David J. Gross


I was born in Washington, D.C., on February 19, 1941, the eldest of four sons. My father, Bertram Meyer, born in Philadelphia, son of immigrant Jewish parents from Czechoslovakia-Hungary, had attended the University of Pennsylvania as an English major. From 1941 a staff member of U.S. Sen. James E. Murray of Montana, he helped after the war to write the Employment Act of 1946. This law established a commitment to maintain high levels of employment and a charter for the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). He served as the first assistant to the chairman after the CEA was established in 1948. My mother, Nora (Faine), was born in the Ukraine. In 1914 her father immigrated to the United States and was joined by his wife and two children only after the end of World War I. Remarkably, both children made their way to college; my uncle completed Harvard Law School, and my mother graduated from Barnard. She majored in chemistry, but never pursued a career in science, an unimaginable goal for women in the midst of the Depression.

My childhood in Arlington, Va., a middle class suburb of Washington, was uneventful. Ours was a very intellectual family, and we were encouraged to read at a very early age. My father would always try to interest his children (and everyone around him) in his intellectual passions. At the age of 11, I was recruited to proofread his book, The Legislative Struggle: A Study in Social Combat, which he later used to launch an academic career. I was paid 10 cents per page, and by the time I finished, I hated the word “committee”. Dinner conversation – always intense – dealt with adult issues, mostly politics and issues of social justice. My father and mother treated us children as intellectual equals, thus greatly bolstering our self-confidence and our interest in ideas of all kinds.

In 1953 my father joined a group of Democratic exiles from the Eisenhower administration who were sent to Israel as an advisory team together with the first US aid package. Israel, then struggling to absorb half a million refugees from Europe and construct a new state, accepted the money and the advice (but was wise enough to disregard most of the advice). After the team returned in 1955, my father remained and joined the Hebrew University, where he set up the School of Business Administration. Jerusalem in the 1950’s, a small, divided city, the seat of the government and the University, contained a remarkable mixture of religious fanatics and refugees from all over the world. It was a far cry from Arlington, Va.

I was thrust into school with no knowledge of Hebrew, and for the first time in my life had to struggle to compete with my peers. One of the great advantages of growing up in Jerusalem at that time was the absence of television and the many other distractions present then and now in the United States. Thrown back onto my own resources, I became an avid reader. My brother Larry and I rapidly went through the library run by the United States Information Agency at the American Consulate in Jerusalem. Then, when my father became a professor at the Hebrew University, we had access to the University Library on Mount Scopos. From the age of 13, I was attracted to physics and mathematics. My interest in these subjects derived mostly from popular science books that I read avidly. Early on I was fascinated by theoretical physics and determined to become a theoretical physicist. I had no real idea what that meant, but it seemed incredibly exciting to spend one’s life attempting to find the secrets of the universe by using one’s mind. I studied mathematics on my own and soon, exceeding the knowledge of my teachers, was excused from mathematics classes. My high school education was excellent, with many highly qualified teachers, who today would be employed in higher education or in industry.

Determined to become a theoretical physicist, upon graduating from High School, I entered the Hebrew University and majored in physics and mathematics. The physics education was reasonably good, and the mathematics education was excellent. After receiving a B.Sc., I applied to graduate schools in the United States. At that time (but soon to change) students from Israel were unheard of, and I was only accepted at the University of California at Berkeley. In retrospect this was fortunate. Berkeley was, for many reasons, at that time a very exciting place. It was at the center of the remarkable social and political developments of the 1960’s – the fight for social justice and the opposition to the war in Vietnam. But more importantly for me, Berkeley was the center of elementary particle physics, with new discoveries appearing monthly at, what was then called, the “Rad Lab” (short for “Berkeley Radiation Laboratory”), before “radiation” became a dirty word, and the name was changed to the “Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.” In 1964, I started to do research under the supervision of Geoffrey Chew, the charismatic leader of the S-Matrix “bootstrap” approach to the strong interactions. I found this revolutionary new theory very exciting at first, but gradually became disillusioned. I rapidly finished a thesis and spent most of my last year at Berkeley in thoughts of new directions.

Concluding my graduate studies in 1966, I was nominated to the Harvard Society of Fellows, a wonderful institution that appointed eight fellows each year in many different fields. The only responsibilities were to dine together with the senior fellows once each week. Harvard was a bit of a shock after Berkeley. Schwinger had long dominated the theoretical scene, but now a new generation of theorists was just appearing. In 1966, Shelley Glashow and Sidney Coleman had returned to Harvard and Steve Weinberg was visiting. After Berkeley I found Harvard rather formal and unfriendly, but the Society of Fellows was a wonderful experience. I was fortunate to have as junior colleagues Curtis Callan and Roman Jackiw, with whom I had very productive collaborations. This is where I started on the path that led to the discovery of asymptotic freedom and QCD (the story told in my Nobel lecture.)

In 1969, I had many offers for faculty positions. I decided to go to Princeton, as an assistant professor, where I was to stay for 27 years. Murph Goldberger and Sam Treiman were my senior theoretical colleagues at Princeton. They created a marvelous atmosphere to do research and were enormously supportive of me. They promoted me to tenure in 1971, before I had even begun to think of the possibility. Thus I was able to pursue my research free of the anxiety that often plagues young scientists today.

Between the University and the Institute for Advanced Study, there was a remarkable group of young theorists. I collaborated with John Schwarz and Andre Neveu on string theory for a while, but mostly with Curtis Callan and with Roger Dashen on gauge theory. At Princeton I was lucky to have had a remarkable group of graduate students, especially Frank Wilczek and Edward Witten. This was fortunate since I have always enjoyed collaborating with other physicists and students rather than working in solitude. I find that my best ideas emerge in heated exchanges with others. My way of dealing with students, then and now, was to involve them closely with my current work and very often to work with them directly. I always found it difficult to come up with trivial or easy problems that I could assign to a student and preferred to involve students in the much more ambitious projects that I myself was working on. Such collaborations were no doubt good training for my students, but were also very beneficial for me.

After the discovery of asymptotic freedom and the emergence of QCD, I spent many years on the dynamics of gauge theories in the attempt to solve QCD. Much progress was made, but the goal of a controllable analytic solution of the theory was not realized. By the beginning of the 1980’s, I along with many others had shifted my attention to more speculative physics – the challenge of unifying all the forces of nature and confronting quantum gravity. In the early 1980’s, I began to work on string theory again and in 1984, together with a group of younger collaborators, discovered the heterotic string, which at the time seemed to offer the possibility of explaining the Standard Model from string theory. Since then I have been working largely on string theory. Although remarkable advances have been made, the potential of this theory to unify all the forces of nature and to make contact with experiment has not yet been realized.

In 1996, I was offered the directorship of the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara (for the second time). I was ready for new challenges and attracted by the opportunity to come to the renowned ITP. Having spent thirty years teaching and doing research, I was ready to take on other responsibilities. The directorship of the ITP was a wonderful opportunity since most of the work consisted of scientific leadership and not administration, and I could continue a vigorous research activity as well. I have not regretted this decision and have greatly enjoyed directing the Institute and participating in the remarkable span of science that takes place at its programs.

I have two children with my first wife, Shulamith (Toaff): Ariela Gross, who is an historian and professor of law at the University of Southern California and the mother of my grandchildren, Raphaela and Sophia; and Elisheva Gross, who is completing her doctorate in psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles. I now live with my second wife, Jacquelyn Savani, and my stepdaughter, Miranda Savani, in Santa Barbara, California.

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow, 1970–74
Fellow, American Physical Society, elected 1974
Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, elected 1985
Member, National Academy of Sciences, elected 1986
Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science, elected 1987
Recipient, J. J. Sakurai Prize of the American Physical Society, 1986
Recipient, MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Prize, 1987
Recipient, Dirac Medal, 1988
Docteur Philosophiae Honoris Causa, University of Montpellier, 2000
Recipient, Oskar Klein Medal, Stockholm University, 2000
Recipient, Harvey Prize, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, 2000
Doctor Philosophiae Honoris Causa, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 2001
Recipient, European Physical Society Prize in Elementary Particle Physics, 2003
Recipient, Grande Medaille D’Or, Academie des Sciences, France, 2004
Recipient, Nobel Prize in Physics, 2004

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 2004, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 2005

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2004

To cite this section
MLA style: David J. Gross – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2018. Fri. 17 Aug 2018. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/2004/gross/auto-biography/>

Back to top Back To Top Takes users back to the top of the page

Explore prizes and laureates

Look for popular awards and laureates in different fields, and discover the history of the Nobel Prize.