Caltech Remembers Stanley Deser (1931–2023)
Stanley Deser, a theoretical physicist known for his achievements in general relativity, quantum field theory, and high-energy physics, passed away on April 21, 2023. He was 92 years old. After Deser retired from Brandeis University in 2005, where he spent most of his academic career, he moved to Pasadena and secured a research appointment at Caltech. At the time of his passing, he served as a visiting associate in theoretical physics at Caltech and was the Ancell Professor of Physics, Emeritus, at Brandeis.
Deser was born in Rovno, Poland, in 1931 (the city is now in Ukraine). According to Deser's 2021 autobiography Forks in the Road: A Life in Physics, he and his family narrowly escaped the Nazi regime in 1940 while living in France, fleeing to Portugal and ultimately to the United States. In his book, he writes about the night they fled. "My mother sewed the coins into a belt of towels, a much-practiced maneuver of refugees, while the rest of us packed a few belongings. Even I understood the gravity of the situation. After a restless night, [we] jumped into the car with our small bags. The Nazis rolled in that afternoon. We were part of the enormous exodus from Paris, swelled by the Dutch and Belgians, that began just as the Germans hit Paris from the north."
Deser received his bachelor's degree from Brooklyn College in 1949 and his PhD in physics from Harvard University in 1953 under Nobel Laureate Julian Schwinger. He was a postdoc at the Institute for Advanced Study from 1953 to 1955 and at the Niels Bohr Institute from 1955 to 1957. He served as an instructor at Harvard from 1957 to 1958 before leaving to become a professor at Brandeis University in 1958.
Deser and his colleagues Charles Misner and Richard Arnowitt are founders of an important formulation of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, called ADM formalism (where ADM refers to the first initials of the researchers' last names). A press release from Brandeis calls their theory a "groundbreaking recasting that offered a new approach to general relativity, making it more amenable to modern thinking."
John Schwarz, the Harold Brown Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, at Caltech and one of the founders of string theory, explains that, in ADM formalism, Deser and his colleagues came up with a precise mathematical description of energy and mass in the context of general relativity, and this, together with Deser's work on supergravity, was "an important step in the development of theories of quantum gravity." Quantum gravity theories, which include string theory, represent attempts to unify gravity and quantum mechanics into one coherent framework.
In a 2022 interview by Caltech's Heritage Project, Deser describes working on the ADM theory in Denmark with his colleagues in a kindergarten. "The nice thing about this kindergarten, it has blackboards. Denmark is very good that way." The blackboards weren't very high, he explains, so they would crawl around and write equations. "And the papers just poured out," he said.
After Deser retired in 2005, he decided to move to the Los Angeles area to be near one of his daughters. He said he wanted to find "a place that at least has it all, the climate, family, and physics." That place turned out to be Pasadena, and Deser secured a research position at Caltech. In his 2022 interview, Deser explains that the move was a good one. "We realized what it means to live in LA in those days. God! We had bought a house more or less sight unseen, our present house. … And lived happily ever since in the same house."
Schwarz, who helped Deser in his academic move to Caltech, said that the physicist was prolific even after he retired. "In the 15 or more years he was here, he wrote a surprising number of papers," he said. "He was a very serious scientist and remained actively interested in research."
Deser's honors include the Dannie Heineman Prize in Mathematical Physics, the Einstein Medal, several Fulbright and Guggenheim awards, and the Morris Loeb Lectureship at Harvard. He was a Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Torino Academy of Sciences, and a foreign member of England's Royal Society. He held numerous awards and honorary degrees from both domestic and international institutions.
Stanley leaves behind three daughters, Toni, Clara, and Abigail, as well as four grandchildren, Ursula, Oscar, Louise, and Simon. He was preceded in death by his wife and artist, Elsbeth Deser, and a daughter, Eva.