Nobel Prize Announced

Well, it looks like I was right to not try and guess this year’s Nobel Prize, since it has been awarded for work in an area of physics I know nothing about. None of the commenters here managed to guess correctly either. The prize goes to Glauber, Hall and Hänsch for work in the field of optics.

Roy Glauber is 80 years old now, and taught the first quantum field theory course I ever took. At the time I was an undergraduate at Harvard and the course was way over my head. All I remember from it now is that it involved a lot of writing down and manipulating long formulas involving mode expansions and annihilation and creation operators. I did end up with some facility in doing this, but didn’t much understand what it all meant. Buried somewhere in my office should be notes for that course, perhaps I’ll try and dig them up and take a look at them, since I suspect I can probably now appreciate much better what Glauber was trying to teach than I could way back then.

Congratulations to Glauber, Hall and Hänsch!

Update: Hongbao Zhang didn’t guess the prize winner’s names, but he did correctly guess that it would go to physicists in the field of quantum optics. Congratulations!

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42 Responses to Nobel Prize Announced

  1. MathPhys says:

    I thought I knew about the physics Nobel prize before the news is posted on “Not Even Wrong”, but I was wrong!

    Thank you, Peter, for a very informative, and up-to-the-minute blog. I regularly find information here that I would otherwise almost surely miss.

  2. D R Lunsford says:

    I remember reading some interesting papers by him regarding some issue in the Dirac theory, long ago..

    -drl

  3. Zelah says:

    Hi Hongbaozhang,

    Please provide evidence for your assertion!

    An amateur mathematician

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  5. Aswin says:

    Was Mandel unfortunate to miss out ??

  6. Zelah says:

    Hi everyone,

    Although I am disappointed that Astrophysics and in paticular Dark Matter did not win, I have been educated about a little known field called Quantum Optics.

    Personally, I am now trying to see how QOptics have effected the other fields of physics!

    Congratulations

    Glauber Hall and Hansch.

  7. Eric Baum says:

    Hi Peter,
    I took Glauber’s course, with similar comments to you. (Maybe the year before? Or were we in the same course?) But aside from the annihilation and creation op calcs that went on for months which I was struggling to follow, what I remember clearest was Ginsparg’s reaction. He was a year or two older, and may well have completely understood the stuff (he definitely aced the tests) and rather pointedly read the newspaper in class every day by way of hinting to the old prof that he should move on to something more current ;^)

  8. woit says:

    Hi Eric,

    Probably the same course. You were a year ahead of me, but I was taking this course at a point I was ridiculously unprepared for it. That’s what happens when you have an undergraduate advisor who will sign anything you put in front of him.

    I also remember Ginsparg and his newspaper. But I was never sure whether or not he did that in all his classes.

  9. Eric Baum says:

    I was helaciously unprepared for it too. I think I must have been a soph, because I know Ginsparg was a year ahead of me, and we took Glashow’s group reps together the next year (which I also was not sufficiently prepared for and struggled in.) You couldn’t have taken Glauber as a frosh, could you?

  10. woit says:

    No, I was a sophomore, I think you must have been a junior. It was the academic year 1976-77.

    I just found my old notes together with problem sets, exams, etc. The things Glauber did in the course that weren’t part of a normal course these days included some many-body physics, as well as more about the physics of electromagnetic fields, coherent states, resonances, etc. No path integrals, all done by canonical quantization of oscillators.

    Looking at my problems sets and exams, I’m surprised to see that I didn’t do that badly, considering how little I knew at the time.

  11. D R Lunsford says:

    Peter – funny 🙂

    I had an odd thought just now – I think equations have literally “lost their value”. That is, when people write the kind of things you see on the archive, things that are neither coherent nor interesting, and get away with it, and get promoted because if it, there has to be a deep reason. I think it started with the “coordinate-free” mania of some years ago – equations in a sense “lost their value” and one had (as in chess) both to keep in mind the trail leading from the symbol to the world, as well as the possible uses of that symbol, which, having been disconnected from numbers, is at a loss to express itself clearly. This is really why physics is (supposed to be) different from math, that is, the equations are supposed to imply a value of some sort – really “an evaluation”, while the equations in most of these papers are really just short-hand expressions for a hand-waving argument of arbitrary dubiousness – one doesn’t write equations and explain them, one explains one’s viewpoint and then draws equations to embody it. (This also explains why these people are so loud – they’re working!) The equations have no more connection, the one to the other, than does the torrent of verbiage that attempts to express the unreal – in real physics, one tends to be quiet and push on from point to point (see Einstein and Dirac).

    That is why I think string theory is dead, and Nobel Prizes keep going to those people with evaluations in their papers.

  12. MathPhys says:

    Ginsparg was a postdoc at the time. He was many years older than any of you. He was a PhD student of Wilson at Cornell.

  13. woit says:

    Just checked Ginsparg’s web-site. He got his undergraduate degree from Harvard in 1977, so Eric is right and he was one year ahead of him (Eric graduated in 78, I was in 79). Ginsparg then went off to graduate school at Cornell, came back to Harvard as Junior Fellow, later faculty member 1981-90.

  14. ksh95 says:

    Peter Woit Said:
    Looking at my problems sets and exams, I’m surprised to see that I didn’t do that badly, considering how little I knew at the time

    That always scared the hell out of me. Classes I was unprepared for, where I knew I didn’t understand the material on a deep level…but somehow managed to get an A.

    I guess that says something about a physicist’s (at least this one’s) abilty to mass produce problem solutions, regardless of deep understanding.

  15. Luboš Motl says:

    “..Nobel Prize, since it has been awarded for work in an area of physics I know nothing about…”

    Wow, cool – it seemed finally like a Nobel prize for string theory. 🙂

  16. woit says:

    Hi Lubos,

    Any predictions about something you might really know about, the IgNobels to be awarded Thursday evening at Sanders theater?

    I’m predicting that string theory will be awarded an IgNobel before it gets a Nobel.

  17. JC says:

    Peter,

    Who was your undergraduate advisor, who was willing to “sign anything put in front of him”?

  18. woit says:

    Hi JC,

    My undergraduate advisor was Glashow, and he was the one who happily told me this was his policy.

  19. JC says:

    Peter,

    I remember when I was an undergrad, my advisor was a bit of a “hard ass” where he wouldn’t let anybody take courses for credit for which they did not have the prerequisites. Though I ended up sitting in on some graduate quantum field theory course (ie. not taking it for credit). I studied some basic field theory stuff on my own previously, so I wasn’t completely unprepared. Though in the end I got lost after awhile. (It was a course which covered canonical quantization of scalar, fermion, and Maxwell fields, along with basic tree level computations. The next term covered Yang-Mills and renormalization stuff, but I didn’t even bother sitting in on it after my experience of getting lost half way through the first term). Then again at the time, the courses I was actually taking for credit took priority over the field theory course. I suppose if I didn’t go to as many parties in those days, I could have worked harder at understanding the field theory stuff. At the time it was easy to let things “slide”, when one wasn’t taking it officially for credits.

    Besides quantum field theory, what other “advanced” courses did you take in undergrad?

  20. woit says:

    Actually I arrived at college with “sophomore standing” since I had passed a lot of advanced placement tests. I ended up staying four years and getting both a B.A. and an M.A. Beside’s Glauber’s field theory class, some of the other graduate classes I remember were a course on gauge theory from Weinberg, on the standard model from Alvaro de Rujula, and on particle physics from Carlo Rubbia. I also sat in on Coleman’s field theory course one year and courses on groups and representations from Howard Georgi and on constructive field theory from Arthur Jaffe. All of these were great experiences and I learned an incredible amount. The standard model was very new in those days and there was a lot of excitement around Harvard as new confirmations of the model kept coming in.

  21. Chris Oakley says:

    Peter,

    Your advisors/lecturers seem to be a “who’s who” of particle physics. It is a pity you missed out on being taught by Feynman and Gell Mann. Or did you?

  22. Nigel says:

    He certainly has Feynman’s views about ST. 😉

  23. Nigel says:

    My information for Feynman being critical of strings is the book Davies & Brown, ‘Superstrings’ 1988. I haven’t read it since 1988 so cannot quote it, but seeing that Feynman died soon after, I thought it accurately reflected his view that ST is not even wrong.

    However, searching the internet for Feynman and ST brings up claims that Gell-Man indoctrinated Feynman with it. However, I distinctly remember the interview of Feynman in ‘Superstrings’ where he point out it is useless.

  24. Tony Smith says:

    NIgel said: “… My information for Feynman being critical of strings is the book Davies & Brown, ‘Superstrings’ 1988. I haven’t read it since 1988 so cannot quote it …”.

    Here are some excerpts from Feynman’s statements in that book, at pages 194-195:
    “… I do feel strongly that this is nonsense! … I think all this superstring stuff is crazy and is in the wrong direction. … I don’t like it that they’re not calculating anything. … why are the masses of the various particles such as quarks what they are? All these numbers … have no explanations in these string theories – absolutely none! … “.

    Tony Smith
    http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

  25. Nigel says:

    Thank you very much, Tony! I thought so…

  26. Thanks Woit for your congratulations.:)
    Here are my naive reasons:
    On one hand, as is well know, Einstein published his famous papers on photon and special relativity in 1905. When we treat the quantum optics, we must put it in the framework of special relativity, unlike the eletron, we have a FW approximation, which is essentially taken seriously in condensed matter physics. I think this year’s Nobel Prize should give quantum optics in memory of our great Einstein. Cerntainly, it is the best way!(Einstein’s own Nobel prize seemed to be late for his contribibutions to the fundamental phsics)
    On the other hand, quantum optics deserves this Nobel prize in its own right. quantum optics not only plays a special role in demonstrating the striking properties of quantum mechanics, but also initiatiates many new technologies and possess wind applications.

  27. goeppert says:

    I think string theory was still in its earliest state of inception, which makes feynman’s conclusion about ST rather premature . It should be taken with a grain of salt.

  28. woit says:

    In the mid-80s when Feynman was criticizing string theory it still seemed possible that the theory had only a small number of vacuum states, one of which would give the standard model. Even so, Feynman was skeptical that this would work, and I think the idea that the Landscape and other evidence of string theory’s failure over the last twenty years would change his mind and make him favor the theory is kind of laughable.

  29. Tony Smith says:

    goeppert said “I think string theory was still in its earliest state of inception, which makes feynman’s conclusion about ST rather premature . It should be taken with a grain of salt. “.

    The date of Feynman’s interview statement in the Brown and Davies book:
    “… I do feel strongly that this is nonsense! … I think all this superstring stuff is crazy and is in the wrong direction. …”
    was probably 1987, which seems to me to be long enough after Schwarz’s talk at the 1984 APS DPF Santa Fe meeting for Feynman (who was at CalTech with Schwarz during that time) to have formed a NON-premature conclusion about superstring theory.

    Here are excerpts from the Brown and Davies book that support a 1987 date for the Feynman interview: “… In 1987 we decided to review the state of superstring research by making a documentary on the subject of BBC Radio 3. … The programme … was broadcast in early 1988 … we felt that it would be worthwhile publishing the interviews in a fuller and more permanent form. …”.

    As to whether or not Feynman changed his mind at a later date, bear in mind that, according to the Brown and Davies book, Feynman “…died in early 1988.”.

    Tony Smith
    http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

  30. scott says:

    Just to corroborate Feynman’s distaste for string theory. In the book Feynman’s rainbow, by some dude who postdoced at tech, it was mentioned that string theory upset him so much that his doctor encouraged him not to discuss it. According to the to rumor, according to this book, schwartz was kept on(before the string fad caught on) as faculty because of Gell-Mann’s influence and that he did this primarily to agravate Feynman. Also it seems his criticism was mostly about string theory’s disconnect from experiment something which hasn’t changed at all.

  31. Renormalized says:

    ” I do feel strongly that this is nonsense! … I think all this superstring stuff is crazy and is in the wrong direction. … I don’t like it that they’re not calculating anything. … why are the masses of the various particles such as quarks what they are? All these numbers … have no explanations in these string theories – absolutely none!”

    What a bomb up Motl’s butt! Thats the price you pay for following the crowd. String physics should be reclassified as Speculative Physical Interpretation Translation. SPIT

  32. JC says:

    Besides Feynman, who else was anti-string in those days? I vaguely remember Glashow being somewhat vocal against string theory in the 1980’s. Don’t know about today if he’s still anti-string.

  33. woit says:

    Glashow is as opposed to string theory as ever. He and Feynman are the only very well-known theorists I can think of who were very vocally anti-string theory in the mid-eighties. Many others were privately skeptical, but not about to complain publicly.

  34. D R Lunsford says:

    Finkelstein was of the opinion that it was “horseshit” in the mid 80s. (He was right.)

    -drl

  35. Tony Smith says:

    Peter, you knew Weinberg through “… a course on gauge theory from Weinberg …” as a Harvard undergraduate in the 1970s, and you got your Ph.D. under Curtis Callan in 1984.

    By any chance, did you attend the 1984 APS DPF Santa Fe meeting (October-November 1984) ? Curtis Callan gave a talk on “Anomalies and Fermion Zero Modes on Axion Strings”, but my question is whether you have any recollection about how that meeting affected the course of superstring theory.

    IIRC, at the meeting there was a lot of uncertainty about whether or not superstring theory should be accepted or not. Schwarz (with his colleague Hamidi) was to give a superstring talk, and Weinberg was at the meeting. Weinberg’s influence then was HUGE, and almost everybody was wondering (1) would Weinberg attend Schwarz’s talk and (2) if he did, would he like the superstring theory or would he just read newspapers*.
    Schwarz’s talk was in a large room, with front and back doors. Just before the talk, Weinberg was not seated, but just as the talk began Weinberg appeared, standing in the back doorway. At the end of the talk, Weinberg announced that superstring theory would be the approach that he would follow and (almost) everybody there immediately followed suit.

    Around 1987, Weinberg also gave an interview that was published in the Brown and Davies book, in which Weinberg confirmed his enthusiasm for superstrings, saying “… string theory … is very beautiful, very promising and it’s had qualitative successes so far in making a lot fof things come out right when it wasn’t clear how they could ever come out right – things having to do with gravity. …”.

    Why do you think that Weinberg’s enthusiasm had more influence over the late-1980s physics community than the skepticism of Feynman and Glashow?

    IIRC, in the 1980s there was some rivalry between Weinberg and Glashow with respect to how much money they might be offered to move from Harvard to Texas (Weinberg) or Texas A&M (Glashow).

    Tony Smith
    http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

    * – IIRC, Weinberg was famous for reading newspapers during lectures by others. Could Ginsparg have picked up that habit from Weinberg?

  36. Peter says:

    Hi Tony,

    Don’t know where Ginsparg got his reading habits, but, with a few exceptions, the Harvard physics faculty consisted of people not exactly known for being considerate towards others.

    There was a rumor that Glashow might go to Texas A and M, getting paid as much as the football coach ($500,000), and more than Weinberg. Supposedly Glashow’s friends had a t-shirt made up, saying on one side $500,000, on the other “and worth every penny of it”. Glashow and Weinberg were famous for not getting along, with Glashow referring to the Higgs mechanism in the Weinberg-Salam model as “Weinberg’s toilet”.

    I didn’t go to the 1984 Santa Fe meeting. That fall I had left Princeton and started a postdoc at Stony Brook. At that time, the person everyone was looking to for leadership was Witten not Weinberg. You just can’t overestimate how influential Witten was at the time. He had for several years been producing a stream of amazing work, and the appearance of each of his papers was a huge event. By then he was working full time on string theory and telling everyone else it was the way to go. I’m sure Weinberg was heavily influenced by Witten in his decision to work on string theory. The fact that people like Weinberg fell in line behind Witten certainly added to the momentum behind string theory, but Witten was the driving force. By then I don’t think too many people cared what Feynman thought, and Glashow was also no longer that influential. I think most people just saw Feynman as too old, and Glashow as getting old and not capable of learning the sophisticated mathematics needed to do string theory.

  37. Arun says:

    Q – is there a Nobel due for neutrino physics?

  38. MathPhys says:

    If I remember correctly, Green and Schwartz’ SO(32) anomaly cancellation superstring paper appeared in August 1984. They wrote it during the summer meeting at Aspen.

    Witten’s first paper on superstrings, which starts with “In a stunning development”, appeared about 2 weeks later, if not less. So that must have been September, at the latest.

    The 3rd paper on the subject was by Green, Schwartz and West, and that was a couple of weeks after Witten’s. It was really only after Witten’s paper that everyone dropped whatever they were doing and jumped on the superstring bandwagon.

    It should be easy to check these dates. All 3 papers appeared in Phys Lett B.

  39. John Baez says:

    Chris Oakley wrote:

    Peter,

    Your advisors/lecturers seem to be a “who’s who? of particle physics. It is a pity you missed out on being taught by Feynman and Gell Mann. Or did you?

    These guys taught at Caltech, not at Harvard like the guys Peter mentioned.

    Tony Smith writes:

    Why do you think that Weinberg’s enthusiasm had more influence over the late-1980s physics community than the skepticism of Feynman and Glashow?

    My guess is that particle physics had to go somewhere, and the people saying where it shouldn’t go were unable to say where it should go.

    Despite all the flaws of string theory, it’s clearly been an incredibly rich research program, with lots of interesting things for lots of people to do. Feynman and Glashow presented no comparably rich research program.

    Most of the really interesting results of string theory have been mathematical in nature: it may never win a Nobel prize, but there have already been at least 3 Fields medals based on work related to string theory (Witten, Borcherds and Kontsevich). So, it’s possible that in the long run string theory will be seen as a research program that lured a bunch of very smart physicists into mathematics – not necessarily a bad thing, given the somewhat stagnant state of experimental particle physics.

  40. Chris Oakley says:

    John,

    The bad thing is not that String theory lured physicists into mathematics; it is that these people pretended and continue to pretend that what they do is not only physics, but the most important physics anyone was ever doing. This is just dishonest.
    It is also damaging, as it blocks those who have their own ideas about QFT but refuse to sign up for quasi-religious mathematical cults.

  41. Tony Smith says:

    John Baez said “… particle physics had to go somewhere, and the people … were unable to say where it should go. … string theory will be seen as … not necessarily a bad thing, given the somewhat stagnant state of experimental particle physics. …”.

    Chris Oakley said “… String theory … people … pretended and continue to pretend that what they do is not only physics, but the most important physics anyone was ever doing. This is … damaging, as it blocks those who have their own ideas about QFT but refuse to sign up for quasi-religious mathematical cults. …”.

    In fact, there were (and are) some possibly fruitful lines of work in physics, both experimental and theoretical, that were (and are) suppressed by the string-dominated physics community during the past 20 years. In other words, some of what John Baez considers to be stagnation, I consider to be caused by repression.

    I will list a few examples, which I think support the position of Chris Oakley. Although some of them are related to my work, they are just as interesting if you totally disregard my work, so this list is NOT intended as a complaint about consideration (or lack thereof) of my work.

    1 – Supergravity was abandoned, on the grounds that it was thought not to be finite at high orders. Ironically, the superstring people have quite recently sought to revive supergravity. If the superstringers had not suppressed supergravity work 20 years ago, maybe we would already know the answers to the supergravity finiteness questions now being raised by superstringers. (See Peter Woit’s recent blog entry “Is N=8 Supergravity Finite?”.)

    2 – With respect to experiment, consider the analysis of experimental data about the T-quark. The book “The Evidence for the Top Quark”, by Kent W. Staley (Cambridge 2004) says (here XXX represents the name of someone who afaik has not participated in Peter Woit’s blog discussions – you can see who XXX is by reading the book): “… XXX … objected that “[w]ith the Godparents for the top analysis becoming a part of the closed analysis group the principle of independent internal review has been abandoned … XXX … thought … a top signal … was marginal and being railroaded through … XXX also complained that discrepancies appeared in some distributions … XXX … described “a few hints that the simplest hypothesis that the top candidate events are just the t tbar events and SM background may not be entirely correct” …”.
    Perhaps non-consensus analysis of T-quark data might shed light not only of the nature of the T-quark, but also on whether or not the Higgs might be a T – Tbar composite, or closely related to such a composite.

    3 – Work attempting to explore the connections between the math/geometric structures of bounded symmetric domains and particle theory has been suppressed, for example by a December 1989 Physics Today Reference Frame article by David Gross that ridiculed the work of Armand Wyler. I am not saying that Wyler found a good physics model, but I am saying that he found coincidences between the fine structure constant and math/geometric structures that should have been seen as good reason to do further work exploring the possible utility of such an approach, and that such exploration should be worthy of funding and support.

    4 – SU(5) GUT models were and are totally abandoned, based on statements that proton decay neutrino observations showed a too-long proton lifetime, even though reasonable alternative definitions of background might give a proton lifetime within the range of GUT models. ( See for example hep-ex/0008074. )

    Of the above 4 examples (NOT an exclusive list, I regret to say), only 1 seems to me to be likely to get significant funding in the near future, and that is only because some superstringers have become hopeful that it might rescue their foundering attempts to connect with experimental results.

    Tony Smith
    http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

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