James Bardeen, an expert at unraveling Einstein’s equations, dies at 83

James Bardeen, who helped elucidate the properties and behavior of black holes and set the stage for what has been called the golden age of black hole astrophysics, died June 20 in Seattle. He was 83.

His son William said the cause was cancer. dr. Bardeen, a physics professor emeritus at the University of Washington, lived in a retirement home in Seattle.

dr. Bardeen was a member of a renowned family of physicists. His father, John, twice won the Nobel Prize in Physics, for the invention of the transistor and the theory of superconductivity; his brother, Willemis an expert on quantum theory at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois.

dr. Bardeen was an expert at unraveling the equations of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. That theory attributes what we call gravity to the bending of spacetime by matter and energy. The most mysterious and disturbing result was the possibility of black holes, places so dense that they became bottomless one-way exits from the universe, even guzzling light and time.

dr. Bardeen would find his life’s work investigating those mysteries, as well as related mysteries about the evolution of the universe.

“Jim was part of the generation where the best and brightest got to work on general relativity,” said Michael Turner, a cosmologist and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago who teaches Dr. Bardeen described as “a gentle giant.”

James Maxwell Bardeen was born in Minneapolis on May 9, 1939. His mother, Jane Maxwell Bardeen, was a zoologist and high school teacher. After his father’s work, the family moved to Washington, DC; to Top, NJ; and then to Chicago, where young James graduated from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools with straight As.

He attended Harvard and received a degree in physics in 1960, despite his father’s advice that biology was the wave of the future. “Everyone knew who my father was,” he said in an oral history interview recorded in 2020 by the Federal University of Paraguay, adding that he hadn’t felt the need to compete with him. “In any case, it was impossible,” he said.

Working under the physicist Richard Feynman and the astrophysicist William A. Fowler (both of whom would go on to become Nobel laureates), Dr. Bardeen’s Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in 1965. His dissertation was on the structure of supermassive stars that are millions of times more massive than the Sun; astronomers began to suspect that they were the source of the miraculous energies of the quasars discovered in the cores of distant galaxies.

After postdoctoral positions at Caltech and the University of California, Berkeley, he joined the University of Washington’s Department of Astronomy in 1967. An avid hiker and mountaineer, he was drawn to the school by its easy access to the great outdoors.

By then, what the Nobel laureate? Chicken Thorne, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, mentions the golden age of black hole research in full swing, and Dr. Bardeen was swept up in international rallies. At one, in Paris in 1967, he met Nancy Thomas, a high school teacher in Connecticut who was trying to brush up on her French. They married in 1968.

next to his son Willem, a senior vice president and the chief strategy officer of The New York Times Company, and his brother, William, wife of Dr. Bardeen survives him, along with another son, David, and two grandchildren. A sister, Elizabeth Greytak, died in 2000.

Credit…Eduardo Brariff

dr. Bardeen was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, as were his brother and father.

Although he was fast at math, Dr. Bardeen did not write faster than he spoke. William Press, a former student of Dr. Thorne, now at the University of Texas, recalls being sent to Seattle to finish a paper Dr. He and Bardeen would write. Nothing was written. The wife of Dr. Bardeen then ordered the two to sit on either side of a couch with a piece of paper. dr. Bardeen wrote a sentence and gave the block to Dr. Press, who either disapproved or approved it and then returned the block. Every sentence, said Dr. Press, lasted a few minutes. It took them three days, but the paper was written.

One of the groundbreaking moments of those years was a month-long “summer school” in Les Houches, France, in 1972, featuring all the leading black hole scholars. dr. Bardeen was one of six invited speakers. It was during that meeting that he, Stephen Hawking from Cambridge University and Brandon Carternow from the Paris Observatory, wrote a groundbreaking paper entitled “The Four Laws of Black Hole Mechanics,” which became a springboard for future work, including Dr. Hawking that black holes can leak and eventually explode.

In another famous calculation in the same year, Dr. Bardeen measured the shape and size of a black hole’s “shadow” as seen against a field of distant stars – a donut of light surrounding dark space.

That shape was made famous, said Dr. Thorne, through the Event Horizon Telescope’s observations of black holes in the galaxy M87 and at the center of the Milky Way, and through visualizations in the movie “Interstellar”.

Another passion of Dr. Bardeen was cosmology. In a 1982 article, he, Dr. Turner and Paul Steinhardt of Princeton explain how submicroscopic fluctuations in the density of matter and energy would grow in the early Universe and give rise to the pattern of galaxies we see in the sky today.

“Jim was delighted that we used his formalism,” said Dr. Turner, “and was sure we’d done it right.”

dr. Bardeen moved to Yale in 1972. Four years later, unhappy with the academic bureaucracy in the East and eager for the great outdoors, he moved back to the University of Washington. In 2006 he retired.

But he never stopped working. dr. Thorne recounted a recent phone call where they reminisced about the hiking and camping trips they used to take with their family. In the same conversation, Dr. Bardeen’s recent ideas he had about what happens when a black hole evaporates, suggesting it could turn into a white hole,

“That was one aspect of Jim in a nutshell,” wrote Dr. Thorne in an email, “until the end of his life thinking deeply about physics in creative new ways.”

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