Einstein’s ‘grandson’ wins prestigious gravity award

By Gwenn Barney

Ezra “Ted” Newman’s father wanted his son to be a dentist. Ezra had a different plan in… Ezra “Ted” Newman’s father wanted his son to be a dentist. Ezra had a different plan in mind.

Instead, he chose galaxies over gumlines, a choice that was rewarded last November when he was granted the Einstein Prize by the American Physical Society. The award recognized the retired Pitt professor for his lifetime achievement in the scientific field of general relativity — a domain of study founded by Albert Einstein.

“It’s the most significant award within the field of gravity,” said Jorge Pullin, chairman of the prize selection committee.

Pullin said the choice to present Newman the award was quick and nearly unanimous, a rarity for the Einstein Prize. He accounts the swift selection to the major contributions Newman has made to the science.

In a statement, the American Physical Society pointed to Newman’s “outstanding contributions to theoretical relativity, including the Newman-Penrose formalism, Kerr-Newman solution, Heaven, and null foliation theory” as reasons for his selection.

The society also commended Newman for his “intellectual passion, generosity and honesty, which have inspired and represented a model for generations of relativists.”

The most well-known of these cited contributions was a mathematical discovery Newman uncovered with Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford in 1962. The physicists found that they could rewrite Einstein’s original equations for general relativity in a way that made them easier to analyze and solve under special circumstances.

This new process of writing the original equations is now known as the Newman-Penrose formalism and is used by physicists across the world, said Newman’s research partner and recent Pitt graduate Tim Adamo.

“Anyone who works in relativity knows about the Newman-Pensrose formalism,” Adamo said.

After his research with formalism, Newman continued to contribute to the physics community. In 1965, he published research at the same time as fellow physicist Roy Kerr, predicting the existence of a type of black hole, one of only three types known to potentially exist through mathematical deduction. This black hole type came to be known as the Kerr-Newman black hole.

“Treasure troves of information are hidden in those equations,” Newman said.

Newman said that his expansive work in general relativity stems from his love for the subject. He knew from the time of his high school days in New York that he wished to pursue a career in physics. His love of science led him to earn a bachelor’s degree in physics from New York University and a master’s and Ph.D. in the subject from Syracuse University.

It was at Syracuse that Newman conducted work with physicist Peter Bergmann. Newman chose to attend Syracuse because it would provide him the opportunity to study general relativity.

Many scientists had abandoned general relativity soon after its discovery for the fellow physics branch, quantum mechanics. Bergmann, however, had studied under Einstein and was one of only a select number of scientists working in general relativity in the 1950s.

“You could say [Newman] is the grandson of Einstein, so to speak,” Pullin said.

Newman taught at Pitt beginning in 1956, when he took a post as an associate professor. Over the course of 40 years, he taught a wide variety of classes in the fields of physics and astronomy, mentoring 19 doctoral students along the way. He retired from teaching in 1996 and now holds the position of professor emeritus, conducting research out of his office in Allen Hall.

Newman, now 81, estimates that he has written more than 30 papers since his retirement. Currently, he is working on a project dealing with “complex and virtual light cones and their application.”

Adamo said that Newman served as a strong teacher and inspiration. “Ted is a living legend in the fields of math and physics,” he said. “[Pitt students] should appreciate how lucky they are to have a physicist of that caliber.”

Newman has imagined how Einstein might react to his work. “His immediate reaction would be to say ‘nonsense,’ but then he’d sit there for a little while, thinking about it and eventually say ‘OK.’”