The 2018 St. Albert Award of the Society of Catholic Scientists was given to Juan Martin Maldacena in recognition of his exceptional contributions to fundamental physics. Juan Maldacena is Carl P. Feinberg Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. After receiving his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1996, he became associate professor of physics at Harvard, in 1997. In November of that year he published his most renowned work, “The Large-N Limit of Superconformal Field Theories and Supergravity,” which has become by far the most cited paper in the history of theoretical particle physics, with over 13,000 citations as of 2018. Maldacena was promoted to Professor at Harvard in 1999 and moved to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 2001.
Maldacena’s 1997 paper proposed the existence of what is now called the AdS/CFT correspondence, which has launched a veritable revolution in theoretical physics. Our present knowledge of fundamental physics is contained in two types of theories that seem very different in character: on the one hand, Einstein’s theory of gravity, and on the other hand, “quantum field theory,” a framework that has so far been able to account successfully for all non-gravitational phenomena. What Maldacena discovered in 1997 was a deep and hitherto unsuspected connection between these two types of theories. This connection is an actual equivalence between some theories of each type, in particular between theories of quantum gravity in negatively curved space called Anti deSitter space (or AdS) and so-called conformal field theories (or CFTs). One of the remarkable aspects of this AdS/CFT correspondence is that theories with different numbers of space dimensions are shown to be equivalent, with all the information about gravitational interactions taking place in a space having d dimensions, completely encoded in a theory that describes interactions taking place on the d-1 dimensional boundary surface of that space. This is a realization of a conjecture about gravity called the “holographic principle.” The AdS/CFT correspondence has helped answer some deep and long-standing questions about the entropy of black holes, and about the compatibility of black holes with the principles of quantum mechanics. Maldacena’s correspondence drives many important subfields in theoretical physics today, including applications to quark-gluon plasmas that bind together protons and neutrons; to strongly-correlated materials such as high-temperature superconductors; and to a deeper understanding of quantum entanglement.
Juan Maldacena has also made remarkable breakthroughs in other areas, for example in performing the first rigorous computation of three-point correlation functions of quantum fluctuations in the early universe, that are being measured today by cosmic microwave background experiments. He is the recipient of numerous prestigious international prizes in physics. He has been a member of SCS since 2016.