Ann Nelson, Expert on Particle Physics, Is Dead at 61

Dr. Nelson was celebrated for helping to address flaws in the Standard Model, the longtime basis for explaining how particles interact.

Comments: 74

  1. An exceptional life, leaving us all wondering what more she might have done. Deepest condolences to her family - biological and academic.

  2. This is the kind of obituary which you hate to see. From all accounts, someone who's whole life was put to expanding humanity's knowledge as well as encouraging and helping many others pursue this path. I have not heard of her before, but I am greatly saddened reading this obituary. I am glad I know her name now and my condolences to her family and all her colleagues and students.

  3. In addition to her brilliance, she seems to have been an exceptional human being - championing the ambitions of those less fortunate. I was quite impressed with the following: "As part of her efforts to reach more diverse students, she had been giving lectures in the Palestinian territories". There are few role female role models in physics. Dr. Nelson has forged a path for others to follow. I entered Harvard in 1983 as a grad student in Chemical Physics (taking graduate physics courses in 1983). Too bad our paths did not cross - I would have loved learning from her. Rest in peace Dr. Nelson. My sincere condolences to her family and colleagues.

  4. Very sad. Condolences to her family and friends.

  5. What a sad story. I wish I knew Dr. Nelson, she obviously was a very special person. Always be kind. Life is short.

  6. @Art exactly what I came in here to say: I wish I had known her.

  7. This is so sad. We need more women in physics. My condolences to her family.

  8. @Joe We need more women in many of our disciplines.

  9. Depressing that in this world that seems to be currently run by ignorant, narcissistic and greedy people who don't care a flip for science, that we should lose Dr. Nelson.

  10. "Dr. Nelson stood out in the world of physics [...] because of her brilliance." Fixed that for ya!

  11. @disgruntled southerner Clearly you have missed the point of including a reference to Dr. Nelson's gender as a reason she stood out in the world of physics. The writer was not making his own value judgment, but simply reflecting the sad reality that women still are shockingly underrepresented in the sciences, owing to entrenched misogyny, paternalism, and downright discrimination exercised by men against female colleagues in "their" field. If we don't call it out, how are we ever going to fix it?

  12. RIP to a brilliant woman.

  13. An enormous and tragic loss. RIP Doctor, thanks for doing what you did. It was important.

  14. She sounds like an incredibly intelligent, thoughtful, kind, and decent human being. A terrible loss for all of her friends and family and colleagues, and for science. At a time when ignorance and mistrust of science and scientific rigor is rampant, so sad to see such a bright light and life cut short. But what a role model for women in science, just as she forged a path and followed those before, I am sure she will continue to inspire others. Thank you for helping to illuminate and explain our world Dr. Nelson.

  15. She was an exceptional human being and an exceptional scientist who was very well known at the UW. It is a tragic loss and my condolences to her family and friends. Please read what her friends and colleagues wrote at Physics Today and the piece at Quanta. By doing so you'll get a much greater appreciation of Ann Nelson.

  16. I am so sad to see this. I love seeing what she did teaching and helping students in Palestine. The world needs more like her.

  17. A great loss to her family, friends and colleagues, science and all of humanity.

  18. As an engineering student who had to take and do well in math and physics (and worked very hard doing it) I'm always in awe of people who just "get it". To see what incredible stuff she did with the rest of her life as well, makes the loss doubly sad. She shows that exceptional people are rare and their loss is so devastating to a world that really needs them. Condolences.

  19. So sad, such a loss. Condolences to her family and the communities she leaves behind. It's nice to know that even as a gifted soul she still loved to hike and climb. Kids like to hike and climb. She may be gone, but she still matters.

  20. A kind of anger can be a first reaction when learning of a death like this of people like Dr. Nelson: You want to lock them in their ivory towers, safe, where they can do the research that expands our understanding of the universe and all in it. But she no doubt got inspiration from being outdoors. Fresh air and distant horizons clear the neural cobwebs that jam thinking. Our geniuses may not have their Eureka! moments while hiking, skydiving, spelunking and running races, but such activities lead to those moments in ways untraceable but extant ways nonetheless.

  21. What a strange thing life can be! A great mind falls and dies doing what she loved to balance her thoughts with nature. Something beautiful in that and mysterious as well. I believe we only have the present day and to be fully in it is the secret to living.

  22. I had never heard of her, but as a woman in the sciences, I teared up reading this. What a loss, but what a beautiful life.

  23. I did not know Dr. Nelson personally, but I know the Alpine Lake Wilderness region well having backpacked there many times. So, as a fellow scientist, who coincidently received a PhD the same year that she did, and a fellow backpacker, I understand why she was where she was when she slipped. I know that the world has lost a brilliant physicist, but we also lost someone who understood what is truly great in the world we inhabit. I feel great sadness at her death.

  24. What a loss for not only her family but for the science community as well. She left her mark and will be missed.

  25. God bless her. She had exceptional thoughts both inside science and outside science.; life.

  26. From another avid hiker and someone who has a great deal of respect for scientists, especially women scientists, it is a great loss. She will be missed. But she will still be an inspiration to younger women aspiring to be scientists.

  27. What an extraordinary woman, gone too soon. Thank you for sharing this obituary -- while I'm terribly sad to hear of this loss, it was a joy to read about all Dr. Nelson had accomplished in her lifetime. My condolences to all those who knew her.

  28. An untimely death. “I have had many fabulous students who are better than I am at many things. Ann was the only student I ever had who was better than I am at what I do best, and I learned more from her than she learned from me.” Howard Georgi, considered one of the leading theoreticians in particle physics. "While at the University of Washington, Dr. Nelson became well known for championing diversity and social justice in the sciences, and particularly for mentoring students from nontraditional backgrounds. As part of her efforts to reach more diverse students, she had been giving lectures in the Palestinian territories." The privilege to be born in a country that nurtured such a bright brain! The choice of giving back to those whom nature and destiny dealt less propitious circumstances! The trails she has trailed will miss her. The stars she has looked upon have welcomed her. I bet hundreds are thankful their paths even briefly crossed.

  29. "In particle physics, it is often difficult to create the models to explain how particles interact, partly because the results can be strange, even unsettling." ---------------------------------- I'm interested in more details surrounding this statement I hope someone could elaborate it.

  30. @Ron Boychuk: There are many good books written about this. The basic problem, though, is that physics at this level is really only understood mathematically. And as an axiomatic system (which both quantum mechanics and mathematics are), there are often surprising and unsettling conclusions. Nowhere is this more true than quantum mechanics, in which the interactions of particles defy our classical intuition. Einstein famously said of quantum mechanics that God does not play dice with the universe. Yet countless experiments, including all those that are repeated in the semiconductors and optical fibers that carry this message to you, suggest that, in fact, God DOES play dice with the universe. Much of that gambling occurs in particle-particle interactions. (Just google 'quantum entanglement' to get a sense of the weirdness.)

  31. @hammond Thank you for you comment....I'll now do a little digging

  32. @hammond Thank you for the explanation, but... It's been pretty much agreed to by the Einstein understudies that Albert's use of God was merely a proxy for what we yet do not understand. With that knowledge, one can clearly see what Einstein was actually saying was everything is predictable and probable, and it remains so even when we, out of relevant ignorance, think it is not.

  33. She died doing what she loved. Isn't that what we all want? I am not jealous of the rich, the powerful, or the lucky. I am jealous of someone like this lady: She is SMART! (something the world today can't seem to deal with). She was able to tweak some of the basic descriptions of this amazing universe. Wow! And.. sorry she's gone so early. Life ain't fair.

  34. Horrible loss for her family, the world, and science. The irony of losing to gravity....

  35. We could have used more years of your brilliance, but thank you for what you left behind. My sincere condolences to your family.

  36. Terrible tragedy. Truly a brilliant, searching and inquiring mind and I greatly admire her love for serious hiking, which always involves an element of risk. My hope is that this obituary inspires people to a life of the mind in some capacity, and a practical love for outdoor activity in some capacity. Not all of us can be a brilliant physicist like her, but inspired by her, in little ways, we can push and cultivate our minds to new heights. My sincere condolences to her family, and friends, and all who knew her. At the very least, I hope a scholarship is named in her honor.

  37. Thank you for this beautiful tribute. Dr. Nelson reminds us of the immense importance of science, and science education. May she rest in peace; profound condolences to her husband, children, parents, sisters, colleagues...

  38. It is wonderful to know of those fabulous human beings who walk among us, enjoying this beautiful planet with joy as we all do, who in addition just happen to make amazing contributions to the body of our knowledge. Thank you and rest in peace.

  39. A moose head with a purple scarf. What a novel way to express the uphill battle of anyone in science who expresses something new and different. On the other hand it has been proven that dark energy wears a turquoise scarf (just kidding).

  40. I'm enormously sorry to hear this. As a (former) physicist, I was, and am, inspired by Dr. Nelson and others like her. The Standard Model is a crowning achievement in contemporary physics, and Dr. Nelson's contributions only strengthened its status. Theoretical physics was the most beautiful subject I ever had the privilege to study, without exception. Dr. Nelson contributed greatly to this. I only wish its beauty was more accessible.

  41. This is terrible and tragic news, and I offer my condolences to her family and friends. I did not know Ann personally, but I went to school K-12 with one of her younger sisters, so this story hit home. Ann was obviously an amazing person who touched many other lives. She mastered and made significant contributions to a difficult and fascinating subject, and in the process expanded our understanding of the universe. Hers was clearly a life well-lived.

  42. sadly, strangely she follows in the footsteps of physicist heinz pagels who died in a hiking misstep at 49. before which time he had written: Lately I dreamed I was clutching at the face of a rock but it would not hold. Gravel gave way. I grasped for a shrub, but it pulled loose, and in cold terror I fell into the abyss... what I embody, the principle of life, cannot be destroyed ... It is written into the cosmic code, the order of the universe. As I continued to fall in the dark void, embraced by the vault of the heavens, I sang to the beauty of the stars and made my peace with the darkness. — Heinz Pagels, The Cosmic Code sounds a bit romantic but ... hope it may be of comfort.

  43. My thoughts too

  44. What a moving tribute. And what a provocative idea at the end--that Dr. Nelson should say that to be happy as a model builder in particle physics requires being "O.K. with mounting a moose head on a wall and putting a purple scarf on it and not worrying about why it was wearing a purple scarf.” It's curious that this is precisely where scientists and artists overlap: Both accept the absurd as part of existence rather than pretending it doesn't exist, and both move on from there to do their work.

  45. This is truly sad. While reading through the article I found myself thinking "I wish I could have married a woman like her". My condolences to her husband David, and my wishes that his memories of their time together will get him through the days ahead.

  46. Truly sorry to hear of Ann’s passing, but enormously grateful to have learned of her today. What an extraordinary woman.

  47. A great loss for the local area, the country, and the world. Her husbands tribute in the Physics mag was touching. Interesting, we were just in the Alpine Lakes area last week.

  48. Why do all the good die young?

  49. Its not Ann Nelson, its Dr. Ann Nelson, Expert on Particle Physics. I notice the NY Times is continually omits the professional credentials of women in both the title and/or text of an article. This is the second time I've observed this in the last month.

  50. RIP genius. We were better off with you. From a physicist and physician

  51. Thank you, Dr Nelson.

  52. Hans Pagel. Now this. Awful.

  53. For Ann Nelson; Particle Physicist Bad Karma, my friends, to hike in the woods “Cross field and stream, up valleys and down; Go on your lonesome, its nature what’s boss Tumble off trails where stark dangers abound; First and foremost, like Hansel and Gretel Get lost in the woods, not a breadcrumb to drop No hot tea or kettle, no soft bed to settle; Dear hunting season – you’re felled with one shot Better by far to watch the olde telly With natures own shows, or dead on your belly.

  54. good gal all the way. she is part of the Universe now and has the answers we seek.

  55. Dr. Nelson would surely have laughed: How ironic to be defeated by gravity.

  56. Not as famous as Trump but a zillion times greater contribution to American and to mankind. Thanks. RIP. You left too soon.

  57. The sign of a brilliant physicist? They do what they do, relate it in a way that most everyone can understand, and live a great life off-campus

  58. Here is an old story. Heinz R. Pagels was a noted physicist and author. Heinz R. Pagels, died on July 23, 1988, in a mountain climbing accident on Pyramid Peak in Aspen, Colorado. His death had an enormous impact on a wide and disparate range of individuals who, each in their own way, were affected by his inquiring mind. People who do theoretical physics should stay away from mountains.

  59. @Keith Dow We can add Dr. Tanguy Altherr to the list. He died in a rock climbing accident in 1994. He was a brilliant young physicist who had done stellar work in thermal field theory.

  60. RIP condolences to the family and friends

  61. The piece mentions Ann Nelson's election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011. She was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences the following year. Her NAS colleagues mourn her passing.

  62. I designed a mountain cabin for Ann and David a few years back. Their site was extraordinary with a true north view of an iconic Cascades peak. Ann was the best sort of client- challenging assumptions, asking tough but necessary questions. I remember thinking “wow, this person is smart. I better get this right”. It’s only now I realize the extent of her accomplishments and breadth of her influence. I hope, I think, Ann loved her mountain perch and I hope her family will still find her spirit there.

  63. In awe of this amazing person. My condolences to her family and colleagues.

  64. Rest in peace, Dr. Nelson. Thank you for all you gave us.

  65. So sad to hear this news. RIP Dr. Nelson and condolences to her family.

  66. To lose such a creative woman at this young age makes me very sad. RIP Ann Nelson. Condolences to your family.

  67. What a wonderful person Ann was to us; I had the honor an privilege to get to know her in Cambridge at the Cooperative Club where we lived for 2 years during which time we had many great adventures and hikes including Mt. Rainier with David. My deepest condolences and fondest memories of a wonderful person.

  68. Glad to see her acknowledged in The New York Times.

  69. A devastating loss. Words fail.

  70. Fantastic life well lived.

  71. Sorry to hear of the loss to family and science. But as the saying goes "...she was doing what she loved..." My problem, for someone who was a modeler...(“that to be happy as a model builder in particle physics, I had to be O.K. with something like mounting a moose head on a wall and putting a purple scarf on it and not worrying about why it was wearing a purple scarf.”" was that photo. Not good modeling for youth. Photo might have been posed, during a rest stop, and loosened, but for any helmet to be effective protection, it must cover the full forehead, the brim should be just above the eyebrows. Sure, one gets sweaty climbing, but be sure your helmet is both right-sized for how you use it, and have it fully down around your head when engaged in sport/activity. Look around NYC at the number of cyclists with badly positioned helmets. Some don't want to mess up their hairdos. I say, don't mess up your brains. -Been there, had those falls -

  72. I will be putting a purple scarf on the deer head mounted in our cabin in the mountains. Life is short. Enjoy it.

  73. This is incredibly sad. She sounds like an incredible person and scientist. Another prominent physicist, Steven Gubser of Princeton, passed away a month ago in a climbing accident. So sad.

  74. I did not know Dr. Kaplan but I am also a 61 year old female who received a PhD in a STEM field. The sexism and obstacles to success back then were enormous. That she thrived at both her academic life as well as her personal life is truly an indication of how brilliant she must have been. We had to be 10 as good as men and do it backward and in heels (look it up if you don’t know the reference). The world will miss another great soul. RIP.