Various and Sundry

  • It seems that Jean-Pierre Serre now spends his time commenting on blogs.
  • For those interested in particle physics history, there’s an interesting article by George Zweig here about his role in the discovery of quarks (which he called “aces”).
  • There’s a very nice new survey article by Mikhail Shifman about QCD, especially about hopes to exploit supersymmetric models to better understand non-perturbative issues.
  • Blogger String Theory Fan still gets hits from the trackback to his blog entry over there. Trackbacks to hep-th papers from here still seem to be censored, but people find out about the postings anyway. For instance, the authors of this recent paper have put out a revised version adding a reference to the earlier calculation in the math literature pointed out here.
  • If you like listening to talks by Nobel Laureates, there’s a whole bunch here.
  • One person who is more than distinguished enough to be a Nobel Laureate but isn’t one since he made the mistake of being born too late is Edward Witten. Last week he was in Europe collecting other well-deserved medals: the Lorentz Medal in Amsterdam and the Newton Medal in London. Evidently he was giving two talks, one for the public and one more technical. The public one was entitled String Theory and the Universe and probably not to my taste. It should appear at some point here, but for now there’s a report here at Physics World. Michael Green introduced Witten with the accurate title of “Master of the Path Integral”. The more technical one may have better shown off Witten’s mastery; it had the fascinating title of A New Look At The Path Integral of Quantum Mechanics, and I’m hoping it will appear soon here (or maybe a commenter who has heard the talk in Amsterdam or elsewhere can tell us more about it…)
  • While I’m not sure how strongly Witten feels about string theory these days, there’s not much ambiguity in the case of Michio Kaku. He was on the Colbert Report Monday night and has a recent blog entry arguing that We Physicists Are the Only Scientists Who Can Say the Word “God” and Not Blush:

    As you know, I work in something called String Theory which makes the statement that we are reading the mind of God. It’s based on music or little vibrating strings thus giving us particles that we see in nature. The laws of chemistry that we struggled with in high school would be the melodies that you can play on these vibrating strings. The Universe would be a symphony of these vibrating strings and the mind of God that Einstein wrote about at length would be cosmic music resonating through this nirvana… through this 11 dimensional hyperspace—that would be the mind of God. We physicists are the only scientists who can say the word “God” and not blush.

    If you’re in New York and want to help him defeat a Cyborg Army on July 16th, see this.

  • As for me, I’m heading soon for Patagonia to try and see another eclipse. After that I’ll be traveling in South America for a couple weeks, won’t be able to help with the Cyborgs since I should be somewhere around Lake Titicaca on the 16th. Comments may get shutdown temporarily here for a while, partly because of the hundreds of spam comments coming in here each day, not all of which get caught by the spam filter, making some on-going maintenance necessary.
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    30 Responses to Various and Sundry

    1. Tim van Beek says:

      Michio Kaku…was on the Colbert Report Monday night

      …and he got applause for announcing the upcoming invention of invisibility cloaks and time travels, so all you physicists: Get to work! You don’t want to disappoint the customers!

      (But if you are a little bit like me, you might want to hide behind a nearby bush, crying).

    2. DaveB says:

      Good luck with the weather Patagonia.

      I have been planning to go climbing or trekking there for years, but it has a reputation as one of the wettest places on the planet.

    3. Doug Henning says:

      W.r.t. Witten, don’t you mean born too early, since experimental evidence for strings won’t be found until those light-year-radius particle accelerators get built a thousand years hence?

      P.S. Enjoy Patagonia. Good luck hanging out with gauchos, rheas, titanosaur bones, and assorted Nazis-in-hiding.

    4. Dave B says:

      Don’t forget the patagonian welsh!

    5. Mark Decker says:

      “Reading the mind of God” sounds dangerously close to those fanatics who “hear the voice of God.” Thanks for the heads up. At least we know how grandiose your string delusion has become.
      And although you can make statements like that without blushing – please know that I am embarrassed for you.

    6. I don’t understand the Witten comment either. Has any Nobel Prize ever been given for the sort of work that Witten does?

    7. Peter Woit says:

      Witten’s work is not just mathematical, but covers a lot of ground. The more mathematical end of it has been the most successful, but that’s partly because, in the thirty-some years of his career, no particle theorist at all has had the kind of success that leads to a Nobel Prize. If Witten had been born ten-twenty years earlier, I’d bet that he would have played some sort of important role in the development of the Standard Model, of a sort that would have involved a Nobel prize.

    8. twistingthenightaway says:

      Witten’s “new look” is all about A-branes and provides a neat explanation of some things hinted at earlier in a paper of him and Gukov. He will publish it in due time I guess. Nothing new about quantum mechanics… that is, apart from Witten’s clear explanation of some of the more arcane points of path integral lore.

      p.s. As it was a whiteboard talk nothing will appear on the workshop website.

    9. AK-47 says:

      Serre just corrected an absurd misinterpretation of the word character by “Nigel” . To say that Serre now spends his time commenting on blogs is a tad hyperbolic….

    10. schieghoven says:

      “Witten’s “new look” is all about A-branes…”

      I don’t quite agree. Mostly the talk (at Imperial) was about deforming path integrals into the complex domain in order to improve the convergence… the A-branes came in at the end, as an application. I thought the preceding ideas were valuable in their own right.

    11. Mitch Miller says:

      Witten could have had a shot at a Nobel for asymptotic freedom if he had just decided to work for Gross right after undergrad.

    12. D R Lunsford says:

      There is an earlier retrospective by Zweig from 1980, here:


    13. Mike Shain says:

      Don’t forget to read “In Patagonia” by Bruce Chatwin. Look at the reviews on Amazon.

    14. Shantanu says:

      Hi, Peter or anyone else,
      Does someone know of any interesting new results or blogs form GR19 conference?

    15. D R Lunsford says:

      How’s the weather in Argentina/Chile? Looks good for Easter Island. The eclipse perfectly brackets the World Cup Final, so 2012 may be early. If the Moai start blinking, run.


    16. Anonymous says:

      Witten could have had a shot at a Nobel for asymptotic freedom if he had just decided to work for Gross right after undergrad.

      Asymptotic freedom is great, but discovering something that others would have discovered anyway (in hindsight) doesn’t make you a genius of Witten’s caliber. Einstein was a genius because without him, it might have been several decades later that GR was discovered.

    17. chimpanzee says:

      It was raining Sat Easter Island, partly cloudy for Sunday. Eclipse was clear (some wispy clouds), cloud interference @3rd contact. D. Fischer (German science writer) had clear skies from Patagonia:

      Cook Islands (Mangaia) & French Polynesia (Hao atoll) had cloud issues, but some got clear skies:


    18. chris says:

      witten is a bit too formal for a physics nobel. but the proof of the cake is the eating … let’s wait and see.

    19. martibal says:

      Anonymous: it seems that Hilbert was not far from discovering GR as well. And also special relativity may have been discovered, maybe not exactly in this form, by Poincare. This does not deny anything to Einstein genius, but making a great discovery is also a matter of luck, being at work at the right moment in time.
      What about if physics (at least high energy physics) is just entering a period of one or two centuries without major discoveries ? This might be the case, not due to the lack of bright minds, but because nature and our current knowledge (e.g. we do not have the good experimental tools to get new information, and not the good mathematical tools to understand our current theories in a way allowing to make significant progress) may be such that there cannot be major discoveries in this specific argument before ages.
      I have just read (do not remember where) that Einstein refused to be instructed in social science (and I guess biology as well ?) because he thought these were areas to well understood and there was nothing to discover here. Maybe high energy physics is to well understood at the moment and this is not the subject where big discoveries will be made.

    20. Peter Woit says:

      Unusually clear skies here in Patagonia, all the way down to the horizon. So we had perfect conditions and a beautiful eclipse just before sunset. Headed back to Buenos Aires, then on to Bolivia and Peru.

    21. Chris W. says:

      I have just read (do not remember where) that Einstein refused to be instructed in social science (and I guess biology as well ?) because he thought these were areas to well understood and there was nothing to discover here.

      I seriously doubt it. If anything, he thought that these fields were simply not amenable to the kind of theoretical understanding that he had come to admire in physics, and were therefore not to his taste. More precisely, they were replete with mind-numbing empirical detail, and lacking any examples of effective and testable unifying theoretical frameworks to make sense of all these observations.

    22. Sakura-chan says:

      Hi DRL,

      In that paper of Zweig that you linked to, in the epilogue on page 36 he talks about his appointment to a leading university being blocked by a senior theorist. Is he talking about Chew?

    23. Charles says:

      You should have gone to Bariloche to do some trekking…it´s very cheap (or maybe visit el Glaciar Perito Moreno, but that is a lot more expensive).

    24. martibal says:

      Chris W.: well, my source may not be very reliable indeed, since this is the french wikipedia page:
      “Il fait ses études primaires et secondaires à la Hochschule d’Aargau en Suisse, où il obtient son diplôme le 30 septembre 1896. Il a d’excellents résultats en mathématiques, mais refuse de s’instruire en biologie et en sciences humaines, car il ne perçoit pas l’intérêt d’apprendre des disciplines qu’il estime déjà largement explorées. Il considère alors la science comme le fruit de la raison humaine et de la réflexion.”
      But this statement is not referenced, and does not seem to appear on the german or english version.

    25. Peter Woit says:


      Spent the morning before the eclipse at Perito Moreno, which really is spectacular.

    26. Martin says:

      Judging from his website, wikipedia entry, the ever growing book no the subject and his scientific publications, Hagen Kleinert would surely think that he deserves the title “Master of the Path Integral” ;-).

    27. Pingback: Darkness at Noon « Log24

    28. D R Lunsford says:

      Sakura-Chan, I doubt it. I have my own know^h^h^h^hopinion on who it is but will not spread rumors in public.


    29. anon. says:

      Hope you start blogging again soon. There is little worth reading on the internet at present.

    30. Peter Woit says:


      Thanks, although I seem to have chosen a good time to go on vacation. In Peru on the Amazon now, heading back home soon, at work again on Monday. Will attempt to resume your regularly scheduled programming soon after that.