What Math Do You Need For Physics?

Chad Orzel has a very sensible piece at Forbes, headlined What Math Do You Need For Physics? It Depends, which addresses the question of what math a physicist like him (experimental AMO physics) really needs. I’m glad to see that he emphasizes the same basic courses my department offers aimed at non-majors:

  • Multivariable calculus
  • Differential equations
  • Linear algebra

together with statistics (which here at Columbia is handled by a separate department). He disses complex analysis, for reasons that I can understand. That’s a beautiful subject, and the results you can get out of analytic functions and contour integration are often unexpected and seemingly magic, but they’re not of as general use as the other subjects.

One subject he doesn’t mention that I would argue for is Fourier Analysis, which is the class I’ll be teaching next semester. That’s an incredibly useful as well as profound subject which every physicist should know, but it is true some of its basics often gets taught in other courses (for example in ode courses as a method for solving differential equations).

Orzel starts off with an amusing discussion of a physics version of “Humiliation”, admitting that he’s never used or really worked through a proof of Noether’s theorem, widely considered “the most profound idea in science”. I’ve argued here for the Hamiltonian over Lagrangian method, in which case a different set of ideas about symmetry is fundamental, with Noether’s theorem playing no role. In the Hamiltonian case symmetries are generated by functions on phase space, and finding the function that generates any symmetry is a matter of Poisson brackets (as an experimentalist, maybe Orzel has never calculated a Poisson bracket either though…).

One says that a function F on phase space generates an infinitesimal transformation if such an infinitesimal transformation changes the function G by {G,F} (the Poisson bracket of the functions G and F). A basic example is the Hamiltonian function, with {G,H} the infinitesimal change of G by time translation, or in other words, Hamilton’s equation
When {H,F}=0, we say that the infinitesimal transformation generated by F is a symmetry, since H is left unchanged by such transformations. Using the antisymmetry of the Poisson bracket, this can also be read as {F,H}=0, with Hamilton’s equation then the conservation law that F doesn’t change with time.

All this seems to me much more straightforward than the Lagrangian Noether’s theorem approach to symmetry transformations and conservation laws. My own analog of Orzel’s admission would be admitting (which I won’t do) how long it took me in life to understand this fundamental point (I blame my teachers).

For lots and lots more about this, see chapters 14 and 15 here.

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String theory might be about to finally be killed off

News site TechEye is reporting that String theory might be about to finally be killed off, with a story that starts off

The world’s top boffins are debating finally killing off one of the more elegant scientific theories about the nature of reality.

This isn’t exactly the most reliable information source, with one problem that the story is about supersymmetry, with the only connection to string theory this:

For ages the world’s cleverest physicists have been divided over the concept of supersymmetry – a theory which stipulates that all known fundamental particles have heavier, supersymmetric counterparts called sparticles. It appears to be based on the theory that the universe is made out of string which was teased into shape by cats which are potentially dead or alive [are you sure about this? Ed.]

The writer seems to have gotten the material for the story from a more reliable source, the Economist, which recently had A bet about a cherished theory of physics may soon pay out. That story starts by explaining about Ken Lane’s 1994 bet with David Gross that the LHC would not see supersymmetry. As mentioned here, this year’s data should be enough to resolve the question they were betting about. It is likely that results from SUSY searches using most of this year’s data will be presented at the usual mid-December LHC Jamboree at CERN, and unless there’s dramatic news my sources are keeping from me, these results will be negative.

The bet was for an expensive dinner at Girardet’s, a three-star Swiss restaurant which has now closed, and

Dr Lane says it is time for Dr Gross (who won the Nobel prize in 2004) to cough up—if not with dinner at Girardet’s then at another suitably ritzy venue. After receiving no response to several e-mail prompts, however, Dr Lane is growing impatient. “David appears to be welshing [misuse of language, see here] on our bet,” he says.


Dr Gross is not ready to concede quite yet. The data are in, but their analysis is not complete. “It looks like I will lose this bet by the end of the year,” he says, “but we should await the word from the experimenters themselves.” (Dr Lane says the original terms have been met and Dr Gross should throw in the towel.)

As for whether this really kills off SUSY, there’s a pithy quote from Sabine Hossenfelder:

Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, is one of many who think it is time for theorists to focus on other problems—how gravity behaves at the very small scales of quantum mechanics, for instance. If the LHC finds no trace of sparticles in this year’s data, she believes the last thing the field needs is another round of Susy model adjustments. “That’s not science,” she says. “That’s pathetic.”

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Entanglement, the Multiverse and the Universe

“Entanglement” is the current buzzword of physics, here are two new stories featuring this:

Back in 2013 one could read lots of claims in the media that “Hard evidence for the multiverse” had been found, based on “effects of quantum entanglement between our horizon patch and others”. These claims were discussed on this blog (with a response from the authors here). A new paper by Will Kinney has now been published in JCAP, including the following conclusion about such claims:

It is worthwhile to discuss in general the “concrete predictions” originally claimed by the authors of refs. [1,2], since several key claims do not survive even cursory scrutiny. For example, the discontinuity in the effective potential claimed to be correlated with voids and the CMB cold spot does not appear to in fact exist: for all physically relevant values of the parameters V0, λ, and b, the modulation F(φ) is a smooth function, with no characteristic discontinuities which would explain features in the power spectrum. Perhaps more importantly, the form of the effective potential resulting from landscape entanglement is completely dependent on the choice of inflationary potential V(φ), which is itself an arbitrary free function. One could just as consistently choose the underlying inflationary potential in the absence of landscape corrections to be the same as the effective potential (2.7)! In this sense, the landscape model is no more (or less) predictive than single-field inflation itself, and most of the claimed predictions of the entanglement model turn out not to have been
predictions at all. However, any considerations of theoretical consistency are a moot point: even if one takes the claimed predictions at face value, almost all of them are ruled out by Planck. Experiment always supersedes theory, and the model does not match the data.

This paper has an unusual story behind it, with an author of the work it criticizes trying to keep it off the arXiv. For more about this, see here and here.

Another entanglement story that is getting some press attention this week is this paper by Erik Verlinde, with its associated press release, explaining that we may be “on the brink of a scientific revolution”. I’ll have to avoid trying to give an explanation of the physical argument of the paper, on the grounds that I don’t understand it, partly because there seems to be no underlying physical model here. The basic idea is stated as replacing dark matter by

an elastic response due to the volume law contribution to the entanglement entropy in our universe.

but someone else will have to explain exactly what that means. Maybe I’m missing it, but I don’t see anywhere in the paper a suggested experimental test of the theory. Someone much more expert than me is needed to explain whether the picture of this paper is consistent with the known astrophysical and cosmological evidence usually interpreted as dark matter/dark energy.

Posted in Multiverse Mania | 22 Comments

The Day After

The last few months have not been helpful for my sanity (and I think for that of a large number of other Americans). My three-point program to return to better mental health is to:

  • Write one last blog post about what has been going on in the US (with comments off, again for mental health reasons).
  • Stop thinking about this topic and stick to thinking and blogging about math and physics.
  • Get out of this country for a while, heading to Paris the day after Thanksgiving and hiding out there for a week or so. While there, may do some research into what the current French policy is on political refugees.

On the question everyone is asking themselves (what will Trump do?) I have no idea and suspect he doesn’t either. Many around him and in the Republican party do have definite ideas about this. Their agenda will be to use their party’s unparalleled control of the US government at all levels, together with his executive power, to force changes dictated by their ideology. Either Trump will go along with this, or he’ll change and come up with his own agenda going beyond just that of getting more attention for himself.

On the question of how we got here, I think my previous blog post stands up well given what data I’ve seen from the election returns. Most of the explanations one hears of Trump’s success don’t hold up if you look at exit polling numbers:

  • Sexism: more white women voted for Trump than for Clinton.
  • Racism: many counties that went solidly for Obama in the past went to Trump this election. Many Trump voters last voted for an African-American President.
  • Revolt of the rural poor whites: While New York City went heavily to Clinton, nearby Suffolk County on Long Island, with a median family income of $100,000, went for Trump.
  • Ignorance, lack of education: Most white college graduates voted for Trump.

There is however a common thread in most stories I’ve read that let Trump supporters say why they were voting for him: they hated Hillary Clinton and found her dishonest. Polls show that back in early September, when asked “who is more honest and trustworthy?” Clinton and Trump were tied (45/45). By the week before the election, the numbers were (38/45): eight percent more of likely voters thought Trump was honest than thought Clinton was. Whatever you think of Hillary Clinton, the idea that Donald Trump is more honest is quite simply insane. The central question of how we got to a Trump presidency is to understand how this destruction of Clinton’s reputation was accomplished. What makes this tricky is that there was such a huge campaign from all sides to do this, including not just the usual Republican politics of personal destruction machine (Drudge Report, Breitbart, Fox News), but a wide array of actors on the center and the left, including:

  • Julian Assange and Wikileaks, quite likely fronting for Russian secret services.
  • All sorts of lefty news sources, too many examples to pick. Susan Webber who runs Naked Capitalism today is gleeful at the Trump win, and hopes that this is what we’ll soon see:

    There is one more Trump campaign promise that will serve as an important early test of his seriousness as well as his survival skills: investigating Clinton. Even if Obama pardons her, as our Jerri-Lynn Scofield has predicted, it will be critical for Trump to carry out a probe of the Clinton Foundation’s business while Clinton was Secretary of State.

  • The New York Times, which for months nearly every day published an above-the-fold front page news article attacking Clinton’s ethics, with several reporters (Amy Chozick, for one) tasked to make it their full-time assignment to produce such stories. While their opinion writers were mostly more restrained, there’s the bizarre case of Maureen Dowd who for 25 years has been writing literally hundreds of pieces about what she feels is ethically wrong with Hillary Clinton. On the Sunday before the election the Times ran not one but two pieces by Dowd attacking Clinton: a shorter one in the op-ed section, and a longer one in the Magazine section.

Together with the onslaught of right-wing “News” attacking Clinton’s honesty, it is not surprising that more voters decided Trump was the honest one, or that this likely was enough to get him elected (with a minority of the popular vote).

One way to describe what has happened is that this was the first real social media election, with most people getting the information they used to decide who to vote for from Facebook and other internet sources. Many if not most of these have no interest in what is actually true. Many are dominated by a reality TV ethos of picking out someone for others to attack, appealing directly to the ugliest part of the monkey brain we are all descended from. This is not just the province of the Right, with the Left just as happy to join in the ugliness. Everyone can play and get satisfaction of their darkest needs. The winner will always be the con artist monkey with the best dominance displays.

Trump was always going to win an election campaign fought on these grounds, and that’s what this one was. I have no idea of how to stop this from being the future of US democracy. If you’re not from the US, maybe you can take action to ensure that your society does not follow ours down this path.

Update: I’m not seeing many other analyses of what happened this election that I agree with. Here’s one.

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Normally I avoid politics here, but these are not normal times. What follows is a request to my US readers, followed by some general remarks about the disturbing state of US democracy. Sorry, but if you want to discuss any of this, it will have to be elsewhere (internet comment sections are part of the problem…).

To those not planning on voting for Donald Trump

  • If you’re planning on voting for Hillary Clinton: please be sure to get out and vote, by early voting if available in your state or on Election day. This is extremely important, with the election likely decided by who cares enough to turn out and vote.
  • If you’re planning on not voting: please rethink this. One can in many elections make a reasonable case that the differences between the candidates aren’t great, so, why bother? If there ever were a US election where that was not true, this is it.
  • If you’re planning on voting for a third-party candidate: again, that might make sense if the differences between the two viable candidates were not great, but that is absolutely not the case here. More specifically, if you’re a progressive planning on voting for Jill Stein, please look at what happened in 2000. People who did the same thing in Florida (voting for Nader then) gave us George W. Bush as president, which was a disaster for the progressive cause. I also urge you to look deep within your heart and ask yourself whether your behavior is a realistic engagement with the world, or self-involved moral posturing.

To those planning on voting for Donald Trump

Please don’t. I see two main arguments for doing this and I think they’re both misguided.

  • You agree with Trump more than Clinton on important policy issues. Whatever policy issue you have in mind, I think if you look into it you’ll find that whatever Trump says now, at some other point he was saying something different. There’s little evidence Trump has fixed views on any policy issue (other than the desirability of better tax treatment for real estate development projects). If you think Trump will, for instance, appoint Supreme Court justices that share your moral values, note that he has reportedly told Peter Thiel that he would like to appoint him to the Court. Thiel is a gay, radical libertarian Silicon Valley billionaire from San Francisco with highly eccentric views. I doubt you share his moral values (since virtually no one else does, right, left or center).

    Note added: This same argument applies to those opposing Clinton and supporting Trump’s election on grounds such as “she’s a war-mongerer, unlike Trump”, since (on some days) Trump claims to oppose US military interventions abroad. If you really believe that “Make America Great” means Trump will institute a policy of restraint on the use of the US military, I think it will likely be just a few weeks into the Trump administration before you find out that you, like your right-wing brethren in flyover country, have been conned.

  • You’re angry at well-off coastal elites who you feel look down on you and your culture, and you want to spit in their face by voting for Trump. If so, you are quite right to feel the way you do. From a lifetime spent among such elites I can tell you that, yes, they do look down on you. Most people here in New York City probably do think you’re an ignorant racist. Your problem though is that Donald Trump is one of us. He’s a well-off New Yorker through and through, looks down on you every bit as much as others. If elected he will govern in the interest of his tribe, not yours. If you think otherwise, you’ve been conned. All you will accomplish by a vote for Trump is to convince people in New York, Washington D.C. and California that you really are even more ignorant than they thought, a racist fool taken in by an obvious con.

How did we end up here?

Whatever happens, I think the huge question facing US democracy is that of how, in an election contest between a competent, honest centrist candidate and an unqualified con artist, we’ve ended up with the majority of the electorate convinced that the first of these is the one with serious ethical problems. American politics has become a reality TV show, with the plot line all about convincing people that a contestant is unethical and dislikable, and so should be voted off the island.

That the right has pursued this tactic against the Clintons since the early 90s is not surprising, since it’s much more effective than arguing the issues. What’s destroying US democracy though is not just one side’s decision to do this, but that the other side, instead of fighting back, has been joining in. The most outrageous example of this is the Clinton email server “scandal”, which is and always has been an absurdity. The attacks on Hillary Clinton’s character based on this have not come just from the right, but also from the left. I every so often look at the Drudge Report, as well as lefty sources (The Intercept, Firedoglake=Shadowproof, Naked Capitalism, etc), and, on this topic, you can’t tell the difference between right and left.

Most damaging though is the behavior of the mainstream media, in particular that of the New York Times, whose coverage of this issue has been atrociously unfair to Clinton. This is not new behavior for them, it goes back to the first Clinton administration, during which they promoted endless similar nonsense (Travelgate, Whitewater, etc., etc.). At the time I found it hard to understand why they were doing this, with one conjecture that it had to do with reporters and editors harboring some sort of resentment, intent on taking down the Clintons a notch (“they think they’re so great, we’ll show them, expose their dirty laundry”).

More recently I’ve come to the conclusion that what’s going on here has to do with the world-view of much of the liberal, educated class that I’m a part of. After some success at addressing ancient problems of racism, sexism, homophobia and the like, many have become impossibly self-righteous and devoted to moral posturing, intent on ferreting out reasons to “call out” others and show their moral superiority.

When political arguments are about issues, they’re often not very rational and it has always been thus. What has changed in the US is that political arguments are now dominated by obsession with the supposed moral failings of others. We’re experiencing a perfect storm of the demagoguery of the right meeting the obsessive self-righteousness of the left, all mediated by journalists who see their primary role as taking down and exposing the supposed moral failings of our leaders. I don’t think we’ve seen this before in our history, and it threatens to upend the basic premises of a working democracy.

It’s very hard to know what kind of craziness we’ll have to deal with if Trump is elected. His agenda is purely that of getting attention for himself and “winning”, I doubt even he has any idea what he’ll do if he wins. On the other hand, unfortunately it’s all too clear what’s going to happen if Clinton is elected. The Republicans will launch endless investigations and attacks on her character in an attempt to make sure her presidency is not a success. The left will join in, and the New York Times and much of the rest of the media will nearly every day feature a new story about what is wrong with Hilary Clinton and with whoever joins her administration and attempts to govern the country in the best interest of its citizens. I don’t see see how this fever breaks, and it’s very hard not to see bleak days ahead for this country.

Update: From talking to various people I realized that one reason some Democrats and those on the left don’t see the “top secret email” business as being as absurd as I do is that they have no idea what these emails were. For that story, see this from the Wall Street Journal and this from the Washington Post.

One reason many people may not be informed about this is that they get their news from the New York Times, where the only mention of this I can find is a snide remark in this story.

Update: Based on some emails from people misreading this posting, it seems I have to make the following clear

  • I DON’T think Trump supporters are ignorant racists.
  • I DON’T think Peter Thiel is immoral (eccentric ≠ bad).

I DO think that

  • Left-wing news and commentary sites
  • New York Times political reporters and editors, together with others at mainstream media outlets
  • Jill Stein and people who support her candidacy

have joined the right in an unholy alliance to try and discredit Clinton, based on completely absurd accusations regarding her use of email. This has led to a serious danger that the US will elect a con artist and fascist demagogue as President next week, or, failing that, destroy hopes for a successful Hilary Clinton administration.

Update: A correspondent points out that I haven’t addressed one reason some on both the Left and the Right (including those at the lefty websites I mentioned) are supporting Trump and trying to destroy Hilary Clinton. They believe that the advent of Trump will “break open the current oligarchy’s Pandora’s box”, with the destruction of the US democratic system making way for a wonderful new system that will grow and flourish in the wreckage. I didn’t mention this nihilist argument for Trump because there is no rational argument against the desire to deal with a problem by smashing everything around one. Sure, that will work, it will get rid of what is bothering you, you’ll feel better and, as long as you’re well enough off, other people will be the collateral damage hit by the debris, as well as those that have to clean up the mess.

Those who think this way though should at least be honest that that’s what they want, and not hide behind dishonest demonization of Hilary Clinton over bogus accusations about her email. The left’s joining with the Republican party to weaponize dishonest accusations about ethics and use those to bring down whoever they disagree with is something that will live on and make sure that what emerges from the wreckage will be even uglier than what was destroyed.

I also added something above, making clear that the arguments to Trump supporters also apply to his Leftist ones.

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Various Links

  • The 2016 LHC proton-proton run is now over, with delivered (41.07 CMS/38.4 ATLAS) and recorded (37.82 CMS/35.5 ATLAS) luminosities (in inverse fb) far above the goal for this year of 25. Together with last year’s data, the experiments now have 41.63 (CMS) and 39.4 (ATLAS) inverse fb recorded at 13 TeV, close to the LHC design energy of 14 TeV. It is likely that preliminary results will be reported at an “end-of-year jamboree” in mid-December, with more to come at the winter conferences.

    I’d guess that these new results will see improved bounds on SUSY particles, and that David Gross and Lubos Motl will have to pay off their long-standing bets that the LHC would find SUSY (Gross’s bet with Ken Lane is here, it says 50 inverse fb of LHC data, sum of CMS and ATLAS now about 80). Unfortunately, I’m afraid that losing these bets won’t affect their devotion to SUSY.

  • Paul Steinhardt gave a colloquium at Fermilab last month with the title Simply Wrong vs. Simple. In it he explained “why the big bang inflationary picture fails as a scientific theory” (it doesn’t work as promised, is not self-consistent and not falsifiable). This is a complicated topic, but Steinhardt is an expert and one of the originators of the theory, so if you want to understand the problems of some common arguments for inflation, watching this talk is highly recommended. Steinhardt’s talk was part of a Fermilab workshop, Simplicity II.
  • On the multiverse front, Sabine Hossenfelder’s Mom has Sabine to set her straight. For professional physicists, instead of getting set straight there’s the usual Templeton funding for the opposite, in this case a workshop on Fine-tuning, the Multiverse and Life.
  • Paul Ginsparg discusses various issues having to do with the arXiv here and here, with an emphasis on the question of how to decide which preprints to reject (they have my sympathy on the difficulties involved). Ginsparg notes that they decided not to have comments/discussion of papers there, but to have “trackbacks” to discussions hosted elsewhere. Still no indication of why trackbacks here are banned.
  • Theoretical physicist Walter Greiner passed away a couple weeks ago. He was the author of a series of textbooks, one of which in particular, Field Quantization, I found very helpful when I was trying to figure out some details for the book I was writing.

Update: I just noticed that Witten’s Commemorative Lecture for the Kyoto Prize is available here. It’s a very interesting account by him of his career and point of view.

Update: In case you think fine-tuning is a central question in physics, besides the Templeton-funded workshop in Sydney, you can consult the website of a Templeton-funded program, or buy this book by a Templeton-funded author. There’s also a talk by Aron Wall, given to a Rutgers University apologetics club. Wall’s conclusion is that either God or the Multiverse did it, and he comes down on the side of God (because of the Resurrection of Jesus business).

Update: Also on the Templeton front, they are funding a new $7.2 million Black Hole Initiative, which advertises itself by

The BHI will be the first center worldwide to focus on the study of black holes, and as such it offers a unique naming opportunity for potential donors.

Templeton is paying for the first three years of this. To get some idea of the scale of this project, the yearly grant is roughly half the size of the NSF grant to each to the two largest US centers in pure math and in theoretical physics (MSRI and the KITP).

Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments

Final Draft Version

I finally have finished a draft version of the book that I’ve been working on for the past four years or so. This version will remain freely available on my website here. The plan is to get professional illustrations done and have the book published by Springer, presumably appearing in print sometime next year. By now it’s too late for any significant changes, but comments, especially corrections and typos, are welcome.

At this point I’m very happy with how the book has turned out, since I think it provides a valuable point of view on the relation between quantum mechanics and mathematics, and contains significant amounts of material not well-explained elsewhere. I’m simultaneously rather unhappy with it, very much aware of a long list of ways in which it could be improved. Any of these though would require putting more time into the project, and right now I’m thoroughly sick of it, desperately wanting to think about other things. So, this is pretty much it.

I’ve learned a huge amount by writing this, and I hope to apply some of this in work on several different new projects. As I work on these, perhaps I’ll do some more writing that would partially take the form of new chapters extending what’s in the book. We’ll see…

Posted in Quantum Theory: The Book | 31 Comments

A New 30 GeV Particle?

Last night a preprint appeared on the arXiv, with a re-analysis of old 1992-5 LEP data, looking at the dimuon spectrum for b-tagged (identified as involving a b-quark) events. An excess around 30 GeV was found, which would indicate a possible new particle around that energy. The author quotes various significance numbers for the bump, with look-elsewhere effect included, of 2.4 to 2.9 sigma.

Thinking a bit about the look-elsewhere effect here, something very funny is going on. To properly compute the look-elsewhere effect, one really should know how many other channels the author looked at and found nothing, but there’s no mention of looking at other channels. Why did this particular physicist decide to go and reanalyze LEP data, looking only at the b-tagged dimuon spectrum (and it seems he’s doing this by himself)? It’s hard to understand why anyone would do this, unless perhaps they had heard that one of the LHC experiments might be seeing something in the b-tagged dimuon spectrum, say, around 30 GeV.

We’ll likely find out more about this story soon. If the LHC experiments haven’t been looking closely at this particular channel, they will do so now. 30 GeV is low enough that I don’t see why you would need the Run 2 13 TeV data, this should be in the older Run 1 data.

I should make the obvious remark though: this is an extraordinary claim, and the evidence for a new particle is very far from the extraordinary level. So, at a high confidence level, the probability is that there’s nothing there.

For much more about this, Tommaso Dorigo and Matt Strassler have just put out blog postings.

Update: Tommaso has an update with more about this: the author was not a member of ALEPH and that collboration does not support this but thinks this is bogus. It appears that the signal is spurious, with the muons coming from semileptonic b decays, not a new particle. Still a mystery: why was this physicist looking at this old data for one very specific signal?

Update: The talk today by Nate Odell of CMS at the LPC Physics Forum at Fermilab is not public, but the title is: “Dimuon 29 GeV analysis”. Any guess whether that has something to do with this story about 30 GeV dimuons?

Posted in Experimental HEP News | 25 Comments

Math Items

A few mathematics items:

  • David Ben-Zvi’s overview talk about Representation Theory as Gauge Theory given last month at the Clay conference in Oxford that I attended is now available online, as slides and video. Other talks from the conference are here.
  • My fantasy that I might try and understand arithmetic algebraic geometry by reading Tate’s collected papers keeps getting delayed as the AMS puts off publication (now scheduled for January 18 of next year). While the books are not available, at least Milne’s review is.
  • A couple weeks ago there was a Beyond Endoscopy conference at the IAS, at the same time I gather functioning as an 80th birthday celebration for Langlands. There’s a write-up by Langlands of his talk here. I think it can be described as the current Langlands take on “Geometric Langlands”.
  • No recent news I’m aware of concerning Mochizuki and the the abc conjecture, but Inference magazine has just published a long article by Ivan Fesenko giving his take on “Inter-universal Teichmuller Theory”.
  • The Breakthrough Prize symposium this year is scheduled for December 5 at UCSF, so I guess that means the prizes will likely be announced and awards ceremony held December 4, if things go like in recent years. I have no idea who will get the $3 million math prize since it’s a relatively new prize and there is a whole world of accomplished mathematicians who would make good candidates. One can be pretty sure though who won’t get it, arguably the most accomplished young mathematician around, Peter Scholze (since he turned down the junior version last year).

    I have a modest proposal for whoever is awarded the prize: if you’re financially pretty well set already, how about doing the math community a huge favor? Donate the money to your university to endow a faculty position, then use the influence and moral high ground this will buy you to try and convince the Breakthrough Prize people to make this a policy. In the future, the winner gets a $3 million check made out to their institution to endow a position in their name. Then they could even try again with Scholze and perhaps get him to accept.

    At the same time, there will also be a $3 million physics award. For a while these things were going pretty uniformly to string theorists, then they turned around and started giving them to experimentalists. I have no idea what they’ll do this year.

Posted in Langlands, Uncategorized | 23 Comments

YITP at 50

The past couple days the YITP at Stony Brook has been celebrating its 50th birthday. It was started back in 1966 by C. N. Yang and has been an active center for theoretical physics ever since. The ITP at Stony Brook was as some point renamed in honor of Yang, now it’s officially the “C. N. Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics”. I was a postdoc there in 1984-87, when it was just the ITP, and Yang was still the director. I had been hoping to go out to Stony Brook for at least one day of the event, but unfortunately other things have kept me here in New York.

Luckily, with today’s technology one can watch the talks online (see here) and follow what happened at the conference. I’ve watched a few of the talks, and they give a good survey of the kind of work that has been going on at the institute over the last 50 years. One aspect that isn’t emphasized in the talks (although there’s a little bit in Fred Goldhaber’s talk) is that the institute is in the same building as the mathematics department with, at least back in my day, some physicists and some mathematicians even having offices nearby on the same floor. Being able to talk to and learn from some great mathematicians (soon after Yang, in 1968 Jim Simons came to Stony Brook and brought together a world-class mathematics department) was a big influence on me during my postdoc years. These days, with the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics, Stony Brook is one of the great centers of mathematical physics.

The last talk of the event was a public talk by Ashoke Sen on What is String Theory? (slides here), one which made me think that maybe it wasn’t a bad thing that I hadn’t made it out to Stony Brook, since I might have been there for this. Sen’s talk was a depressing compilation of ancient hype and misleading claims about string theory, with the standard multiverse excuse for why it predicts nothing at all about particle physics.

My time at the ITP coincided with the early years of this kind of string theory hype, which got started in late 1984, about the time I got there. By my last year there (exactly 30 years ago, 1986-87), everyone in the physics community had already been subjected to a couple years of this kind of thing, so much so that Ginsparg and Glashow had published in spring 1986 their Desperately Seeking Superstrings article, noting that

…years of intense effort by dozens of the best and the brightest have yielded not one verifiable prediction, nor should any soon be expected.

They worried that

Contemplation of superstrings may evolve into an activity as remote from conventional particle physics as particle physics is from chemistry, to be conducted at schools of divinity by future equivalents of medieval theologians.

which many at the time thought was kind of harsh, but in retrospect looks quite prescient. I doubt that even they thought that anyone in the physics community would sit still 30 years later to listen to a talk like Sen’s.

My own attitude at the time was that superstring theory was just one in a sequence of fads that had gotten the attention of particle theorists, with one to two years the usual decay time for such things. So by 86-87, I figured this one was now past its sell-by date and would soon be on the way out. How wrong I was.

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