Dennis William Sciama bigraphy, stories - British physicist

Dennis William Sciama : biography

18 November 1926 - 18 December 1999

Dennis William Siahou Sciama, FRS (18 November 1926 – 18 December 1999) was a British physicist who, through his own work and that of his students, played a major role in developing British physics after the Second World War. He is considered as one of the fathers of modern cosmology.


Sciama was born in Manchester, England. He was of Syrian Jewish ancestry, his father born in Manchester and his mother in Egypt, both tracing their roots back to Aleppo.

Sciama earned his PhD in 1953 at Cambridge University under the supervision of Paul Dirac, with a dissertation on Mach's principle and inertia. His work later influenced the formulation of scalar-tensor theories of gravity.

He taught at Cornell, King's College London, Harvard and the University of Texas at Austin, but spent most of his career at Cambridge (1950s and 1960s) and the University of Oxford (1970s and early 1980s). In 1983, he moved from Oxford to Trieste, becoming Professor of Astrophysics at the International School of Advanced Studies (SISSA), and a consultant with the International Centre for Theoretical Physics.

During the 1990s, he divided his time between Trieste (and a residence in nearby Venice) and Oxford, where he was a visiting professor until the end of his life. His main home remained in his house in Park Town, Oxford.

Sciama drew on his broad knowledge of physics to make fruitful connections among many topics in astronomy and astrophysics. He wrote on radio astronomy, X-ray astronomy, quasars, the anisotropies of the cosmic microwave radiation, the interstellar and intergalactic medium, astroparticle physics and the nature of dark matter. Most significant was his work in general relativity, with and without quantum theory, and black holes. He helped revitalize the classical relativistic alternative to general relativity known as Einstein-Cartan gravity.

Early in his career, he supported Fred Hoyle's steady state cosmology, and interacted with Hoyle, Hermann Bondi, and Thomas Gold. When evidence against the steady state theory, e.g., the cosmic microwave radiation, mounted in the 1960s, Sciama abandoned it.

During his last years, Sciama got interested in the issue of Dark Matter in galaxies. Among other aspects he pursued a theory of dark matter that consists of a heavy neutrino, certainly disfavored in his realization, but still possible ia a more complicate scenario.

A number of the leading astrophysicists and cosmologists of our time completed their doctorates under Sciama's supervision, notably:

  • George Ellis (1964)
  • Stephen Hawking (1966)
  • Brandon Carter (1967)
  • Martin Rees (1967)
  • Gary Gibbons (1973)
  • James Binney (1975)
  • John D. Barrow (1977)
  • David Deutsch
  • Adrian Melott (1981)
  • Paolo Salucci (1989)
  • Antony Valentini (1992)

Sciama also strongly influenced Roger Penrose, who dedicated his The Road to Reality to Sciama's memory. The 1960s group he led in Cambridge (which included Ellis, Hawking, Rees, and Carter), has proved of lasting influence.

Sciama was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1982. He was also an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the Academia Lincei of Rome. He served as president of the International Society of General Relativity and Gravitation, 1980–84.

In 1959, Sciama married Lidia Dina, a social anthropologist, who survived him, along with their two daughters.

His work at SISSA and the University of Oxford led to the creation of a lecture series in his honour, the Dennis Sciama Memorial Lectures., SISSA, Italy. In 2009, the Institute of Cosmology at the University of Portsmouth elected to name their new building, and their supercomputer in 2011, in his honour.

Books by Sciama

  • 1959. The Unity of the Universe. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday.
  • 1969. The Physical Foundations of General Relativity. New York: Doubleday. Science Study Series. Short (104 pages) and clearly written non-mathematical book on the physical and conceptual foundations of General Relativity. Could be read with profit by physics students before immersing themselves in more technical studies of General Relativity.
  • 1971. Modern Cosmology. Cambridge University Press.
  • 1993. Modern Cosmology and the Dark Matter Problem. Cambridge University Press.
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