Anderson 90th

Philip Anderson’s 90th birthday is coming up next month, and Princeton will host a workshop commemorating the event. Witten and Wilczek will give talks on the Anderson-Higgs mechanism, for which Anderson recently was not awarded a Nobel Prize (for the history of this, more here).

Princeton condensed matter theorist Shivaji Sondhi has an article here about the role of Anderson in the Higgs story, rightly emphasizing “the remarkable intellectual unity of modern physics.”

Many have speculated that a reason for Anderson not getting a piece of this year’s Nobel Prize was his public opposition to the SSC project back in the 1980s. He was far from the only physicist opposing the project, since there was widespread concern that in the Reagan-era environment of budget-cutting, devoting large sums to an HEP project would mean reduced funding for the rest of physics. Anderson has a letter in the latest APS News about this. For a summary of his concerns about the SSC, see this opinion piece from 1987.

One thing that exacerbated conflict between HEP physicists and others at the time were claims about “spin-offs” from building large accelerators, with some people claiming that HEP physics was responsible for MRI machines. Anderson recalls:

As I was leaving the committee room behind Steve Weinberg, the particle physicist who had testified for the SSC, one of the senators accosted him and effusively thanked him for his role in the development of MRI, which had been instrumental in treatment of a relative. Since close friends and I had been responsible for most of the basic research underlying MRI’s superconductiing magnets, this was a bit of a bitter pill for me to swallow.

For Weinberg’s point of view on this, see here, where he writes:

The claim of elementary-particle physicists to be leading the exploration of the reductionist frontier has at times produced resentment among condensed-matter physicists. (This was not helped by a distinguished particle theorist, who was fond of referring to condensed-matter physics as “squalid state physics”.) This resentment surfaced during the debate over the funding of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC). I remember that Phil Anderson and I testified in the same Senate committee hearing on the issue, he against the SSC and I for it. His testimony was so scrupulously honest that I think it helped the SSC more than it hurt it. What really did hurt was a statement opposing the SSC by a condensed-matter physicist who happened at the time to be the president of the American Physical Society.

In recent years the hot topic in the string theory end of HEP theory has become “AdS/CMT”, the attempt to apply AdS/CFT ideas to condensed matter theory models. Anderson at nearly 90 is still dealing with HEP hype, see this from the April issue of Physics Today.

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34 Responses to Anderson 90th

  1. jd says:

    Is it true that AdS/CFT is a conjecture that is not proven?

  2. Bernhard says:

    Sure Anderson was not the only, but he was the most high-profile physicist against the project testifying (I would say more than the APS president, as a Nobel-laureate). I find the message on this link you gave from Weinberg (which I didn’t know) a bit in contradiction with his book (Dreams of a Final Theory). I would say that to the very least Weinberg misleads the reader to blame Anderson quite heavily for the SSC fiasco there. The problem is that he discusses the SSC in the middle of a chapter about reductionism where Anderson is quoted a few times as example representative of the opposition. Here two related passages from the book:

    “In the middle of the spectrum of antireductionists there is a group that is less disinterested and far more important. They are the scientists who are infuriated to hear it said that their branches of science rest on the deeper laws of elementary particle physics.”

    Note: at this point Weinberg was not directly talking about Anderson, but it is clear Anderson was among those who Weinberg had in mind:

    “Chief among the physicists who are unhappy about the pretensions of particle physics is Philip Anderson of Bell Labs and Princeton, a theoretical physicist who has provided many of the most pervasive ideas underlying modern condensed matter physics (the physics of semiconductors and superconductors and such). Anderson testified against the Super Collider project in the same congressional committee hearings at which I testified in 1987. He felt (and I do, too) that research in condensed matter physics is underfunded by the National Science Foundation. He felt (and I do, too) that many graduate students are seduced by the glamour of elementary particle physics, when they could have careers that would be more scientifically satisfying in condensed matter physics and allied fields. But Anderson went on to claim that “… they [the results of particle physics] are in no sense more fundamental than what Alan Turing did in founding the computer science, or what Francis Crick and James Watson did in discovering the secret of life.”

  3. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    It may be semantics, but Anderson’s assertions about how “fundamental” sundry phenomena may be is the only thing I’ve ever read by him that I’ve disagreed with on a conceptual basis (the SSC is something else entirely). I love “More is Different” dearly, and I would love to believe in “new laws” hidden in complexity. But I can’t see why they should exist. And there is nothing fundamental about the structure of DNA. What may have the appearance of being “fundamental”, to life at least, is that it must somehow encode information about itself. An almost offhand comment in Watson & Crick’s paper is by far the most interesting thing in it, wherein they speculated about the information content of the sequence of nucleotide bases. This was foreseen by Schrödinger, in his “aperiodic crystals”, and “What Is Life” got Watson interested in molecular biology. However, “it from bit” strikes me as far more “fundamental” than the information content of self-organizing systems. Numerical simulations increasingly bear this out.

    I’ve always wondered if some kind of misguided “envy” was the root cause of all the trouble. If so, it was tragic. I envy the power of physics all the time, but I’d be incredibly foolish to try to lay some kind of claim to such power for myself. Then again, I’m surely no Philip Anderson.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The most ironic is that now, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that Anderson was right, althought not because of one of the reasons he listed.

    Just imagined what if instead of one, we had two extremely expensive particle accelerators with nothing to show but the Higgs?

  5. Mathematician says:

    Anonymous, your comment doesn’t make any sense to me at all. Could you please explain.

  6. Peter Woit says:


    I don’t think the philosophical argument over what is “fundamental” really had that much to do with the Weinberg/Anderson disagreement over SSC funding. The worry that SSC costs would crowd out other funding for science was widespread. Even mathematicians were worried about this, and I remember having to point out to some of them that the SSC cancellation would just mean less total money for science, not more money available for math research. Until seeing Anderson’s letter, I hadn’t known about the MRI issue, how galling it was to condensed matter physicists worried about their funding to see HEP physicists getting credit for this.


    I assume “Anonymous” is referring to the SSC and the LHC, but it’s interesting to consider where we’d be if the SSC had gone forward. If so, I very much doubt CERN would have built the LHC. They would likely have run LEP much longer, and after an SSC discovery of a 125 GeV Higgs, would possibly have upgraded LEP (along the lines now being discussed of a “LEP3”) to reach energies where it could study the Higgs, somewhat of a “Higgs factory”.

  7. Bernhard says:


    I agree with that. My point was only that Weinberg was between the lines, intentionally or unintentionally, blaming Anderson the SSC failure on that book. The fact that he chose to consistently quote Anderson over and over as someone “unhappy about the pretensions of particle physics” and then saying that Anderson testified against the project (all in the same chapter, it is irrelevant that it happened to be reductionism) and later that the project was cancelled leaves one strongly believing it was his fault. If that was not Weinberg’s intention he should have clarified, the way he he did on the link you provided. Furthermore, the fact that the project was cancelled by the House of Representatives and that Anderson testified only for the Senate (which I also didn’t know: note that Weinberg’s expression is “congressional committee”) is not a detail that he cold have left out. How many read that book and thought Anderson played a larger than he actually did on SSC’s cancellation I don’t know, but I include myself among the ones fooled.

  8. Mathematician says:

    PW, right, if SSC is built, then CERN would do something different.

    But what puzzles me is Anonymous’s phrase “with nothing to show but the Higgs”. Surely scientists want to ultimately find out what’s true. The accelerators will find what’s there to be found (in their energy range) and it’s up to nature what’s there to be found, whether it’s one particle or none or many. If it’s a surprise to some theorists then so be it. At least now they know. But it would have been better if SSC had been been built so that 15(?) years ago they would have known that the Higgs particle was there and other hypothesized particles were not there. A lot of theorists could have saved many years chasing false leads in the absence of experimental data. So having “nothing to show but the Higgs” is just fine.

  9. Art Brown says:

    Professor Woit, Professor Anderson’s argument against SSC assumed a fixed science budget, but I infer from your comment above that the SSC would have been funded entirely with new money. 25 years on, is there any evidence either way?

  10. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I agree that the argument of who got what slice of the pie was at the root of opposition to the SSC. But if characterizing HEP as no more “fundamental” than other branches of science was not meant to reinforce the notion that it was no more deserving than other branches, what was the point of mentioning it?

  11. venp says:

    “How many read that book and thought Anderson played a larger than he actually did on SSC’s cancellation ”
    I read the book and I lived through it, there is no mistake the Prof. Anderson was
    the most prominent opponent of the SSC regardless of which congressional committee he testified in. And the most vociferous, I would add, with the possible exception of Rostum Roy.

  12. Bernhard says:


    Thanks, that is more in accordance with what I’ve got from Weinberg at the time.

    In any case, if what you are saying is true, which is what I thought it was true all this years, than Anderson is not taking responsibility. But I don´t think the distinction between the congressional committee he testified publicly and the one who actually cancelled the project not being the same is a detail.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    I agree. “Nothing but the Higgs” is a fundamental discovery about how nature works in a new energy range. That some people unreasonably promised potential discoveries of extra dimensions and superpartners that never were going to happen isn’t that relevant, the LHC would have been built without that hype. The SSC cancellation did however set back HEP by decades. In an alternate universe where it was funded, we’d now not only have a Higgs discovery, but probably a Higgs factory running in the LEP tunnel for many years, and a lot of information about both Higgs physics and whatever else might be there in the factor of 5 energy range from the 2012 LHC to the SSC. I think it’s going to be quite a few decades before we get to the point we would be at now if the SSC had been funded.

    I’m not sure the question of Senate vs. House committee makes much difference, and I also don’t think the testimony of either Weinberg or Anderson influenced much the ultimate decision, which had a lot more to do with the politics of where large sums of money were going to get spent. From what I remember of the time, Anderson is right that quite a few physicists and other scientists (I’d suspect possibly even a majority of non-HEP physicists) would have voted against SSC funding if it was up to them, out of a justifiable fear that SSC money was not all “new money”, that it would crowd out funding of other fields. Recall also that the projected cost of the SSC kept growing, and it seemed plausible that cost overruns might cause problems for the rest of science funding.

    What I think Anderson doesn’t take into account is that while many of his colleagues agreed with him, he’s always been unusually willing to speak his mind and is a very distinguished figure, so was much more quotable than others. Weinberg is probably right though that opposition from a single out-spoken figure like Anderson was less damaging than that from the president of the APS, who could be seen as representing a much wider opinion.

  14. piscator says:

    I don’t know exactly what happened then, but Nobel prize winners have more influence than just what they say in front of a committee. There are private soundings and opinion-forming which also play a big role in decisions.

    And regarding MRI, I think completely anecdotal and uncheckable evidence from someone with such a personal stake in this should be treated with the weight of a Goldstone boson…or maybe am I meant to call it an Anderson-Goldstone boson now?

  15. Peter Woit says:

    I think you’re right that private lobbying was likely more influential than public testimony. From what I know of Anderson though, he was likely saying exactly the same things privately and publicly.
    The MRI issue is not something Anderson just came up with, it was a major issue in the debate at the time, see for example “Can Big Science Claim Credit for MRI?” in Science magazine here
    which tells about the arguments over this exact issue.

  16. TimG says:

    Bernhard wrote:
    “Sure Anderson was not the only, but he was the most high-profile physicist against the project testifying (I would say more than the APS president, as a Nobel-laureate).”

    If the APS President in question is Nicolaas Bloembergen, then he was also a Nobel laureate.

  17. Casey Leedom says:

    My memory of what was reported in the papers and other news sources at the time is that one of the biggest issues with the SSC was that the government was either going to build it or the International Space Station, but not both. The SSC represented money that was going to be spent almost entirely within one state, Texas, while the backers of the ISS were able to lobby Congressional Members of many states by farming out pieces of the ISS all over the US.

  18. Bernhard says:


    “I’m not sure the question of Senate vs. House committee makes much difference”.

    OK, I’m not an American and my idea of how this all works is perhaps not so accurate. Is curious though that Anderson mention it as the first argument in his defense.


    Thanks. I always assumed the Senate hearings happened in 1992, but I went to check and indeed they took place in 1991.

  19. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Interesting footnote here:

    “Nicolaas Bloembergen testified in 1991 that neither superconducting magnets, the superconducting magnet industry, nor magnetic resonance imaging had come primarily from the development of accelerators, adding in a follow-up letter to an official at Fermilab that was entered into evidence in a Congressional hearing in the spring of 1992 that “MRI woud be alive and well today even if Fermilab had never existed.” To Anderson, “the saddest sight of all is to see officials of the Department responsible for our energy supply deliberately misleading Congress and the public with these false claims, and to see my particle physics colleagues, many of whom I admire and respect, sitting by and acquiescing in such claims.”

    Incredibly saddening little turf war all around, that. And all quite aside from the the true worth of the SSC. Incredibly saddening.

  20. Peter Shor says:

    It seems to me that Anderson has been made something of a scapegoat, and that the blame for the cancellation rests at least as much with the HEP community, first for the original cost estimate for the SSC being less than half its true cost, and second for subsequently being incompetent at politics.

    It’s certainly true that Anderson’s opposition didn’t help, but blaming him rather than trying to figure out what the HEP community should have done better isn’t going to help get better results in the future.

  21. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I’ve believed for a long time that Anderson et al.’s testimony served to put a fig leaf of legitimacy on something Congress wished ardently to accomplish anyhow to score political points. That said, the focus and tenor of the whole debate on what branch of physics should get funded how much and why was, to me, a tragic development.

  22. Eli Rabett says:

    Up until the SSC, the HEP community had been remarkably successful in finding new money for its projects, indeed the large sums that they generated had something of a trickle down effect on other fields, so everyone left them alone. At the time of the SSC it was obvious that the game had changed, if for no other reason than the huge cost, but also the limits on R&D funding due to the federal budget squeeze at the time. The SSC was going to negatively affect all other science funding, thus the us against them.

  23. arp says:

    Given how difficult it was to get the LHC up and running with access to more modern technology, is it reasonable to believe that the SSC could have been completed on schedule, on budget, and at its promised specs?

  24. paddy says:

    1) arp says above what I always wondered.
    2) these were theory folk arguing for an instrument..not just the importance of what could come of the result but that it would work in anything close to the time frame and budget that was proposed.
    3) and why do you all ignore that Weinberg was bought and payed for?

  25. GoletaBeach says:

    Reading the Science article on MRI was just depressing. A deputy secretary of energy (not an actually particle physicist) makes an inflated claim. A nobel laureate (Bloembergen) and Robert Park pounce on him and attack all particle physicists. Jeez.

    Felix Bloch & Edward Purcell (Purcell is a particular hero to many experimentalists, particle & otherwise) got the Nobel Prize for what we now call MRI, not Bloembergen or Anderson. Indignation by B & A is just misplaced.

    The development of MRI into a useful reliable research tool was the work of many, many folks, and without doubt a few strands of the quilt come from experimental particle physics. Denying that is as ignorant as saying the whole MRI field comes from particle physics.

    Meanwhile, anyone noticed the proliferation of light sources in the world, and how `small science’ groups flock to them? Don’t ever hear from the SSC-opposers anything about how important particle physics was to the development of light sources, or even the simple fact that many of the light sources are on the grounds of former particle physics labs, like SLAC. Certainly there are no particle physics labs that are operating in former experimental condensed matter facilities!

    BTW, I met face-to-face with Anderson and asked him one-on-one about his opposition to the SSC. He said he couldn’t stand the SSC because of all the `spear chuckers’ (direct quote) who supported it. His opposition was visceral and the scientific overlay was merely window dressing.

  26. Kavanna says:

    The problem wasn’t Reagan-era budget cutting, which happened in the early 80s, before the SSC was proposed. The problem was the dawning post-Cold War era, when HEP had an uncertain future. In the early 90s, there was a strong push to reduce federal deficits — the era of Perot and “read my lips.” The SSC had enough political cover under Bush Sr. to keep going, being based primarily in Texas. When Clinton replaced Bush in 1993, the SSC lost that cover. (The SSC was canceled in the fall of 1993.) It became the political equivalent of a large, lumbering beast on the Serengeti, spotted by packs of smaller but swifter predators.

    The obvious strategy, barely considered, was internationalizing the project, to include foreign scientific efforts, especially the Japanese. (The Japanese were riding high at that point, at the end of 30 years of rapid growth. Our trade and federal deficits were mainly their surpluses.) But that was all seen too late. The cancellation of the SSC was a disaster for HEP in many ways, not least in the way that it created a vacuum later filled with hot, exponentially expanding string/M-theory hype.

  27. Eli Rabett says:

    Having built Pound boxes, let Eli tell you that knowing the physics of NMR was not the problem but making superconducting magnets was as is clear to anyone who ever did NMR with an iron core monster. Bloch and Purcell were the first observers, but MRI depended on the availability of supercons, which is what Bloembergen and Anderson were talking about. Oh yeah, and among other things, having the Cooley Tukey FFT algorithm (also Bell Labs)

    To climb down further into the weeds, the SSC got caught up in Gramm Rudmann Hollings and the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 which set caps on spending, including a cap for scientific research. It is that in particular which set the condensed matter, and HEP physicists against each other.

  28. cthulhu says:

    (coming in late…)

    Kavanna has it exactly correct – the demise of the SSC was Texas-bashing politics as a thin excuse to “cut the fat out of the budget.” I was working in north Texas aerospace at the time; when several co-workers left for the SSC to do stuff ranging from mechanical design to IT, it seemed likely to me that they would be back in a few years – unfortunately I was right.

  29. chiz says:

    PW: In an alternate universe where it was funded, we’d now not only have a Higgs discovery, but probably a Higgs factory running in the LEP tunnel for many years, and a lot of information about both Higgs physics and whatever else might be there in the factor of 5 energy range from the 2012 LHC to the SSC.

    Of course, its also possible that in this alternate universe with a SSC that we might have discovered that the 125 Gev particle isn’t a Higgs but is instead something that the theorists never predicted.

  30. I_Was_There says:

    Just a few hopefully clarifying points:
    1. The SSC vs International Space Station funding that year in Congress is telling. The sometimes emotional opposition against the SSC in the House and Senate was bipartisan just as was the support. Opponents in the House were led by members such as Jim Slattery (D-KS), Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). A day after the vote finally killing the SSC, the ISS funding for that year was approved by the House by (if memory serves) one or two votes with Boehlert and Slattery voting to continue the ISS. It is well known that Vice President Gore spent real time lobbying for the ISS and he opposed the SSC. (Slattery is the disingenuous person who went on ABC’s Primetime Live to publicly accuse the SSC team of misusing and abusing federal funds based on spending a few bucks to buy a few fake plants for a few offices in a largely windowless old warehouse rented to .. save money; Slattery also cited as an example this misuse of funds by physicists who deemed themselves privileged because a few times during all-day meetings, the lunch was “catered” which turned out to be ordering a few cold cut sandwich plates from a local supermarket so the meeting participants could work through lunch! Boy, did Sam Donaldson leap all over that to spew smoke where there was no fire.)

    2. Dr. Anderson’s opposing influence was indeed heavily felt from his private comments as well as his public comments. During that time, I spoke directly to a staffer in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office who cited Anderson’s views as a primary factor leading Sen. Kennedy to oppose the SSC.

    3. While the concern about science funding for other well-deserving research areas/projects seemed real, the fact is that the SSC funding had nothing tangible to do with condensed matter research funding, and terminating the SSC funding that year had *zero* effect on non-HEP funding or reducing the deficit. The money was simply re-programmed to other “water projects” that were within the same purview of the House appropriations committee dealing with the SSC.

    4. The comments about the MRI and superconducting magnets are missing a key point. No doubt the basic research is being cited more or less correctly, and there is no doubt that MRI happens with or without HEP and the big accelerator labs. However, especially after BNL and Isabelle, a key contribution made by experimental physicists and engineers was actually making good superconducting magnets before anyone else did, and the need for all that superconducting cable for the Tevatron absolutely did accelerate the development of more cost effective cable fabricated commercially.

    Those are facts. I could list more, but any revisionism that Dr. Anderson did not play a prominent role in being one of several important scientists to influence the opposition to the SSC is simply that — self-serving revisionism when it’s now pretty obvious that the SSC would have succeeded probably at least a decade before the LHC.

  31. jd says:

    I_Was_There completely misses the point on the savings from the cancellation of the SSC and I suspect he knows it. At the cancellation two billion had already been spent and the tunnel was a quarter finished. The project was heading for at least a factor of two overrun that would have had to come from somewhere. That overrun was saved. As to better superconducting cable, well whoopie and I thank you, but the MRI machines would still have been built. At the moment the MRI technology is heading toward new wire technology that does not relate to that used in HEP. Maybe you guys can lower the cost of your next big machines from using that. Maybe not. But I am a little sick of all this hype on the benefits of the spinoffs. You cannot justify the building of the big machine from their spinoffs. If the spinoffs are what is important, fine. Do all the research for the next big machine and build prototypes of all the technology but do not do any construction. We then get all the spinoffs and save the majority of the cost.

  32. I_Was_There says:

    JD has turned around my comments, so I feel forced to reply that:
    1. I never justified the construction or cost of the SSC based on the spinoff of superconducting cable. There is not one word in my comment to that effect. I explicitly stated that “there is no doubt that MRI happens with or without HEP and the big accelerator labs. ” I was only clarifying the role that HEP had at that time in developing superconducting magnets and how that progressed the commercial developments toward dropping the cost of the cable at a faster rate. That was only in response to a couple of the earlier comments. That’s a fact whether JD likes it or not.

    2. There is also no doubt the final cost was going to be 2x or more the initial cost. My guess at the time was 2.5-3x the initial $5-6B estimate. Compare that with other big projects in defense and non-defense, and especially with the ISS. I did not miss any point about the “savings” of cancellation, including about the federal budget in the ensuing years.

    3. Finally, the original topic here was the effect that Dr. Anderson had as a publicly prominent scientist opposing the SSC, and my comments were meant to respond to that topic. Perhaps I should not have included a couple of the contextual comments regarding the overall tone and politics of the debate. JD is of course entitled to his opinion, too.

  33. Peter Woit says:

    I Was There,

    Thanks for the comments, which were interesting and helpful.

    About Anderson, there’s no question he was a prominent opponent of the SSC, and had some effect, although one can argue about the size of this effect, and what would have happened in a counterfactual world without him (personally, I think the SSC would still have been canceled, with the growing cost a huge factor). It seems he’s mainly annoyed to be portrayed as the only such opponent of the SSC, when the fact was that there were significant others.

  34. Eli Rabett says:

    Just to point out that ISS had a huge Texas footprint through Johnson. What NASA did do was give a piece of meat to a whole bunch of states, but Texas had the prime.

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