News From Europe

A few items with a European flavor:

  • The news from Dublin is that Witten will be in town soon to give the Hamilton Lecture, with the Irish Times reporting that

    Witten’s Hamilton Lecture will abandon string theory, however, in favour of knots, with a talk entitled: The Quantum Theory of Knots.

    He may be there the previous day, when they hold the annual Hamilton Walk, commemorating Hamilton’s discovery of quaternions and inscription of the quaternion relations on a bridge.

    In other mathematical physics coverage by the Irish Times, one of their columnists describes the interaction of the Irish revolutionary leader de Valera with Schrodinger and Dirac, speculating (humorously) that the three of them might have come up with an Irish “unified field theory.”

  • From a meeting today in Madrid, here’s an overview of theoretical particle physics in Spain. There’s the same pattern reported as has been going on in the US for a while: “moving from more formal and mathematical developments to phenomenology and also astroparticle/cosmology”, as well as trying to get theorists more involved in LHC physics. Another similar pattern to the US, the threat of “decreasing funding support for basic science in difficult economic times.”
  • The question of what future facilities for particle physics should be is not just a European one, but I fear that in practice a higher energy machine is not likely to be built anywhere except at CERN. This week at CERN there was an ICFA Seminar on Future Perspectives in HEP, which gives a good overview of the state of the field and prospects for the future. The question of what to build next to get information at the energy frontier is very unsettled, pretty much completely up in the air waiting to find out if there’s a Higgs particle or not. The SUSY and extra dimensional models used as partial selling points for the LHC are dying and won’t be convincing arguments for what the next generation should do.
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    22 Responses to News From Europe

    1. Paul Collins says:

      For a fictional treatment of Schrödinger’s time in Ireland, see Neil Belton’s “A Game With Sharpened Knives”.

    2. martibal says:

      A bit off topic, but still it is news from Europe. For those who understand italian, you should have a look at:

      For those who don’t here is the context: a few hours after the announcement of the FTL neutrino, the ministry of italian research (Mrs Gelmini) has published an official comment, where she explained this was an historical discovery, to which Italy had greatly contributed by spending, at least, 40 something millions in the construction of a tunnel between Italy and CERN ! She has not dismissed, but her spokesman yes.
      And in this very funny audio-piece, some people (I do not know who, but there are very talented), report an accident that happened in the Gelmini-tunnel, between Gran Sasso and CERN, when a neutrino tried to overcome a photon. The neutrino warn the photon with “light-signal” (sorry, I do not know the exact english term), but since he was going faster, of course, he bumped into the photon before its signal, and this made a lot of mess in the tunnel, with protons abandoned on the side of the road etc etc

    3. Bernhard says:


      great story :-).


      I wonder if the reason for the choice of Witten´s talk has more to do with the occasion or if it could be that not even Witten is willing to talk directly about string theory these days.

    4. Peter Woit says:


      During the past year or so Witten’s papers have mostly been about his research on QFT and knot theory (especially Khovanov homology), so it’s a natural topic for him to talk about. I don’t think he has given up on string theory as a unified theory, but I suspect that even he would acknowledge that there has been little progress in recent years, making it a less viable topic for the talk.

      Witten’s recent research extensively uses various dualities among QFTs. He might point out that even though these can be understood as QFT phenomena, string theory research has been responsible for insight into these in the past, so in that sense his current research still has a connection to string theory.

    5. DB says:

      If you are ever in Dublin, you can visit Kilmainham Jail, where DeValera – who founded the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies – was imprisoned after the 1916 Easter Rising, narrowly escaping execution, and where his graffiti of Hamilton’s quaterion equation can still be seen on the wall of the cell he occupied. A video of his visit to his old cell is available here.

      As to what accelerator should be built next, if there is a Higgs in the energy range not yet excluded it is unlikely to be CLIC but more probably a muon collider, once the technical problems are resolved. This we should know within months.
      If no Higgs, it will depend on what clues the LHC turns up regarding dynamical symmetry breaking among other things. It might motivate CLIC or something else entirely. But nothing is likely to happen until the LHC is much further down the road and discovers something really important, because in the absence of Higgs and SUSY, funding politicians may feel they were sold a pig in a poke. Once bitten…

    6. Sheldon Pherris says:

      Does this mean that Peter will soon start a new blog titled: Knot Even Wrong?

    7. cormac says:

      It’s a good Irish Times column, but it doesn’t explain *why* Dirac was so surprised to see de Valera at the conference. At a lecture in Dublin a few years ago, Professor Goddard of IAS Princeton explained that Dirac said he ‘ was amazed that the Irish Prime Minister could take a few days out to attend a mathematics conference!’

    8. DB says:

      Unless the story is apocryphal, such a lengthy response from Dirac to a question must surely be something of a record.

    9. Chris Oakley says:


      No necessarily. It could have gone something like this:

      Reporter: Are you amazed that the Irish Prime Minister can take a few days out to attend a mathematics conference?

      Dirac: Yes.

      De Valera’s passions, BTW, were (i) hatred of the British and (ii) mathematics, in that order. The odd combination of schools (i.e. Celtic studies and theoretical physics) at the Dublin IAS, which he founded, more or less reflect this.

    10. Stephen says:

      Peter I just read the USA Today article concerning the OPERA claims. Glad a non-stringy expert is called upon when expert advise is needed. Your comments were great.

    11. SpearMarktheSecond says:

      If no Higgs in the remaining allowed interval (115-145 GeV or so), I think we’ll know the SSC was indeed the correct machine and not the LHC. The Republicans supported the SSC (aka, the Ronald Reagan Lab); it was the Clinton administration and democratic congress that killed it.

      Newt Gingrich was a big SSC supporter.

      All uncomfortable truths, those. But maybe a light Higgs will emerge and they won’t be truths at all.

    12. RRL says:

      The SSC was born as a panic-stricken reaction to the failure of ISABELLE at BNL (=USA) and the discovery of the W (and Z) by the SppS at CERN (=Europe, aka “not USA”). An important part of the SSC mandate was to rub it into people’s faces that “America has the biggest accelerator in the world”. Yes indeed the SSC was supported (enthusiastically, I might add) by Ronald Reagan. The (papa) Bush administration continued the SSC. Yes indeed the SSC was cancelled by the Clinton administration. But it is also true that DOE micromanaged the SSC from the start, and it is also true, in these modern times, that every new administration cancels the projects of its predecessor (if from the opposing party). The SSC was part of US-HEP, so it gets mentioned on a blog like this. But other non-HEP special interest groups will point to their own pet programs, which got cut by some incoming administration, Democrat or Republican.

    13. Eric says:

      Actually, it is not true that the Clinton administration canceled the SSC. The Clinton administration actually supported the SSC, though not as enthusiastically as Bush/Reagan. It was really opposition in Congress that killed it, due largely over political jealousy from other states over Texas having two big ticket items, the SSC and the space station. If the SSC had been designated for some other state, say Nevada or Illinois, then it would have been built. Also, there was a lot of opposition from physicists in other research areas who were upset that high-energy physics was receiving so much funding.

    14. ssc says:

      Most of that is true. But if the SSC had been designated for some other state, such as Nevada or Illinois, the SSC proposal might not have been approved at all. There was a lot of jealousy from non-HEP physicists. They thought that if the SSC was cancelled, the funding would go into their pockets, e.g. solid-state. This proved to be both greedy and wrong. The cancellation of the SSC led to a general reduction in physics funding overall. However it is also true that the SSC was mismanaged. The estimated cost kept going up and up, and it was clear that the proponents were just telling lies, and it eventually became too much for Congress.

    15. RayGun says:

      As I recall, Reagan was also enthusiastic about the atomic-bomb driven space-based X-ray laser as part of his Star Wars anti-missile fantasies; I wonder if he somehow
      saw the SSC as linked to this?

    16. Ilya says:

      “Comments that just add noise and/or hostility are not.” Does the post by RayGun above belong to the aforementioned category?

    17. Peter Woit says:


      I’m not sure that Raygun’s contribution was any more objectionable than others but I’ll agree that the “who to blame for the SSC clusterf–k” discussion is off-topic anyway, and political arguments about it generally contain more noise than signal. There was plenty of blame to go around on that one. Enough about it here.

    18. cormac says:

      DB and Chris:
      Dirac’s comment on Dev was not verbal, but contained in a letter (to his wife, I think) describing the DIAS conference and Dublin in general

    19. piscator says:

      In regards to the DIAS and the presence of both Celtic studies and theoretical physics, I think it is appropriate to repeat the waggish Irish Catholic comment that the purpose of the Institute was to prove that there was no God and two Saint Patricks.

    20. D R Lunsford says:

      When I was visiting Dublin in the mid-80s, of course one of my prime destinations was the Broom Bridge. I was surprised to find in surrounded by a typical US-style suburb. The Royal Canal had some sad-looking water in it, not at all reminiscent of a pastoral scene involving W.R. and Lady Hamilton. The bridge itself is very narrow and small cars were zipping by as I examined the stone railing. “This is dangerous!” I thought. Just about then a guy slowed down as he passed me and stuck his head and shoulders out the window…

      He smiled and shouted at me – “Ya wooon’t find it! Ya wooon’t!!”

      I gave up 🙂


    21. Artie says:

      DR Lunsford: “typical US-style suburb”? My wife, who moved from the US to Cabra (the suburb in question) about ten years ago, would be amused by that one…

      I agree, though, that the surroundings are less than idyllic. As you mention, the bridge doesn’t even have a footpath! I’ve risked being run over a couple of times to bring visitors there, only to see their faces fall at the sad, worn-down little plaque under the bridge. (Not to mention the shopping trolleys and traffic cones floating down the canal.)

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