Cécile Morette-Early History
Cécile Morette was born on December 21, 1922 in Paris, France. Her father was André Pierre Ernest Morette (1879–1931), who was the son of Emile André Morette and Emilie Marie Clotilde Litzler. Her mother was Marie-Louise Claire Ravaudet (1888–1944). André, pictured at right, was a student of the École Polytechnique (class of 1898, ranked 128th and entered ranked 4th out of 192 students), and the School of Mines. He was a professor at the École des Mines de Saint-Étienne.
He later managed the Mondeville plant of the metallurgical company, Société Métallurgique de Normandie in Caen, Normandy, becoming the CEO in 1923 and P. Eng Consulting Mining Soumont. He also served as a professor at the École des Mines de Paris. He had been placed in charge of the plant during a difficult economic period, and his leadership guided the company to success. His death in 1931 was mourned by all employees of the company. This is demonstrated by the outpouring at this funeral and the eulogies. Eugene Rouer, Director General said, “ Mr. Morette was not only the eminent engineer and tenacious director, whose work has been mentioned. His qualities of heart were not inferior in any way to those of intelligence. He loved his staff, and he knew how to appreciate and encourage them. Very demanding on others as he was for himself, he did not hesitate to ask his staff for all the efforts that circumstances might require. But he did it with a very accurate sense of justice and could recognize the value of effort and services rendered. His benevolence was granted to all those who deserved it, and his concern was never lacking in the smaller of its employees.”
André Pierre Ernest Morette
In the 1931 funeral picture above, Cécile is a young girl of eight sitting on her mother’s knee in the foreground.
André married Marie-Louise Claire Ravaudet (see two pictures here) in 1908 in Poltiers. They adopted three boys and later three daughters were born, Cécile (1922), Nicolette (1927) and Marianne (1928). In 1932, following the death of André, Marie-Louise married Maurice Payen (1889–1974), a name Cécile attached to her name, hence, Morette-Payen. Her early publications are often under this name. She attended the University of Caen in Normandy where her mother, step-father, sisters and brother lived. She completed the Licence dés Sciences in 1943 in mathematics, physics and chemistry. She had some thought of going to medical school, however, the city was occupied by the Germans and opportunities were limited. She was anxious to go to a bigger town where there were more things to see and do. She decided on Paris, about 125 miles to the east. To travel required a visa from the German authorities. Cécile planned her application carefully. During her last chemistry class at Caen, the instructor had mentioned that quantum mechanics was an exciting topic and the important tool of chemistry. At the interview with the German officer, she relayed her strong desire to go to Paris to learn about this important topic. It worked and she received permission. She studied at the Université de Paris, visiting her parents weekly on the train. She returned home in the spring of 1944, needing only one more exam to complete her course. The exam was scheduled in Paris for June 6, 1944. As she looked toward Paris, behind lay Omaha Beach, a mere 35 miles away. Since rumors were that Allied forces would be invading soon, her family advised her to skip the exam. Since the prevailing expectation, fostered by Allied forces, was that the invasion would take place much farther north, Cécile decided to risk the trip and sit for the exam. She left several days early to insure that any delay would not cause her to miss the test. June 6 was a day filled with mixed reactions, news of the invasion was, of course, welcomed; however, the proximity of Caen meant that her family was clearly in harm’s way. She anxiously awaited any news, and when it came, it was devastating. Her mother, a sister and grandmother all perished under the intense bombing by the Allies which flattened the town. Her sister and stepfather were outside when the bombs fell and despite a bomb landing very near them, the explosion pattern strangely was up and away from them, and they were not injured. The stepfather strongly discourage Cécile from returning to Caen, “there is nothing here, you will be in the way.” He remained there for three weeks trying to recover the bodies from the home’s rubble. They eventually arrived in Paris where Cécile and her brother were waiting. The Allied forces marching into Paris was memorable for Cécile. She approached an American soldier and asked what he would like and he said, “ a tomato.” Cécile was unfamiliar with the term as used by servicemen. She disappeared and triumphantly returned to the smiling soldier with several tomatoes taken from a nearby garden.
Cécile completed her Doctorat d'État at the University of Paris in 1947. Her work there apparently did not go unnoticed; before graduation she was offered a position in the Centre National del la Recherche Scientifique, directed by Frédéric Joliot-Curie. His wife, Iréne Joliot-Curie, was appointed Director of the Curie Laboratory of the Radium Institute in 1946. Irene was a hard task master. Cécile had continued her membership in Girl Guides. Paris had been liberated but the war continued. As the allies freed prisoners in POW and concentration camps, they would be sent to Paris. The Red Cross would not provide help for about three weeks until they were quarantined and vaccinated. This was done to protect their workers. The Girl Guides secured a facility to provide shelter and food for some of those in need. Cécile, during one of her sessions, contracted scarlet fever. She called Iréne to tell her that she could not come to work that day since she had the fever. Iréne’s response was, “What do you think I am running here, a kindergarden?”
Frédéric’s expectations for Cécile were that she would provide the theoretical physics support, act as his secretary and prepare his lectures. She quickly realized that while Frédéric was a brilliant experimentalist, he and the Centre needed more knowledge of the modern aspects of quantum theory than she could provide. She voiced this concern at various times until one day Joliot asked her if she would like to go to Ireland to study. She jumped at the chance since Shrödinger and Heitler were there. French officials arranged for the visit. They provided a vary ambitious list of people for her to visit en route. One, she remembers well, Paul Henri Dirac. She arrived early in the afternoon and was ushered into his office. She learned later that he had been told she was an important French scientist, and he was to relate his activities during the war, which he proceeded to do in much detail. Sadly, Cécile’s English was insufficient to follow much of what he said. She was hesitant to reveal this, however, after several hours during which she felt very guilty for wasting his time, she spoke up and said she should leave. He immediately countered with,“ You can’t go now; my wife has prepared tea, and she will be quite upset if you don’t come.” She did.
Leaving Cambridge, she took the train to Dublin and the Institute for Advanced Studies. The institute was under the directorship of Erwin Shrödinger. She arrived to find that Shrödinger and the institute janitor had both tendered their resignations. Shrödinger, it seems, would have outburst when he determined that a calculation he was doing was incorrect. He would crumple the papers up and hurl them into the trash. During the evening, the janitor would dutifully remove the trash from the offices. In the middle of the night, Shrödinger would reconsider and determine that his calculation was indeed correct and hurry to work the following morning to retrieve the papers, finding of course, they were no longer available. He complained bitterly about the actions of the janitor. The janitor protested that it was too much too ask that he only throw away the incorrect calculations from scientist’s waste bins. Neither would budge and both resignations were accepted by the board. Heitler was appointed director and agreed to take Cécile into his research group.
During 1947-48, Cécile was a Rask-Oersted Fellow at the Institut for Teoretisk Fysik in Copenhagen, the institute of Niels Bohr. Following her term there, she moved to the Institute for Advanced Study at Pinceton where she met Robert Oppenheimer. After a two-year residency, she was a Research Associate at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay, India for a year. She and her husband, fellow physicist, Bryce Dewitt were married iin 1951.
In 1951, she founded and directed l'École d'Été de Physique Théorique of the University of Grenoble at Les Houche (now known as l'École de Physique des Houches), a position she held untill 1972.
From 1952 to 1955, Cécile was a research associate and lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley.
In 1956, she was the Co-founder and Co-director of the Institute of Field Physics, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During this time she was Visiting Research Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, In 1967 she was appointer Lecturer there. Ceecile's husband, physicist Bryce DeWitt, wrote about his wife' career at the University of North Carolina : "At the beginning, she and her husband both bore the title of visiting research professor. Within a few years her husband was given a regular professorship, and later, upon the death of Bahnson, he held a chair named after the latter. She, herself, was demoted in 1967 from visiting research professor to lecturer despite the fact that she had played a crucial role in attracting money to the university, in organizing conferences on topics ranging from advanced research to high school administration, and in serving, from 1957–1966, as the director of the University's Institute of Natural Science. As the reason for this discrimination, the university cited nepotism rules, which in fact had never been published in the official regulations and were legally nonexistent."
In 1972, Cécile and Bryce move to the University of Texas at Austin where she held the position of Professor of Astronomy. Again nepotism rules prevented her appointment in the Department of Physics. In 1983, the University changesd it rules to enabler her to move to the physics department with the title of Professor of Physics. In 1993, she was the Jane and Roland Blumberg Centennial Professor in Physics until her retirement.
Some Important Contributions by Cécile Dewitt-Morette
To education and the profession:
• Creation of the Les Houches Summer School which was very influential in Europe and in several developing countries in the post-WWII period. The objective was to close the gap that separated a French science student from the world of research. It is now a prestigious advanced school for active research scientists from all over the world, The Les Houches School of Physics. There are many volumes of published lectures, the Les Houches series, which are valuable references in their fields.
To mathematical physics:
• Studies of path integrals which introduced the Cécile Morette-Dewitt-VanVleck determinant and the semiclassical expansion of the functional integral. On the definition and approximation of Feynman's path integral, Phys. Rev. 81: 848–852 (1951).
• Work in topologically nontrivial spaces which was the first step in the now active field of research on the interplay of topology and path integration. Noted that in two space dimensions there can exist particle of intermediate statistics, now called "anyons".
Feynman Functional Integrals for Systems of Indistinguishable Particles, Phys. Rev. D3: 1375–1378 (1971), with M.G.G. Laidlaw.
• Investigation of the uses of two Pin groups (rather than the Spin group) in studying properties of fermions under parity and time reversal transformations. Pin groups in Physics, Phys. Rev. D41: 1901-1907 (1990), with B. S. DeWitt.
• Defined Feynman's integrals directly on function spaces, leading to new computational techniques.
Path Integration in Non-Relativistic Quantum Mechanics, Physics Reports 50: 255-372 (1979), with A. Maheshwari and B. Nelson.
To education and mathematical physics:
• Text in wide use for education and research. Analysis, Manifolds and Physics. Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing Co., 1977 (Rev. ed. 2 volumes 1982), with Y. Choquet-Bruhat and Margaret Dillard-Bleick.
• Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Mérite 1981
• Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Palmes Académiques 1991
• Prix du Rayonnement Français 1992
1944-45 Stagiaire,.., Maitre de Recherches Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France
1946-47 Member, Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin
1947-48 Rask-Oersted Fellow, Institut for Teoretisk Fysik, Copenhagen
1948-50 Member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ
1951-52 Research Associate, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bombay
1951-72 Founder and Director, l'École d'Été de Physique Théorique of the University of Grenoble at Les Houche (now known as l'École de Physique des Houches)
1952-55 Research Associate and Lecturer, University of California at Berkeley
1956-66 Co-founder and Co-director of the Institute of Field Physics, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
1956-67 Visiting Research Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
1965-88 from Mîitre de Conférences to Professeur en Classe Exceptionnelle, Université Joseph Fourier
1967-71 Lecturer, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
1957-66 Director of the Institute for Natural Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
1972-83 Professor of Astronomy, University of Texas at Austin
1983-93 Professor of Physics, University of Texas at Austin
1993-present Jane and Roland Blumberg Centennial Professor in Physics, University of Texas at Austin
• Centro Brasileiro de Pesquisa Fisicas, Rio de Janeiro (1949)
• Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore (1977)
• Z.I.F. Universität Bielefeld (1984)
• Imperial College, London (1985)
• University of Warwick (1985)
• Universidade da Madeira (1991)
• Licence és Sciences University of Caen 1943
• Doctorat d'État University of Paris 1947
• In 1958, NATO's newly formed Science Committee used Les Houches as a model in their establishment of a program to support summer study institutes in NATO countries. Les Houches was the first recipient of these NATO grants, which have by now been bestowed on more than a thousand advanced study institutes.
Additional professional activities:
• With John A. Wheeler, organized the Rencontres between mathematician and physicists, first held in 1967 and was Secretary of the Battelle Rencontre Committee, 1967–1972.
• NATO Scientific Affairs Division: Consultant, A.S.I., 1962–1966.
• Texas Eclipse Expedition Team to Mauritania: June 1972 and May-June 1973.
• Associate Editor, Journal of Mathematical Physics 1977–1980, 1993–1996.
• Chairperson: American Institute of Physics Committee to Review the Journal of Mathematical Physics 1991.
• 1996-present Membre du Conseil d'Administration, Institut de Hautes Etudes Scientifiques (Bures/Yvette)
Some other activities:
Skydiving, judo (brown-belt level), trekking in remote areas, skiing, windsurfing, sewing and darning, editing (18) books, serving on countless committees, and working with mental health organizations.
UT Austin Mourns Death of Groundbreaking Physicist Cécile DeWitt-Morette
Featured Thursday, 11 May 2017 written by Steven E Franklin College of Natural Sciences, U. of Texas at Austin
The University of Texas at Austin mourns the loss of renowned physicist and professor emerita Cécile DeWitt-Morette, who was a faculty member in the Department of Astronomy and the Department of Physics. DeWitt-Morette received international acclaim for her work in theoretical physics and for the educational institution she established in Europe, L'École de Physique des Houches, which helped launch many of the world's leading physicists and mathematicians.
She died Monday at age 94.
Daughter Chris DeWitt, alumna Alice Young, Cécile DeWitt-Morette and alumnus Neil DeGrasse Tyson on campus in January. Young was a graduate student under DeWitt-Morette.
"Cécile DeWitt-Morette left an indelible mark, both because of her research in mathematical physics and her leadership in founding a powerhouse school for physical scientists in the French Alps," said Linda Hicke, dean of the College of Natural Sciences at UT Austin. "Her determination was instrumental in launching the scientific careers of individuals who went on to become Nobel laureates and Fields medalists, having been inspired early in their careers through Cécile's innovation and scholarship."
For her efforts in establishing L'École de Physique des Houches, DeWitt-Morette received one of France's highest honors: She was inducted into the French Legion of Honor as a knight in 2007 and promoted to the rank of officer in 2011. She had established the school in the French Alps after World War II to help revitalize physics in postwar Europe. The school opened in 1951, with DeWitt-Morette at its helm, after she secured the necessary school funding and support (reportedly by convincing male colleagues that the school had been their idea initially). More than 20 students would go on to win the Nobel Prize or the Fields Medal.
Photo at right: Left to Right, Daughter Chris DeWitt, alumna Alice Young, Cécile DeWitt-Morette and alumnus Neil DeGrasse Tyson on campus in January. Young was a graduate student under DeWitt-Morette.
"Cécile was a brilliant mathematician and theoretical physicist, who made breakthrough contributions to our field," said Gian Francesco Giudice, head of the Theoretical Physics Department at CERN in Switzerland. "She will always be remembered for her vision in creating the school at Les Houches, which shook the postwar world of European physics, revolutionizing the way of teaching science and filling the gap between the people working at the frontier of research and the young scientists entering the field. For 22 years Cécile directed the Les Houches School, whose success remains her lasting legacy."
Born in France in 1922, Cécile DeWitt-Morette received her formal education during the turbulent years of WWII, pursuing her science even amid the oppressiveness of German occupation. She completed her Licence dés Sciences in 1943 in mathematics, physics and chemistry at the University of Caen in Normandy before studying quantum mechanics at the University of Paris, where she received her Doctorat d'État in 1947. Her postdoctoral work was conducted under notable scientists of the day such as Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Walter Heitler, Erwin Schrödinger, Niels Bohr and Robert Oppenheimer.
Soon after arriving in the United States, DeWitt-Morette became the co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Field Physics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the director of the Institute for Natural Science there. She was a key organizer for the first American conference on general relativity in 1957 and made the decision to invite a groundbreaking speech from Richard Feynman about the nature of gravitational waves that predated the discovery last year of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).
"She made a major impact on her field and her students," said David Reitze, the executive director of LIGO, who received his Ph.D. at UT Austin and worked in the general relativity group where DeWitt-Morette made her mark. "She was a trailblazer who overcame many obstacles throughout her career to become one of the leading woman physicists of her time."
In 1967, after the University of North Carolina failed to award DeWitt-Morette the same advancement given to her husband, citing nepotism rules, the couple decided to seek new opportunities. A former student from L'École de Physique des Houches invited her to UT Austin, where she and her husband Bryce DeWitt accepted tenured positions in 1972. She became a professor in the Department of Astronomy. Bryce DeWitt joined the faculty in physics, and together they led a team of UT Austin physicists to Mauritania in 1973 to test Albert Einstein's prediction that light passing through a gravitational field would be deflected more than was accounted for by Newtonian physics. The team built a temporary observatory in the unforgiving climate of the Sahara Desert, overcoming numerous technical challenges. Ultimately, they confirmed the prediction during a solar eclipse with the most accurate measurement up to that point.
Cécile Dewitt-Morette with team of UT physicists (including husband Bryce Dewitt, back left) in Mauritania in 1973. Others in photo:
In 1983, DeWitt-Morette became a professor in the Department of Physics, later becoming the Jane and Roland Blumberg Centennial Professor Emerita in Physics. In 2000, the International Center for Relativistic Astrophysics awarded Bryce DeWitt and Cécile DeWitt-Morette its highest honor, the Marcel Grossman Award, putting them in the company of luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and John Wheeler.
"Cécile was one of the giants of mathematical physics and a hero to the redevelopment of science in France after WWII," said Richard Matzner, a professor in the Department of Physics. "She was a wonderful friend and collaborator, a fount of good advice and someone who will be deeply missed."
DeWitt-Morette was preceded in death by her husband of 53 years, Bryce DeWitt, in 2004. She is survived by daughters Nicolette DeWitt, Jan DeWitt, Christiane DeWitt and Abigail DeWitt; and her seven grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the DeWitt-Morette family has asked that gifts in memory of Cécile be made to support future students and research at UT Austin. Gifts can be made using the link below or made payable to UT Austin and mailed to: 120 Inner Campus Drive G2500, Austin, TX 78712. Questions can be directed to Kali Blanchard at 512-471-3299. Make a gift to in honor of Cécile Dewitt-Morette.
Cécile's memorial gathering program contained two of Cécile's favorite quotes: "ubi caritas et amour, deus ibi est: (where there is charity and love, there is God) and "la joie de l'åme dans l'action", (the soul's joy lies in doing).
Cécile Dewitt-Morette Photo Album
BERGSTRASSE 35, 30. 4. 1951 Dear Bryce and Cécile Seligman, With many thanks for the interesting letter of Bryce I am sending to both of you my most affectionate congratulation to your marriage, also in the name of my wife.
Tropical jaundice is rather dangerous and I am certainly glad that it is safely over now. It is also a console now for me, that there was also some advantage in staying in Zürich and skipping the trip to India. Although this is an extremely interesting country, it is certainly better to stay home than in a hospital in Bombay. But I hope that your next joint trip to India will be more lucky.
I shall certainly be in Copenhagen and I am also planning to visit your summer school at least for a few days. I intend to talk this over with Jost, as soon as he arrives in Zürich.
Schafroth* made some progress on the superconductivity problem and I gave a lecture now on the theory of the solid body, leaving the field quantization for a while alone. (My lecture on this subject are going to be mimeographed at present, work will be finished soon).
Just now I had a sad experience: my old teacher Sommerfeld died this week in Munich as a consequence of a street accident in the age of 82. He was literally running into a truck (it is true that he was deaf in the last time, but otherwise of good health), got a concussion of the brain and lost consciousness immediately. In this unconscious state he died a few days later (the funeral was yesterday in Munich). So he died in a similar way as once Pierre Curie did in Paris, though in a very different age.
And I am leaving this sad subject, to wish again good luck to both of you, also to your possible common scientific work in future. (By the way: Cécile may be interested in the way I treated the Feynman-action principle in my mimeographed lecture. It is a kind of generalization of the WKB-method to time-dependent solution). Be very happy on May 2 and later!
Sincerely yours old
*M. R. Schafroth, Swiss student of Pauli, who later (1954) emigrated to Sydney, Australia to lead a superconductivity group. He was the first to suggest that electron pairing might be the answer to superconductivity.
A University of Texas professor has been declared a knight in the National Order of Merit by the French government.
Dr. Cécile Dewitt-Morette. a physicist and professor of astronomy at UT Austin. has been selected for the honor by her native country in recognition of the role played by a school, which. she founded in the revival of theoretical physics after World War Il.
The school, Les Houches School of Theoretical Physics, located in the French Alps was the first of its kind designed to teach physicists the new developments in their fields. Eight years after Dr. Dewitt-Morette established Les Houches in 1951, NATO's scientific affairs division organized its Advance Study Institutes using Les Houches as a pattern.
Dr. Dewitt-Morette explains that she "became acutely aware of the void in theoretical physics in France" while she was a physics student in Paris during World War II. "The country of Poincaré, Langevin, Brillouin and Louis de Broglie did not offer any basic courses in modern physics," she says.
She knew there were "exciting developments" taking place, but found it difficult to learn about them, since the scientific conferences and journals were (and still are) aimed primarily at the physicists already deeply involved in the developments.
The Real Life of Physics
"Good physics was being done in a very few centers—mostly in the United States—and if you weren't there you were out of it," she recalls.
So in 1945, she decided to go abroad and discover the "real life of physics." What she learned from her studies in Dublin, Copenhagen and Princeton she wanted to share with other physicists. The most fruitful way to do that, she reasoned, would be to organize a summer school where scientists who were working on the cutting edge of physics would come and present their work in full technical detail.
The idea of the school was "no strain." she says. "But I needed a place and I needed money."
She knew she didn't want the school to be conducted in the city with all its distractions. Peace and quiet would he necessary for the intensive mental workout she expected the participants to get. She found just the place. It was 200 acres of pastoral beauty at the foot of Mount Blanc near the tiny village of Les Houches, and she knew the owner's daughter.
Dr. Dewitt-Morette figured the "fringe benefit of being in a beautiful place" would compensate for the low salaries she would have to pay her faculty. An added drawing card was the farm houses scattered over the acreage that would provide summer living quarters for the faculty families.
So, convinced that the school would succeed, Dr. Dewitt-Morette invited her first lecturers before she ever had the money for the undertaking. Then, armed only with her hopes, she went knocking at many doors, one of which belonged to the head of the French department of higher education. "He had no reason to trust me," says Dr. Dewitt-Morette, who was 27 at the time, "but he did." He gave her $8,000 to launch the ambitious project.
Bucked French System
In that first two-month session in the summer of 195l, five teachers covered quantum mechanics from the beginning to what was then the end. More than 120 physicists from around the world applied for the 35 student places with the school. Dr. Dewitt-Morette not only had succeeded in filling an educational gap, she also had effectively bucked the French educational system:
• Les Houches had a campus setting where students and faculty lived, took their meals and attended classes--then unheard of in France.
• Sessions were in the summer, according to the French, an unlikely time for serious study.
• And to top it all, she was employing foreigners as faculty. At the time, the French system classified all professors as civil servants, and to be a civil servant in France then you had to BE French.
Dr. Dewitt-Morette continued to direct the summer school for nineteen years until 1972, making most of the arrangements from the United States after she joined the University of California at Berkeley in 1952. She also was raising four daughters at the time. "I often had a potty in my office," she recalls.
Now a trustee of the school, the UT professor says Les Houches continues in the spirit in which it was conceived—intensive study of the leading developments in physics. The published proceedings from each session have become source books for physicists all over the world. "They often are the first written detailed and pedagogical accounts of major breakthroughs in physics," says Dr. Dewitt-Morette.
Nobel Prize Winners
And she hasn't counted the names recently, but during the first fifteen years of the school's existence, thirteen of the faculty subsequently were awarded the Nobel Prize.
The school purposely remains small with about 40-50 students from all points on the globe and six or seven faculty which change each summer. Housing and tuition are free. Students pay only for their meals, and some scholarships are available to defray the coats.
Originally, the school was operated on funds from the French and other West European governments. Since 1959, that support has been channeled through NATO. The school now owns 10 acres of the 200-acre tract. A library, some lecture rooms and several study areas have been built and the farm houses remodeled.
During the two 1981 summer sessions, which will cover quantum chromodynamics and chaotic behavior in deterministic systems, Dr. Dewitt-Morette will receive the Order of Merit in a formal presentation by a high official in the French government.
—Joyce Pole, On Campus, November 24-December 7, 1980
Physicist Cécile DeWitt-Morette ponders prodigiously.
"I worry," says the University of Texas professor emerita who still keeps an office at UT and covers classes for other professors. "I worry a lot. I keep worrying until I figure out the underlying problem that is responsible for the problem. Then I see what I can do to fix it."
DeWitt-Morette, who tells people she is 90 (she's a tad younger), has thought long and hard about the state of theoretical physics in her native France, the scarcity of expert geriatric care in Austin and what to do about her daughter's illness.
Jan DeWitt, one of DeWitt-Morette's four daughters with the late physicist Bryce DeWitt, lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder. So, in the 1990s, her mother, a scientist and decorated Legion of Honor officer, designed the Planned Living Assistance Network of Central Texas, which each year helps more than 100 area families coping with mental illness.
This week, DeWitt-Morette welcomes to town two old friends from the days when was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. The subject of the movie "A Beautiful Mind," John Nash is a Nobel Prize-Winning mathematician and pioneer of game theory. His wife and former student, Alicia Nash, has cared for the schizophrenic scholar for decades, even when they were divorced. (They remarried.)
"She's been a wonderful caregiver," DeWitt-Morette says. "Not overbearing, but there as needed."
The Assistance Network here has named a caregiver's fund in honor of Alicia Nash. Friday, the couple will attend a symposium on mental health care at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center. Sunday, they will appear at a screening of "A Beautiful Mind" and at a private fundraising dinner.
So how do DeWitt-Morette's worries turn into comprehensive fixes?
"I don't see it as worrying," says Liz Shelby, a network board member who also assists DeWitt-Morette. "It's problem solving. She enjoys solving problems."
‘I tell you why I worry so much," DeWitt-Morette says. "When I was 7 years old, my mother said, ‘You are a big girl; now you have a conscience.' I took it seriously. I had to figure it out. I was given a little black notebook for the pros and cons of each problem."
Born to an industrialist father and a mother with a mathematics degree in a posh area of Paris' Sixième Arrondissement district, DeWitt-Morette witnessed a mixture of privilege, achievement and social responsibility at an early age.
At the end of World War I, her father was handed the reins of the Société Métalurgique de Normandie, a huge mining and manufacturing operation. He did so on the condition that half the profits from the company would go to worker services—housing, education, health care—which were managed by DeWitt-Morette's mother.
The outfit thrived, even during the Depression, in part because of worker loyalty. At the company's 100th anniversary celebration two months ago, DeWitt-Morette ran into friends from first grade, some 85 years earlier.
She was a diligent student with a stubborn streak. Her family was not particularly religious, but she began to look for meaning in the universe after her father died when she was 8.
"Until then, I thought everything was infinite," she says. "Ever since, I've been looking for whatever I lost at that time. What I lost was infinity."
Despite her advantages, she attended public schools, which DeWitt-Morette says in those days were often better than the private ones. She had hoped to attend medical school, but ended up studying math, chemistry and physics. After undergraduate school, she really wanted to explore Paris on her own. The Germans who occupied northern France during the 1940s, however, required her to obtain a pass to visit Paris.
"They asked what I was going to do there," she recalls. "I couldn't say: ‘To have adventures.' I had heard the words ‘quantum mechanics.' I didn't know what it was. But I told them I was going to study it."
To keep her pass, she signed up for graduate work in physics at the Sorbonne. On June 6, 1944—D-Day—she took her master's degree exam. The same day, she lost most of her family, including her mother, when six Allied bombs fell on their house in Caen.
‘When mother died, I became an adult overnight," she says. "I thought: ‘I am now in charge of my family.' "
That year, she was offered a job in the laboratory of Frédéric Joliot-Curie, who was Marie Curie's son-in-law.
DeWitt-Morette answered his letters and prepared his lecture notes. Eventually, she joined a group of physicists working in Dublin, then another group in Copenhagen, Denmark, working with Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr, who laid the groundwork for quantum mechanics.
In 1948, she received a telegram from Robert Oppenheimer—the theoretical physicist often called the "father of the atomic bomb"—asking that she join him at the Institute for Advance Study (not connected, it should be said, with Princeton University).
"I traveled first class on the boat because my stepfather wanted me to meet only proper people," she remembers. "I had to figure out where Princeton was. So I asked another passenger."
At the Institute, she did not work directly with Albert Einstein, but she frequently ran into him walking to and from the Institute.
"He and I had two things in common," she says. "We were the only ones without a car. And we were keeping reasonably rational hours."
(Other brushes with intellectual fame: Dr. Albert Schweitzer was once her physician, and developmental psychologist Jean Piaget was one of her daughters' baby sitters.)
Although settled happily in America, she worried about the quality of her area of physics in France.
"Theoretical physics in France was in a very, very bad state for several reasons," she says. "I decided something had to be done about it."
So she created from scratch and led a rigorous physics summer school for 20 or 30 participants each year at Les Houches in the French Alps. Twenty-six of its students, who collaborated on publications, have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.
"It was not user-friendly," she says. "Two lectures in the morning. Afternoon was for discussion. Nobody was allowed to arrive one day late or leave one day early. Lecture notes had to be complete on that day. No Xerox."
In New Jersey, she met Bryce DeWitt. They married and moved to North Carolina, then to Texas in 1972. In 1973, they journeyed to Mauritania during a total solar eclipse to test the relation between Einstein's general theory of relativity and gravity.
"I never had a program," she says. "If something looked like fun, I'd look into it. No program."
When her daughter was diagnosed with OCD, DeWitt-Morette responded as a mother, but also as a scientist.
"I pulled together people in physics and neuroscience," she says. "I wanted to understand more about Jan's illness. How can it be cured? Whenever I got frustrated with daily life living with the illness, I'd go talk with scientists, which was easier."
She found people like Bob Englert, later director of the Assistance Network, who had the same worries. She and Englert attended a gathering in Dallas about how to help the mentally ill by helping their families. It changed her goals.
"I had already designed in my head a full residential outfit, which would include activities that would be income-producing," she says. "The idea was beginning to gain support. That's when I sensed that a smaller scale could be done right away and was what people wanted."
DeWitt-Morette wants to apply lessons she's learned through this effort to help provide geriatric care that complements the work of existing groups such as Family ElderCare and Care Communities.
"Our primary service is care management, "Shelby says of Assistance Network. "At any time, we might have 30 or so in the program. There's a fee, but if a crisis occurs, it's renegotiated."
Before joining the board, Shelby quietly and effectively applied for many of the grants that have kept the nonprofit going. Recently, however, the group has gone more public. This week's events are something of a coming out for the group.
Perhaps just as telling, Jan DeWitt will talk this weekend about the hurdles of balancing work and benefits when ill.
You see, once DeWitt-Morette solves a problem in her head, action almost always follows.
"I don't take ‘no' for an answer," the compact, restless woman says with a glint in her eye. "Because ‘no' is simply a delayed ‘yes.' "