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Archives Spotlight: The Bryce S. DeWitt Papers

The Bryce S. DeWitt Papers

By Kristy Sorensen

The following article, featured as part of the Archives of American Mathematics Spotlight, was published in the January 2006 issue of MAA FOCUS. The full issue is available here (pdf).

Bryce S. DeWitt

Bryce S. DeWitt, 1990. (Click to enlarge.)
Source: The Office of Public Affairs Records, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

The Archives of American Mathematics (AAM) has recently made available the Bryce S. DeWitt Papers, a growing collection documenting the research work of this important physicist. At this time, the papers include handwritten notes, correspondence, and printed material, as well as extensive documentation of a groundbreaking 1973 eclipse experiment, including 85 glass photographic plates taken during the experiment and computer printouts analyzing the data.

Bryce S. DeWitt (1923-2004) was known for his mathematical approach to physics and his work in quantum field theory, supermanifolds, gauge theory, and relativistic astrophysics.

DeWitt received all three of his degrees in physics from Harvard University (Ph.D. in 1950). His doctoral studies also involved a stay at the Institute for Advanced Studies, where he met his wife, physicist Cecile DeWitt-Morette.

DeWitt was a dedicated teacher and researcher. He held positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before beginning his professorship at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin in 1972. At UT Austin, DeWitt served as the director of the Center for Relativity (1972-1987), Jane and Roland Blumberg Professor of Physics (1986-2000), and Jane and Roland Blumberg Professor Emeritus (2000-2004).

DeWitt's honors include a Dirac Medal from the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics in Italy (1987), the Marcel Grossman Award (with DeWitt-Morette, 2000), the Pomeranchuk Prize of the Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics in Russia (2002), the Einstein Prize of the American Physical Society (2005), and election to the National Academy of Sciences (1990) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2002).

Bryce S. DeWitt and Cecile DeWitte-Morette

Bryce S. DeWitt and Cecile DeWitt-Morette hiking in the French Alps, July 1963. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo by Kip Thorne (Caltech), courtesy of Chris DeWitt.

In 1973, DeWitt and DeWitt-Morette led a scientific expedition to Mauritania to test Einstein's general relativity theory of gravity during a total solar eclipse, an experiment that had been tried thirty times before with mixed results. DeWitt, DeWitt-Morette, and colleagues took a series of photographic plates during the eclipse and compared them with a set of plates taken of the night sky six months later. Analysis of these photos demonstrated that the sun's gravity had pulled the stars out of their original paths, as Einstein's theory predicted. Harlan's Globetrotters: The Story of an Eclipse, a 2005 book by David S. Evans and Karen I. Winget, explores the story of the 1973 eclipse experiment in great detail.

The glass plates in the AAM collection are organized by size and generally include the inventory number assigned to them at the time of the experiment. The most valuable of the glass plates are the "suitcase plates," which DeWitt-Morette carefully escorted in a foam-padded, metal suitcase from the experiment site for analysis. Because of the fragile nature of the glass plates, they are available by appointment only. A complete log of the glass plates, descriptions of the experiment, and computer analysis of the data are available in the collection.

Working log of astronomical plates

A working log of the astronomical plates kept during the 1973 eclipse experiment in Mauritania. (Click to enlarge.)
Source: The Bryce S. DeWitt Papers at the Archives of American Mathematics.

Intellectual Nomads, an upcoming collection edited by DeWitt-Morette and John Stachel, will include a volume titled Quantum Gravity: Memoirs of Bryce S. DeWitt.

More information about DeWitt can be found through the UT website here. A transcript of an interview with DeWitt and DeWitt-Morette is available online.

Kristy Sorensen served as the archivist at the Archives of American Mathematics until November 2006.

The Archives of American Mathematics (AAM) is a unit of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. Individuals interested in conducting research or donating materials or who have general questions about the AAM should contact Carol Mead, Archivist:, (512) 495-4539.

Revised on July 12, 2010.