MIT emeritus professor wins $1m for particle physics work

Daniel Z. Freedman.
Daniel Z. Freedman. Miriam Freedman

An MIT emeritus professor has hit the jackpot, earning a $1 million prize for his groundbreaking work in physics.

Daniel Z. Freedman, now a visiting professor at Stanford University, is splitting a $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics with two other particle physics experts for the “invention of supergravity, in which quantum variables are part of the description of the geometry of spacetime,” the prize selection committee said.

The Breakthrough Prizes are meant to honor fundamental discoveries in the life sciences, physics, and mathematics that are changing the world. Its founders include Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.


“The discovery of supergravity was the beginning of including quantum variables in describing the dynamics of spacetime. It is quite striking that Einstein’s equations admit the generalization that we know as supergravity,” Edward Witten, chairman of the selection committee and a prominent physicist himself, said in a statement.

“When we think of the great works of the human imagination, we often mean art, music and literature,” Yuri Milner, a billionaire who is another one of the founders of the Breakthrough Prize, said in the statement. “But some of the most profound and beautiful creations are those of scientists. Supergravity has inspired physicists for decades and may contain deep truths about the nature of reality.”

Freedman, who was at Stony Brook University when he helped make the discovery, will share the prize with Sergio Ferrara of CERN and Peter van Nieuwenhuizen, also of Stony Brook.

The statement said that the trio were the “architects of supergravity, a highly influential 1976 theory that successfully integrated the force of gravity into a particular kind of quantum field theory (a theory that describes the fundamental particles and forces of nature in terms of fields embodying the laws of quantum mechanics).”


Freedman joined the MIT faculty in 1980 and retired in 2016, the university said in a statement.

“I treasure my 36 years at MIT,” he said in the statement, noting that he worked with “outstanding” graduate students with “great resourcefulness as problem solvers.”

Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.