Joseph Polchinski, Breakthrough Prize In Fundamental Physics Laureate, Passes Away

On February 2, Joseph Polchinski died at the age of 63.

The Breakthrough Prize Foundation is deeply saddened by the loss of Joe Polchinski, one of the great physicists of his generation and winner of the 2017 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, after a brave battle against brain cancer.

In his early career, Joe played a big role in turning “renormalization,” an important tool in quantum theory, into a more straightforward and a mathematically coherent theory. Later, he made central contributions to string theory, including the discovery of “D-branes,” multidimensional structures that played a key role in the development of one of the most exciting ideas in modern physics: “holography,” which reveals equivalences between physical theories in different dimensions.

In the last decade, he thought deeply about the problem of what happens to information falling into a black hole. In the process, he came up with a dramatic new concept that might lead to the next big breakthrough in physics. Imagine falling into a black hole. According to Einstein’s theory, it should feel indistinguishable from falling freely in space. But Joe showed that the laws of quantum mechanics insist on a very different fate: you would see a “firewall": a blizzard of super-high-energy particles that materializes in empty space. This firewall is effectively the edge of space. In these dramatically different visions – falling freely or being torn apart by high-energy particles – seems to lie a crack in the foundations of modern physics.

While thinking about the deepest mysteries of the universe, and fighting cancer, Joe somehow also wrote his autobiography, “Memories of a Theoretical Physicist" – a delightful read that you can find here.

Though a great physicist has been lost, the precious information he gleaned from the Universe survives. Heartfelt condolences to his wife Dorothy Chun, sons Steven and Daniel, sister Cindy Reid, family, friends and colleagues.