Sunday, April 30, 2017

In Honor Of William Wootters On The Occasion Of His Retirement

William Wootters, my earliest mentor in theoretical physics, will retire from Williams College this year. Wootters is a pioneer of quantum information theory: his groundbreaking paper "A single quantum cannot be cloned," coauthored with Wojciech Zurek in 1982, has been cited over 4,000 times.

Bill decided against having a Festschrift conference, so I won't be able to give a talk to celebrate his retirement. However, the alumni association invited Bill's former students to share reflections, and I wanted to share mine here as well.

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The story of my physics career at Williams begins and ends with Bill Wootters. In my freshman year, Bill co-taught a course with Karen Kwitter about the major advances in physics and astrophysics during the 20th century. It wasn’t the typical starting point for physics majors, but for an under-prepared student like myself it was a perfect introduction to the subject. The fascinating course material, the lively teaching, and the professors’ abundant kindness all gave me courage to move ahead in the subject.

By the time of my senior year, I was completing my astrophysics major and writing an honors thesis in physics with Bill. It was a busy year for me, in some ways a tumultuous and overcommitted year. Bill’s kindness, charity, and steady professionalism kept my spirit calm and my mind on my tasks. Through his research supervision, Bill exposed me to new frontiers of physics and inculcated in me his own high standards for scholarship. He exemplifies the golden intersection of two of the most noble roles a person can have: on the one hand, scientist; on the other hand, educator.

When I arrived at Berkeley to study for a doctorate in physics, I couldn’t help noticing that my classmates who’d been undergraduates at large universities tended to know more than I did about particular topics—whether it be the Standard Model, or plasmas, or what have you. That first semester with its oral qualifying exams and its dozens of impressive classmates (Gino Segré! Nima Arkani-Hamed!) was once again an intimidating start. But I soon discovered that Williams had prepared me well. In truth, not all of my classmates understood the fundamentals as deeply as one needed to. I might not know everything, I often thought; but what I know I truly know. It was a gift to be given such a firm foundation on which to stand, and I thank Bill and the entire Williams physics faculty for that gift.

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