In Memoriam: The Master of Quantum Enigmas, MIT’s Titan of Theoretical Physics, Roman Jackiw

by Mateo Gonzalez
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Roman Jackiw

The esteemed theoretical physicist, Roman Jackiw (1939-2023), has passed away at the age of 83. Jackiw was the holder of the Jerrold Zacharias chair and professor emeritus at the Department of Physics at MIT. With a career spanning over half a century, Jackiw made pivotal contributions to the realm of quantum field theory and discovered a variety of topological and geometric phenomena. He is particularly celebrated for his groundbreaking discoveries in quantum and classical field theories, including the Adler–Bell–Jackiw anomalies in quantum field theory.

Over the course of his tenure at MIT, Jackiw’s invaluable contributions were instrumental in shaping the Standard Model of particle physics, influencing a broad spectrum of fields including particle physics, condensed matter physics, and gravitational physics. As a decorated Dirac Medalist, his insightful application of quantum field theory to solve complex physical problems has left a profound impact on modern theoretical physics.

Colleagues at the MIT Center for Theoretical Physics (CTP) have spoken highly of Jackiw, acknowledging his remarkable contributions and his capacity to inspire others in the field. Iain Stewart, the CTP director and Otto (1939) and Jane Morningstar Professor of Science, praised Jackiw for his significant contributions across a variety of areas, encompassing particle physics, condensed matter physics, and gravitational physics.

Nergis Mavalvala, the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics and dean of the MIT School of Science, commended Jackiw as an innovator in the field of mathematical physics. Frank Wilczek, a fellow CTP colleague and the 2004 Nobel Laureate, fondly remembered Jackiw’s extraordinary talent for uncovering “curiosities” that have since bloomed into vibrant research areas in physics.

Among Jackiw’s considerable achievements was the establishment of the Adler–Bell–Jackiw anomalies in quantum field theory, a discovery that has significantly impacted the structure of the Standard Model of particle physics and all subsequent attempts to transcend it. For their profound work on the triangle anomaly, Jackiw and Stephen Adler of Princeton University were awarded the Dirac Medal in 1998 by the International Centre for Theoretical Physics.

Robert L. Jaffe, the Otto (1939) and Jane Morningstar Professor of Science, Post-Tenure, noted that Jackiw’s precise and mathematically sophisticated approach was never pedantic. He stated that Jackiw’s work was instrumental in the development of the Standard Model, one of the most successful theories in physics.

Born in Poland to a Ukrainian family, Jackiw’s journey in theoretical physics was driven by a deep-seated passion. His research in low-dimensional gravity, conducted during the 1980s, has recently gained momentum. His colleagues continue to unearth his earlier work, often realizing that Jackiw had predated their findings with his keen insights and elegance.

Indeed, Jackiw’s contributions were vast, from offering the first example of charge and spin fractionalization with solitons, to launching the use of quantum field theory for rigorous study at finite temperature. His work leaves a lasting legacy and continues to influence the field today.

Professor Jackiw mentored over 30 PhD students and received numerous awards throughout his career. He authored six books and contributed greatly to the literature of theoretical physics.

Roman Jackiw leaves behind an esteemed legacy in the world of theoretical physics. His wife, So-Young Pi, and their three children: Stefan Jackiw, Nicholas Jackiw, and Simone Ahlborn, survive him. Funeral services will remain private.

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