Short Items

Discover Magazine has just announced a competition, calling on people to submit videos to them that “clearly explain perhaps the most baffling idea in the history of the world: string theory”. The challenge is called String Theory in Two Minutes or Less, and the winner gets featured in an upcoming issue of Discover. In related news, one of my correspondents suggested making my postings available as YouTube videos, but I think I’ll resist any temptation to go that route.

Michael Peskin was here at Columbia yesterday, giving the physics colloquium, which was mainly about prospects for detecting at the LHC the kind of supersymmetric WIMP that is supposed to make up dark matter. On his web-site there are slides which more or less correspond to the talk he gave. The bottom line is that he believes that over the next 5-10 years we’ll be seeing evidence for such a WIMP from all of three different sources: astronomy (GLAST), direct detection experiments, and the LHC. The claim is that the LHC should be able to detect the existence of such a particle (although it’s not easy…) and maybe even measure the mass to 10 percent.

Experimental HEP bloggers keep putting out gripping multi-part stories about what it’s like to be dealing with collider data that is not conclusive, but has anomalies that promise the possibility of something new and exciting. See the latest from John Conway and Tommaso Dorigo.

There’s a new mathematician’s blog out there, John Armstrong’s The Unapologetic Mathematician. He promises “I’m sure I can come up with a good rant once a week or so. Actually, I’ll set that as a goal.”

NPR’s last Science Friday program dealt with experimental HEP physics, featuring David Barney (CMS), Jacobo Konigsberg (CDF) and Barry Barish (ILC).

I managed to get to a few of the talks at last week’s City College workshop on non-perturbative Yang-Mills that was mentioned here recently. Unfortunately I couldn’t get up there on Friday and missed talks by Maldacena and Freidel that I would have liked to see, but did make it to some of the talks on Thursday and Saturday. It appears that progress in 3+1d remains limited, but quite a lot of work is going on with new analytical methods for dealing with 2+1d, which can be tested by comparison with extensive results from lattice gauge theory computer simulations.

Max Karoubi has a new paper on the arXiv, Twisted K-theory, old and new. It traces the origins of the subject back to nearly 40 years ago, explaining the original mathematical motivations, old and new results, and relations between them.

Over at, my friend Nathan Myhrvold has his photos and an essay about penguins. OK, besides Nathan’s background in the quantum gravity business, this has nothing to do with math or physics. But the things are damn cute…

: A commenter points out that I should also advertise a bit an event taking place downtown here in New York next week. I’ll be talking at the Cafe Scientifique, which will take place at 7:30 next Tuesday evening, at the Rialto Restaurant in Soho.

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14 Responses to Short Items

  1. Long John Silver says:

    >Discover Magazine has just announced a competition, calling on >people to submit videos to them that “clearly explain perhaps the >most baffling idea in the history of the world: string theory”. The >challenge is called String Theory in Two Minutes or Less

    Sounds a bit like All-England Summarize Proust Competition.

  2. Kea says:

    The competition is only for Americans (read the terms).

  3. Thanks for the nod. Hopefully I can manage to keep up with this thing.

    and LJS:
    Green, in his first book, wrote about, wrote about fa la la
    Green, in his first book, wrote about, wrote about
    He wrote about
    Green, in his first book
    He wrote about….

  4. Q says:

    ‘The winning video will be selected by Columbia University physicist Brian Greene, best-selling author of The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, and broadcast via a prominent spot on the homepage of’ –

    I hope that someone who is really deserving of the publicity and hype wins. (Say, someone really expert, with a Czech accent.)

  5. Sebastian Thaler says:


    Another item worth mentioning for the benefit of your readers in the NYC area: a certain critic of string theory is scheduled to appear at Cafe Scientifique in lower Manhattan on the evening of February 6th. It should be a good time; the speaker has an interesting blog….

  6. woit says:

    Thanks Sebastian,

    I’d forgotten that I did intend to mention that again here, will add something on to the posting.

  7. mclaren says:

    Really, this sounds like Monty Python’s “Semaphore version of Wuthering Heights.”

  8. Chris Oakley says:

    Peter -

    I would love to go to your talk, but unfortunately will not be in New York on that day. This title: “Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory And the Search for Unity in Physical Law” is a bit of a mouthful. Is it too late to change it to just “Is String Theory bullsh*t?”

  9. Bee says:

    well. that’s how progress is made. why study a decade when you can just look at some 2-min videos at YouTube, and everything is explained? it seems to me the adjective ‘baffling’ was very carefully chosen.

    Thanks for the penguin-link :-)

  10. Thomas Love says:

    I thought the objective was to put the entire final theory on the back of a T-shirt.

  11. Seth says:

    As a student on ATLAS, I’m curious what you meant by your comment that “it’s not easy” to detect the existence of supersymmetric WIMPs at the LHC. I admit it’s very possible I’m missing something, but I had thought that simply finding WIMPs was a much easier (and quicker) study than many others at the LHC.

    It’s true in some sense that nothing in particle physics is easy, but as the slide in Peskin’s talk notes (on page 58), we do think we have a handle on kinematic variables that will point to the existence of such particles. In particular, the effective mass (usually the scalar sum of missing transverse energy and the top four jets) plots often look rather different than the Standard Model, even with relatively little data.

    There’s a lot of active work being done on how best to do these studies. There are refinements that may improve the situation considerably, like playing with the details of the cuts or the exact variable one plots. There are also problems that need to be understood better, in particular having a firm estimate of the standard model background and the error on that estimate.

    The search for heavy non-interacting particles is one that can be done even with fairly early LHC data, and might yield promising results quite quickly. Other studies, like the ones analagous to the Tevatron “bump-hunting” that you’ve linked to, will require much more care and better estimates of systematic errors, and so would seem to be much harder.

    Figuring out what kind of WIMP we’re dealing with, and maybe measuring its mass—now those things will be hard.

  12. Peter Woit says:


    The reference to “not easy” was just a reference to the general difficulty of extracting this kind of signal, not a claim that it was difficult compared to lots of other signals people are looking for, which are even harder. Peskin in his talk was emphasizing the huge sizes of the backgrounds to be dealt with at the LHC (perhaps because he does want people to keep in mind the case for the ILC).

    Thanks for your informative comment about this!

  13. From Chad Orzel’s blog:

    “You’ll be happy to know that Peter Woit has already bowed out (suggested concept: standing in front of a whiteboard, hopping up and down, and yelling, “It’s crap! Crap crap crap crap crap!” for two minutes).”

    Where did you suggest that Peter ? I must be missing something.


  14. D R Lunsford says:

    Chris O – or “Not Even Brown”