Martinus Veltman, Who Made Key Contribution in Physics, Dies at 89

Martinus JG Veltman, a Dutch theoretical physicist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for work explaining the structure of some fundamental forces in the universe and forming the basis for the development of the Standard Model, the backbone of quantum physics, died in Bilthoven on January 4th , Netherlands. He was 89 years old.

His death was announced by the National Institute for Subatomic Physics in the Netherlands. No reason was given.

There are four known fundamental forces in the universe: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force that binds subatomic particles together, and the weak force that causes the particles to decay. Since the discovery of the last two forces in the first half of the 20th century, physicists have sought a unified theory that could explain the existence of all four.

In the early 1960s, Dr. Sheldon Lee Glass Show, Dr. Steven Weinberg and Dr. Abdus Salam the so-called electroweak theory, which found a unity between electromagnetism and weak force. But the complex math behind the theory ran into problems because it sometimes gave infinite answers, like for the energy of a particle. It was obviously impossible and therefore meaningless.

The calculations were also complex because they were based on “non-Abelian oak theory,” where changing the sequence of operations performed on an equation to change its shape changes its result. (Unlike high school math where axb equals bxa, sometimes axb doesn’t equal bx a in non-Abelian oak theory.)

In collaboration with one of his PhD students, Gerardus’ t Hooft, Dr. Veltman set about solving the problem. They used a technique called renormalization which allowed them to replace the calculations that gave infinite answers with experimental results.

To do the calculations, Dr. Veltman and Dr. ‘t Hooft one of Dr. Veltman-written computer program called Schoonschip, which is Dutch for “to clean or tidy up”. Dr. Veltman later joked that he chose the name in part to annoy people who couldn’t speak Dutch.

Recognition…Janerik Henriksson / Reuters

Dr. Veltman and Dr. ‘t Hooft managed to solve the problems with the electroweak theory and determine that electromagnetism and the weak force are actually manifestations of the same force at high energy levels. Their work supported the prediction that two previously unknown fundamental particles, the W and Z bosons, would be found to fill in missing elements of the Standard Model.

Dr. Glass Show, Dr. Weinberg and Dr. Salam received the 1979 Nobel Prize for developing the electroweak theory, and Dr. Veltman and Dr. ‘t Hooft shared the 1999 award for their contribution.

Dr. Glashow said the work of Dr. Veltman and Dr. ‘t Hooft is invaluable. “Without the computational system they developed, nobody would have taken the electroweak theory seriously,” he said.

Martinus Justinus Godefriedus Veltman was born on June 27, 1931 in Waalwijk, the Netherlands. He was the fourth of six children. His father was the head of a primary school; One of Martinus’ brothers and two of his sisters became primary school teachers.

The occupation of German troops in 1940 took over the father’s school. Although the city was liberated in 1944, the north of the Netherlands was still occupied and Waalwijk was close to the front line. In his Nobel biography, Dr. Martinus remembered V-1 bombs falling on the city, with a landing on a house just 100 meters from his own, killing its residents.

Dr. Veltman was a mediocre student who barely passed his final exam, but a college professor believed he was promising and asked his parents to send him to a university. He attended the University of Utrecht and commuted 90 minutes at a time.

Dr. Veltman found the training in Utrecht, which had lost many of its best professors during the war, not very inspiring. He had to work on the side to pay for his way through college, and it took him five years to graduate, two more than the usual student career. But then he stumbled upon a book on Einstein’s theory of relativity and became fascinated by physics. He decided to do a Ph.D. in Utrecht.

It was around this time that Belgian physicist Léon Van Hove entered the university and became Dr. Veltman’s advisor. After two years in the military, Dr. Veltman.

Dr. Van Hove left Utrecht in 1960 to become director of the theory department at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva. Dr. Veltman followed him a year later.

Dr. Veltman spent a year at Stanford University’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in 1963 before returning to CERN. He worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island in 1966 and was then hired by his alma mater to fill the position in Utrecht that Dr. Van Hove had occupied.

In 1979, Dr. Veltman was invited to teach at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for a year. At the end of the appointment, he was hired to fill the Chair of John T. and Catherine T. MacArthur at the University. He stayed until he retired in 1996 when he and his wife returned to the Netherlands.

In 2003 he published a book on physics for laypeople entitled “Facts and Secrets in Elementary Particle Physics”.

He is survived by his wife Anneke and their three children Hélène, Hugo and Martijn.

Dr. Veltman had a casual approach to physics. His Nobel Lecture went through the elements and history of particle physics with simple words and humor. In fact, his humor was often shrewd. During a question-and-answer session after a lecture at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings in 2019, he was asked what made him a theory.

“The answer is trivial,” he said. “It must work.”

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