Tribute to Stanley Deser

IHES and Friends of IHES were saddened to learn of the passing of theoretical physicist Stanley Deser, emeritus Ancell Professor at Brandeis University and Senior Research Associate at the Institute of Theoretical Physics at Caltech.

Born in 1931 in Rovno, then Poland, he arrived in the United States at the beginning of the 1940s. He graduated cum laude at Brooklyn College and attended Harvard Graduate School, obtaining a master’s degree in 1950 and his PhD in 1953, under the supervision of Nobel laureate Julian Schwinger.

After holding post-doctoral positions at the Institute for Advanced Study (1953-1955) and at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen (1955-1957), he worked as an instructor at Harvard (1957-1958), before joining Brandeis University as an Associate Professor in 1958. He spent the rest of his career there, becoming emeritus professor in 2005. For an enthralling account of his life, see his autobiography   “Forks in the Road: A Life in Physics” (2021).

Stanley Deser made many lasting contributions to theoretical physics. He is notably known for: pioneering (in collaboration with Richard Arnowitt and Charles Misner) the Hamiltonian approach to gravity (including the definition of the total mass-energy of a space-time); making foundational work on the field-theoretical approach to gravity; and establishing (in collaboration with Bruno Zumino) the existence of a consistent, locally supersymmetric extension of general relativity, called supergravity.

He received numerous awards including the Dannie Heineman Prize and the Einstein Medal. He was a Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Foreign Member of the Torino Academy, and a Foreign Member of the Royal Academy. He also received honorary doctorates from the universities of Stockholm and Gothenburg.

Prof. Deser developed very strong connections with the Institute. He first stayed at the Ormaille residence during academic year 1966-1967, while he was a Guggenheim Fellow at Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, and came back several other times afterwards as a visitor between 1973 and 1976, and later to collaborate with Prof. Thibault Damour, once he joined IHES as a permanent professor in 1989. Prof. Deser was also a member of the Institute’s Scientific Council from 1991 to 1996.

He was a founding member of Friends of IHES, the Institute’s partner organization in the United States, alongside Henri Moscovici and Bernard Saint-Donat. 

Members of IHES and Friends of IHES who have had a chance to meet him remember him fondly.