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Communes, Reporting And Solitonic Solutions

* Physicist took circuitous path back to Harvard

By Karen M. Paik

Professor of Physics Andrew E. Strominger '77 was an unusual undergraduate in many ways; most obviously, because he was in his mid-teens and living in Wigglesworth.

Most students might worry that being 15 and at the College would create awkward weekend situations. But Strominger had his own plans-he headed for the New Hampshire commune that had been his home for the summer. The next year, he lived there full time.

"The New Hampshire commune was a complete disaster. I was there for almost two years, I think, but by the end everybody was bankrupt or divorcing one another," he says.

"Everyone hated each other," he recalls. "That was kind of a big failure."

The anecdote stands in stark contrast to the dauntingly arcane summary for his fall course, Physics 287a "Introduction to String Theory."

"In string theory you only have one thing; that's the string. [When it] rotates and vibrates in different ways, it can take on the guise of an electron or a quark or a photon," he says. "Everything, in principle, can come out of the string."

Right now string theory is a leading candidate for a complete theory of nature, one that reconciles quantum mechanics and gravity, which have sets of laws that currently appear incompatible.

"I think the theory is right in some form, or at the 22nd century it will be seen as a step on the path to the truth," he says.

"The actual path to the truth that we have to take might be a lot more circuitous," he adds. "We won't be satisfied until we know. We've got our work cut out for us. But there's enough things that are working out well that I'm confident we're on out way."

Circuitous is a work some might use to describe Strominger's career path. After the New Hampshire commune went bankrupt, Strominger returned to Harvard to learn Chinese, then went to live on a commune in China, "to see how they did it."

Afterwards, he went to Hong Kong, where he worked for a newspaper for a short time.

At one point he was thinking "pretty seriously" about being an investigative journalist, and he researched and wrote an article about the release of Kuomintang officers from Hong Kong prisoner-of-war camps.

"I didn't [initially] think I was going to be a physicist, though I knew it was something I liked," Strominger says. "It was after I got back from China that I buckled down."

The Dunster House resident did buckle down, but he also got a little help from House officials.

"Actually at the end of all this I hadn't fulfilled my course requirements. I think they were laxer about it [back then]...they just said, 'Oh, you've had some good experiences.' I think there was some issue of [course] distribution or something," he says. "In those days the senior tutor was all-powerful."

"I guess it's a little different now," he muses.

After college, he headed to Berkeley before finishing his doctorate at MIT.

"[In graduate school] I realized, as others had, that there was this great puzzle...that the laws of physics as I learned them as an undergraduate didn't fit together and weren't consistent," he says.

It was his endeavor to solve this puzzle that eventually led him to the field of string theory, and then, back to Harvard this fall, where he joined his father, Jack L. Strominger '46-'47, Higgins professor of biochemistry, on the Faculty.

The father of four daughters says he doesn't mind working for the same company his dad does.

"It's a lot of fun," he says.

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