By: Don Mock firstname.lastname@example.org
The quest to explain literally everything, i.e., how to harmonize the principles of quantum mechanics on the atomic scale to those of general relativity on the cosmic scale, led Pierre Ramond to play a major role in the development of superstring theory. For this achievement, Ramond – a University of Florida Distinguished Professor of Physics – was awarded the prestigious 2015 Dannie Heineman Prize for Mathematical Physics by the American Institute of Physics and the American Physical Society. Superstring theory, with its vibrating resonate strings in ten spatial dimensions, is something of a mind bender to contemplate, but this is not unexpected of a bold attempt to address several of the greatest challenges facing physics.
Growing up in post-WWII France, Ramond knew he wanted to be a physicist. His father was a civil engineer who traveled the world to work on major water projects, while Pierre attended boarding school in Paris. When his father took a position as Director of Research for a company in Newark, Pierre came to the US intending a one-year visit – but he never left. Instead he enrolled in the Newark College of Engineering (now New Jersey Institute of Technology), eventually receiving a BS in Electrical Engineering “because it was the closest thing they had to physics.” Then on he went to Syracuse for a doctorate in Theoretical Physics and eventually a fellowship at Caltech under Murray Gell-Mann.
By the late 1970s, a downturn in state funding had hurt the UF Physics Department. However, the fresh decade brought the promise of an infusion of resources, and it was decided to form a new theoretical physics group. The key was to attract a critical mass of young talent. As luck would have it, the university approached Ramond at just the right time. Los Angeles was an expensive place to live, and Ramond was contemplating taking out a loan to repair his broken dishwasher. UF offered not only improved financial prospects, but also considerable say in how the new physics group would be structured.
Ramond moved to UF as a Professor in 1980, and the years since have been both productive and rewarding. He gets the greatest satisfaction from working with the graduate students who challenge him the most. “The really good ones are willing to tell you that you’re wrong, and that’s how you move the science forward.” However, UF has undergone another cycle of cutbacks, and the department faculty number has decreased by 20%. “When I retire, I would like to know that my position will stay and be filled.” It is a concern shared by other faculty, many already past their nominal retirement age. They all look for the state and university to rise to the challenge as they did 35 years ago.