A Humble Heavyweight in Physics Finally Gets His Due

R. Schulte

Ezra T. Newman
February 13, 2011

A black hole, though massive, is so tough to see that it typically gains notice only through the effects it has on its surroundings in space.

Much the same can be said for Ezra T. Newman, this year's studiously unassuming winner of the biennial Einstein Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in physics.

"I don't like the drive for fame and power," says Mr. Newman, 81, an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Pittsburgh who is known to his friends simply as Ted. "I've just been like that all my life."

Sir Roger Penrose, an emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford who is one of Mr. Newman's main collaborators, says Mr. Newman "is certainly not a self-promoter, there's no question." Sir Roger would know. One of his other chief partners is the physicist Stephen W. Hawking, who is about as good at attracting attention as Mr. Newman is at deflecting it.

Mr. Newman's son, David, a professor of physics at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, says his father didn't even mention to him and his sister that he'd won the Einstein award. "My mom told us," he says.

Ted Newman's scientific feats include fundamental simplifications of the iconic mathematical equations of Albert Einstein. That trailblazing work has helped physicists unravel crucial facts about the universe, including the behavior of black holes.

The prize was a "long-overdue recognition" of Mr. Newman's "enormous influence," says Jorge Pullin, a physics professor at Louisiana State University who chaired the selection committee of the American Physical Society, which initiated the award in 2003. "The voting was almost unanimous from the outset."

The name of the award, which carries a cash prize of $10,000, is especially fitting given that Mr. Newman's two most important successes—the Newman-Penrose formalism and the Kerr-Newman metric—are major mathematical improvements upon Einstein's landmark 1915 theory of general relativity.

The Einstein theory enlightened scientists about the behavior of gravity and its ability to bend even light. But Einstein's arguments relied on a series of 10 highly complicated mathematical equations, which typically take physicists months to solve and manipulate. Mr. Newman says the Newman-Penrose version, which he developed with Sir Roger, consists of about three dozen "vastly simpler" mathematical expressions that together can be solved within a half-hour.

The Newman-Penrose formalism helped scientists learn that a black hole is a fundamentally stable object that will hang together even when hit with a major disturbance, such as a collision with another black hole.

The existence of black holes was first predicted in 1915 by a German physicist whose calculations, using Einstein's equations, concerned stationary black holes. The Kerr-Newman metric that Mr. Newman developed with Roy P. Kerr, a New Zealand mathematician, is an adaptation of the Einstein equations that describes rotating, charged black holes, a far more common version.

Sir Roger, who grasps concepts through complex geometric visualizations, says he has repeatedly benefited from Mr. Newman's complementary gift for developing ideas through complex mathematical equations. "We find it very difficult to understand what the other one is saying," Sir Roger admits. "But it's somehow very fruitful." Mr. Newman's help was especially important, Sir Roger says, to his creation of twistor theory, a widely used method for calculating space-time interactions at the atomic and subatomic levels.

Mr. Newman sees it as a simple matter of knowing where to look. "I discover things that are sitting right in the equations," he says. "In some sense, I'm an experimental physicist where my experiments are done on paper with equations."

Mr. Newman still pumps out research papers. His current focus involves his concept of "H-space," a way of using geometrical cones to calculate the power of gravitational waves by tracking them out to infinity.

He traces his curiosity to his childhood in the Bronx, where he pondered the magic of magnets and match flames, and pored over science books. His father hoped Ted would follow him into dentistry, but instead he excelled at the Bronx High School of Science and headed off to New York University.

That level of determination is a hallmark. "He just does what he thinks is important, and often it's very different from what most people are doing," Sir Roger says. "But that doesn't worry him at all—he just keeps on doing his own stuff." Among other consistencies: Mr. Newman turned down offers from several other universities so he could stay at Pittsburgh, where he began working in 1956. His wife of 52 years, Sally, is also a retired professor at Pitt.

David, their son, recalls that the family dinner table was often surrounded by luminaries of physics, who discussed music, history, and politics along with all types of science. He describes the conversations as far richer than what he might hear from today's more career-driven specialists, who, he says, "tend to be extremely narrow."

In his generation, Ted Newman says, physics attracted "the most intellectually curious people." And the daily work and experiences are their own reward, without the need for any plaques or trophies, he says. "I have just had such a wonderful life doing this."