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Larry Murphy

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BRyCE SELIGMAN DEWITT
January 8, 1923–September 23, 2004
By STEVEN WEINBERG
B ryce s eligman d ewitt, p rofessor e meritus in the
physics
department of the University of Texas at Austin, died
on September 23, 2004. His career was marked by major
contributions to classical and quantum field theories, in
particular, to the theory of gravitation.
DeWitt was born Carl Bryce Seligman on January 8, 1923,
in Dinuba, California, the eldest of four boys. His paternal
grandfather, Emil Seligman, left Germany around 1875 at
the age of 17 and emigrated to California, where he and
his brother established a general store in Traver. Emil mar-
ried Anna Frey, a young woman who had emigrated from
Switzerland at about the same time. They had 11 children,
whom Anna raised in the Methodist church.
In 1921 DeWitt’s father, who had become a country
doctor, married the local high school teacher of Latin and
mathematics. Her ancestors were French Huguenots and
Scottish Presbyterians. DeWitt was raised in the Presbyterian
Church, and the only Jewish elements in his early life were
the matzos that his grandfather bought around the time of
Passover. DeWitt described his early exposure to religion
as a boy in California in a moving memoir, “God’s Rays,”
published posthumously in Physics Today. His grandmother
told him that Armageddon would come in the summer of
55

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56 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS
1997 and hounded his grandfather to his deathbed, trying to
make him give up his belief in Darwinian evolution. Looking
back in his memoir, DeWitt came to the conclusion that it
was love that gave Christianity its overwhelming impact, but
that love “needs no religious framework whatever to exert
its power.”
DeWitt’s mother chafed at her rural surroundings and
determined that her sons would live elsewhere. At the age of
12 DeWitt entered Middlesex School in Concord, Massachu-
setts. The headmaster at Middlesex had initiated a national
scholarship program similar to the one at Harvard, and De-
Witt had taken (at his mother’s insistence) the competitive
examination in which he earned his admission.
He graduated from Middlesex at the age of 16, and
was admitted to Harvard and Caltech. He chose Harvard
because he had become passionate about rowing while at
Middlesex, and Harvard had “crew.” He eventually stroked
the Harvard Varsity. As a physics major he was deferred from
military service but always felt guilty about it. Upon gradu-
ation in 1943 he went to work on the Calutron at Berkeley,
the accelerator used in the Manhattan Project for the final
separation of uranium-235 from uranium-238. (This had
been recommended to him by Robert Oppenheimer when,
because DeWitt wanted to get back to California, he had
turned down Oppenheimer’s invitation to join a secret re-
search project in an undisclosed location.) He spent seven
months at the Berkeley branch of the Manhattan Project
and then asked to be released. He reasoned that any bright
youngster could do what he was doing (hand soldering,
reading meters, general gofer work), and he didn’t see that
his physics degree was relevant. In January 1944 he enlisted
in the navy and became a naval aviator, but World War II
ended before he saw combat.

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57
BRyCE SELIGMAN DEWITT
DeWitt came back to Harvard in January 1946. In 1947
he began his thesis work under the nominal supervision of
Julian Schwinger. The topic he chose, the quantization of the
gravitational field, became his life’s work. In 1949 he began
his first postdoctoral year at the Institute for Advanced Study.
When Wolfgang Pauli, in November of that year, learned what
he was working on, he remained silent for several seconds,
alternately nodding and shaking his head (a well-known
Pauli trademark), and then said, “That is a very important
problem. But it will take somebody really smart!”
In 1950 two major but totally unrelated developments
occurred in his life. First, he became engaged to be mar-
ried to Cecile Morette, a young French physicist who was
in her second postdoctoral year at the institute. Second, at
the urging of their father, he and his three brothers began
the legal procedures for changing their surname to a name
from their mother’s side of the family. The younger boys
were, or had been, at school in the eastern United States,
and all had encountered repeated misunderstandings and
false assumptions based solely on their surname, something
that had seldom occurred in California.
From June to December 1950 DeWitt was with Pauli at the
ETH in Zürich, and afterward he went to Bombay to spend
a postdoctoral year at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Re-
search. This sojourn did not make good professional sense,
but it suited his roving spirit. Unfortunately it ended in an
abrupt and serious illness, which forced his return to Europe.
In May 1951 he and Cecile were married in Paris, and in
July they were in Les Houches, where the famous l’École
d’Été de Physique Théorique was starting its first year. This
school had been created by Cecile as a penance for marry-
ing a foreigner, but she also saw it as something potentially
valuable in its own right. It was certainly valuable to DeWitt,
who during the summers he was there, was exposed to a very

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58 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS
broad range of topics in theoretical physics. That the school
was also valuable to others is attested by the fact that at its
jubilee in 2001 it numbered among its past students and
lecturers 26 who later became Nobel laureates and two who
became Fields medalists.
In September 1951 DeWitt, this time accompanied by
Cecile, returned to the Tata Institute, determined to com-
plete his postdoctoral year. Their eldest daughter was born
in Bombay in April 1952. Three other daughters were born
during the following decade. In the summer of 1952 Cecile
was back at Les Houches while DeWitt was looking for a job
in the United States. His years abroad had kept him out of
the market for academic appointments, so he accepted a
job at the nuclear weapons laboratory at Livermore, where
he remained for three and a half years. During his stay at
Livermore, in addition to writing a treatise on “The Operator
Formalism in Quantum Perturbation Theory,” he became the
lab’s expert on (2+1)-dimensional hydrodynamical computa-
tions (impelled by NATO’s desire to possess nuclear artil-
lery shells). This expertise was applied by him years later in
computations of the behavior of colliding black holes, and
by his students in a variety of astrophysical problems.
Through the efforts of John Wheeler, who had become
aware of his work on quantum gravity, DeWitt was offered and
accepted the directorship of the Institute of Field Physics at
the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. His initial
title at UNC was visiting research professor, which enabled
him to teach, or not, as he chose, and to have students. With
his very first student, and with the aid of the book of Jacques
Hadamard on the Cauchy problem, he discovered the basic
properties of Green’s functions in curved spacetime. He was
also led to the beginnings of a manifestly covariant quantum
theory of gravity in which, unlike the usual approach to
quantum mechanics, the Hamiltonian has no role to play.

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59
BRyCE SELIGMAN DEWITT
In quantum mechanics the commutator AB-BA of any two
quantities A and B is inferred from a quantity known as the
Poisson bracket, which is calculated on the basis of classical
mechanics. DeWitt came upon the 1952 paper of Rudolf Pei-
erls, which gave a global definition of the Poisson bracket in
terms of these Green’s functions. Peierls’s definition yields
a completely unambiguous Poisson bracket for any pair of
quantities, whose definition does not depend on the choice
of coordinate system. The problem now addressed by DeWitt
was to extend these classical results to the quantum theory
with all its infinities.
In January 1957 Cecile, who had also been given the
title of visiting research professor, organized the first of the
general relativity and gravitation (GRG) conferences: “On
the Role of Gravitation in Physics.” The participants included
Christian Møller, Leon Rosenfeld, Andre Lichnerowicz, Her-
mann Bondi, Thomas Gold, Dennis Sciama, Peter Bergman,
John Wheeler, and Richard Feynman. Samuel Goudsmit had
recently threatened to ban all papers on gravitation from
Physical Review and Physical Review Letters because he and most
American physicists felt that gravity research was a waste of
time. The conference aimed to point out the shallowness
of this view. In those early years, arguments were often
put forward that gravity should not be quantized. Feynman
vigorously disagreed and became interested in the problem
while visiting Chapel Hill. Four years later, at the GRG con-
ference in Warsaw, Feynman gave the first correct statement
of how to quantize gravity (and also the non-Abelian gauge
field) in the one-loop order of perturbation theory. He was
the inventor of what are known as “ghosts” in non-Abelian
gauge theories. These theories, invented in 1954 by Chen-
Ning yang and Robert Mills, became the subject of much
of DeWitt’s future work, and later turned out to furnish the

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60 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS
basis of successful theories of all of the observed interactions
of elementary particles except gravitation.
DeWitt, who had followed Feynman’s work closely, ex-
tended it to two-loop order in 1964. In the meantime he
had pushed forward on several other fronts. On three occa-
sions he had presented courses of lectures at Les Houches.
In 1963 he gave his most famous course, “The Dynamical
Theory of Groups and Fields,” which was published as a book
the following year. In it he introduced a condensed notation
applicable to all field theories, extended Schwinger’s heat
kernel methods to curved spacetime and other nonconstant
backgrounds, and gave the first (and now standard) non-
perturbative definition of the effective action as a Legen-
dre transform of the logarithm of the vacuum persistence
amplitude.
By the end of 1965 he had found the rules for quantizing
the gravitational and non-Abelian gauge fields to all orders.
But this work did not get published until late 1967 for two
reasons. First, his Air Force grant was terminated and he
could not pay the page charges that Physical Review had begun
levying. Second, there seemed to be no rush. The standard
model of electroweak interactions had not yet been worked
out and the fundamental importance of the non-Abelian
gauge field was not fully understood. Dimensional regular-
ization, which would make renormalization easy, had not
yet been invented. And he was momentarily sidetracked by
John Wheeler’s eagerness to develop a canonical approach
to quantum gravity based on Dirac’s theory of constraints.
The application of Dirac’s methods to gravity had some
interesting features of its own. DeWitt was led to what sub-
sequently became known as the Wheeler-DeWitt equation,
which has since been applied many times to problems in
quantum cosmology.

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61
BRyCE SELIGMAN DEWITT
DeWitt’s paper on the non-Abelian Feynman rules finally
appeared two weeks before a paper by Fad’deev and Popov
deriving the same rules. These rules were seized upon by
‘t Hooft and Veltmann who, apparently unaware of DeWitt’s
contributions, proceeded to call Feynman’s ghosts “Fad’deev-
Popov ghosts,” a name that has stuck.
In the summer of 1968 DeWitt was visited by Max Jammer,
who was thinking of writing a book on the interpretation of
quantum mechanics and its history. DeWitt was astonished
to learn that Jammer had never heard of Hugh Everett III,
who had published a paper on this topic in the same issue
of Reviews of Modern Physics in which contributions from the
1957 Chapel Hill conference had appeared. In fact Everett’s
paper, which proposed that one should regard the formal-
ism of quantum mechanics as providing a representation of
reality in exactly the same sense as the formalism of classical
mechanics was once thought to do, had been totally ignored
by the physics community during the intervening years. De-
Witt resolved to correct this situation and in 1970 wrote a
popular article in Physics Today expounding Everett’s views.
These views, although almost totally rejected at first, have
little by little gained increasing numbers of adherents. The
assumption that the formalism of quantum mechanics pro-
vides a direct representation of reality implies the existence
of what from the point of view of classical physics would ap-
pear as many “realities.” Everett’s interpretation consequently
became known as the “many-worlds” interpretation. DeWitt,
who found Everett’s ideas liberating in the sense that they
lead one to ask questions that might not occur to one oth-
erwise, became regarded as one of the foremost champions
of the many-worlds interpretation, although it was always
peripheral to his main interests.
By 1970 the DeWitts had begun to think of leaving Cha-
pel Hill. Several years earlier Bryce’s title had been changed

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62 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS
to professor while Cecile had been demoted to lecturer. In
addition, upon the death of Agnew Bahnson Jr., the Winston-
Salem industrialist who had founded and provided financial
security for the Institute of Field Physics and upon his widow’s
transfer of its backup funds to the university, the status of
the institute underwent an abrupt change. No longer was it
possible to offer postdoctoral positions with the assurance
that funds would be available even if grant money failed to
materialize. The postdocs of earlier years had included Felix
Pirani, Ryoyu Utiyama, Peter Higgs, and Heinz Pagels. This
stream of talented people had now come to an end.
In the fall of 1971 DeWitt accepted a visiting professor-
ship at Stanford. The physics department was looking for
a replacement for Leonard Schiff, who had died the year
before. Stanford indeed looked promising, not least because
the mathematics department expressed an interest in hiring
Cecile. The members of the physics department were suf-
ficiently pleased by Bryce’s visit that they made preparations
to offer him a professorship. This, however, was vetoed by
Felix Bloch, who upon learning that Bryce had changed
his surname 20 years earlier, refused to allow the offer to
proceed.
An alternative then appeared at the University of Texas
at Austin. A few years earlier Alfred Schild had secured the
university’s agreement to establish a well-funded Center for
Relativity. Schild, as its director, brought to Austin such people
as Roy Kerr, Robert Geroch, and Roger Penrose. In a short
time these gifted young people were snapped up by other
more prestigious institutions. There was always a vacancy
at the Center for Relativity, and Schild was determined to
get the not-so-young DeWitts. He arranged that they would
both be offered full professorships, Cecile half-time at first
in the astronomy department and then later full-time in the
physics department.

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63
BRyCE SELIGMAN DEWITT
Mixing astronomy and relativity, the DeWitts became
co-leaders of a National Science Foundation-funded eclipse
expedition to Mauritania in 1973. The aim of the expedition
was to repeat, with modern technology, the light-deflection
observations of bygone years. This effort would not have been
possible without warm cooperation between the astronomy
department and the Center for Relativity.
The DeWitts were instrumental in attracting to Austin
John Wheeler, who was facing compulsory retirement at
Princeton. Texas gave him a center of his own to which he
invited people such as David Deutsch and Philip Candelas,
with whom DeWitt had become acquainted during a Gug-
genheim year as visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford,
in 1975-1976.
DeWitt’s early years at Texas were devoted to the colliding
black hole problem and to the problems of quantum field
theory in curved spacetime, including the problem of the
conformal or Weyl anomaly and the description of Hawking
radiation. He also continued to develop his Hamiltonian-free
approach to quantum field theory. By 1983 when he again
lectured at Les Houches, he was able to set the theory of
conservation laws, tree theorems, and dimensional and zeta-
function regularizations completely within this framework.
In the 1980s he wrote his book Supermanifolds. Supermani-
folds are spaces that have coordinates that anticommute (in
the sense that xy=-yx), as well as having the ordinary sort of
commuting coordinates (for which xy=yx). The book brought
together in a systematic way a number of related but never
before united topics, such as supertraces, superdeterminants,
Berezin integration, super Lie groups, and path-integral
derivation of index theorems. A useful topology that he in-
troduced for integration on supermanifolds is now known
by mathematicians as the DeWitt topology. A second edition
of Supermanifolds appeared in 1991.

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64 BiograPHical memoirs
in 1992 deWitt and his associates completed a lattice
quantum field theory study of the o(1,2) nonlinear sigma
model in four dimensions. this model, which bears some
similarities to quantum gravity, proved to be trivial in the
continuum limit.
deWitt’s last book, The Global Approach to Quantum Field
Theory (1042 pages), was published in 2003, when he was 80
years old. it effectively sets forth his special viewpoint on theo-
retical physics and includes the following unique contents:
• a derivation of the feynman functional integral from the schwinger
variational principle and a derivation of the latter from the Peierls
bracket;
• Proofs of the classical and quantum tree theorems;
• a careful statement of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum
mechanics in the context of both measurement theory and the local-
ization-decoherence of macroscopic systems, which leads to the emer
gence of the classical world;
• a display of the many roles of the measure functional in the feynman
integral, from its relation to the van vleck-morette determinant in
semiclassical approximations to its justification of the Wick rotation
procedure in renormalization theory;
• repeated use of the heat kernel in a wide variety of contexts, including
a z eta-function computation of the chiral anomaly in curved
spacetime;
• an exhaustive analysis of linear systems, both bosonic and
fermionic, and their behavior as described through Bogoliubov
coefficients;
• a novel approach to ghosts in non-abelian gauge theories: use
of the vilkovisky connection to eliminate the ghosts in the closed-
time-path formalism that is used to calculate “in-in” expectation
values; and
• a proof of the integrability of the Batalin-vilkovisky “master”
equation.

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65
Bryce seligman deWitt
deWitt’s obituary in Physics Today notes that:
as a scientist, Bryce was bold and extraordinarily clear thinking. He eschewed
bandwagons and the common trend of trying to maximize one’s publication
list. most of his papers are long masterpieces of thought and exposition.
indeed, Bryce had a rare, perfect combination of physical and mathematical
intuition and raw intellectual power that was very rarely surpassed.
to this i would add that he was a fount of wisdom about
theoretical physics for his colleagues at the University of
texas. His death has left a gap in our working lives that time
does not seem to cure.
for his many contributions to physics deWitt received
the dirac medal of the abdus salam international centre
for theoretical Physics (trieste), the Pomeranchuk Prize
of the institute of theoretical and experimental Physics
(moscow), and the marcel grossmann Prize (with cecile).
shortly before his death he was named the recipient of the
american Physical society’s einstein Prize for 2005. He was
elected to membership in the national academy of sciences
in 1990; he was also a member of the american academy of
arts and sciences. deWitt was an indefatigable trekker and
mountain climber, traveled widely, and lectured in many
parts of the world. He is survived by his wife, cecile, and
four daughters.
materials provided to me by Bryce deWitt
this m emoir i nCorporates
before his death.

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66 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHy
1955
The operator formalism in quantum perturbation theory. University
of California Radiation Laboratory Pub. No. 2884. Berkeley: Uni-
versity of California Radiation Laboratory.
1957
Dynamical theory in curved spaces. I. A review of the classical and
quantum action principles. Rev. Mod. Phys. 29:377-397.
1960
Invariant commutators for the quantized gravitational field. Phys.
Rev. Lett. 4:317-320.
1964
With C. M. DeWitt. Relativity, Groups and Topology . 1963 Les Houches
Lectures. New york: Gordon and Breach.
Theory of radiative corrections for non-Abelian gauge fields. Phys.
Rev. Lett.12:742-746.
1966
Superconductors and gravitational drag. P hys. Rev. Lett. 16:1092-
1093.
1967
Quantum theory of gravity. I. The canonical theory. P hys. Rev.
160:1113-1148.
Quantum theory of gravity. II. The manifestly covariant theory. Phys.
Rev. 162:1195-1239.
Quantum theory of gravity. III. Applications of the covariant theory.
Phys. Rev. 162:1239-1256.
1968
The Everett-Wheeler interpretation of quantum mechanics. In Battelle
Rencontres: 1967 Lectures in Mathematics and Physics, eds. C. M. DeWitt
and J. A. Wheeler, pp. 318-332. New york: W. A. Benjamin.

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67
BRyCE SELIGMAN DEWITT
1970
Quantum mechanics and reality. Phys. Today 23(9):30-35.
1971
The many-universes interpretation of quantum mechanics. In Pro-
ceedings of the International School of Physics “Enrico Fermi” Course IL:
Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, ed. B. d’Espagnat, pp. 211-262.
New york: Academic Press.
1973
With F. Estabrook, H. Wahlquist, S. Christensen, L. Smarr, and E.
Tsiang. Maximally slicing a black hole. Phys. Rev. D 7:2814-2817.
1975
Quantum field theory in curved spacetime. Phys. Rep. 19c:295-357.
1976
With Texas Mauritanian Eclipse Team. Gravitational deflection of
light: Solar eclipse of 30 June 1973. I. Description of procedures
and final results. Astron. J. 81:452-454.
ˇ
With L. Smarr, A. Cadež, and K. Eppley. Collision of two black holes:
Theoretical framework. Phys. Rev. D. 14:2443.
1981
Approximate effective action for quantum gravity. Phys. Rev. Lett.
47:1647-1650.
1984
The spacetime approach to quantum field theory. In Relativity, Groups
and Topology II, eds. B. S. DeWitt and R. Stora, pp. 381-738. Am-
sterdam: North Holland.
Supermanifolds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
1988
The uses and implications of curved-spacetime propagators: A per-
sonal view. Dirac Medal Lecture, pp. 11-40. Trieste: International
Center for Theoretical Physics.

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68 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS
1989
Nonlinear sigma models in 4 dimensions as toy models for quantum
gravity. In Geometrical and Algebraic Aspects of Nonlinear Field Theory,
eds. S. De Filippo, M. Marinaro, G. Marmo, and G. Vilasi, pp. 97-
112. Amsterdam: North Holland.
1990
With C. M. DeWitt. The pin groups in physics. Phys. Rev. D 41:1901-
1907.
1992
With J. de Lyra, S. K. Foong, T. Gallivan, R. Harrington, A. Kapulkin,
E. Myers, and J. Polchinski. The quantized O(1,2)/O(2) × Z2 sigma
model has no continuum limit in four dimensions. 1. Theoretical
framework. Phys. Rev. D 46:2527-2537.
2003
The Global Approach to Quantum Field Theory. Vols. 1 and 2. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
2005
God’s rays. Phys. Today 58(1):32-34.

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BRyCE SELIGMAN DEWITT