Interview With Alain Connes

Someone wrote in to tell me about a very interesting interview with Alain Connes, conducted at the IPM in Teheran at the time of the Workshop on Non-Commutative Geometry held there this past September.

As always, Connes has quite a few provocative things to say, including some harsh criticisms of the way string theory research is conducted (this in spite of the fact that the Institute hosting him is dominated by string theorists):

The only thing I resent in string theory is that they put in the mind of people that it is the only theory that can give the answer or they are very close to the answer. That I resent. For people who have enough background it is fine since they know all the problems that block the road like the cosmological constant, the supersymmetry breaking, etc., etc.. But if you take people who are beginners in physics programs and brainwash them from the very start it is really not fair. Young physicists should be completely free, but it is very hard with the actual system.

Connes also has many interesting comments about non-commutative geometry and about his own career, including the fact that he went off in the direction he did because he was put off by the arrogance of the algebraic geometers at the IHES. He also has a lot to say about the importance of having a system like the French CNRS system that allows talented young researchers to develop a long-term research program without too much pressure to achieve quick results. He is quite scornful about the US university system, which he sees as emphasizing money and subjecting young people to huge pressures to work in well-established areas instead of trying to do something new and ambitious.

The interview also contains quite a few amusing stories. In one of them Connes tells about a well-known string theorist who walked out of his talk at Chicago because he wasn’t very interested, but two years later was paying rapt attention to the same talk when Connes gave it at Oxford. When Connes asked him about this, the physicist told him that the difference was that in the meantime he had heard that Witten had been seen reading Connes’s book in the library at Princeton.

On a completely different topic, there’s a nice review article by Edward Frenkel on the Langlands program and conformal field theory. Witten has new ideas about this subject and how it is related to S-duality in four-dimensional gauge theory. I hear he has been working on a paper on the subject since this summer, and that it should appear imminently.

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37 Responses to Interview With Alain Connes

  1. Aaron Bergman says:

    The paper on Langlands is by Kapustin and Witten and should hopefully appear soon, but I don’t know when.

  2. QWERTY says:

    YOUR LINKS ARE TEH DED!!1!

    I WANT TO READ THE INTERVIEW WITH ALAIN CONNES AND I CANNOT. I AM DESPARATE TO LEARN ALL ABOUT NON-COMMUTITIVE FROBENIUS ALGEBRAS AND HOW TO VISUALIZE ASOCIATED COBORDISMS IN 2D QFT, AND ALSO GENERALLY DRAW ALEPH-ONE INSPIRATIONS FROM HIS WISE FRENCH WORDS AND REFINED YET SARDONIC DEMEANOR.

    PLEASE ADVISE.

  3. Adrian Heathcote says:

    I’ve been a great admirer of Connes for some years. I think he has great intellectual honesty and courage—and judging by his KITP talks a good sense of humour. (And speaking of the KITP talks he took on that audience (trial by interruption!) and won.)

  4. Thomas Larsson says:

    What caught my eye in Frenkel’s lecture was the statement on the top of page 27:

    “Before we get to that, we want to comment on why is it that we only consider curves and not higher dimensional varieties. The point is that while function fields on curves are very similar to number fields, the fields of functions on higher dimensional varieties have a very different structure. [...] At the moment no one knows how to formulate an analogue of the Langlands correspondence for the field of functions on an algebraic variety of dimension greater than one, and finding such a formulation is a very important open problem.”

    Since geometric Langlands is evidently closely related to the affine and Virasoro algebras, perhaps their higher-dimensional analogues have something to do with a higher-dimensional Langlands. Or perhaps not.

  5. Adrian Heathcote says:

    QWERTY

    Try now.

  6. Tony Smith says:

    In the IPM interview at http://www.ipm.ac.ir/IPM/news/connes-interview.pdf Connes said:

    “… The true question is whether or not string theory has anything to do with reality … That key question begins by supersymmetry; whether or not nature is supersymmetric … If one would already have found 3 or 4 super partners by now, then I would believe they would find the others but in reality they haven’t found any and because of that I’m very skeptical. … The supersymmetric standard model is an horrible thing … with more than a hundred free parameters and an ugly mechanism to break that “beautiful” unseen supersymmetry! …
    I think it’s very important to construct other competing models which are not necessarily based on supersymmetry. I think it is crucial for the development of physics that there are people who are courageous enough not to follow the main dogma, heretics that develop a different model.

    From my point of view the actual system in the US really discourages people who are truly original thinkers … The US are successful mostly because they import very bright scientists from abroad. For instance they have imported all of the Russian mathematicians at some point.

    I believe that the most successful systems so far were these big institutes in the Soviet union, like the Landau institute, the Steklov institute, etc. Money did not play any role there, the job was just to talk about science.

    the way the young people … in the US … get their position on the market creates “feudalities” namely a few fields well implanted in key universities which reproduce themselves leaving no room for new fields. … Beginners have little choice but to find an adviser that is sociologically well implanted … so that at a later stage he or she will be able to write the relevant recommendation letters and get a position for the student … all these letters look alike in their emphatic style. The result is that there are very few subjects which are emphasized and keep producing students and of course this does not create the right conditions for new fields to emerge. …”.

    Since I am a patriotic citizen of the USA, I wish that I could disagree with Connes, but as one who works on heretical non-supersymmetric physics models and has been blacklisted by the Cornell arXiv, I cannot.

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

  7. Chris Oakley says:

    Tony,

    Although I could never possibly agree with Connes’ attitudes towards QFT, I think that his analysis of the research machine, especially in the U.S., is right on the button.
    In view of this, if you are being blackballed by the ArXiv you should should regard it as flattery of the most sincere kind.

  8. Doug says:

    I would like to know who the top 10 “heretics” are. It appears that Danny and Tony are considered “heretics,” but would they make the top 10 list? What is the difference between “crackpots” and “heretics?” If mainstream string theory is “not even wrong.” then is it heretical?

  9. anon says:

    Doug, string theorists are crackpots. Real scientists are always heretics to religious dogma which has no evidence.

    All those who believe in the mainstream because it is fashionable are crackpots. Dawkins states you have to be open minded in science, but not so much so that your brains fall out completely

  10. Anonymous says:

    QWERY IS THE BEST COMMETNAR EVAR LOLLERSKATES

    But seriously, I think there is an important issue here regarding the US university system, and it’s much more important than your typical string theory complaints, Peter. Or perhaps your usual string theory complaints are just a specific instance of a broader problem. And that problem is that young people have to sustain a high rate of publications. As soon as one reaches the point that they begin publishing, one has little freedom to spend a long time delving into a hard problem. If one wishes to work on very difficult problems, one needs lots of publishable intermediate results. Also, one should be sure to publish things mainstream enough to help one get jobs.

    This isn’t a completely terrible situation; academics, even young ones, still have considerable freedom, and some sort of politics and job pressures are unavoidable. But I think the culture could change in some beneficial ways.

    Of course, it doesn’t help that a lot of the much-touted less mainstream ideas have blatantly obvious problems, so that nearly everyone outside the mainstream is crackpot or borderline crackpot.

  11. woit says:

    Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks for your comment. I do think the problem of young scientists being forced by the job market to stick to research with a quick payoff is a significant part of the problem with string theory (and have written about this in various places, including my first public critique of string theory, from about 5 years ago). Particle physics is suffering more than most subjects from this because it is a victim of its own success: the standard model is too successful and it is very hard to see how to get beyond it. Progress in this field will probably require a major conceptual leap in a new direction, not just small incremental advances, and the way the US academic system is organized makes it much harder for a young theorist to try and do this without committing professional suicide.

    The physics community needs to acknowledge this problem and start thinking about ways to deal with it. But one reason I’ve focused on the issue of getting people to acknowledge the failure of string theory based unification is that as long as the perception is that string theory is a viable idea making progress towards its goals, people are unlikely to agree that this kind of action needs to be taken.

    While making it easier for young people to work on more ambitious research programs would help, that by itself probably won’t do the trick. A French string theorist friend correctly points out to me that young theorists in France with its CNRS system, and in some other similar European systems, haven’t done much better than those in the US in terms of coming up with something new.

    It’s very difficult to figure out how to properly structure a reward system to encourage the kind of difficult, long term speculative work in new directions that particle physics needs. But I believe before this can be addressed, first the physics community has to realize how big a problem this is, and that some dramatic changes in traditional ways of doing business are needed.

  12. Steve says:

    I do not wish to go into philosophy or ethics, but I think another problem causing young people to rush into string theory is the desire to “show off” how smart they are; and reading Alain Connes’ interview was such a comfort;

    “I think in mathematics it is extremely important to be persistent. The point is not being brighter or faster. Forget it! What is important is to never abandon a problem”

    — He is truely a great human being.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Peter wrote

    Particle physics is suffering more than most subjects from this because it is a victim of its own success: … Progress in this field will probably require a major conceptual leap in a new direction, not just small incremental advances

    Err, yes and no? I’m not quite sure what you mean by “progress in this field,” but the LHC is almost certainly going to move particle physics forward in a big way. If it finds supersymmetry then maybe we can start paring down the huge space of SUSY models to something workable. If it finds new strongly coupled physics then the whole focus of the field will shift, I think. And with any luck, the whole industry of extra dimensional models will vanish (except to whatever extent they prove to be useful as duals). I think a lot of nonsense is going to get swept away in the next decade.

    On the other hand, certain problems like quantum gravity almost certainly do need a major conceptual leap (as I’m sure most string theorists would agree). Other problems, like a better nonperturbative understanding of gauge theories, might actually be amenable to incremental progress, if people were to really focus on them. There are a lot of tools around, after all. On the other hand, a lot of them aren’t trendy at the moment, so such work can be risky for young people.

    It’s very difficult to figure out how to properly structure a reward system to encourage the kind of difficult, long term speculative work in new directions that particle physics needs.

    Agreed. To think out loud a bit: we certainly don’t want to encourage just any speculative work. At this point I think various “alternative” ideas in quantum gravity (*cough*Reuter*cough) have far more partisans than they deserve, for instance. Truly promising new approaches are rare, and while it might be hard to know if they will be successful, it’s pretty easy to see that many ideas will be unsuccessful. So I think a few high-paying prestigious postdoc fellowships for people outside the mainstream could make a huge difference, provided that they were selected by well-respected and intelligent people who could filter out only the very best candidates, and that it could somehow be ensured that if these people’s ideas didn’t pan out that it does not mean the end of their career. It seems like the Clay Institute’s fellowships in mathematics might be the analogue of the sort of thing I have in mind. But generally I get the impression that independence is more highly valued in mathematics than in physics.

  14. Tony Smith says:

    Peter Woit said “… young theorists in France with its CNRS system, and in some other similar European systems, haven’t done much better than those in the US in terms of coming up with something new …”.

    Connes said “… the most successful systems so far were these big institutes in the Soviet Union, like the Landau institute, the Steklov institute, etc. Money did not play any role there, the job was just to talk about science. …”.

    Maybe both of the above statements might be correct. Two points then come to mind:

    1 – Perhaps “big” is an important word, and a critical mass size is necessary for such institutions to be successful.
    That is, maybe the “big institutes in the Soviet Union” were so large that the (probably small) percentage of useful creative innovators gave a reasonably large number of useful creative innovators, with the larger number of relatively unproductive people being tolerated as inevitable overhead,
    while
    the French CNRS and other similar European systems might be too small to produce a reasonably large number of useful creative innovators.

    2 – Perhaps the French/European systems might be overemphasizing USA-type “efficiency”, and concentrating too much on the idea of Anonymous that the process should “filter out only the very best candidates”. If Anonymous’s “filtering” were to be done by “well-respected and intelligent people” who are determined to be so by their status in the physics community, then it seems to me that in the case of the present-day USA physics community, no candidates outside superstring theory (90%) and LQG (10%) would be chosen.

    Since the USSR is gone, there are no contemporary examples to support or refute 1.

    As to 2, it seems to me that the demographics of North American institutes such as IAS, KITP, Perimeter, etc., are consistent with 2.

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

  15. secret milkshake says:

    Since I had some exposure to the science establishment in Eastern Europe in late 80s, I can say it was not a model how science should be done. Please note how many people in USSR went into physics and math – and how little came out of it.

  16. Adrian Heathcote says:

    When I first heard of Non-Commutative geometry I enthusiastically told my wife about it, explaining as much as I understood. She thought for a minute and then said, ‘No’.

    So I had a T-shirt made up for her, in Soviet-style lettering (she’s Russian): ”Just say ‘Non’ to Non-Commutative Geometry”. When she wears it out she is often asked what it means!

    I have a feeling that Connes would like the joke.

  17. Tony Smith says:

    secret milkshake said “.. Please note how many people in USSR went into physics and math – and how little came out of it. …”.

    I do take note of “how many people in USSR went into physics and math”, which is the point that maybe “big” is important,
    but
    I disagreee that “little came out of it”.
    For just a few examples:
    the proof of the Bieberbach conjecture was validated in the USSR;
    the geometry of Lie groups (for example the works of Boris Rosenfeld);
    translation from Chinese of the work of L. K. Hua on geometry of classical domains;
    works on singularity theory;
    works on von Neumann algebras;
    invention of supersonic cavitation torpedoes;
    early work on nonlinear dynamics (Joe Ford, a founding father of the nonlinear chaos group at Georgia Tech, used to remark that in the early days some of his most productive contacts were with people in Novosibirsk) ;
    … etc … the list is far too long to continue here.

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

  18. Anonymous says:

    Tony Smith says:

    If Anonymous’s “filtering” were to be done by “well-respected and intelligent people” who are determined to be so by their status in the physics community, then it seems to me that in the case of the present-day USA physics community, no candidates outside superstring theory (90%) and LQG (10%) would be chosen.

    And the alternative is — what? Funding every person who claims to have an interesting new idea? Clearly not. Most such people are just no good.

    Also, please note that most of the theoretical physics community does not do string theory or LQG. Even in high-energy physics, string theory is only about half of the community.

    secret milkshake said:

    Please note how many people in USSR went into physics and math – and how little came out of it.

    In high-energy physics: Gribov, Polyakov, Shifman, Vainshtein, Zakharov…. Others as well. A large fraction of important work on gauge theories from the 70s and 80s came from the USSR. (Another large fraction came from ‘t Hooft.)

  19. Tony Smith says:

    About filtering people in theoretical physics, Anonymous said “… Funding every person who claims to have an interesting new idea? Clearly not. Most such people are just no good. …”.

    Aside from being unable to restrain myself from remarking that “most people are no damn good” was a line by Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) in the original Christopher Reeve movie Superman,

    I will note that I have heard that with respect to NSF grants the most innovative and productive grants were NOT for proposals that received “excellent” overall ratings, but they came from proposals that:

    received “fair” overall ratings resulting from a mix of “poor” and “excellent” reviews.

    In other words,
    successful innovation usually comes from controversial proposals that are strongly opposed by many “well-respected and intelligent people”.

    Anonymous and I might be able to agree that, in a system composed of reviewers who were NOT substantially universally biased (for example, toward superstring theory as the “only game in town”), a proposal that received “poor” from ALL reviewers should be rejected. (Unfortunately, I believe that the present system in the USA is in fact so biased. )

    I would advocate approval of proposals with a mix of “excellent” and “poor”.

    I am not sure from the posted comments (and I have no other basis for knowing the views of an anonymous commenter such as Anonymous) whether Anonymous would insist on all “excellent” ratings for approval.

    I do agree (as should be evident from my comment) with Anonymous that the USSR system produced a lot of high-quality results.

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

  20. garrett says:

    I can provide one data point regarding what it was like to be a young physicist in the US who wanted to work on fundamental problems:

    In 1995, as a physics graduate student at UCSD, I found a soliton solution to the Maxwell-Dirac equations that no one — especially me — knew what to do with. I was working in nonlinear science at the time, but my real motivation has always been to understand and figure out the universe — it’s the best puzzle around. I showed my work to the department chair, Roger Dashen (a great guy), and he liked what I’d done enough to take me on as an advisee. (And it didn’t hurt that I was a straight A student) During this same time, string theory was growing in popularity and there was a strong push to move in this direction. I took a nascent string course, as well as read up on my own — but… I just couldn’t buy it. There were too many wild assumptions, and in the end they bought you nothing. Using QED to calculate the results of experiments to twelve decimal places — THAT is good physics. But I was in the minority. And when Roger tragically died, I had nowhere to turn for a high energy physics advisor. I finished up my dissertation in nonlinear science under my previous advisor, and hit the dilemma. I wanted to work in GR and QFT — they have always interested me the most. But I had nobody to introduce me to opportunities in either field, and the main community was going for strings in a big way.

    However, I had been lucky enough to have another wild option. My graduate fellowship had paid me on top of the money I earned as a TA, and I’d invested that in stocks while the market was booming. So I had a nice little nest egg built up — enough to last five years or so at my graduate student spending level. And, thanks to the net, I figured I could work anywhere, on the physics I wanted. So I wandered a bit, and settled in the most beautiful place I could find — Maui. I’ve been finding my own way ever since, working on what I want, and publishing only when I’ve thought I figured out something significantly cool. Well, after five years, and less than stellar stock market performance, the money ran out. So I’ve had to find money making projects to work on here and there while dedicating most of my time to working on physics — traveling down one theoretical path after another.

    It’s been a hard road to walk alone. I spend way too much time wading through arxiv articles that I can’t know are bunk until I’ve invested time to figure that out myself. (I wish other people didn’t have publishing pressure — it results in garbage.) And, in my own work, I’ve had to be very conservative and careful, since the only person checking my ideas and giving me feedback is me. But I’ve had the opportunity to work on what I want, and enjoyed it immensely. Now, much to my own surprise, I found that some of what I’ve been working on meshes amazingly well with recent work in quantum gravity. It was the type of thing that seemed too much of a coincidence to ignore, so I wrote it up. This, to me, may present a good opportunity. Because I miss hanging out with other physicists — I used to be a very social guy back in grad school, and I miss the active interchange of ideas. And now, as string theory appears to be collapsing under the weight of it’s own broken promises, this seems a good time for me to come back and interact with other people working on alternative approaches to fundamental questions in physics.

    So… young American physicists who want to work on fundamental questions in physics will do it themselves, because they want to, any way they can.

  21. D R Lunsford says:

    Gratuitous aside for Doug:

    I am neither distressed by my absence from arXiv, nor would I want it any other way.

    -drl

  22. Christine says:

    Please note how many people in USSR went into physics and math – and how little came out of it.

    See, e.g.,

    http://www.hssonline.org/teach_res/essays/graham/graham.html

    Best wishes

    Christine

  23. Pat Szuta says:

    I’m curious to learn more about his attitude towards the American system of producing PhD’s. Are we really only spitting out ‘technicians’?

  24. anon says:

    ‘But if you take people who are beginners in physics programs and brainwash them from the very start it is really not fair. Young physicists should be completely free, but it is very hard with the actual system.’ – Alain Connes.

    Pauli wrote to Fierz, 12 August 1948: ‘I think the important and extremely difficult task of our time is to try to build up a fresh idea of reality.’

    ‘Bigoted technicians’, would be more precise!

  25. Tom Weidig says:

    I think you are quoting him out of context. He also said a lot of nice things about string theory in the interview!

  26. Dissident says:

    Tom, after noting that there is not one shred of evidence that either supersymmetry or strings have anything to do with physics, he kept saying again and again that string theorists are great for mathematics. Draw your own conclusion.

  27. Who says:

    I miss hanging out with other physicists — I used to be a very social guy back in grad school, and I miss the active interchange of ideas. And now, as string theory appears to be collapsing under the weight of it’s own broken promises, this seems a good time for me to come back and interact with other people working on alternative approaches to fundamental questions in physics.

    Garrett, I have to cheer for your determined independence and also deplore the narrowness of QG option open to US grad students. I hope that the string monopoly is indeed breaking and that research will open up some, so that you will be able to re-connect somewhere in an active interchange of ideas.

    Tom, after noting that there is not one shred of evidence that either supersymmetry or strings have anything to do with physics, he kept saying again and again that string theorists are great for mathematics. Draw your own conclusion.

    LOL

    To Peter, very glad to see the “Latest Comments” feature in the righthand margin. Big help. Much quicker now to see in a glance
    if there has been some new discussion on an interesting thread.
    Thanks.

  28. Attila Smith says:

    Esteemed Adrian Heathcote:

    “I’ve been a great admirer of Connes for some years. I think he has great intellectual honesty and courage”

    Yes, for a Frenchman to be scornful in Tehran about the U.S. University System(?) is the height of bravery indeed.

  29. Dissident says:

    Maybe on that particular occasion he was merely being honest, Attila…

  30. sbar says:

    The soviet system that produced these great scientific institutes also sent millions to their death in the Gulag .Let’s not forget them . Let’s not forget the Mendelian geneticists who perished in the Kolyma because they disagreed with Lysenko. Let’s not forget that 30 years after Stalin’s death Sakharov was still under surveillance and in exile in Gorky.
    There is nothing to praise in such a system..

  31. Dissident says:

    sbar, while I certtainly sympathize with Connes on much he says, I tend to agree with you about the old Soviet way of doing science. When you look at the list of weel-known Soviet physicists, the vast majority seem to have come of age during the first decades of the revolution, pre-WWII, before all of Russian society was reshaped by it. What came out of those great Soviet institutes after 1960 or so?

  32. Zelah says:

    To Dissident,

    You are correct that in terms of economics, the Russian institutes failed miserably, but post 1960’s Science?

    You should do some homework son.

    To help you along here are 3 in mathematics:
    Perelman, Efim I Zelmanov, Vladimir Gershonovich Drinfeld.

    The reason for the sucess of Soviet education is the ironies of ironies. Unlike Anglo Saxon failed one size fits all education systems, the Soviets let COMPETITION RIP!!!

    That is the main point, students had to compete on a regular basis starting from 5 years old if they were to advance!

    An amateur mathematician

  33. Dissident says:

    Ahem, I did write “Soviet physicists”, not “Soviet mathematicians”.

  34. Not a Nobel Laureate says:

    “Yes, for a Frenchman to be scornful in Tehran about the U.S. University System(?) is the height of bravery indeed.”

    — Attila Smith

    “There is no national science just as there is no national multiplication table; what is national is no longer science. ”

    — Anton Chekhov

  35. Juan R. says:

    Connes said

    […] the most successful systems so far were these big institutes in the Soviet Union, like the Landau institute, the Steklov institute, etc. Money did not play any role there, the job was just to talk about science. […]

    Today, my Russian colleagues would not say the same. See for instance the current policy of the High Certifying Commission (Russia) on foreign electronic journals here.

    In fact, I know that Alexander Shagaev suffered hard personal pressure from some rival Russian scientists some months ago. Georgiy Vasilievich Lisichkin editor-in-chief of the Journal of Russian Chemical Society said us in public that the reviewer of the journal would be anonymous because was known tragic cases of murder of reviewers by scientific mafias at Russia!

    Moreover, i find interesting the attitude of Connes regarding alternative approaches to NC geometry. In fact, Connes has been traditionally very hard with non-standard analysis and popularized his definition of infinitesimal via limits of non-compact operators (which i believe is totally inconsistent).

    Is Connes critizing string theory attitude but following a ‘similar’ one regarding his own geometric approach?

    It is a query, not an affirmation…

    Juan R.

    Center for CANONICAL |SCIENCE)

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