APS News

Edward Witten Receives Inaugural APS Medal

By Emily Conover

2016 APS Medal recipient Edward Witten group photo
Photo: Kyle Bergener

On January 28, APS awarded its first Medal for Exceptional Achievement in Research to Edward Witten (center right), Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. The award was funded by a donation from Jay Jones (center left) and was presented by 2016 APS President Homer Neal (left) and CEO Kate Kirby (right).

For the first time, APS has recognized the remarkable achievements of a single scientist — selected from across the entire field of physics — with the 2016 APS Medal for Exceptional Achievement in Research. In a ceremony held January 28 in Washington, DC, the inaugural recipient, string theorist Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., received the prize.

The annual APS Medal is intended to “recognize contributions of the highest level that advance our knowledge and understanding of the physical universe in all its facets,” and “to celebrate the human value of open and free inquiry in the pursuit of knowledge.” The physicist chosen for this honor receives a medal and an award of $50,000 — making it the largest prize given by APS.

The award was established thanks to a donation from entrepreneur Jay Jones, the founder and former president of Olympic Medical Corporation.

“It is truly a wonderful occasion,” said 2014 APS President Malcolm Beasley, speaking at the ceremony. “The APS can finally recognize those among us who have made the most important contributions across the entire field of physics. That was not possible before.” Beasley, who helped establish the prize during his presidential term, added that doing so was “the most joyous experience of my service in the APS presidential line.”

Witten received the award for “discoveries in the mathematical structure of quantum field theory that have opened new paths in all areas of quantum physics.” Witten is the originator of M-theory, which united five competing string theory models. This result kicked off intense interest and rapid developments in the field, leading to a boom known as the second superstring revolution.

Summing up the importance of his work and that of colleagues in the field, Witten said, “I believe we’ve made lasting achievements in understanding quantum field theory better, in learning how it might be generalized to combine it with Einstein’s theory of gravity, and in learning and applications to many areas of physics and mathematics, that range from algebraic geometry to condensed matter physics and heavy ion physics.”

“It’s marvelous to have the opportunity to work in science; I consider myself very lucky,” Witten said. “For one who has the passion for physics, the chance of being a physicist is the best thing that one can imagine.”

He added, “This award from the American Physical Society really means a lot to me, especially because I know that the American Physical Society is a very important voice for physics in our society and in Washington.”

In remarks during the ceremony, Jones said, “I don’t think your committees could have selected a more deserving or distinguished physicist, and I also think it’s an extremely auspicious beginning for an annual award for APS.”

Jones became interested in physics in high school, and he studied the subject as an undergraduate at Northwestern University. But after finishing his degree, he went on to become an entrepreneur, founding Olympic Medical Corporation in 1959. The company manufactured medical equipment, specializing in devices for neonatal care. Natus Medical Incorporated purchased the company in 2006.

“I’ve always had a great deal of respect for science and I believe that science basically is the driving force behind human progress in civilization,” Jones told APS News. “I think science is what really leads us forward.”

Among Olympic Medical’s repertoire of medical devices were tools for the treatment of jaundice in infants. Jaundice is a condition caused by a buildup of bilirubin — a normal breakdown product of red blood cells. Scientists discovered that exposure to blue light helps reduce bilirubin levels. Now, babies are placed under blue lights to treat the condition. “It’s a revolution. Today it’s routinely treated, but before, babies were dying from it,” Jones says. “We were the principal manufacturers of what are called ‘phototherapy lights’ in the nurseries.”

Jones says he’s “not a physics buff,” as he has been occupied with his business and other interests since his undergraduate days. But he retained his appreciation for the subject. “I think science and particularly physics is really of cumulative, lasting benefit,” he said. Jones approached APS about setting up a program to honor basic research in physics. The APS Medal was the result.

Jones contributed $1 million to endow the prize, along with the pledge of an additional $1 million donation from the Jay and Mary Jayne Jones Charitable Remainder Trust.

Jones notes that his training in physics assisted his work with engineers employed by the company. “Every product had to be engineered, so a background in physics was very helpful to me.”

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Emily Conover
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
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