The crisis of big science" - Nobel laureate sees "anti-tax mania" closing a century of high-energy physics in gloom,"Physics Today, April 4, 2012.
  3. UT Austin Mourns Death of World-Renowned Physicist Steven Weinberg, University of Texas Press Release, July 24, 2021.
  4. Frank Wilczek, "Obituary: Steven Weinberg (1933–2021) - Theoretical physicist whose electroweak theory won the Nobel prize." Nature, vol. 596 (August 6, 2021), p.183, doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02170-w.
  5. Tom Siegfried, "With Steven Weinberg’s death, physics loses a titan," Science News, July 24, 2021.
  6. Ken Miller, "Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg dies at 88," phys.org, July 25, 2021.
  7. Steven Weinberg, "A Model of Leptons, Phys. Rev. Lett., Vol. 19, no. 21 (November 20, 1967) , DOI:https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.19.1264.
  8. Wilzek and I have in common a Polish and Italian ancestry, with reversed parental origin. Alas, we are not kindred Nobel Laureates.

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