Alan Guth is a native of New Jersey, born in New Brunswick in 1947. He skipped his senior year of high school to begin studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received the SB and SM in physics in 1969 and a PhD in 1972, with a thesis under Francis Low on how quarks might combine to produce the particles we actually observe. From 1971 to 1980, he moved through instructorships and research positions at Princeton, Columbia, Cornell and the Stanford Linear Accelerator.
The direction of Guth's research was changed by collaboration with Henry Tye (a fellow Cornell postdoc) concerning the production of magnetic monopoles in the early universe. These hypothetical particles are north or south magnetic poles in isolation. None has ever been detected, but Guth and Tye concluded in 1980 that very large numbers should be produced in the early universe by the phase transition when the nuclear and electroweak forces acquired their separate identities. It was wondering about how to get rid of the monopoles that led Guth to his critical idea of inflation — an exponentially fast epoch of expansion of the universe that would also, in the title of his seminal 1981 paper, provide "A possible solution to the horizon and flatness problems" which had also afflicted standard, hot big bang cosmology.
By the time the paper was published, Guth was back at MIT, where he has remained ever since. He attributes his appointment there to a Chinese fortune cookie, encountered while he was a faculty candidate at the University of Maryland. It said, "An exciting opportunity lies just ahead, if you are not too timid." No, the opportunity wasn't Maryland or any of the other seven places where he had official or unofficial job offers. He felt that he would rather be at MIT than any place else. An offer followed (partly because a position had opened up when his former advisor, Francis Low, decided to become a dean), and he was not put off by a later fortune cookie advising "You should not act on the impulse of the moment."
In his years at MIT, Guth has become one of the great communicators of physics, as well as a producer of the raw materials for communication. Many of his almost 60 technical papers deal with the implications of inflation and its interactions with particle physics, as does his popular book on the inflationary universe. In the past quarter century, he has given approximately 60 talks and public lectures for community groups, as well as more than 175 presentations for fellow physicists and at scientific conferences. Students who have completed BS, MS, and PhD theses with him include a number of outstanding young scientists, who are now part of the physics, astronomy, and cosmology communities.
Guth and his wife, Susan Tisch Guth, have two children: Larry, a graduate student in mathematics at MIT, and Jenny, a sophomore at Smith College, who has recently declared a major in physics.
Guth is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and has received prizes and medals from the American Physical Society, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Franklin Institute, as well as sharing the 2002 Dirac Prize and Medal of the International Center for Theoretical Physics, Trieste, Italy, with Andrei Linde and Paul Steinhardt, another pioneering contributor to inflationary theory.
By Virginia Trimble
Professor of physics and astronomy
University of California at Irvine and University of Maryland