Steven Scott Gubser, professor of physics, died Aug. 3, 2019
As brilliant of a physicist as ever stepped foot in Jadwin Hall. A great loss.
Prof. Gubser was my Intro Physics professor seven years ago, and I loved reading his Little Book of String Theory. I recall one passage where he compared Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu to quarks and gluons, marveling on the similarities of the structured unstructured, like the three-against-four rhythms of Chopin, in quantum particles. I asked him about whether he could give a presentation about the intersections of music and art with quantum physics, and he created a beautiful, creative presentation for us students over dinner. He was so generous with his time and his enthusiasm was delightful, inspiring, and infectious. Years later, I’d think of him and those connections, and they still stay with me and I’m sure many of his students–those moments of inspiration and creativity, and genuine enthusiasm.
Even though I began as a lowly PHY102 student, Professor Gubser donated his valuable time as an expert in theoretical physics to educating me, advising me, and even catching lunch with me—and he did this with everyone who had the pleasure and honor of being his student. Both he and his wife Professor Landweber found the time to offer frank, genuine advice to me that guides me to this day, and I grieve to know that future Princeton students will no longer have his support, mentorship, and teaching. He was also a fixture of Princeton, particularly frequenting Wilson College and its dining hall with his three daughters—Wilson was his residential college when he was a student at Princeton. I’ll always remember my meals and deep conversations with him there and at my eating club, even when the intricacies of his physics teaching have faded from my mind. My heart goes out to his wife and daughters, his students, and his colleagues whose lives were enriched and brightened by his.
When we first developed the online 25th Reunion class yearbook, the Class of 1994 co-chairs and the yearbook team got the ball rolling by personally inviting a few classmates to be the first to submit their entries. As he was our valedictorian and had gone on to teach at Princeton, Steve Gubser was one of the first two people we invited to contribute. We thought his might be a voice that our class might like to hear.
As we mourn his untimely death, we wanted to share Steve’s contribution to our yearbook, and the photo he sent us. Despite his many academic accomplishments, travels and outdoor adventures, it says volumes to me that his answer to the question “What’s the most exciting thing you’ve done since graduation” was “Have a family.” Our thoughts are with his family now, along with everyone in Steve’s orbit whom he touched with his beautiful mind, passion for physics, hobbies or humanity. RIP, Steve.
Who: Steven S. Gubser
Where: Princeton, NJ
Personal status: Married.
Occupation: Princeton professor
Are you doing what you thought you’d be doing when you graduated? (And, please tell us what you’re up to now.)
I’m working in the physics department, mostly doing research and teaching. I didn’t particularly expect to be back at Princeton for the long term, but I feel very privileged to be here because it’s such a strong place in my field. I teach a mix of classes for graduate students and undergraduates, and on the research side I am working on a mix of formal and applied string theory.
What’s the most exciting thing you have done since graduation?
Have a family!
What is the one big ‘do-over’ you wish you could have?
I try not to wish for the impossible, but there are plenty of things that are even better now at Princeton than when I was a student. Starting with: the food!
What’s your fondest memory of Princeton?
Walking on Lake Carnegie when it was all frozen.
What are you looking forward to the most at Reunions?
I like the big-band music at the old-guard Reunions. It’s great to see classmates, but it’s also cool to meet Princetonians of every generation.
Steve was good friend, and it was a high point of Princeton undergrad to be around a student that sharp.
I remember taking Prof. Lieb’s second-semester Topics in Real Analysis class with Steve junior year. Well, it was my junior year but Steve’s freshman year.
Lieb gave us a hard take-home midterm, with just one question: Prove that if f is a function in L^1(R^n) whose distributional derivative is also an L^1 function, then the derivative vanishes almost everywhere on levelsets of f. Lieb suggested that the best solution would be put into his book. The grading curve was somewhat unusual: Of the three students who had made it to the second semester of that class, there were two zeros, which received the grade of “A”. Steve, however, solved the problem 4 different ways, which received an “A+”.
After all these years, I still can’t solve that problem. :)
There was a backstory to that class, which Steve and I took at the same time as we took Peter Meyer’s quantum mechanics class in the next building over. Ordinarily one wasn’t allowed to take two classes at the same time, and exceptions required the signature of Dean Gossman. Gossman had a well-earned reputation of being inflexible and unreasonable when it came to giving permission and when dealing with science majors, but we persisted and scheduled back-to-back appointments with her. Steve went in first. Dean Gossman looked at his transcript, which had A+’s in everything at that point (he hadn’t gotten his “A” yet), including subjective subjects that are damn hard to reliably get A+ in. Not finding any blemishes, she suggested he be more social (which amused Steve considerably), gave permission, and sent him away.
After Steve had left, it was my turn with Dean Gossman. She looked at my transcript, saw everything from “A+” to “D”, with all flavors in between. She berated me for the “D” in “Music 103: Clapping for credit”, but realized she was trapped by having already given permission to Steve. Granted permission, we took the classes together.
My thoughts are with Laura and the girls this morning, as the news of Steve’s death travels across our community. When I was newly in Princeton in 2008, Steve was part of my morning ritual, as I encountered him at the same time each morning on the cycle path from Jefferson to Witherspoon, headed for Community Park School with a gaggle of little girls in his bicycle trailer. I, riding my unicycle, always said “hello”. I was never sure that he welcomed my exuberance, but he would always nod. Later, his older girls joined the circus program that I ran in town and our families began to connect more deeply. I got to know Laura and Steve through their children, and my own daughter became a circus coach for them. I remember having a back and forth (good natured) discussion with Steve about whether it’s necessary to wear a helmet while unicycling. He, staunchly in favor, I more equivocal, insisting that it depends on the setting. I note with a wry smile that he and his daughter are pictured on unicycles in the P-rade, with helmets ON. Steve had been part of the inspiring fabric of community that has made me feel welcome in this town. Quirky, nerdy, kind, curious, and loving to his family. One Christmas I bought his little book on string theory for the high-schoolers I knew with an interest in physics. Now, my daughter, his babysitter, has taken up physics herself and I’m doubly appreciating all the threads of inspiration he has left behind. Laura, Heidi, Cecily, Lillian, I am so deeply sorry for your loss.
Steve was the valedictorian of the Princeton Class of 1994, of which I am a member. I remember him as a Princeton undergraduate who was brilliant but not intimidating. He was a true gentleman with a disarming sense of humor. My sincerest condolences to his family, his students, and his colleagues.
Brilliant professor…..may his wife, daughters, family, friends, students, find peace of mind during this tragic time, of this brilliant man’s untimely passing. Rest in Peace
Steve was an inspiration to all of us. Little known fact: he lived in the same dorm room all four years. Apparently his room in Dodge Osborne was about as close as you can be to the physics building, which left him more time to do other things. My recollection was that he got something like 32 A+ es and 2 A s, and one of those two professors characteristically refused to give out A+ grades.
Nevertheless, he’d help us out at night while doing problem sets, and he’d also help us become better rock climbers, which foreshadowed his dual career of great researcher and great communicator.
Can’t believe that he’s gone…
My heart goes out to Laura, Cecily, Heidi and Lillian – you have all of my sympathy, condolences, and love.
I met Steve when we were both in our first year at Princeton. We had wonderful chats about string theory as well as music, literature, and history. He had a gift for communicating complex ideas. A wonderful and humane person, with a superb sense of humor, he had a gentle confidence born of a love of knowledge and ideas. It was a privilege to have known him. Although I graduated a year early, in 1993, I still came back for his graduation in 1994 and loved his valedictorian speech. He was someone for whom you could only ever wish success.
Steve’s death has impoverished physics. But I know he would have known his students at Princeton and his colleagues worldwide would carry on his great work. His greatest loss is to his family and children. I am thinking of you, Laura, Cecily, Heidi and Lillian.
Steve cared for students, a true teacher-mentor-scholar, taken from us decades too soon.
So sorry for your loss this in difficult time. Steven was my classmate in high school in Colorado and he was our valedictorian as well. Though we did not stay in touch, I’ll never forget how kind he was. Funny story – while preparing for a piano recital, Steve’s perfect pitch could detect the minor doppler affect as he walked to the front of the auditorium for his turn to practice. Though we couldn’t outrun the dissonance of a flat 9th to an octave, we sure had a laugh trying. Steve was light years ahead of us in capability and knowledge, he never looked down on others and was always so kind. Truly unforgettable. Best wishes and so sorry again for your loss.
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