OBITUARIES

Sidney Richard Coleman: 1937 - 2007

Harvard physics classes popular

He made dense ideas understandable, and students liked him for that

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When Sidney Richard Coleman was a kid, his mom was concerned that her son's wandering thoughts would get him hurt -- literally.

"His mother had to put a beanie with a propeller on him, for when he walked across the street," cousin Rick Shanas said. "He wouldn't be paying attention, he'd just be so wrapped up in his thoughts, that she thought someone might hit him. He'd get noticed with the beanie."

Mr. Coleman's contemplative nature helped him to become a world-renowned theoretical physicist and esteemed Harvard University professor.

He died Sunday in Massachusetts at age 70 from a rare form of Parkinson's disease, said his wife, Diana.

As a youngster growing up on the Far North Side of Chicago, Mr. Coleman became interested in physics by way of current events.

"He got interested in it in the 1940s, after the atom bomb was designed and the Manhattan Project," Diana Coleman said.

As a teenager, he scored perfect marks on both the ACT and SAT, Shanas said. "This guy was a brain. So smart it was scary," Shanas said.

Mr. Coleman received his undergraduate degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1957, but he said he wasn't fully satisfied with his education. Diana Coleman said this is probably because her husband wanted more of a challenge.

So, he went on to earn a PhD from the California Institute of Technology in 1962.

Mr. Coleman came to Harvard in the last year of his doctoral studies. He served as a professor there for more than 40 years.

Students flocked to Mr. Coleman's courses because the professor made dense ideas understandable.

"He was good at explaining complex, difficult ideas and making them seem simple. He was very popular with students on that account," said Arthur Jaffe, a mathematics and theoretical science professor at Harvard. "I personally heard him give lectures. They were always quite brilliant."

Mr. Coleman's reputation preceded him. For example, as a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley, future Harvard physics professor John Huth said he sought notes from Mr. Coleman's lectures because they were so highly regarded.

"[Students] liked ... that he was entertaining as well as instructive," his wife said. "He had a terrific sense of humor. He was known for his wit."

Mr. Coleman's specialty was quantum field theory. His work had applications in cosmology and the study of symmetries, colleagues said.

He also mentored a number of Harvard students, some of whom become prominent physicists. Mr. Coleman worked closely with a graduate student on a paper that ultimately netted the student the Nobel Prize, Jaffe said.

It was at Harvard's physics department where Mr. Coleman met his future wife, Diana, who worked as a secretary there. The couple married in 1982.

Mr. Coleman played poker with a group of friends for more than 30 years.

When he wasn't engrossed in his work, he liked to hike in the mountains, his wife said.

He also nurtured a passion for science fiction. He attended numerous science fiction conventions and frequently penned book reviews for magazines, Diana Coleman said. He served as a consultant for several top science fiction authors whom he befriended, and appeared as a character in a handful of sci-fi stories too, Jaffe said.

He resigned from his teaching post in 2003.

Two years later, Harvard played host to SidneyFest 2005, a celebration of Mr. Coleman's work, Jaffe said. Faculty members had tried unsuccessfully to organize conferences in his honor before, only to be dissuaded by Mr. Coleman, Jaffe said. Mr. Coleman gave the university the green light to hold the event in March 2005.

The conference brought together a number of Nobel laureates, prominent physicists and some of Mr. Coleman's former students.

"Everybody wanted to come," Jaffe said about the event. "Everybody loved Sidney. He was a character."

Besides his wife and cousin, Mr. Coleman is also survived by his brother, Robert Coleman, and cousins Ronald, Roger and Russell Shanas.

A memorial service for Mr. Coleman will be held in the spring.

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wgwoodward@tribune.com

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