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Snapshots from the life of Cécile DeWitt-Morette

10 October 2017

The late Paris-born physicist, best known for her contributions to mathematical physics and for founding the Les Houches School of Physics, had many experiences worth sharing.

Theoretical physicist Cécile DeWitt-Morette died on 8 May at the age of 94. Throughout her life, DeWitt-Morette had made a habit of saying yes. That got her a position as a young theorist in Frédéric Joliot-Curie’s laboratory at the end of World War II, and later jobs in Dublin, Copenhagen, and Princeton. It got her afternoon tea with Paul Dirac in London; a weekend at Cornell University with Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman, during which she fell in love with path integrals; a cross-country road trip with mathematician Verena Huber, Dyson’s future first wife; and other adventures, many of them involving treks or teaching in remote locations around the globe. In Princeton she often walked with Albert Einstein to their respective offices at the Institute for Advanced Study. “He and I had two things in common,” she said. “We were the only ones without a car. And we were keeping reasonably rational hours.”

On a couple of occasions she did say no, to marriage proposals. She said no to her first love, Peng Huan-wu, in Dublin, because he wasn’t French. She said no again, for the same reason, when Bryce Seligman DeWitt, a fellow postdoc at the Institute for Advanced Study, asked if she would marry him. But by the next morning she had made a bargain with herself: She would change her answer to yes on the condition that, as a contribution to rebuilding war-torn France, she start a school of theoretical physics there. The Les Houches School of Physics was established on 18 April 1951, and Cécile and Bryce married later that month.

Cécile was the better-known physicist at the time, and upon learning of her marriage to Bryce, Wolfgang Pauli called him “Mr. Morette.” Cécile decided to step into the background a bit and let Bryce make more of a name for himself. Soon enough, she was the one at a disadvantage: He became a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; she was demoted from visiting research professor to a lecturer there. Eventually they both ended up with endowed chairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Even so, for most of their careers, Bryce was paid more, says their daughter Chris DeWitt. Cécile’s main scientific contributions included finding the semiclassical approximation to the path integral, showing that Feynman’s formulation of quantum mechanics excludes parastatistics for physical space, and anticipating anyons at low dimensions. (See the interview with DeWitt-Morette in Physics Today, August 2008, page 28.)

On several occasions when she was a child, Chris recalls seeing her mother being very polite and accommodating to requests from male colleagues. “Yes, yes,” she would say. But after the colleague would leave her mother’s office, Chris was surprised to sometimes hear her mother mutter, “What a pill.” She says it was decades before she understood that, in a male-dominated field, her mother’s behavior was more a matter of efficiency than hypocrisy.

When the family moved from North Carolina to Texas, Chris, the third of four daughters and then a young teenager, got there on her own with a detour, hitchhiking with her boyfriend from Florida through Mexico. As they were nearing Mexico City, the guy who gave them a ride asked where they wanted to go. Chris looked up the name and address of the physicist her parents had referred her to: MIT-educated Manuel Vallarta, a coauthor on Feynman’s first paper. As it happened, the driver was a PhD student of Vallarta’s at the time, and he took them straight there.

In a set of vignettes she wrote for friends and family, Cécile described how the largest obstacle she faced as society changed was technology. She cowrote a manual, I.T. for Intelligent Grandmothers (and Others Groping for I.T.). She didn’t herself use social media, but in the months before her death, she appreciated that many former students and other physicists reached out to her via Chris’s Facebook page.

Friends, family, and former students, in remembrance of her devotion to those she taught, have created the Cécile DeWitt-Morette and Bryce DeWitt Endowed Graduate Fellowship, which will support students at UT Austin.

Following are some photos that provide a glimpse into her life and adventures. All the photos are courtesy of Chris DeWitt, unless otherwise noted.

Oppenheimer telegram

In 1948 Robert Oppenheimer invited Cécile, by telegram, to come to the Institute for Advanced Study, which he headed. She hadn’t heard of it, or of Princeton, but she went.

Cécile and Bryce

Cécile and Bryce in Bombay, India, where their oldest daughter, Nicolette, was born in 1952.

Near Les Houches

Cécile and Bryce in 1964 near the Les Houches School of Physics. To get the funding she needed to start the school, Cécile staked out France’s education ministry to find out when the minister’s secretary would be out for lunch, so she could bypass the gatekeeper. The minister, Pierre Donzelot, granted her request for startup money. The school opened in 1951 and is still going strong. Over the years, many winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics have spent time at Les Houches, as both students and lecturers. (Photo credit: Kip Thorne)

At Sharif University in Iran

In 2002 Cécile and Bryce taught for a semester at Sharif University in Tehran, Iran.

Cécile’s daughter Chris (center) with French astrophysicist Jean-Claude Pecker (left) and Argentinian physicist José Edelstein, who never met Cécile but had reached out to her via Facebook. When she was in her 50s, Cécile learned that her biological father was Raphaël Pecker, a Jewish doctor who was killed at Auschwitz. She became close to several relatives on that side of her family, including Jean-Claude. (Photo credit: José Edelstein)

Mauritania trip

In 1973 Cécile and Bryce led an expedition of scientists from UT Austin to Mauritania to test aspects of Einstein’s theory of general relativity during a total solar eclipse. (In the left photo, Cécile is in the front row and Bryce is at the back left.) While there, they built a makeshift observatory (right photo) and taught local schoolchildren about the eclipse.

Tyson and Weinberg

Early this year, the University of Texas at Austin held a luncheon in honor of alumni (and married couple) Neil deGrasse Tyson and Alice Young (center back in left photo). Young had been a PhD student of Cécile’s (front; daughter Chris is at left). Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg (right photo, speaking to Cécile) was also at the luncheon.

Bryce and Kip Thorne

Caltech theorist (and 2017 Nobel laureate) Kip Thorne (left) spent time at Les Houches as a graduate student in the 1960s and later as a lecturer. He became good friends with Cécile and Bryce (right), and they went on many treks together. On one trip, to Tanzania, poachers stole their food. So the guides leading the trek killed a water buffalo. Here, Thorne and Bryce dissect its scrotum.

Cécile and Bryce's daughters

Cécile and Bryce’s four daughters, from left: Nicolette, Jan, Chris, and Abigail.

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