PPAP Community Meeting

Following up on last week’s European Strategy Group Meeting in Krakow, this week UK particle physicists are doing something similar, with a Particle Physics Advisory Panel community meeting in Birmingham.

The talks on the experimental side tell much the same story as the Krakow talks. On the theory side, the UK meeting has more, with a phenomenology talk which discusses prospects for “Saving SUSY” while noting that:

It’s ironic that the solution to the absence of SUSY is to add even more stuff: composite 3rd generation or Higgs, R-parity violating couplings, scalar gluons, or new singlets.

There’s extensive discussion of UK particle theory funding here. I don’t understand very well how particle theory is funded in the UK, but was interested to note that the slide on page 5 has string theory’s piece of the pie stable at 27% last year (also 27% in 2008, 28% in 2005). Mike Duff (see commentary here) wrote a piece for the forthcoming 40 Years of String Theory volume arguing that the 2006 books by Lee Smolin and me were responsible for destroying funding of string theory in the UK, but the numbers in this new talk don’t seem to bear this out. I gather there’s a separate story about the EPSRC and mathematical physics, and curious to hear from anyone who knows more about that. But if the state of affairs is that the mathematical end of string theory is being defunded while the phenomenological end is going strong, that can’t be because someone in authority read my book…

: The US has its own version of this planned to take place over the next year, Snowmass 2013, starting with a meeting next month at Fermilab. It looks like this will be purely about planning on the experimental side, with the problems of particle theory not on the agenda.

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22 Responses to PPAP Community Meeting

  1. Shantanu says:

    Peter, OT to this thread.
    if you attend this talk
    at Columbia,
    could you provide a report?

  2. Peter Woit says:

    I was planning on attending that talk and writing about it. Unfortunately I just heard the disappointing news from Anderson himself that he’s likely to not be able to make the trip here next Monday because of health reasons. Hopefully he’ll make it here for a talk sooner or later. If so I’ll be sure to attend and report on it.

  3. piscator says:

    Note that the combinations of `Strings’ and `QFT’ though has gone from 43% to 32%. This is probably a better reading of the figures given that many quantum field theorists may now be labelled as string theorists due to working on AdS/CFT and related topics.

  4. Peter Woit says:


    That may be true. Probably the most remarkable thing about that pie chart was “QFT” going form 15% to 5%. If your interpretation is right, it reflects a collapse in non-AdS/CFT research into QFT, with AdS/CFT now the only approach to formal QFT research that can get any support.

  5. P says:

    Peter and piscator,

    Agreed that it’s strange to see QFT taking a hit, and maybe it’s a labeling issue where people doing research on AdS/CFT and related topics are lumped into strings rather than QFT.

    But with a few hot new QFT subfields in the last few years, shouldn’t we expect it to go up? e.g. amplitudes, Gaiotto (2,0) theories, AGT, 3d-3d correspondences, others, etc etc . . . Though certainly motivated by stringy ideas, these ideas really are in QFT proper. Maybe the decline in QFT funding is a reflection of the fact that not quite as much of this new work has been done by Brits?


  6. Mitchell Porter says:

    “Since the discovery of gauge/gravity duality and other developments, it has become clear that QFT and string theory/M-theory are NOT distinct subjects. String theory and M-theory can be viewed as important components of the logical completion of quantum field theory… String theory grew out of the S-matrix theory program, which was popular in the 1960s. For many years string theory appeared to be a radical alternative to quantum field theory. It is now clear that string theory and M-theory are not radical at all. In fact, they are the most conservative and inevitable ways in which to formulate quantum theories of gravity.” — John Schwarz, Strings 2012

  7. P says:


    Thanks for the quote, I hadn’t heard that one! He definitely has good perspective, and is one of the people best qualified to comment on the progress of string theory over the last 40 years. Strings and QFT do go hand in hand, but I’m curious about the use of the word “inevitable” in relation to strings and quantum gravity. It seems to imply QG –> string, rather than the other way around.


  8. Peter Woit says:

    Mitchell Porter and P.,

    Can we please stick to informed discussion about the topic of the posting, and what is going on in the UK? I don’t see how anyone here can conceivably learn anything of any interest from discussing this particular piece of string theory hype.

  9. P says:


    The part that was hype I effectively labeled as such. The rest is not.

    Besides, it followed from a thread of discussion brought up by Piscator and followed up by you about AdS/CFT research being groupable into either QFT or Strings. Mitchell then brought up a quote along those lines from a renowned physicist, which was also relevant to the thread of discussion, and then I made a comment on said quote and also a criticism. Not sure when the discussion you yourself were a part of went too far afield . . .

    Not to mention, I did comment directly on the British QFT situation and the labelling issue, and it went unanswered.


  10. Peter Woit says:


    I don’t know the answer to your question about British QFT, and would love to hear from someone who does. I’m pretty sure though that allowing this comment thread to degenerate into yet another discussion of string theory hype (e.g. string theory as “the logical completion of quantum field theory”) will ensure this doesn’t happen. Enough.

  11. P says:


    Just take note that I did not say that, and even criticized that sentiment.

    It seems that this thread has died. But since you’d like to hear a statement about British QFT and no one else has said anything, I’ll just add the comment that I can only think of a handful of people who have works on the formal things I’ve mentioned – Hanany and collaborators, Bullimore and collaborators (when he was in Britain), and maybe a few other people at Oxford. Much of the action has come from North America and a handful of very good people in Japan, and this observation might be in correspondence with the data in the pie chart.


  12. piscator says:

    Some quick comments about how UK research is funded. The main grant system (which the slides refer to) are group grants often called Rolling Grants. They are awarded to particle theory groups as a whole and provide some number of postdocs to the group as a whole. So this means that each group – who may cover a spectrum from QCD to formal string theory – submits a single application, and gets a single award.

    Individual groups then use these grants to hire postdocs, normally collectively. The piechart describes the slicing of postdocs by subject area. There are probably O(30) STFC-supported postdocs at any one time so there is some element of noise.

    As far as I am aware this is NOT like the US system where faculty members apply for individual grants which fund their individual postdocs. Some of these exist – e.g. ERC grants – but the slides are about STFC and so do not refer to those.

    The main areas of `pure QFT’ research in the UK I would say have tended to relate to integrability, strong coupling, solitons. Many of these areas are now either subsumed into or closely linked to AdS/CFT or D-brane physics. As P points out, there is not much UK work on e.g. Gaiotto-esque stuff.

    The 5% figure doesn’t strike me as obviously low, QFT that could not be classified as either pheno or strings or lattice isn’t that big an area.

  13. John says:


    Check out this nifty-looking website:


  14. Peter Woit says:


    One of the students responsible for that site wrote to tell me about it a while back. Was going to mention it here at some point, but I don’t have much to say about it. It just repeats the same promotional case for string theory that has been endlessly made for nearly 30 years now, ignoring why the ideas being promoted don’t work. It’s very similar to the superstringtheory.com site that Patricia Schwarz set up way back when, but has been abandoned for about 10 years. Like that site, the material about string theory pretty much stops about 15 years ago, with AdS/CFT.

    It’s interesting that people at Oxford thought this was something that the world needs. Maybe one motivation for its creation was concerns about future funding for string theory in the UK. I have no idea whether this sort of things makes a positive impression on whoever is making those funding decisions.

  15. Peter Orland says:

    piscator says:
    The 5% figure doesn’t strike me as obviously low, QFT that could not be classified as either pheno or strings or lattice isn’t that big an area.

    In terms of the number of people working on it, absolutely true. Maybe this is good for those of us in the 5% (not much competition) or sad (not much interest of colleagues).

  16. Peter: the motivation for its creation was the belief that the general public – who fund scientific research – are entitled to accurate and accessible information on why their money is spent on string theory, what string theory is, what it has achieved and what it hopes to achieve.

    I have tried to ensure that all statements on the site are accurate and fair – identifications of erroneous claims are welcome and they will be corrected.

  17. Peter Woit says:


    With this kind of site, you’re not providing people a product for their money, you’re providing advertising to encourage them to give you more money, which is something rather different.

  18. chris says:

    It is not true that Snowmass is purely experimental. It just so happens, that theory is not a separate “frontier” but rather part of some of them. I find this rather more convincing than the European approach where theory is split off from the major developments and seems to exist more as an appendix to the true direction the field is going.

  19. jg says:


    Slightly off-topic, but you might like to know that in the recently published 2012 Review of Particle Physics, the chapter on ‘Experimental Tests of Gravitational Theory’ has an interesting edit. In the introductory section the reference to a the theoretical spin-2 field origin of gravity has been removed as have the following sentences at the end of the introduction:

    Quantizing the gravitational field itself poses a very difficult challenge because of the perturbative non-renormalizability of Einstein’s Lagrangian. Superstring theory offers a promising avenue toward solving this challenge.

    The 2010 version is available here and the 2012 version here

    (The “promising” superstring reference has been there at least since the 2000 version (where supergravity was also described as promising, not sure how much earlier)

  20. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks jg,

    I guess there is some time limit on how long you can be “promising”…

  21. Anonyrat says:

    If SuperString Theory was a person, it would no longer qualify (too old) for the Fields Medal….

  22. A. says:

    I left the UK shortly after STFC lost the huge lump of cash which was the catalyst for much of the current problems. In the following years the word from the (rather sheepish) funding bodies was “there is very little money, and there won’t be for a long time”.

    The approach they then took was consolidation, which meant that any money they did manage to scrape together was given to Cambridge, Oxford, and Durham. Hence the collapse of so many physics departments in the UK. There is a firmly entrenched attitude, at least in England, that if a university isn’t hightly ranked for education, then it’s research departments are automatically rubbish. (Someone high up in the Durham IPP once had a fit of hysterics when I suggested that some of the smaller UK groups were going interesting work. He said, and I paraphrase, that they should all be put down.)

    If you want to see where UK theory is headed, then the research going on at Oxbridge and Durham is basically it.

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