Various and Sundry

  • The proof of the fundamental lemma by Ngo has made it onto Time magazine’s list of the top ten scientific discoveries of 2009. Ngo will be visiting Columbia in the near future, and I might even end up understanding what this is about. He’s giving the Ritt lectures here later this week, and will be Eilenberg visiting professor for the Spring 2010 term, giving a series of weekly lectures.
  • The collaborative work on the Density Hales-Jewett theorem initiated by Timothy Gowers on his blog has made it into today’s New York Times magazine’s survey of the “Annual Year in Ideas”.
  • Tony Zee’s book Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell will be coming out in a second edition next year, featuring some new material covering recent advances in computing scattering amplitudes in gauge theory. The new preface is available here and has some interesting comments from Zee about the book and about QFT books in general. It also contains a response to those Amazon reviewers described as “nuts who do not appreciate the Nutshell“. I suggest that Zee get a blog, it gives one an excellent way to respond to nuts who misunderstand and don’t appreciate one’s book…
  • Last weekend there was a meeting held at Rutgers in memory of I. M. Gelfand, with some materials available here.
  • A couple weeks ago there was a very good article in Science magazine by Adrian Cho about recent discussions of the possibility of a muon collider. Since muons are much heavier than electrons, one can in principle use a storage ring to collide them without the problem of synchrotron radiation loss that limits the energy of electron-positron rings to the LEP energy scale. The fact that muons are unstable and decay fairly quickly is a huge problem. Besides making it difficult to use the “cooling” techniques needed to produce a usable beam intensity, the decay products create a very challenging environment for a detector to operate in, as well as producing neutrino intensities so high they are capable of causing problematic levels of radiation wherever they emerge from the earth.
  • C. J. Mozzochi has a page here with links to many of his wonderful photographs of mathematicians, mostly in action at various conferences or lecture series.
  • Update: One more. Last night I watched a spectacularly bad Sci-Fi movie, Annihilation Earth, brought to the world by the Syfy channel. I don’t think it’s a movie that really can be spoiled for you, so here’s a plot synopsis: three supercolliders in Geneva, Orleans and Barcelona are providing power for Western Europe. Scientists who designed them realized that in a certain configuration the critics were right, and the Higgs field would get out of control and form a black hole that would destroy the earth. Evil Arab terrorists hack into one of them and reconfigure it to self-destruct. The remaining two are all that is keeping the Higgs field from expanding exponentially and causing the black hole that will annihilate everything. One of the scientists refuses to believe the other when he explains this to him, because of the color of his skin and the fact that he’s an Arab too (although he doesn’t look it). So, in the final scene he shuts down one of the remaining super-colliders and the Earth is annihilated. I guess the film-makers should be congratulated on this innovation in sci-fi film-making, ending the film with the scientists not saving the Earth but destroying it.

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    20 Responses to Various and Sundry

    1. Wow, I am pleasantly surprised that Ngo’s work is being recognized by Time magazine. Certainly this is huge for the Langland’s Program.

    2. Tim vB says:

      Time magazine chose Edward Witten as one of the most influential personalities of the year (or the decade or the century, I don’t remenber) some years ago.
      They must have a mathematician or physicist in their editorial staff.
      This kind of recognition is of course great news to the whole math/physics community, not only to the Langland’s program (either the reader already knows about Langland’s or (s)he will have forgotten about it seconds after reading the article :-).

    3. Arun says:

      I suggest that Zee get a blog, it gives one an excellent way to respond to nuts who misunderstand and don’t appreciate one’s book…

      But moderating the comments is a painful chore, not to be wished upon even one’s worst enemy….. 🙂

    4. sfjp says:

      About “Earth annihilation”: that’s why, by backward causation, the LHC will fail before producing any Higgs….:-)

    5. D R Lunsford says:

      Ok Peter, so why are there beekeepers in this flick? Maybe they are B-meson keepers. Huh?


    6. John Baez says:

      … but for some reason backwards causation did not prevent people from making this movie.

    7. John says:

      Hi Peter,

      I was thinking of purchasing Zee’s book to start learning some quantum field theory: do you have any specific suggestions regarding the work and/or beginning qft texts?


    8. Chris Oakley says:

      Annihilation Earth at least has the positive feature of making the public think that particle accelerators contribute to the electricity grid rather than being a massive drain on it.

    9. Peter Woit says:


      I like Zee’s book a lot, but the problem I see with it is that if you’re just beginning in the subject it doesn’t really have the kind of technical detail you need to be able to do computations yourself. It might be best used as a supplement to one of the standard, more computational texts (I like Pierre Ramond’s book since it is concise, but it doesn’t address lots of topics, a more comprehensive book with details is Peskin-Schroeder). Another recent QFT book I like a lot is V. P. Nair’s.

    10. D R Lunsford says:

      Peter, I had the same complaint about Kaku’s book (which, believe it or not, is eminently sane). A fairly recent book that I have is by Michele Maggiore – very good, sort of a Sakurai for modern times. For relativistic QM the book “Advanced QM” by Schwabl is excellent.


    11. srp says:

      Re the muon collider: I always hear these gee-whiz statements about how neurtrinos are sooo hard to detect because they don’t interact with anything and they can go through the Earth without noticing it, etc. Now you tell me that the measly decay products from an accelerator are intense enough to cause radiation issues? I demand a popular science refund!

    12. Thank you for the excellent textbooks, Peter. I also own “Nutshell” as Zee refers to his book, and find it as others do a book than likely began in intent as a non-technical popular overview of humanity’s greatest 20th century achievement, QFT, then morphed somewhere along the way into a “near”-textbook without quite achieving true textbook status.

      As a fine introduction to those who have mastered the Mathematics of Quantum Mechanics, I enjoyed “Quantum Field theory Demystified, a Self-Teaching Book”, by David McMahon, available in bookstores and targeted to the very intelligent layperson.

      As early as page 3 he makes mention of the Klein-Gordon equation with its obvious flaws, and moves quickly into the Dirac Equation. On page 4 he explains that while “x-carat” is considered an operator and “t” a parameter in QM, and one would expect the promotion of “t” to operator status in QFT, that instead “x-carat” is considered a parameter as well, and McMahon goes on from there through its slim but lovely 261 pages.

    13. Coin says:

      They call it “science fiction” but so much of the time the message seems to be “science is evil and will kill us all”.

    14. Tim vB says:

      @John on QFT books:
      I completly agree that you should definitly read the nutshell, it’s a great exposition of many beautiful concepts, but you need a supplement that gets you calculating.
      Try Voja Radovanovic: “Problem Book Quantum Field Theory” (consisting of standard problems and solutions on an introductory level).

    15. andy.s says:

      The problem with the “Demystified” series is that the publisher seems to have cheaped out on providing a proof reader. Did you know that the charge on the strange quark is +2/3? Me neither!

      Little goofs like that are all throughout the text.

    16. Haelfix says:

      I loved Zee’s book. Actually after quantum mechanics, I recommend a pedagogical introduction to particle physics (alla Griffith) to learn Feynman diagrams and how to compute various quantities like cross sections. Then read Zee, but don’t do any of the exercises.

      From there, Peskin and Schroeder is the standard field theory textbook and the one where you should spend time doing exercises and all the funky integrals. From that point on where you go depends on preference and what you are going to do in physics. I like Weinberg, b/c he goes over the whole material from scratch in a logically cohesive way and by that point you should be good enough to follow it without too much of a hitch.

    17. Gphillip says:

      I suspect fans of HEP and the LHC probably laughed all the way through the Annihilation Earth Si-Fi show, if they made it all the way through. I tried to watch, but failed to make it to the end. Thanks for the summary, now I don’t have to watch the rest of that silly stuff. Oh well, at least they didn’t have a real Physics PhD playing the lead.

    18. Coin says:

      I have an open-thread kind of question. Would anyone be able to recommend any current science books which would be a good Christmas gift for someone? I was thinking about something that would serve as kind of an introduction to the things the LHC might be looking for, and so was thinking of Oerter’s “The Theory Of Almost Everything” which is sort of an intro to the standard model, but that book is like two or three years old and I don’t know if something more appropriate or explicitly LHC-centric might be out by now. (Also it’s cheap now so I was wondering if I could find something to pair it with.) I should note the person I’m thinking of giving this gift to has like a master’s in earth sciences so it’s safe to give something math-heavy (or even just about math, if there are any math or math-history books worth recommending that came out this year).

    19. One book I would NOT recommend is the recently released “String Theory for Dummies” by Andrew Zimmerman Jones (which many here would say is the most appropriately named book of all time), because of its rather heavy PRO-strings bias, and its obviously heavy influence by Leonard Susskind. Peter, have you reviewed that book yet?

      On the positive side, I would start with journalist Louisa Gilder’s The Age of Entanglement, which covers the Quantum 11 (I include Weyl) from Planck through Dirac and on into the 21st century (with stops along the way with Feynman and Bohm) in novel form. Reads like a novel, and is vastly entertaining and inspirational, albeit math-free.

      After that, Peter’s own Not Even Wrong is excellent. I call attention to the middle so-called “hard parts” in the middle which are a brilliant example of expository writing regarding the development of Quantum Field Theory beginning with Weyl and ending with Atiyah. Of course the whole book is great but those are my favorite bits. Again, no maths, but that’s the joy, to tell such a story in prose form.

      I would then move on to the 2009 Revised Edition of The New Quantum Mechanics by Tony Hey and Patrick Walters, with the briefest introduction to the mathematics involved. My one flaw with the book is a mere 2-1/2 pages devoted to Quantum Gravity because they only mention String Theory. Peter would probably say 2-1/2 pages is the appropriate proportion to devote to QG in a 200+ page book about QM. 🙂

      Finally, for the Math buff, there’s The Road to Reality by Sir Roger Penrose. Although Sir Roger speculates quite a bit, he is polite enough to warn you ahead of time that he’s doing so. It is chock full of Math and his introduction to spinors is a classic.

    20. AlBme says:

      Regarding “Annihilation Earth”: The Sci-Fi channel started out with great promise, but badly deteriorated over the years through poor management — with some notable exceptions like “Battlestar Galactica”. When the Sci-Fi Channel changed its name to SyFy, it became one of the worst network name changes in television history. It was so appropriate to learn from my Polish friends that “syfy” in polish is the plural for “a dirty mess” — but, dirty in the way feces is dirty.

      There’s good sci-fi and bad sci-fi. This movie doesn’t have enough ‘sci’ to even qualify as bad sci-fi.

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