Yoichiro Nambu: The Passing of a Gentle Genius

07/20/2015 05:07 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2016

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 to take the trouble to read it, for it might be a hidden gem. The lesson has stayed with me: never judge by appearances.

Sometimes Nambu told me stories from the past. Of the time when Edward Teller got so drunk at a banquet that he ended up dancing on the table wrapped in the U.S. flag. Or of Wolfgang Pauli giving a seminar and becoming so infuriated by a critical comment by a member of the audience that he grabbed the man and almost strangled him. And of how Madame Wu had been denied the Nobel she deserved because of being female.

At the Enrico Fermi Institute, where we had our offices, not only was the atmosphere vibrant and exciting, everyone was friendly and helpful. If I had problems with a calculation, my officemates, who were slightly senior to me, were always ready to take the time to show me how to do it. Later I realized that such a cooperative, rather than a competitive, atmosphere in a particle physics group was rare, and everyone attributed it to Nambu's civilizing presence.

Near the end of my first postdoctoral fellowship, however, I found my career in trouble, and wrote to Nambu asking if he thought I had a future in physics. He sent me a long reply, of which I reproduce here some extracts in the hope that it will be of interest to aspiring physicists.

I understand your question. To be a physicist is not easy, although it is not as hard as becoming a concert pianist, as a friend of mine who had given up music for physics once said. In the case of music, you have innate talent, or you don't, and that's that. Pursuit of physics is also an art, so it is still largely a matter of talent, but talent can have many shades. There is room for different styles. Furthermore, talent does not equal accomplishment. The latter is a more dynamical thing. You need self-confidence, but usually self-confidence and accomplishment bootstrap themselves.

When you are young, you tend to be more idealistic, ambitious, and impatient, just as I was myself. You would be satisfied with nothing short of solving the great problems of physics. But at the same time, you have nagging self-doubt, constantly gauging yourself against others. I experienced this acutely when I spent two years at the Institute for Advanced Study. I could not accomplish what I had wanted to. Everybody looked smarter than I, and I had a nervous breakdown. I thought I was the only poor guy who had the problem. Much later I found out from my old rivals that they had all gone through the same experience...

[T]he current trends of the physics community worry me. Some areas of physics are in a state of stagnation. Some others, if not stagnant, have become mission-oriented collective enterprise. But let me also tell you another aspect of the pursuit of physics, or any discipline for that matter. It is that you enjoy it just for the fun of it. You should not be dead serious all the time. All work and no play is no good. When you are stuck, you relax and try other things that you can handle without specific purpose or ambition. Learn to be flexible in your pursuits on short term scale, and patient on long term. It happens sometimes that a paper you wrote in a casual moment gets more attention than the paper you think is the more serious and important...

I was fortunately saved from my depression by Goldberger who brought me to Chicago. It was the only job offer I received, at the last moment. You need luck, but luck does not happen in a vacuum. It has to be cultivated.

As it happens, Nambu saved me. When it turned out that I could not get another job in physics, and my visa was running out--so that I faced the prospect of going back to India, where I come from, as a failure--he found some grant money to support me for two months. During that time I was fortunate to find myself a new job and, as it turned out, a new career as a journalist and writer.

Over the years I heard sporadically from Nambu. "I have been playing with a new formulation of fluid dynamics in my spare time, inspired by string theory," he wrote in 2010. He was 89, but his passion for physics was undiminished. He'd moved back to Japan and seemed happy there, though certain changes in the culture--what he described as a peculiar preoccupation with the trivial, and a social compulsion to conform--bewildered him.

The last time I heard from Nambu was about a year ago, when he sent me a copy of his collected works, prefaced by the profile I had written of him almost two decades back. I was touched by the shaky handwriting on the envelope, and now wish I had thought to keep it.

I did not end up as a physicist, but I do not regret the years I spent pursuing the dream. I learned the basics of doing research, the importance of following my curiosity, and the necessity of letting beloved theories fall by the wayside if they aren't supported by reality. And I still devour the latest Warshawski exploit every time one comes out. How could one fail to be blessed by such a graceful presence as Nambu's during formative years of one's life?