Stanley Deser, Whose Ideas on Gravity Help Explain the Universe, Dies at 92

Supergravity is a theory that bridges quantum mechanics and general relativity.

Stanley Deser, Whose Ideas on Gravity Help Explain the Universe, Dies at 92

Stanley Deser died in Pasadena on April 21, a theoretical physicist and a pioneer of understanding gravity, as well as how it affects the fabric of space-time. He was 92.

Abigail Deser, his daughter, confirmed that he died in a hospital.

Scientists have dreamed for a long time of creating a theory that explains everything. A set of equations would describe the universe in a neat and complete way. They had developed two theories by the mid-20th century that are the foundations of modern physics. These are quantum mechanics, and general relativity.

Quantum mechanics describes the way that everything in the subatomic world is divided into discrete pieces, or quanta. For example, the photons are individual particles of light. Albert Einstein’s theory of general realism had beautifully captured how gravity and mass bend the fabric space-time.

These two pillars, however, did not match. Quanta are not included in general relativity; the quantum theory of gravitation is still an unfinished project.

Michael Duff, a retired professor of physics from Imperial College London, England, said: "The problem is to combine these two theories into one seamless theory of all." "Stanley is among the first to have tackled this problem."

In 1959, Dr. Deser and two other physicists Richard Arnowitt, Charles Misner published the ADM Formalism, which was named after their initials. It rejigged the equations for general relativity into a form that laid the foundations for the work towards a quantum theory.

Edward Witten, an Institute for Advanced Study physicist in Princeton, N.J., said that the bridge is a step towards quantum. However, to date, no one's been able take the theory to the next level and create a unified quantum gravity theory.

The ADM formalization had an additional benefit. It allowed computer simulations of general relativity equations. This enabled scientists to investigate phenomena such as the gravitational pull of blackholes and the explosions that can shake the universe when stars collide.

The new equations divided four-dimensional time into three-dimensional slices, which allowed computers to process the data. As Frans Pretorius said, professor of physics from Princeton University, "evolve the slices in the right order to find the complete solution."

Dr. Deser's work as a pioneer of supergravity in the 1970s, which extended the idea of supersymmetry to include gravitation, is probably his best-known contribution.

Quantum mechanics had already shown that fundamental particles could be divided into two distinct groups. The familiar constituents of matter, such as electrons and quarks, fall into a group called fermions, while those that carry the fundamental forces, like photons - the particles of light which transmit the force of electromagnetic attraction - are known as bosons.

The supersymmetry hypothesis states that there is a boson for every fermion and a partner fermion for each boson.

Dr. Deser collaborated with Bruno Zumino - one of the original creators of supersymmetry - to add gravity to this theory. This led to the creation of the theory of Supergravity. The theory of supergravity incorporates gravitons, which are the gravitational counterparts of photons. It also adds gravitinos, a supersymmetric partner.

The mathematical elegance of the theories has not been disproven, but they are still attractive to physicists because they haven't found any evidence to support them.

The supergravity aspect is also an important part of the superstring theories. These theories attempt to explain how the universe functions, and overcome some of its shortcomings, by overcoming quantum gravity theories.

'Stanley's career was a long and distinguished one,' said Dr. Witten. Witten has been at forefront of developing superstring theories.

Stanley Deser, born March 19, 1931, was born in Rovno (Poland), a city that is now called Rivne, and part of Ukraine. In 1935, as Jews, Norman Deser, a chemist and Miriam left Poland to escape the repressive antisemitic government. The prospects of finding work in Palestine were slim, so they moved to Paris a few months after.


The family barely escaped France in 1940 when World War II was raging across Europe.

In his autobiography 'Forks in the Road', Dr. Deser writes of his parents, "They finally realized the dangerous situation and decided to leave all their possessions." I rushed to our safe with my dad. My mother sewn the coins onto a towel belt, a well-known refugee maneuver, as the rest of us packed our belongings.

The family fled Portugal, and 11 months later they obtained visas for emigration to the United States. The family settled in New York City where Norman and Miriam owned a chemical supply business.

Stanley was promoted to the 10th grade by age 12, and graduated high school when he was 14. In 1949, at the age of 18, he earned a Bachelor's Degree in Physics from Brooklyn College. He then attended Harvard University, where he studied with Julian Schwinger. He earned his doctorate degree in 1953.

Dr. Deser began teaching at Brandeis University, in 1958, after completing postdoctoral fellowships in Copenhagen at the Niels Bohr Institute and Institute for Advanced Study.

In his autobiography, he said that the three years he spent working on ADM formalalism were 'the most fortunate run of luck one could hope for.'

In an interview for Caltech Heritage Project last year, Dr. Deser said that he and Dr. Arnowitt completed most of the work in Denmark during the summer in a kindergarten class. He said that the blackboards in this kindergarten were a nice touch. "Denmark has a very good way of doing things."

Dr. Deser stated that because the blackboards were too low for children to reach, "we would crawl around and write equations." "And the papers just flowed out."

Dr. Misner is an emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland. He said that there are parallels between ADM's recasting of General Relativity and the quantum field theories of electromagnetism, which other physicists worked on. They were able apply this experience to general relativity.

Dr. Zumino was working at the CERN particle lab in Geneva when he began his work on supergravity. "We were amazed that we could have a coherent theory in just three weeks," Dr. Deser said.

In June 1976, he and Dr. Zumino wrote a paper on supergravity. Another group of physicists, Daniel Freedman and Sergio Ferrara, beat them to it, and described supergravity about a week before Dr. Deser's and Dr. Zumino's paper.

According to Dr. Deser, the work he and Dr. Zumino performed was sometimes overlooked. In 2019, the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics - accompanied by a $3 million award - was given to the other team.

The British physicist Dr. Duff said that he was "understandably upset". I think they should have been generous and made Stanley the fourth recipient. (Dr. Zumino passed away in 2014)

Dr. Witten and Dr. Schwarz, members of the awarding committee, declined to comment on the details of the decision. Dr. Schwarz, however, said that it was a scientific decision.

Dr. Deser was employed by Brandeis University until 2005, when he retired. He moved to Pasadena in order to be near his daughter, and obtained a position at Caltech as a senior researcher associate.

He is also survived by Toni Deser, Clara Deser and four grandchildren.

Elsbeth, his wife of 64-years, died in 2020. Eva Deser, a daughter, died in 1968.

Although Dr. Deser is an expert in gravity and general relativity he's not infallible.

In his Caltech interview, he mentioned a paper where he had suggested that gravity might be able to solve certain infinities that appeared in the quantum-field theory of electrodynamics.

Some notable physicists also had similar ideas, but they did not publish them. Dr. Deser did.

He said, 'It's garbage.' Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning Nobel Physicist and inventor of quantum electrodynamics'shot me to pieces' during a speech at a conference.

He said, "Everyone is entitled to a couple of strikes."