More Landscape Stream of Consciousness

It looks like particle theory has now degenerated to the point where its leading figures can’t think of anything better to do than to write rambling articles with virtually no equations that reach no real conclusions. Last week was Lenny Susskind, tonight there’s a new article by Michael Douglas.

His conclusion, such as it is, goes like this:

“If I had to bet at the moment, I would still bet that string theory favors the low scale, for the reasons outlined above, but it is not at all obvious that this is what will come out in the end…. We should keep in mind that ‘favoring’ one type of vacuum or mechanism over another is not a strong result, if both types of vacuums exist…”

So, maybe string theory “favors” a low supersymmetry-breaking scale, maybe not. As usual, not only can’t it predict anything, it can’t even predict the scale at which it can’t predict anything. I really cannot understand why anyone thinks this kind of thing is science.

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35 Responses to More Landscape Stream of Consciousness

  1. An addendum about Nomura.

    I had forgotten it, but time ago I had quoted W.T. Shaw in the first page of my essay physics/0001033.

    “if we are getting discrete data from the market, how can we claim that the derivative is not zero? Should we say that our derivative is almost non zero? What control do we have over the inversion process?”

  2. Hi Chris, :DDD

    I am still happily surprised that some minor, unpolished, works (the “Lecture on Divergences” between them) get random attention even if unpublished. In this case, I took care to blame Gabay, the librarian, by indirectly drawing my attention towards such pathologial matters. I know I am setting a bad example for future archeologists (I doubt it will be a younger generation of physicists), but at least now I understand why our elders were not afraid of divergences (btw, baez did some nice postings recently on borel transforms etc). As for the problem of renormalization itself, I am optimistic that it can be tamed, and it will show to be a problem in the concept of derivative. Long long time ago I heard a Field medallist to say that, of course, trivialy, blah blah, the derivative is just the simplest example of controlled substraction of infinities.

    Let me to do a bit of propaganda for Nomura: hi guys, write Oakley! Imagine, you will be able to pay a flat in Newton street (pretty smail address), to buy your ve/getables at Holborn market, and even to walk straigthly to the work, no need of tube, no need of car!

    Around the end of 1999 I visited some of these financial industries in London City -I can not say if Nomura itself, but Chris could look in the CV database- and I found them to be very nice places to work. There exist some meetings on econophysics, so you can still train your research sword if you want and meet interesting people around.

    On other hand, the financial research is interesting because it is a purely artificial system, so it helps you to understand what facts come from physics and which ones come from mathematics.

  3. JC says:


    After when I left academia, initially I thought of doing some independent research on my own. It turned out after a year or so I found myself pursuing numerous “dead ends” and drifting around aimlessly, bouncing around from idea to idea and making very little progress. Despite keeping in contact with old colleagues via email, I still found it was difficult to settle down and work on calculations. Whether it’s my own lack of self discipline or laziness, I know now from experience that pursuing independent research outside of academia to be a long hard “road less travelled”.

    Despite having long periods of time devoted to thinking and contemplating about math and physics, in between job searches and sleeping, I still found it relatively hard to bring many of my research ideas to fruition while working alone in a solitary manner. At times I wonder how folks like Julian Barbour, Grigori Perelman, or Andrew Wiles worked during their “self imposed exiles” away from mainstream research communities.

  4. Chris Oakley says:

    Hi JC,

    My detailed knowledge of string theory comes from Peter Woit – the most unbiased source – so I am unable to shed light on issues you raise. I would suggest an e-mail to William – he’s busy, but I am sure that he would be happy to discuss these matters.

    I’m similarly useless on path integrals. I never liked them and they never liked me. I have always suspected sleight of hand here, but have never been able to prove it. A bit like having a dishonest cleaning lady. It just seemed to me that the good old operator-commutator methods were stronger tools, and that if something went wrong that it would be more difficult to weasel out. This way one gets a clearer picture of what is going on.

  5. JC says:


    I took a look at William Shaw’s www page at Oxford and noticed he had a pdf file of his recent presentation in finding an anomaly free way of doing string theory in 4 dimensions via twistors.

    Over the years I’ve always wondered if there’s any compelling loopholes in “quantizing” string theory which bypasses the anomalies that locks the number of spacetime dimensions at 10 (superstring) or 26 (bosonic string). Some paper a few months ago by Thiemann hep-th/0401172 attempted to “quantize” the bosonic string by loop quantum gravity methods which appears on the surface to bypass the usual string anomaly. From what I could figure out of Thiemann’s paper and in the various discussions about it on the string coffee table (at Distler’s site) and (in the string section), it appears on the surface to be a “quantization” which seems to lack a path integral formulation and looks almost “vacuous”. So far I haven’t seen anybody attempting to do a tree level amplitude type of calculation to see what the classical limit produces. (ie. Do we get back anything that looks like a Veneziano type of formula?)

    It seems like the anomalies in the conventional quantizations (ie. canonical and path integral) of string theory are very well entrenched in standard treatments of string theory, with so much effort expended over the last 20 years on dealing with the “extra dimensions” compactified on Calabi-Yau manifolds. If there is indeed an “alternative quantization” method which bypasses the anomalies in string theory which lock the number of spacetime dimensions to 10 or 26, it may possibly put into question all that volume of work done on Calabi-Yau compactifications. From a self-serving perspective, I would probably find it difficult to give up on all that compactification stuff in string theory if I was still doing particle/string research today. Less “resume padding” type of papers to work on in string theory, if all that Calabi-Yau stuff turns out to be irrelevent in the end.

    Sometimes I wonder if the path integral is really the most general way of thinking about quantization. At this point I would be somewhat reluctant to throw it away into history’s trash bin, considering how effective it’s been in understanding Yang-Mills theory and the Standard Model. Arguably many folks would be hard pressed to think of something else that could possibly replace the path integral.

  6. Chris Oakley says:

    Hi Alejandro,

    No hires have as yet resulted from that permanent job ad on my CV on my web site, partly because the CVs I have been sent as a result have never quite fitted the vacancies at the time. The most prominent physicist at Nomura – although he is really more a mathematician – was William Shaw, who now runs the Mathematical Finance course at Oxford. We still see him from time to time. He has written a book on solving mathematical finance problems with Mathematica, and has a book on Complex Analysis in preparation. He started out doing Twistors, and still works on this from time to time. He gave a talk recently to the String theorists at Cambridge, showing how one could do Strings in four dimensions without anomalies using Twistors. This talk, he says, “went down like a lead balloon”. I guess that they don’t want to be deprived of the exciting challenge of explaining what happened to the six they have spare in their formulation.

    By the way, as for your 2002 “Short Lecture on Divergences” – wash your mouth out! You should be apologising for pathological divergences, not justifying them. What kind of example is this setting to the younger generation?

  7. As for research outside academia, I find that it is very hard to do calculations when one is alone. But forming a research team of “exiles” sharing a common seems not easy; I do not know any.

    One could mention solitary snippers, as for instance Barbour, but the research then is very exotic by itself (not to mention, ahem, mine).

  8. Chris, how many years does a physicist hang in nomura? I am amazed you keep needing people all the time.

  9. Peter says:

    Hi JC,

    I don’t know much about Steklov, but I think the IAS is pretty different. It has only a small number of permanent people, and those jobs are among the hardest to get in the world, so they are held by absolutely the most highly respected physicists around. It’s true they have no formal duties, and some end up doing nothing, but in general the level of the people and their activity there is very high.

    The theory groups at the national labs might be a bit more similar, but again these have only small numbers of permanent people, and I assume there is some sort of evaluation process they are subject to. I don’t think the US has ever had anything analogous, i.e. a large institute with a lot of people hired on the old communist system of “we don’t really pay them, and they don’t really work”.

  10. Peter says:

    Hi Chris,

    Job advertisements for mathematicians and physicists are encouraged. A huge improvement over the penis enlargement ads that spam the comment section and have to be periodically deleted!

  11. Chris Oakley says:

    I’m embarrassed to put a job ad in a physics discussion forum, but we did briefly discuss jobs in Finance …

    It so happens that we are looking for a numerate C++ programmer with UNIX experience here at Nomura (in the City of London). The job is mostly programming, but expect to do maths as well. Salary Ł50K + benefits. If interested, send me a CV (

  12. JC says:


    Do you think the IAS resembles the research institutes that were common in Soviet Russia, such as the various Steklov Institutes? Several old Russian friends and colleagues mentioned that in some of those research institutes, there was virtually no teaching duties nor was anyone required to publish anything. Almost everybody was paid something like $200 per month salary, regardless whether they did anything or just sat around doing nothing for the whole time. After the communist Soviet system fell apart, some of the better researchers as well as many younger folks left Russia and took up faculty or postdoc jobs at American universities.

    Or would these Russian research institute jobs more closely resemble tenured jobs at places like Los Alamos, Argonne, Brookhaven, etc …?

  13. Peter says:

    Hi Erin,

    While I think it’s really hard to do great research outside of academia, you’re right that at this point it’s also very hard in some subjects like particle theory to do it inside academia also.

    Two of the greatest achievements in math during the last decade both took about 7-8 years of sustained, very independent work. One was Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, he did this from a permanent academic position. The other was Perelman’s proof of the Poincare conjecture, which he seems to have done from outside academia. So both are possible, but both required somebody at the height of their powers who was able to devote most of their intellectual energy for 7-8 years to the project. This certainly is not the kind of thing a postdoc is in any position to do, since they need to get a new job every 2-3 years, and no one is going to give them one based on being in the middle of a difficult ambitious project that may not work out.

  14. Peter says:

    Hi JC,
    There certainly are examples of people who never did very much after getting permanent positions at the institute. Hard to tell if it would have been different if they were somewhere else. I always found the atmosphere there a bit weird, the isolation may not be a good thing for many people.

    It will be interesting to see what happens with Seiberg and Maldacena. I think Witten spends a lot of his time traveling and interacting with people who come to Princeton, so he hasn’t become as isolated as some others there in the past. The one thing that he may be missing is the experience of regularly teaching graduate-level courses, something that forces one to regularly rethink one’s understanding of the basics of one’s subject.

  15. JC says:


    Seems like some Nobel laureates went beyond the deep end and never climbed out of the abyss, such as Brian Josephson working on psychic/voodoo type of phenomenon, or Julian Schwinger working on cold fusion in the last years of his life. The only Fields medalist I can think of offhand who turned into an oddball, was Grothendieck disappearing in 1991 without a trace.

    Anybody know of other oddball cases of Nobel laureates or Fields medalists?

  16. Chris Oakley says:

    Hello erinj,

    You raise some interesting points.

    The stories about Einstein and Newton do not surprise me. Anyone who has done real research (as opposed to just CV padding) will be well aware of just how chaotic and haphazard the process is. The organising of the chaos that the academic research establishment tries to do is somewhat reminiscent of Hollywood, where production companies try to turn the successful one-off, off-the-wall idea into a steady revenue stream, forgetting that the very reason why the idea succeeded was because it was different and crazy.

    It seems to me that the amount of “craziness” (for want of a better word) that is tolerated depends on your status. For Nobel laureates and Fields medallists, any amount of craziness is tolerated – not only that, but many will follow one into the abyss. For tenured academics, ditto, but probably few will follow. For graduate students or post-docs, on the other hand, deviation from the party line is not tolerated at all. Given that in the last century almost every significant idea in theoretical physics was from someone in their 20’s, it would seem to me that something is very wrong here.

  17. erinj says:

    I agree with your comments, Peter, on independent research, but surely there are examples of successful independent research which has taken place outside of academia, although some degree of intellectual stimulation may have been present? An obvious example would be Einstein, working as a patent clerk in Berne and having meetings with others as part of the `Olympia Academy’. Einstein must have had, or found, the time to dedicate to his three 1905 papers. Newton’s `miracle year’ (1665/6?) was one were he was, as far as I’ve read, isolated on his mother’s farm, Cambridge having closed due to the plague. Also, people like Hawking and John Nash appear to have drifted through their PhDs, waiting until the last year or months before finally focussing on a problem (and then solving it). Hey, and didn’t Louis de Broglie, wealthy aristocrat that he was, do physics research for fun?

    Having been a postdoc, I often wonder whether the time and freedom (and possibly lack of pressure) necessary for `great’, or major, works, is more likely to be found outside of academia, and perhaps the really big problems of the past, present and future do require a proportionately large amount of time and thought to solve. No publish or perish rule, no scrabbling or begging for funding – perhaps a menial job in the background to earn enough to live on whilst one concentrates on the `real’ work. I admit that this reads as an exceptionally difficult route to acheivement, but perhaps in such conditions the `survival instinct’ takes over and intellectual challenges become all-consuming instead of being part of the potentially droll `day job’.

    This seems to be the approach that many – if not all – major, award-winning and famous novelists, dramatists and poets take, as they are even less likely to be paid to produce work in these areas than scientists. The sheer difficulty of their circumstances perhaps drives them to brilliance and creative heights, but I suppose this requires immense resilience and dedication, perhaps to the detriment of family, friends, health, etc. In fact, the parallel goes further, as I read that Einstein essentially slept for two weeks, exhausted and ill, after arriving at his final formulation of special relativity. Didn’t Newton’s hair gradually turn white after his `miracle year’, as well? Maybe the cliche `no pain, no gain’ really does hold.

    I personally don’t believe there is sufficient freedom for risk-taking and novel research in academia as funding bodies and research leaders are very cautious, which is probably to be expected (their jobs being on the line as well, if things go badly…). Then again, string theory research seems to have garnered a very large part of global particle theory research funding over the past ten years or more. I myself believe string theorists gain funding because of links to particle theory rather than any claims about string theory being the “best candidate” for a quantum theory of gravitation. Quantum gravity is a problem that I believe is not going to be readily solved inside academia, unless funding for loop QG and other `alternatives’ to string theory QG receive more funding so that they can be explored more fully. The really big and difficult problems just don’t receive the funding necessary to resolve them, inside academia: the risk is just too great, and in consequence I wouldn’t be surprised that a lot of research becomes “resume padding”. Surely we need more of Feynman’s “leaps into the wild blue yonder” (I do hope that quotation is correct).

  18. JC says:


    Do you think the IAS was a cause or symptom for folks like Einstein, Goedel, Oppenheimer, etc … in producing nothing of significance for the rest of their lives, and/or producing garbage research bordering on crackpottery?

    I remember reading something in a short biography of Kurt Goedel, where his wife thought that the IAS wasn’t much more than the equivalent of a “retirement home” for famous academics who are long past their prime.

  19. Peter says:

    It’s pretty unusual for people to be able to do much research outside of the standard academic system these days. Perelman is an interesting special case, I actually don’t know to what extent he really was cut off from the math community in Russia while he was doing his research, or whether he did have colleagues to talk to. One funny thing about him is that he’s in line for a million dollars from the Clay foundation, but seems to have no interest in the money. Definitely an unusual character, very devoted to a pure approach to abstract research.

    One problem with being outside academia is getting the necessary blocks of time to devote to thinking about research. It also is much harder to make progress on one’s work if one doesn’t have people to talk to about it, or continuing stimulation of new ideas to think about. I’ve always thought the Institute in Princeton wasn’t such a great idea, because by isolating people from having to teach classes and deal with students, it can keep them from having to think about anything other than the one approach to their research they are pursuing. It can be quite helpful to be forced to think about different topics, and may give one ideas about new ways to think about one’s research.

  20. JC says:


    How common is it for math or physics folks to take up independent research outside of the formal academic system, such as Grigori Perelman working on a proof of the Thurston geometrization conjecture in relative isolation for many years in St. Petersburg?

    Arguably there’s no pressure to publish any “resume padding” type of papers, or for that matter publishing anything, when one isn’t a part of the formal academia system.

    At times I wonder how many folks would be working independently (ie. outside of the formal academic system) on things like SUSY and/or string theory, if there were no tenured faculty nor any untenured faculty or postdocs working on it. I always wondered if John Schwarz would have worked on string theory during 1970’s and early 1980’s if Murray Gell-Mann had never kept him around as a “permanent postdoc” when string was in hibernation, and possibly would have had to take a day job in the private sector outside of academia.

  21. Peter says:

    I mainly know what happens these days with grad-students and young faculty in math. Very few grad students leave without getting a degree. When they graduate, some don’t even try and get an academic job, instead going directly into finance jobs, computer jobs, or maybe doing something like working for the NSA.

    Of those who get a first academic job, many leave academia after a couple of years or so.

    For both categories of people, the situation is similar. Getting a postdoc at a good place is hard, and getting a tenure-track job at a good institution that will support your research is harder. So people find that the jobs they can get are either in places they really don’t want to live, or at primarily teaching institutions. Many people find they really don’t enjoy not being paid very well to do a lot of very low-level teaching. A well-paid job in New York doing financial math looks a lot more attractive in many ways.

    Once people get to the point of having a tenure-track job in math and do it long enough to know they want to stick with it, most end up getting tenure, either at the place they start or somewhere else.

    The job situation is particle theory is much worse than in math, but I haven’t been following the careers of more than a few young grad students and postdocs in it, so don’t have much data about what is happening to them right now.

  22. JC says:


    What reasons do math/physics people have for leaving grad school or academia these days?

    The main reasons I’ve heard of over the years from old friends and colleagues (excluding political or gross misconduct reasons), were involuntary ones like

    – a grad student couldn’t get a postdoc
    – a postdoc couldn’t get another postdoc and/or couldn’t get an assistant professor job
    – an untenured faculty member was denied tenure or couldn’t get a tenured faculty job
    – an untenured faculty member lost most of their grant funding (especially in the case of an experimentalist)

    while voluntary reasons were ones like

    – a grad student didn’t like graduate school and didn’t feel like it was worth the effort to finish their PhD research work
    – a grad student got bored or sick of their field and quit after getting their PhD
    – an untenured person got sick and tired of their field, and had a hard time getting any funding when they tried changing into another field (in some cases not even getting any funding at all in their new field)
    – a postdoc felt they had no chance in hell of getting a faculty job, and subsequently quit
    – a postdoc got bored or sick and tired of their field, and subsequently quit
    – a tenured faculty member got sick and tired of cranking out meaningless “resume padding” type of papers just to maintain their research grant money; ended up quitting to find more greener pastures outside of academia
    – a postdoc got sick and tired of cranking out tons of meaningless “resume padding” type of papers, with no end in sight (ie. the “permanent postdoc” types who are on their 4th, 5th, or higher postdoc); ended up quitting out of discouragement

  23. Peter says:

    Since the bubble burst I don’t know anyone who has gone into the computer industry. All the people I can think of who have left academia recently have gone into finance. Part of this may just be because I’m in New York, where there are lots of finance jobs and few computer ones. Maybe the experience of people on the West Coast is different.

  24. JC says:


    How common is it for math or physics PhDs to go into computers ever since the dotcom bubble bursted a few years ago?

    Almost everybody I know who still has a paying job in computer/hi-tech and even the defense sectors are paranoid of being laid off, especially with many jobs being “outsourced” to places like India or China. This seems to be almost universal from the folks who do data entry all the way up to PhDs who do the cutting edge research & development work, who are not in upper management. On the surface it sounds “suicidal” for a company to be firing many of their research and development folks just to save a few bucks in costs, or “outsourcing” their research and development work to countries which don’t have much in terms of intellectual property laws and enforcement.

  25. Chris Oakley says:

    I’m keeping out of the Cosmology discussion (although, if pressed, am prepared to vociferously defend my beliefs about the Great Green Arkleseizure) …

    My comment is on Peter’s remark below:

    Unfortunately the thing that seems to me the most sensible idea in the present circumstance, that of going back and trying to really understand the things one doesn’t understand about gauge theories and the standard model, doesn’t seem to have any takers. People have convinced themselves that there’s nothing new to be found that way.

    There are a handful of takers, but, being focused on irrelevancies, they never got anywhere.

  26. D R Lunsford says:

    One thing that is true of anti-bangers (and perhaps bangers) – one makes up his mind early, and tends to stick to that decision. e.g. I have always found the BB hateful, even before inflation which only made it much worse. There is too much “play” in GR for comfort, so the extrapolation to cosmic time scales is very suspect, the moreso since the entire idea of energy is on shaky ground – and so also time. Time is all balled up in GR no matter how you cut it. The following thought experiment illustrates – you can never “watch a movie” of the formation of a black hole – since you can’t see anything beyond the horizon, that stuff can never have been “out here”, from my perspective, and therefore a black hole cannot form in finite local time, and must have always existed, from my perspective. Now the problem here is not the horizon, but time itself – and it’s just the other side of the energy problem. I cannot think of any counter-argument that allows a Big Bang. Time is more than duration, it’s “persistence”. GR is only complete when the substance – persistence – comes automatically out of the basic idea of curvature. That is, by its nature GR is a vacuum theory, and in fact the only part of it that is well-tested is Rmn = 0.

  27. Peter says:

    I don’t have a lot of information about what is happening to current particle theory PhDs, but a large fraction of the ones from my era (early-mid 80s) ended up working in the computer or finance industries (about equal numbers in each).

    Over the last ten-fifteen years I’ve seen a lot of young math grad students and faculty leave academia, mostly for finance. Ten years ago the academic job market was terrible and it wasn’t so hard to get a finance job. More recently the academic job market has improved, but finance jobs seem to take a lot more effort for people to get. One reason is that there are now a lot of financial math master’s degree programs (we have a very successful one here in our department). So there are a lot of students coming out with some training and good credentials in financial math. It is harder for straight math PhDs without any experience in finance to compete with them.

  28. Chris Oakley says:

    Hello erinj,

    If there is less tolerance now for quants who don’t program in the City, then I accept part of the blame. I have always argued that they should. The problem is that if bringing the model into production means involving a team of programmers to turn the model into something that can work in a production environment then the process will take too long, and as I probably do not need to tell you, traders are not patient people. The system we have at Nomura just involves deriving a (C++/COM) class from one called “Trade” and overriding some virtual functions. That way our quants can have a new trade type in the system on the same day (there is a bit more to it than that, but that is the basic idea).

    We are now getting way off topic. Drop me an e-mail with your CV to and I will see if I can come up with some suggestions.

  29. erinj says:

    Hello Chris,

    I made two serious attempts to gain employment in the City (of London, banking and finance sector), about two years apart, and came up against a brick wall on both occasions – once as a new theoretical physics PhD, and once as a recent high energy physics post-doc. Despite advice to the contrary, I found it impossible to gain work as a junior `quant’ (quantitative analyst).

    I contacted many banks and finance firms, got advice from an economics university lecturer who was a former `quant’ team member, and read up on as much financial mathematics and economics as I could. I couldn’t even secure an interview! My CV was listed on quite a few specialist finance employment agencies, and I could get nothing. I was, and still am, baffled by the lack of interest my skills, which I assumed were valued by the finance sector, brought me.

    After asking for feedback about this, I was told by employment agencies – who relayed what quant team leaders told me about my applications – that the reasons I was never shortlisted were: lack of experience in the financial world, too many other PhDs applications, and that my programming skills were not as extensive as other applicants. Well, if they wanted computer programmers, why did they give the impression that they wanted theoretical physicists – people who can work with and solve mathematical and modelling problems?

    I think that there are, and have been, too many applicants for finance sector jobs who don’t have enough programming skills, like myself, and who have also been misled about how much computer programming is required in these jobs. The aforementioned former quant told me that it would be about 75% of the time – is this true in your experience, Chris?

    My impression (and I’ve seen job ads asking for candidates in this direction) is that, in the post-9/11 era, combined with the economic down-turn, economics and financial mathematics PhDs are the candidates more likely to be successful, as well as graduates who have worked as part of summer programmes with banks (internships/work experience), and even computer science PhDs.

    So now I’ll never get to see the `front office’ or the trader’s floors, nor be paid the fabled big salaries and bonuses of the City.

  30. JC says:


    Perhaps it was the folks I was speaking with over the years. These old colleagues in particular ended up quitting Wall St. after 6 or 7 years, after getting sick and tired of trading or writing computer code that priced derivatives securities. I never asked them specifically what they defined as “burnout” in their line of work. My trading friends were always complaining about their work related stress, such as their telephone ringing every 30 seconds and having to keep track of information simultaneously on 5 or 6 computer screens all day. The friends who did the computer derivatives calculations stuff had less complaints, other than many of them finding their work boring and/or not very interesting after awhile. In some ways I got the sense they felt their work started to become “routine” or a “chore” to them, and the initial “excitement” was gone for the most part.

    Whether these folks chose the “wrong” profession to go into, I don’t know for sure. Some thought the money would keep them happy, but in the longer term it didn’t. Others I suspect saw the money as a “means to an end”, where they were able to make a large enough fortune to “retire” and do whatever they wanted afterwards with the rest of their life.

    Certainly none of them had any complaints about the money they were making. Every one of them were able to pay off all their student loan debts, as well as a large portion of their mortgages if they lived outside of Manhattan.

    I have not kept contact with any of these old friends and colleagues over the last few years. So I don’t know what they’re thinking these days, or if they changed their minds about what they regard as “burnout”. A few folks I’m aware of went back to writing particle and/or string papers while others literally “disappeared” without a trace.

  31. Chris Oakley says:

    Speaking as one who “sold out” and left particle physics to to work in Wall Street (the City of London, actually) – I feel it my duty to correct the bleak picture painted earlier of this career path. First off, if you choose to go into trading as did former string theorists Kelly Kirklin and Paul Miron then you can make a lot of money. I don’t know the exact score with these two, but my guess is that they both have enough to retire. Kelly is now a post-doc at Cambridge. Whether he is paying for himself, or denying some much more deserving youngster by holding this post I do not know, but the point is that with plenty of money in the bank, he is now able to do what he wants, which is physics – a bit like the “gentleman scientists” of old, like Lord Rayleigh. Personally, I never went into trading, mainly because I find software far more interesting, but having said that, although I have not done nearly as well as these two, I nonetheless was able to pay off my mortgage about two years ago.

    Some basic points that all physicists thinking of making this transition ought to be aware of:

    = There is a lot of interesting mathematical work to be done in the Finance world.

    = The route from science PhD to quantitative analyst in an investment bank is well-trodden & you will not have to explain or justify yourself. Mathematical skills are valued.

  32. D R Lunsford says:

    Weinberg in astrophysics – how nice.

    I heard a talk a UMd on early string theory (the 26-dim weaving of it) by Gell-Mann. He opened his talk with a comment about the “half-asstrophysicists” in the audience. I wanted to punch him out. Instead I asked him an impromptu group theory question he could not answer extemporare, which was almost better.

  33. JC says:

    How popular is it for physics or math folks to go to Wall St. these days?

    I knew many particle theory and some string folks that went the Wall St. route through the 1990’s. Main drawback I’ve heard from old friends and colleagues is that there’s a very high burnout rate on Wall St. with a half-life of around 6-7 years for many physics and math types.

    Only other major “competitive” route I was aware of that many math and physics folks went to, was management consulting. Last I heard from friends and colleagues that went into consulting, many consulting firms (ie. Accenture, McKinsey, etc …) were laying off folks like crazy in periodic “purges” over the last few years.

  34. Peter says:

    A lot of people are already abandoning particle theory for astrophysics, Steven Weinberg would be one prominent example. Many string theorists have moved into cosmology, often hoping there is something to be done there with string theory, my colleague Brian Greene is an example.

    I hear my advisor (Curt Callan at Princeton) is mostly doing biology these days. A few people have moved into mathematics.

    Presumably John Schwarz would be one of the last to give up on string theory. Witten certainly seems to continue to believe in string theory, something which mystifies me. He hasn’t gone in for the anthropic nonsense, or for “string cosmology” or “string phenomenology”. I’d bet he’s well aware that the present state of string theory is such that progress can’t be made in those areas.

    I suspect the SUSY people will hang in there until data from the LHC comes in. If something interesting that isn’t SUSY turns up there, they’ll all jump on it.

    Unfortunately the thing that seems to me the most sensible idea in the present circumstance, that of going back and trying to really understand the things one doesn’t understand about gauge theories and the standard model, doesn’t seem to have any takers. People have convinced themselves that there’s nothing new to be found that way.

  35. JC says:

    Any bets on what string theory folks will be working on, if string theory falls out of favor and into hibernation like it did in the late 70’s and early 80’s? Any bets that somebody like Edward Witten would abdicate from string theory, and/or John Schwarz would continue slogging on with string theory to the day he dies?

    Any bets on what the SUSY crowd will be working on, if SUSY falls out of favor too?

    Apart from my very limited knowledge of particle physics history, I don’t even have any clue as to what I could be working on if I was still doing particle theory, outside of SUSY and/or string theory. If I was a young naive grad student today, I would be tempted to go into something like astroparticle theory or possibly do an MBA or law school instead.

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