Physics’ Ted Newman ‘stood among giants’ as a researcher

Physics and Astronomy Professor Emeritus Ezra “Ted” Newman, whose discoveries made him one of the most noteworthy general relativity theorists, died March 24, 2021.

“As a researcher Ted stood among giants,” said his departmental colleague, Daniel Boyanovsky. “There is a type of black hole named after him: Kerr-Newman Black Holes. These are the fourth type of ‘canonical black holes,’ (which) features spin (angular momentum) and charge. It bridges two solutions of Einstein’s general relativity.”

Newman’s work with recent Nobel prize-winner Sir Roger Penrose, Boyanovsky said, led to the Newman-Penrose formulation. “This novel formulation paved the way to immense simplifications. The Newman-Penrose variables are used widely in general relativity in the formulation of twistor theory and also in cosmology and in gravitational radiation.

“As an instructor Ted was loved by his students,” Boyanovsky added. “His classes were rigorous and very demanding, but his lecture style blended rigor with humor in a very engaging manner. Students flocked to his classes.”

Simonetta Frittelli, chair of physics at Duquesne University and one of Newman’s last graduate students, felt that Newman “was welcoming me into the group” of general relativity faculty and students when she became a student and then Newman’s teaching assistant and Ph.D. thesis advisee. “He was passionate, he was loud, he was a lot of fun. He would come into the classroom and it was a performance.”

She recalled his impact as a thinker: “He was very proud of his own ideas, and he was very sure of himself. He took pride in sharing with people things they could not see.” On the other hand, “he really treated me like a colleague more than a student. He didn’t want to teach me, he wanted to talk to me. He was looking for somebody to help him advance his understanding of the problems he didn’t understand. He was always looking to push forward — it was wonderful to watch.

“Looking at the development of gravitational physics — when Ted Newman first started working in the field, the field was pretty stagnant. It wasn’t clear what was the connection between the field and nature.” After his work with Penrose, she said, “the field really became accessible. … There is clearly a before Ted Newman and after Ted Newman in the field.

“His impact in the field was fundamental, was revolutionary,” she added. “What I take away is his very important sense of how it doesn’t matter where you are — the institution doesn’t make the person, it’s how you value yourself, your skills and your inspiration. I think that had an impact on the majority of students who worked under him. I feel that is why I am here.”

Said Boyanovsky: “With his world recognition, Ted had an enormous impact on our department and its worldwide visibility in the area of general relativity. He attracted an outstanding cohort of visitors …

“My own coming to Pitt in the mid 1980s was in large part because of Ted’s name. I enjoyed close collaborations with him and learned from him so much physics and much else in life besides. I remember vividly a trip with him and Sally (Newman’s wife) to the Grand Canyon. The hike down Bright Angel Trail became a lecture on null congruences, spin connections and event horizons. What an unforgettable treat.

“We will miss his infinite wisdom, optimism, joie de vivre and sense of humor.”

Ezra “Ted” Newman was born Oct. 17, 1929, in New York City and graduated from Bronx High School of Science in 1947. He earned his bachelor’s degree from New York University in 1951 and his M.A. (1955) and Ph.D. (1956) from Syracuse University. He spent his entire academic career at Pitt, beginning as an instructor in 1956, moving up through the ranks to professor in 1966 and was named professor emeritus in 1996.

He was awarded the Einstein prize in 2011 by the American Physical Society for outstanding accomplishments in gravitational physics.

During his career he was a member of the organizing committee for the London International Relativity Conference (1955); associate editor of the Journal of Mathematical Physics (1971-73); a member of the governing board of the International Society on General Relativity and Gravitation (1980-92); president of the International Society on General Relativity and Gravitation (1986-89); a member of the scientific organizing committee of the International Conference on General Relativity (1989 and 1992) and the committee’s chair (1997); and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Mathematical Physics (1990-2001).

He is survived by his wife, Sally, son David Newman (Uma Bhatt), daughter Dara Newman (Scott Samuels), sister Lita Moses and grandchildren Tessa, Leah, Tilahu, and Ari José.

— Marty Levine