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Physics' sharpest mind since Einstein

Edward Witten
Witten: "You spend a lot of time thinking and you spend a lot of time floundering around."


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(CNN) -- It is a century since Albert Einstein laid the foundations of modern physics, and 50 years since the death of the man considered by many to have possessed the greatest mind in science.

In the space of a few months in 1905, Einstein, then an unknown Zurich patent clerk, published four papers that would establish his seminal theory of special relativity, culminating in his most famous equation, E=MC2.

While most of us could perhaps recite that formula, that's about as far as our understanding extends -- nature is something that we simply take for granted.

But now a physicist belonging to a new generation is leading the search for more answers.

Ask Dr. Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey what he does all day, and it's difficult to get a straight answer.

"There isn't a clear task," Witten told CNN. "If you are a researcher you are trying to figure out what the question is as well as what the answer is.

"You want to find the question that is sufficiently easy that you might be able to answer it, and sufficiently hard that the answer is interesting. You spend a lot of time thinking and you spend a lot of time floundering around."

But Witten is floundering around in the right place. The Institute for Advanced Study -- where Einstein himself was a faculty member from 1933 until his death in 1955 -- is a place where serious thinkers come to think, and Witten is among the most serious of them all.

In a Life magazine poll of the 50 most influential Americans of the Baby Boomer generation, Witten was placed at No. 6, between Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates.

Some of those with a proper appreciation of his work might place him higher than that.

The 53-year-old is a former recipient of both a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called the "genius grant," and the Fields Award, mathematics' equivalent of a Nobel prize.

"I do believe there really is a category for a genius who is a supernova -- a supernova that lights up the entire scientific landscape and that is Ed Witten," said theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, the author of "Parallel Worlds and Hyperspace."

"I think he is as close as you are going to get to a living Albert Einstein today."

Witten insists such claims are exaggerated. But he is trying to solve a problem that eluded Einstein.

He has devoted his life to reconciling two enormously successful but incompatible theories -- Einstein's theory of general relativity and quantum mechanics, the dominant theory used to explain how the universe works at an atomic level. Laymen call it the theory of everything, or the Holy Grail of physics.

"In the history of our intellectual development this will represent the crowning achievement of 2,000 years of investigation into the nature of matter -- space and time," said Kaku.

The most promising avenue of inquiry appears to be superstring theory, which holds that the fundamental particles of the universe are vibrating loops. Further explanation would require discussing 11 dimensions, but the point is that Witten is the superstar of superstring theory.

Physicist Dr. Nathan Seiberg of the Institute for Advanced Study believes his colleague's work will stand the test of future scientific inquiry.

"I think in perspective of a hundred years or three hundred years, his name will stay," said Seiberg. "It will not be forgotten -- his contributions are really lasting -- contributions which will stay there.

"He combines the rigor and precision of a mathematician with intuition of a physicist. But what is really remarkable about him is the clarity of his thinking,"

No experiment exists that could prove or disprove superstring theory, but Witten, a man of science, keeps the faith.

"I just think too many nice things have happened in string theory for it to be all wrong," he said. "Humans do not understand it very well, but I just don't believe there is a big cosmic conspiracy that created this incredible thing that has nothing to do with the real world."

It is an old fashioned idea, but one that scientists keep returning to -- the search for one rule to explain all the fundamental laws of nature. The work is as slow as the ages, not particularly lucrative, and unglamorous.

But Witten says he is happy just to be asking the right questions: "This is for the love of understanding how the world works -- what it really is."

-- CNN's Candy Crowley contributed to this report.

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