Peter Freund, particle physicist and fiction writer, 1936-2018

Prof. Peter Freund
Prof. Peter Freund
Louise Lerner
News Officer for Physical Sciences and the Institute for Molecular EngineeringUniversity Communications

“Physicists do not live in an ivory tower; they are not spared the ravages of history,” wrote Prof. Peter Freund upon his retirement at the University of Chicago in 2002, following a half-century career in supersymmetry and string theory.

Freund knew. Born into a Romanian Jewish family during a tumultuous era in Europe, he narrowly avoided the Holocaust and later a Communist firing squad before escaping the country. He eventually became a professor at the University of Chicago, studying particle physics. But even as he picked at the fabric holding the universe together, he was thinking about art, beauty and the forces of history.

Freund, who later wrote fiction and nonfiction that explored the themes of morality, fate, beauty, war and oppression that had impacted his life, died March 6. He was 81.

Freund was born in 1936 in Timișoara, Romania to a wealthy Jewish family; his mother was an opera singer, his father a doctor. Even as other Jews were executed or sent to concentration camps during World War II, their community survived by bribing officials. But the Soviet rule that followed proved dangerous too. In 1956, Freund joined a demonstration that ended with him and other students lined up against a wall with Communist tanks pointed at them. Somehow the order to fire never came, and the students escaped.

Shortly after, the family fled to Austria, and Freund got his PhD in physics at the University of Vienna. In 1965, he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, where he would remain for the rest of his career.

His wide-ranging work in theoretical physics had a strong mathematical flavor. “He was frequently an early contributor in fields and theories that later rose to prominence,” said Jeff Harvey, the Enrico Fermi Distinguished Service Professor of Physics. “He had good taste.”

These included supersymmetry and string theory, including a branch that tied string theory with a mathematical concept called p-adic numbers, as well as a concept called AdS/CFT correspondence, which relates quantum models of particles with quantum models of gravity.

“Peter had an appreciation for beauty and elegance that guided him as much in theoretical physics as it did in the arts,” said Prof. Emil Martinec, who heads UChicago’s Kadanoff Center for Theoretical Physics and was assigned the office next to Freund’s when he first arrived at the University in 1987. “In the search for organizing principles of particle physics, this good taste is extremely helpful.”

Freund wrote two well-regarded physics texts, Introduction to Supersymmetry (1986) and Superstrings (1988), and was elected a fellow of the American Physical Society.

He had long been regarded as the departmental storyteller, and he had been writing his own stories for three decades before he began publishing them in 2007. His first book was a work collecting stories about the famous physicists of the 20th century called A Passion for Discovery; his fiction includes Tales in a Minor Key, West of West End and Belonging.

He told UChicago News in 2008 that he saw many parallels between science and literature: most papers in physics are short stories, in which concepts, rather than human characters, undergo adventures. “In the end, they emerge changed, occasionally with new concepts being introduced and promises that we will return to them, which is like what they call a sequel or a spinoff in Hollywood.”

His fiction was just another medium, friends said; his musical tastes ran from opera to Metallica, and he occasionally sang as a baritone for the Evanston-based Light Opera Works.

He is survived by his wife Lucy, two daughters and five grandchildren. A memorial service at the University is planned for the spring.