Dr. Julian S. Schwinger ’33
Dr.Schwinger is recognized as one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, responsible for much of modern quantum field theory, including a variational approach, and the equations of motion for quantum fields. He developed the first electroweak model, and the first example of confinement in 1+1 dimensions. He is responsible for the theory of multiple neutrinos, Schwinger terms, and the theory of the spin 3/2 field.
Dr.Schwinger was born in New York City where he attended Townsend Harris High School and then the City College of New York as an undergraduate before transferring to Columbia University, where he received his B.A. in 1936 and his Ph.D. (overseen by I.I. Rabi) in 1939. He worked at the University of California, Berkeley (under J. Robert Oppenheimer) and was later appointed to a position at Purdue University.
Dr. Schwinger developed an affinity for Green’s functions from his radar work, and he used these methods to formulate quantum field theory in terms of local Green’s functions in a relativistically invariant way. This allowed him to calculate unambiguously the first corrections to the electron magnetic moment in quantum electrodynamics. Earlier non-covariant work had arrived at infinite answers, but the extra symmetry in his methods allowed Schwinger to isolate the correct finite corrections. Dr. Schwinger developed renormalization, formulating quantum electrodynamics unambiguously to one-loop order.
In the same era, he introduced non-perturbative methods into quantum field theory, by calculating the rate at which electron-positron pairs are created by tunneling in an electric field, a process now known as the “Schwinger effect”. This effect could not be seen in any finite order in perturbation theory.
Dr. Schwinger’s foundational work on quantum field theory constructed the modern framework of field correlation functions and their equations of motion. His approach started with a quantum action and allowed bosons and fermions to be treated equally for the first time, using a differential form of Grassman integration. He gave elegant proofs for the spin-statistics theorem and the CPT theorem, and noted that the field algebra led to anomalous Dr. Schwinger terms in various classical identities, because of short distance singularities. These were foundational results in field theory, instrumental for the proper understanding of anomalies.
Dr. Schwinger discovered that neutrinos come in multiple varieties, one for the electron and one for the muon. Nowadays there are known to be exactly three neutrinos; the third is the partner of the tau lepton.
In the 1960s, Dr. Schwinger formulated and analyzed what is now known as the Schwinger model, quantum electrodynamics in one space and one time dimension, the first example of a confining theory. He was also the first to suggest an electroweak gauge theory, an SU(2) gauge group spontaneously broken to electromagnetic U(1) at long distances. This was extended by his student Sheldon Glashow into the accepted pattern of electroweak unification. He attempted to formulate a theory of quantum electrodynamics with point magnetic monopoles, a program which met with limited success because monopoles are strongly interacting when the quantum of charge is small.
Having supervised more than seventy doctoral dissertations, Dr. Schwinger is known as one of the most prolific graduate advisors in physics. Four of his students won Nobel prizes: Roy Glauber, Benjamin Roy Mottelson, Sheldon Glashow and Walter Kohn (in chemistry).
Dr. Schwinger had a mixed relationship with his colleagues, largely because of his source theory. Dr. Schwinger considered source theory as a substitute for field theory, although it is only a different point of view, a version of effective field theory. It treats quantum fields as long-distance phenomena, and does not require a well defined continuum limit. Source theory was considered overly formal and lacking in distinctness from quantum field theory, and the criticisms by his Harvard colleagues led Schwinger to leave the faculty in 1972 for the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where he continued to find source theory reformulations of quantum field theoretic results for the rest of his career.
After 1989, Dr. Schwinger took a keen interest in the non-mainstream research of low-energy nuclear fusion reactions (AKA cold fusion). He wrote eight theory papers about it. He resigned from the American Physical Society after their refusal to publish his papers. He felt that cold fusion research was being suppressed and academic freedom violated. He wrote: “The pressure for conformity is enormous. I have experienced it in editors’ rejection of submitted papers, based on venomous criticism of anonymous referees. The replacement of impartial reviewing by censorship will be the death of science.”
In his last publications, Schwinger proposed a theory of sonoluminescence as a long distance quantum radiative phenomenon associated not with atoms, but with fast-moving surfaces in the collapsing bubble, where there are discontinuities in the dielectric constant. Standard explanations, now supported by experiments, focus on superheated gas atoms inside the bubble as the source of the light, but Dr. Schwinger’s methods tie back to his old quantum electrodynamic papers.
Dr. Schwinger was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his work on quantum electrodynamics (QED), along with Richard Feynman and Shinichiro Tomonaga. Schwinger’s awards and honors were numerous even before his Nobel win. They include the first Albert Einstein Award (1951), the U.S. National Medal of Science (1964), honorary D.Sc. degrees from Purdue University (1961) and Harvard University (1962), and the Nature of Light Award of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (1949).