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image European Research News Centre > Pure Science > The beauty of theory
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image image image Date published: 07/11/02
  image The beauty of theory
RDT info 35
  ‘Is it the environment I grew up in or my genes which determined my vocation as a physicist?’ That is the question Gerard ‘t Hooft asks in an autobiographical paper written when he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1999. RTD info profiles a man of science with a distinct sense of humour.

The lineage of this learned Dutchman reveals a quite remarkable concentration of scientific excellence. His great uncle on his mother’s side, Frits Zernike (1988-1966), received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1953 – when Gerard was seven – for inventing the phase-contrast microscope, a revolutionary tool for the study of biology. His grandmother had married Pieter Nicolaas van Kempen, the eminent zoologist and professor at the University of Leiden, and one of their sons (thus Gerard’s maternal uncle), Nicolaas Godfried, taught theoretical physics at the University of Utrecht.

It was hardly surprising therefore that Gerard dreamed of becoming ‘a great man who knew everything’, and from a very early age he showed a fascination for observing the world and nature around him. A world-renowned physicist now, he continues to add to his collection of seashells which he began as a boy when walking the beaches of the Netherlands – because ‘a seashell expresses the inexhaustible beauty of matter worked by life’.

A fascination with discovery

His father, a brilliant naval engineer, had for a while thought of interesting his son in the very palpable world of technological innovation. But that failed to allow for the inheritance from his mother’s side of the family. What really fascinated the schoolboy – and later the student – were not ‘things already invented but the mystery of those to be discovered’. At secondary school, Gerard ‘t Hooft was good at most subjects, but he excelled in mathematics. At the age of 16 he won second prize in the national ‘Maths Olympiad’. When the time came to go to university, this talent for dealing with the abstract caused him to opt for physics. He enrolled at the University of Utrecht where his uncle was a lecturer.

It was there, in 1969, that he started working under the direction of Martinus Veltman, his mentor and elder by 15 years with whom, 30 years later in 1999, he would share his Nobel Prize. It was Veltman who introduced him to the fascinating challenges of quantum physics. ‘This was a very exciting time as we were starting to use the first large particle accelerators, at CERN for example, which had been developed in the 1950s. These instruments of experimentation radically changed existing theories formulated to describe the co-existence of forces of strong and weak interaction between the particles of the atomic nucleus. The results observed rendered obsolete the methods of calculation proposed by the theories. At the same time, calculating capacity increased enormously with the first big computers.’

Electroweak interactions

Veltman, who believed in the possibility of a new theory on what physicists call electroweak interactions (see The secret of matter), set about pioneering a software program able to handle the previously indigestible mass of quantum calculations required by this new approach. He suggested to the young Gerard ‘t Hooft that this theoretical research should be the subject of his doctoral thesis. His confidence in his assistant proved to be well placed. In 1971, at the age of 26, ‘t Hooft published two articles in quick succession which constituted a new and decisive theoretical approach to electroweak interactions. With the aid of Veltman’s software program the two researchers proceeded to verify the partial results and then jointly developed a complete functional calculation whose validity as a theoretical edifice has since been increasingly confirmed.

Their work was used extensively, for example, in the controlled experiments on the production and identification of W and Z subatomic particles by CERN’s LEP accelerator. The Veltman-’t Hooft model is also at the origin of predictions of the existence of an as yet unidentified particle, the famous ‘Higgs boson’, something of a ‘Holy Grail’ for contemporary physicists.

Communicating curiosity

Gerard ‘t Hooft does not, however, share the passion of some scientific experimenters who scrutinise the ‘soup’ of particles turning in the accelerator. ‘I have of course spent many working visits at CERN, but my passion is the beauty of theory. I am at present studying the absolutely fascinating concept of quantum black holes in the field of astrophysics.’

Remaining loyal to his old University of Utrecht, this 1999 Nobel prizewinner divides his time between pure research and lecturing on theoretical physics. ‘For me it is very important not so much to transmit knowledge as such but to have a passion for curiosity.’ As we speak, a new generation of doctorate students are hard at work in the neighbouring rooms, the blackboards full of equations. In fact, ‘t Hooft was a member of the jury for the last Young Scientists Competition organised by the Commission.

Has the study of science retained the image it had during his young days? ‘No. Relations between science and society – and young people in particular – have become problematic. As a boy and then adolescent growing up in the 1950s, I knew a world in which the researcher and his work, in all its arduousness, had a genuine aura. Today we are living in a world where the importance of comfort leaves less room for effort. There is a danger of real scientific illiteracy, which is also the reason for a deplorable and absurd tendency to mistrust science. Most of the ills of the world do not come from knowledge but from human behaviour. And it is only through knowledge that this behaviour can evolve.’

Humour and the web

A physicist sensitive to communication matters, Gerard ‘t Hooft is also a man with a sense of humour – that much is clear from his website.(1) Naturally he speaks of his interest in black holes – and directs you to a US site where you can find the answers to all your questions on a subject which never fails to fascinate. An African lion sprawled in the shade of a tree then invites you to discover some remarkable photos taken by Gerard in Zimbabwe during the eclipse of the sun in June 2001.

He is also passionately interested in space and the many promises it holds. There is in fact an asteroid named 9491 Thooft, discovered in 1971 by a couple of Dutch astronomers working at the Palomar Observatory in California. Visitors to the NASA website can study its spatial orbit which takes it between Mars and Jupiter. Thooft, which even has a draft constitution comprising 13 articles, is also the neighbour of the asteroid B 162 inhabited it seems by a certain Little Prince…

Other links take you to a plan to build a hotel on the Moon and a campaign for a permanent human presence on our satellite which has been abandoned for the past 30 years. ‘I believe that sooner or later the adventure of manned flights will resume and that we will ultimately explore our solar system.’ But make no mistake – there is no straying from the strictly scientific, and ‘t Hooft has no time for the charlatans who try to distort the principles of physical rationality to justify paranormal fantasies.

Finally, the ‘t Hooft site pays homage to the peculiarity of names which strangely begin with a back-to-front apostrophe followed by a small t. A letter which, in their wisdom, word processing programs are incapable of respecting when it comes to drawing up an alphabetical list. ‘My name often appears right at the beginning, or right at the end, before Mr Aaron or after Mr Zzzwylitski, who thought their place was assured.’

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The secret of matter

Electroweak interactions – which physicists have been racking their brains trying to explain for decades and which were elucidated mathematically by the ‘t Hooft-Veltman theoretical model – are essential to an understanding of matter and, what is more, to the chemistry of a star such as the Sun. If it were not for electromagnetic interactions, electrons would not revolve around the nucleus and there would be no atoms. It is weak interactions which convert protons into neutrons and cause the fusion of hydrogen atoms to form a helium nucleus in the great solar cauldron without which our planet Earth would be no more than an uninhabited ball of ice.

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Gerard 't Hooft

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