The University Record, October 25, 1999

‘Publicity value of the Nobel is out of this world,’ Veltman says

By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services

Martinus Veltman discussed life after the Nobel at a media briefing last week. Photo by Paul Jaronski, Photo Services
A bit overwhelmed by all the attention, but obviously having a marvelous time, Martinus Veltman returned to Ann Arbor last week for a four-day celebration to honor the U-M’s first Nobel Laureate.

On Oct. 12, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that Veltman and his former graduate student Gerardus ‘t Hooft would share the 1999 Nobel Prize for physics. Since then, Veltman has been flooded with congratulatory telephone calls, bouquets of flowers, and reporters asking how it feels to win the biggest prize in science.

“The publicity value of the Nobel is out of this world,” Veltman told Ann Arbor reporters during a media briefing last week, “I’m the same person I was a week ago, but now I have a lot more friends than I realized.”

Veltman, the John D. MacArthur Professor Emeritus of Physics, retired from the Department of Physics in 1997. He joined the U-M in 1981 after 15 years as a professor of physics at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, where he completed the prize-winning work with ‘t Hooft.

Veltman and ‘t Hooft were awarded the prize for work done in the 1970s, which made it possible for physicists to mathematically predict properties of the sub-atomic particles that make up all matter in the universe and the forces that hold these particles together. On Dec. 10, they each will receive a medal and half of the $900,000 prize during a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden.

During his U-M visit, Veltman was guest of honor at a dinner given by President Lee C. Bollinger, received a citation from the U-M Board of Regents, assisted officials at the kick-off of the Illinois football game, and presented a guest lecture for the U-M community and the general public.

Since his retirement, Veltman has been writing a book to explain high-energy particle physics to non-scientists. He admits it’s not easy to describe the complexity of quantum physics in words that an average reader will understand. “My neighbor [in Bilthoven, Netherlands] is a neurologist,” Veltman says. “I write a chapter and he reads it. If he understands it, then we go on to something else.”

Although he no longer conducts research, Veltman says he would love to discover how gravity works before he dies. “I’m becoming too stupid to do it, though,” he laughs. “I’ve lost the energy for all the computations.”

Like many physicists, Veltman hopes the Large Hadron Collider—a new particle accelerator under construction at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland—will be powerful enough to help solve the mystery of gravity. “CERN is the future of particle physics,” he says.

Veltman says he and his wife, Anneke, hope to return to U-M often in the years ahead. They have many friends in Ann Arbor and two of their three children live in the United States. Plus, Ann Arbor is home to the Dawn Treader Book Shop.

“I always go there when I’m in town, because you can’t get second-hand books in Holland. I’m trying to collect every science fiction short story in existence.”

He does, however, have one complaint about life in the United States. “I have been subjected to verbal and almost physical assault just for smoking a cigar,” he says. “You are so aggressive about smoking in the U.S. It is unbelievable. I preach tolerance in the matter of cigars.”