Yoichiro Nambu: The Passing of a Gentle Genius

Yoichiro Nambu is no more, and with him is gone an era in physics.

It was an era of ferment and discovery, and of outsize personalities among which the small, quiet, retiring genius never did quite fit in. I knew him as a thesis adviser at the University of Chicago. Later, as an editor at Scientific American, I wrote a profile that describes his life and science; this piece is more personal, about him as a teacher and a human being.

His door was always open. Every Monday, for a full hour, I’d meet with Nambu to show him my meager calculations, and he’d try to explain where he saw the project going. I’d take notes, understanding little of what he said but invariably departing all fired up, so infectious was his sheer delight in physics. Sometimes he’d dig out relevant papers from his files–research that he’d done a long time back and that seemed to be really important, but that he hadn’t thought worth publishing. And when he thought I was working too hard, he prescribed a dose of V.I. Warshawski, the fictional Chicago detective.

Once I came upon Nambu laboriously studying a hand-written paper on relativity that an amateur had sent him. Astonished, I asked why he was spending so much time reading a work by someone who was probably a quack. He replied that when Albert Einstein had received a paper out of the blue from an unknown Indian, he’d taken the trouble to read it and understand it. The author was Satyendra Nath Bose and the paper heralded the discovery of bosons; without Einstein’s intervention it may never have seen the light of day. So every time Nambu got something in the mail, no matter how bizarre it looked, he felt obliged —> Read More