When he died on September 7, 2012, theoretical physicist Claud W. Lovelace left behind a house filled with parakeets.
With no family or close companions, the eccentric Rutgers professor loved to be surrounded by his colorful fine-feathered friends and listen to classical music as he contemplated the nuances of unified field theory. A loner not particularly close to his colleagues, members of the Physics and Astronomy department were astounded and delighted when he willed his entire fortune of $1.5 million to it.
The funds were used to help establish endowed positions in practical fields of physics, a far cry from his own speculative work. He also willed his collection of more than 4000 classical CDs to Rutgers’ School of the Arts and donated his body to its Medical School.
While Lovelace’s death was little noted in the media—he certainly wasn’t well-known even among physicists outside of string theory—arguably one of his key findings about the high number of dimensions needed for string theory’s consistency had a critical impact on the history of the field. The surprising result established him as one of the most influential theoreticians of the early 1970s. String theorists still grapple with its repercussions.
Let’s step back to 1970, when string theory was in its infancy. While these days we associate strings with attempted “theories of everything,” back then they were used (as the string model) to characterize properties of the strong nuclear force.
Today we know that the strong interaction, the force that cements quarks into protons and neutrons, and those, in turn, into atomic nuclei, is conveyed by exchange particles called gluons. Quark-gluon interactions create a situation called confinement that keeps nuclear particles from flying apart: if not for QCD confinement, atomic nuclei would be unstable and we wouldn’t be here.
Before quarks and gluons were identified however, Japanese physicist Yoichiro Nambu and others proposed string theory as a way of explaining the powerful bonds between protons, nucleons, and other particles that experience the strong force, known in general as hadrons. (The theory rendered geometrically an earlier approach by Gabriele Veneziano called dual resonance.)
Researchers modeled such bonds as energetic strings that vibrated in different modes, like guitar strings being plucked in various ways and producing different harmonics. That’s when Lovelace entered the scene as a precocious young researcher hoping to make a breakthrough.
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