Physics professor Peter van Nieuwenhuizen will be honored, along with two other physicists, with the 2020 Special Breakthrough Prize for Fundamental Physics on Nov. 3 for their work on a modern field theory called supergravity.
The supergravity theory draws a relationship between Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity — or gravitation — to include quantum mechanics, or the nature of subatomic particles. It is a framework that has helped in the development of theories of deep fundamental physics such as string theory and cosmology; these are theories on how the universe was created and include the Big Bang theory.
Van Nieuwenhuizen’s work helped establish Stony Brook’s theoretical physics research reputation as a center of supergravity in the 1970s and 1980s, rivaling that of universities such as Harvard and Princeton.
Van Nieuwenhuizen grew up fascinated with subjects such as Latin and Greek, but settled on studying physics, a subject that was not widely popular at the time, according to van Nieuwenhuizen. After graduating with his master’s degree in physics at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, van Nieuwenhuizen’s research first took him to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. Following that, he went to what is now Paris-Sud University, and then to the U.S. to teach at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
While in Paris, he met Dan Freedman, a former physics professor at Stony Brook University who is now a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Van Nieuwenhuizen was offered a job in the fall of 1974 at Stony Brook University on Freedman’s recommendation, but was initially skeptical about coming to New York. Van Nieuwenhuizen will never forget his first visit to Stony Brook.
“I was very afraid; people in Boston told me New York was so dangerous,” he said. “I saw a student running away and an older man diving and getting his legs, and I thought: ‘This proves what people told me.’ It turned out it was a student who impersonated somebody else in an exam, and the professor caught him … So that was non-trivial, but I didn’t know that, so I didn’t accept the offer.”
But after delivering talks on quantum corrections to gravity at Stony Brook University in 1975, van Nieuwenhuizen was convinced by then Stony Brook professor C. N. Yang, former director and the namesake of the theoretical physics department, to teach and perform research at Stony Brook University. It was there where he developed his partnership with Freedman.
Supersymmetry was a new theory discovered by Soviet physicists that proposed a relationship between different particles; supersymmetry, if true, would solve many problems in the world of physics theories. Supersymmetry, with the addition of principles of gravity, helped lead to van Nieuwenhuizen and his team’s theory of supergravity.
Van Nieuwenhuizen, Freedman and CERN professor Sergio Ferrara — the three scientists who won the award — attempted to develop a proof that would draw a connection between general relativity and supersymmetry. The team had to test what are now fundamental theories in physics along with their research to crunch the numbers that would lead them to supergravity.
“We worked half a year, everyday, every weekend, and there was a lot of competition at work with us; we were not the only [ones] trying to do that,” van Nieuwenhuizen said. “Dan Freedman knew of supersymmetry already… and I knew how to take electrons in gravity, so we had each of our own expertise. So it was an example of the right people, at the right place, and the right time.”
Van Nieuwenhuizen, Freedman and Ferrara published the first article on supergravity in 1976; the discovery put Stony Brook University on the map as the leading center for studying supergravity, van Nieuwenhuizen said.
Van Nieuwenhuizen’s team had beat the world research teams to the punch, but with competition from universities and research centers all over the world, the team couldn’t stop. They continued publishing journals on supergravity.
Although the math adds up to make supergravity a theory, it is not yet supported by scientific proof. Scientists and particle physicists have been working diligently to create faster particle accelerators to look for gravitino, the small super particles that would define supergravity in scientific truth. Van Nieuwenhuizen would like supergravity to not just be a tool used to interconnect theories, but actual reality.
“The particles haven’t been found [though] I would like that they would be found,“ van Nieuwenhuizen said. “But it is also possible that they will never be found and we will be establishing a general idea which you can use to analyze all the theories which in itself are not an existing model.”
Freedman and van Nieuwenhuizen became good friends throughout their years as partners.
“Peter was very serious and justifiably proud of ability to do complicated calculations for physics problems,” Freedman wrote in an email. “He worked hard, kept long hours, and wrote his calculations in huge notebooks usually used by artists. These notebooks became famous as the subject of many good-natured jokes.”
Ferrara — who shares published work and the Breakthrough Prize for supergravity with van Nieuwenhuizen — considers van Nieuwenhuizen as a close friend as well. In an email, he wrote that they were very open with each other’s ideas while working together.
“We were very close collaborators and friends for five years after the discovery paper in 1976 (21 joint papers in that period),” Ferrara wrote in an email. “Our working time was intense, and we were speaking openly to each other, not afraid of making educated guesses.”
Ferrara saw the Breakthrough Prize as a defining moment of recognition in the team’s career.
“Peter, Dan and I shared many prizes, among them the ICTP Dirac Medal and the APS Heinemann prize,” Ferrara wrote in an email. “In those occasions Peter liked to make a joke: ‘what next?’ But this time, after the Breakthrough Prize recognition, the joke was over.”
Van Nieuwenhuizen is still deciding what to do with his cut of the Breakthrough Prize money. He doesn’t want to commit to anything in particular. He said he probably won’t stop to take a traditional vacation, since he enjoys teaching and studying physics.
“As a physicist you always have a vacation; you go to conferences that in itself is a vacation,” Van Nieuwenhuizen said. “I think the life of the physicist is really an incredible thing. You do what you find interesting and you get paid for it? What more do you want? You don’t need a holiday for that.”
Van Nieuwenhuizen has to deliver a speech to young aspiring physicists when he receives his award. He said that when starting, it is important to find a mentor and team that will help and push success.
Van Nieuwenhuizen also recommends that people never do things they dislike. The problems of the world stem from people who do things that they don’t like, he said. Van Nieuwenhuizen deemed a positive work environment critical; moving where the money and recognition is not worth it if you aren’t happy.
“You should never go to a place because: A. They pay more money, or B. It’s a famous place; because what is most important is day to day pleasure of your work, and that you have people who are helpful,” van Nieuwenhuizen said.
Van Nieuwenhuizen added that all new ideas should be cherished by their creators, for it is important that an aspiring physicist always explores their theoretical possibilities.
“If you think you have something good, then you should keep it with both hands, and keep running, and not give up, and don’t take a break,” he said. “It is so rare that you find something like that in your life. So for young people, if you find something go for it! Don’t listen to anybody who tries to talk you out of it. Keep running, and if you do it well, it will work.”