A Caltech physicist who played a key role in developing an all-encompassing “theory of everything” was named Monday as one of the 32 winners of the 1987 MacArthur Foundation fellowships, which provide a five-year, tax-free stipend.
John Schwarz, 45, will receive $280,000 over the five years to spend in any way he sees fit.
His fellowship is among four given this year to physicists working in the esoteric field of super-strings, the foundation of the “theory of everything.”
The theory seeks to define the interrelationship among the four basic forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak quantum forces that hold the atom together.
Such a clustering of awards in one field is “unusual,” a spokesman for the MacArthur Foundation said, “but it is an indication of the excitement the theory is causing in physics.”
Other California winners of the MacArthur fellowships are mathematician Robert Coleman of the University of California, Berkeley, who studies number theory; geneticist Ira Herskowitz of UC San Francisco, who studies how cells develop for specialized applications; psychologist and computer scientist David Rumelhart of UC San Diego, who is trying to develop computers that think like humans; and neuroendocrinologist Robert M. Sapolsky of Stanford University, who studies stress-related disorders in baboons.
Scientists have been searching for a “theory of everything” to mathematically link the four forces of nature since Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity 72 years ago. Before the concept of super-strings was developed in the 1970s by Schwarz and co-workers, no such attempts had been successful.
In 1984, Schwarz and Michael Green of the University of London worked out the mathematics for super-strings, touching off an explosion of interest. Experts say the number of scientific papers about super-strings averages 100 per month.
Schwarz and Green described the fundamental building blocks of the universe as infinitesimal strings rather than the infinitesimal points described by conventional physics, such as gravitons that transmit gravity or photons that transmit light.
Because the super-strings are oscillating, vibrating strings, Schwarz has said, their rotation, configuration and interactions determine the force they represent.
Super-strings are not completely successful in unifying the four forces; among other problems, they require 10 dimensions of space rather than three. Many scientists consider super-strings the most hopeful approach for the future, however, because they eliminate discrepancies that have dogged previous theories.
Schwarz is vacationing in Spain and could not be reached.
The MacArthur Fellowships impose no research requirements or restrictions on recipients. The fellows receive annual stipends of $30,000 to $75,000, with the totals ranging from $150,000 to $375,000.
The $2-billion foundation is the legacy of MacArthur, founder of Bankers Life and Casualty Co., who died in 1978, and his wife, who died in 1981.
Other national winners:
Walter Abish, 55, an avant-garde New York writer known for social and philosophical concerns; Robert Axelrod, 44, an Ann Arbor, Mich., political scientist specializing in international politics, business and biology; Douglas Crase, 42, a New York poet who writes on urban life and American heritage; Daniel Friedan, 38, a Chicago physicist; David Gross, 46, a Princeton, N.J., theoretical physicist. Friedan and Gross also work on super-strings.
Also, Irving Howe, 67, a New York social and political writer and literary critic; Wesley Jacobs Jr., a Porcupine, S.D., Oglala Sioux working to analyze and improve the economy of tribal areas; Peter Jeffrey, 33, a Newark, Del., musicologist who studies early Western plain chant and Middle Eastern music; Horace Freeland Judson, a Baltimore journalist and historian of contemporary science; Stuart Kauffman, 47, of Bryn Mawr, Pa., who studies theoretical biology and evolutionary theory.
Also, Richard Kenney, 38, a Seattle meditative poet known for intricate language, syntax and rhyme; Eric Lander, 30, a Cambridge, Mass., mathematician who studies genetics, biology and business; Michael Malin, 37, a Mesa, Ariz., geologist who has designed an innovative camera for a forthcoming Mars mission; Deborah Meier, 56, a New York public school teacher who founded alternative schools in East Harlem.
Also, Arnaldo Momigliano, 78, a Chicago historian who has studied classical, Jewish and Christian cultures; David Mumford, 50, a Cambridge, Mass., mathematician who works on computer graphics; Tina Rosenberg, 27, a Washington free-lance journalist who covers political and social affairs in the United States and Central America; Meyer Schapiro, 82, New York, one of the country’s most eminent art historians.
Also, Jon Seger, 40, a Salt Lake City evolutionary biologist and mathematician who studies parental investment and control of sex ratios in children; Stephen Shenker, 34, a Chicago theoretical physicist who studies super-strings; David Shulman, 38, a Jerusalem philologist and historian of religion who studies South Indian traditional culture; Muriel Snowden, 70, a Boston community organizer and civil rights activist who founded Freedom House in Roxbury, Mass.
Also, Mark Strand, 53, a Salt Lake City poet, translator and art critic; May Swenson, 68, a Sea Cliff, N.Y., poet known for her inventiveness with sound and shapes; Huynh Sanh Thong, 60, Hamden, Conn., whose translations have introduced Vietnamese classics to English readers; William Julius Wilson, 51, a Chicago sociologist who studies the black underclass, and Richard Wrangham, 38, a Ypsilanti, Mich., primate ethologist who has provided insights into human ancestors.