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Archives of American Mathematics Spotlight: The Bryce S. DeWitt Papers

Archives of American Mathematics Spotlight: The Bryce S. DeWitt Papers

By Kristy Sorensen


Bryce S. DeWitt, 1990. From the Office of Public Affairs Records, Archives of American Mathematics Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.
The Archives of American Mathematics at the Center for American History 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 the ground-breaking 1973 eclipse experiment (described below), including 85 glass photographic plates taken during the period of the experiment and computer print-outs 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, the physicist Dr. Cecile DeWitt-Morette.


A working log of the astronomical plates kept during the 1973 eclipse experiment in Mauritania. From the Bryce S. DeWitt Papers, Archives of American Mathematics Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.
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 nearly thirty times before with mixed results. A series of photographic plates were taken during the eclipse and compared with a set of plates taken of the night sky six months later. Analysis of these photos later proved that the stars had been pulled out of their original paths by the sun?s gravity, just as predicted in Einstein?s theory. Harlan?s Globetrotter?s, a recently published book by David S. Evans and Karen I. Winget (Xlibris, 2005), explores the story of the 1973 eclipse experiment in great detail.


Bryce S. DeWitt and Cecile DeWitt-Morette hiking in the French Alps, July 1963. Photo by Kip Thorne of Caltech, courtesy of Chris DeWitt.
The glass plates are organized by size and generally include the inventory number assigned to them at the time of the experiment. These include many practice plates taken before the eclipse itself. The ?suitcase plates? are the most valuable of the glass plates and were carefully escorted from the experiment site by Cecile DeWitt-Morette in a foam-padded, metal suitcase for analysis. A complete log of the glass plates, descriptions of the experiment, and computer analysis of the data are available in collection. Due to the fragile nature of the glass plates, they are available by appointment only.

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 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 Professor Emeritus (2000-2004). DeWitt?s awards include a Dirac medal from the Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics in Italy (1987), the Pomeranchuk Prize of the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics in Moscow (2002), the Marcel Grossman Award (with Cecile DeWitt-Morette, 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).

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

The finding aid for the Bryce S. DeWitt Papers is available online at http://www.lib.utexas.edu/taro/utcah/00413/cah-00413.html.

The Archives of American Mathematics is located at the Research and Collections division of the Center for American History on the University of Texas at Austin campus. Persons interested in conducting research or donating materials or who have general questions about the Archives of American Mathematics should contact Kristy Sorensen, Archivist, k.sorensen@mail.utexas.edu, (512) 495-4539. The Archives web page: http://www.cah.utexas.edu/collectioncomponents/math.html.

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