Lee Smolin has a piece in the latest Physics Today entitled Why no “new Einstein”?. Unfortunately it’s only available to Physics Today subscribers, although Lee tells me he will see if he can put it on-line on his web-page. Tony Smith previously mentioned this in a comment to an earlier posting.
The problem Lee addresses seems to me to be an extremely important one. Pretty much every knowledgeable particle theorist that I talk to these days, string theorist and non-string theorist, agrees that current ideas about how to go beyond the standard model are not working very well. Everyone hopes that some big new idea will come along and show the way forward, with people often wistfully speaking about how maybe some bright post-doc out there may be at this very moment working on the needed new idea. The problem with this is that what is needed is probably something quite different than any of the current popular research programs, and finding it may be difficult enough to require someone’s concerted effort over quite a few years. If this is so, it’s very hard to see how anyone on the standard career path in the US is going to be able to do this. A young post-doc here generally only has a couple years in between needing to apply for new jobs, and if he or she were to devote those years to working hard on a very speculative new idea, this would most likely be suicidal for their career.
Some will argue that young theorists should just try and work on speculative ideas in their spare time, spending enough time working on currently fashionable topics such as string theory to impress people enough to ultimately get a permanent job, at which point they can work more seriously on their speculative idea. The problem with this is that getting up to speed and participating in the latest trendy research in string theory is a very demanding task, one that isn’t likely to leave much time or energy for other projects. In addition, it’s not at all clear that being willing to work hard on an obviously failed research program like string theory is consistent with having the intelligence and drive needed to do something really new. Instead of working on string theory, a young theorist could try and work on one of the other popular topics such as cosmology or phenomenology, but these are very different subjects than fundamental work in quantum field theory. A young theorist would be more likely to be able to find the necessary time if he or she went to work as a night-time security guard.
Lee makes several excellent proposals about how to restructure the way hiring is done to encourage young people who want to try something new. I hope he has some success in getting the powers-that-be to realize what a serious problem the field is facing and take some of the actions he suggests.
Two completely unrelated topics:
Lubos Motl has a posting about the Harvard Commencement, where it seems they’re giving Witten an honorary degree (Columbia already did this in 1996). He also writes about a new web-site for the Sidneyfest, the conference in Sidney Coleman’s honor that was discussed here and on many other weblogs. The new web-site includes copies of letters to Coleman from people who couldn’t attend the conference. In one of them Greg Moore recalls and reproduces Coleman’s proof from the late eighties that string theory is the unique theory of nature.
For something pretty weird, see this from the latest Notices of the AMS. There’s more about the activities of its author on Robert Helling’s weblog. The new issue of the Notices also contains an article about the 2006 NSF budget request for mathematics.
Update: Lubos Motl has his own comments on Smolin’s article, together with a link to some site where someone seems to have posted the article without attribution.