Gloating

Well, my prediction of who would win this year’s Nobel prize in physics turned out to be correct. No, I didn’t have any inside information about this at all. I suppose I should mention that many of my friends will not be so impressed by this feat since they have heard me make this same prediction incorrectly every one of the last 15 years or so. Sooner or later I had to be right, and it was dumb luck that it happened the first year I had a public forum in which to make this prediction.

Congratulations to Gross, Politzer and Wilczek!

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19 Responses to Gloating

  1. Lubos Motl says:

    I made the same prediction, and it seems more correct to say that we *had* some inside information about it, to some extent – certainly much more information than the average people on the internet who were also trying to predict.

    The physics Nobel committee is not that different statistically from the community of physicists like us and they certainly had similar discussions – comparing QCD with some lasers or quantum entanglement experiments.

    The confirmation of a prediction after 15 years is a good example that string theory can also be proved correct 15 years from now. A physicist must be often patient! ­čśë

    Congrats to Gross, Politzer, and Wilczek.

  2. Peter says:

    Hi Chris,

    Actually I do have a link to the Friedan paper, it’s on

    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/reason.html

    I probably should update that page, any other suggestions for what should go on it are welcome. Maybe the “Landscape” deserves a page of its own.

  3. Chris W. says:

    Sorry; I neglected to identify myself in the previous post.

  4. Anonymous says:

    As Thomas suggests, subsection 1.6 of Friedan’s paper discusses the failures of string theory at considerable length. His assessment is devastating. Consider this:

    In particular, there is no justification for the claim that string theory explains or predicts gravity. String theory gives perturbative scattering amplitudes of gravitons. Gravitons have never been observed. Gravity in the real world is accurately described by general relativity, which is a classical field theory. There is no derivation of general relativity from string theory. General relativity can be regarded as the large distance classical limit of quantum general relativity, if an ultraviolet cutoff is imposed to make sense of quantum general relativity. A cutoff quantum general relativity would give the same formal perturbative low energy scattering amplitudes for massless gravitons as does string theory. But it is illogical to claim, from this formal coincidence between two technical methods of calculating unobserved graviton scattering amplitudes, that string theory explains classical general relativity, or that string theory explains gravity, or that string theory is a quantum theory of gravity. String theory does not produce any mechanical theory of gravity, much less a quantum mechanical theory.

    In any case, a quantum theory of gravity is unnecessary. No physical effects of quantum gravity have been observed, and there is no credible possibility of observing any. What is needed is a theory which produces general relativity as an effective classical field theory at large distance. It might produce classical general relativity by producing at large distance an effective quantized general relativity that is deep in its classical regime. But what is essential to produce is the classical, mechanical spacetime field theory of gravity. String theory is only a perturbative theory. The widespread practice is to assume that there exists a nonperturbative formulation of string theory, and that this hypothetical nonperturbative formulation would be a quantum mechanical theory, microscopic in spacetime, invariant under some exact, fundamental spacetime supersymmetries. If such a nonperturbative formulation of string theory did exist, then it might well follow that the large distance physics in that hypothetical theory would be governed by supersymmetric spacetime quantum field theory, and that the fate of the degeneracy of the manifold of background spacetimes would be determined by nonperturbative field theoretic effects at large distance in spacetime in that supersymmetric quantum field theory. But it is only an assumption that there exists such a nonperturbative, microscopic, quantum mechanical formulation of string theory. Any reasoning about a hypothetical nonperturbative version of string theory is unreliable if it rests on the assumption of spacetime quantum field theory at large distance, without any way to derive spacetime quantum field theory from string theory.

    The assumption of fundamental, exact, quantum mechanical spacetime supersymmetry is a very strong extrapolation from perturbative string theory, where spacetime supersymmetry is only a perturbative symmetry of the scattering amplitudes in individual background spacetimes. Adopting this assumption requires accepting as inevitable the continuous degeneracy of the manifold of background spacetimes. An assumption as strong as fundamental spacetime supersymmetry loses credibility as a guide in searching for a theory of physics if it cannot lead to definite explanations of existing knowledge and definite predictions. There is certainly no physical evidence to support the assumption that spacetime supersymmetry is a fundamental property of nature. At most, it is possible that indications of approximate spacetime supersymmetry might be found experimentally in the not so distant future. Contrast the radical assumptions of the old quantum theory, which obtained credibility by giving definite explanations of the black body spectrum, the photoelectric effect, the Balmer series, the Rydberg constant, and much more of atomic physics, before eventually leading to quantum mechanics.

    (Peter: Is there a specific reason why you don’t have a link to this preprint [April 2002] on your home page? It would good to have it there with whatever editorial comments you feel like including.)

  5. Thomas Larsson says:

    Peter will enjoy the part where he says that every new revolution in string theory taught us a lot about string theory and was followed first by great excitement, and then disappointment as it was realized that nothing new had been learned about the real world.

    String theory has introduced much interesting mathematics into physics. That this has not led to any new physical knowledge must be a disappointment to many. I suppose that different people handle this in different ways: Susskind and Douglas invent anthropic selection ideas, Motl makes increasingly ridiculous claims about how string theory is the maximally predictive theory, Friedan (who founded the string theory group at Rutgers and thus in a sense is Motl’s scientific grandfather) is silent for 10 years and then proclaims that string theory is “a complete scientific failure”, see hep-th/0204131, subsection 1.6. Different personalities, different reactions.

  6. String Theorist says:

    David Gross is having a huge celebration at the KITP in honor of his Prize (well it is ostensibly in honor of the opening of the new wing of the KITP, though the fortuitous timing is quite coincidental, if you are the type who believes in coincidences…) .

    Steven Weinberg gave a beautiful talk on the
    current state of particle theory,
    http://online.itp.ucsb.edu/online/kitp25/
    and used an analogy that I posted long ago on this forum: that we may be no more succesful in “calculating the electron mass” from some fundamental theory than Kepler was in “calculating the radius of the Earth’s orbit” from some fundamental theory.

    Peter will enjoy the part where he says that every new revolution in string theory taught us a lot about string theory and was followed first by great excitement, and then disappointment as it was realized that nothing new had been learned about the real world.

  7. Arun says:

    What are the features of an “interesting” problem (as when one says – most of the interesting problems are in molecular biology?)

    I think some of the features are that the problem is not easy, but is within the realm of feasibility of solution, is within the reach of conceivable experiments, and that solving the problem leads to other interesting problems.

  8. D R Lunsford says:

    No one claimed that biology is not interesting, but when I was 5 the physical world was more interesting, and now that I’m 45 it’s still just as interesting. Why quit because the problems are hard and the people are harder?

  9. Chris Oakley says:

    It could be just that Molecular Biology is where the interesting problems are these days.

  10. D R Lunsford says:

    Hi Thomas,

    One of my professors used to say “When Mozart was my age he was dead for 4 years!”

    To me, the most amazing feat of callow youth is the “Enzyklopaedie der Mathematischen Wissenschaften” article written by Pauli on general and special relativity when he was 19 and a student of Sommerfeld. This book instantly became the chief reference on the literature of relativity. It’s still a valuable book. This was 1920 – there couldn’t have been 100 people in the world who understood it.

    Speaking personally, all the young genii I knew in school have burned out or turned to biology or the like. Harsh field this.

  11. Fabio says:

    Another alternative is they could start awarding the prize posthumously. That way they could work their way back all the way through the 20th century.

  12. Peter says:

    Hi Thomas,

    The student you’re thinking of is John Moody. He was in the same entering class as me at Princeton and we spent a lot of time together there. I haven’t seen him in quite a few years, but after Princeton, then Santa Barbara, he ended up going into CS (neural nets) and financial engineering. He now seems to be at Berkeley and has a web-page

    http://www.icsi.berkeley.edu/~moody/

  13. Thomas Larsson says:

    It is striking how young these people were in 1973 – Wilczek 21, Politzer 23, and Gross 31. How many of you people did Nobel work at the age of 21?

    I must have met Wilczek during the academic year 1982/83, which I spent as a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara. Wilczek had just been appointed professor there at the time. He must have been around 30 but appeared older, at least to a freshman like myself (he didn’t have a whole lot of hair even then). Anyway, in the beginning of the winter quarter a grad student of Wilczek’s by the name of Moody (his first name has completely slipped my mind) materialized. His job was to convince experimentalists to look for axions, which was Wilczek’s pet idea at the time. The idea was, as this Moody fellow explicitly expressed it, that “they would find axions so that Frank could win a Nobel prize”. Oh well, it wasn’t necessary in the end, was it.

    Axions are not the only hypothetical particles that Wilczek has cooked up. IMO the best so far is the vaderon, the carrier of the dark force. Named after Darth Vader.

  14. Peter says:

    Hi Danny,

    Witten is responsible for new understanding of lots of different kinds of QFTs, problem is, not precisely the one QFT of the standard model. Off the top of my head, here are some examples:

    Current algebra: the phenomenological model of pions. Witten solved the “eta-prime” problem, showing how the ninth Goldstone boson gets a sizable mass in this model. He also showed how the proton is a soliton in this model (the Skyrmion). This is very physical stuff, but not a fundamental model.

    Seiberg-Witten solution of N=2 super Yang-Mills. Problem is that the Standard Model doesn’t have N=2 supersymmetry. But this did revolutionize the field of 4-manifold topology in mathematics.

    Cohomological topological field theories: Witten wrote down and solved a large class of QFTs whose observables are mathematically extremely interesting, although the models don’t describe known physical particles. These include the 4d TQFT that gives Donaldson-theory, and the 2d QFT that gives Gromov-Witten invariants. The latter, which people now like to call “topological string theory” has lead to a lot of beautiful answers to enumerative problems in algebraic geometry.

    Chern-Simons theory: This lead to great new math involving new knot invariants and connections to all sorts of other math. Physically he related a 3d QFT to conformal field theory (WZW models), giving new insights into both sides of the relation.

    Other 2d QFTs: Many different examples, including pure Yang-Mills and the 2d version of Donaldson theory, which he used to understand the cohomology of certain moduli spaces. There is a huge amount of beautiful math here, and completely new ways of thinking about 2d QFTs, solving them exactly. Other examples include WZW models, the supersymmetric models leading to elliptic cohomology.

    Personally I find it implausible that all these new ideas and ways of thinking about QFTs, some of which are quite close to the standard model, are not going to sooner or later give us new insight into the standard model itself. One problem is that almost all the community’s effort has gone into trying to use these new ideas to do string theory, and that seems to be a dead end. This is speculative stuff and you’re welcome to be skeptical until it proves its worth as physics, but if you believe as I do that great math and great physics are very deeply related, there is good reason to expect great physics to come out of this some day.

  15. D R Lunsford says:

    Hi Peter, I was watching the debate so let me ask you a debate question…

    How can you “greatly deepen the understanding” of QFT without adding any significant knowledge about its actors, the fundamental particles? This is like saying “Yamaha greatly increased our understanding of internal combustion engines, without actually contributing any new performance enhancements”.

    Seriously, what exactly did Witten do that made QFT in 2004 better than QFT in 1984? Are we really better off than we were 20 years ago?

  16. Peter says:

    The fundamental problem is that there have been no real advances in particle theory since the Standard Model came together in 1973 (largely because of the discovery of Gross-Politzer-Wilczek). So, of necessity the Nobel committee has to go farther and farther back in time. In my original post I speculated about some reasons why this one took so long. It could just as well have been awarded 25 years ago in the late seventies.

    Because of this, particle theory Nobel laureates are definitely getting older. You could also calculate the time interval between discovery and award of prize, and that has grown considerably over the years.

    In another 25 years or so just about all of those involved in putting together the standard model will be gone (the grad students ‘t Hooft, Politzer, Wilczek are the youngest). If there is still no progress in particle theory, either there will be no more Nobels in the field, or the Nobel committee will have to change its standards and start awarding prizes for work that doesn’t have experimentally testable consequences. If they have to do that, a good place to start would be with Witten, who has greatly deepened our understanding of QFT, although unfortunately mostly in ways that don’t explain anything new about elementary particles.

  17. Fabio Lanzoni says:

    Why this year rather than any of the last, say 30? I can remember people speculating about Gross, Wilczek and Politzer winning the prize at least 15 years ago. It seems every year that goes by without a Nobel-worthy discovery in physics they have to reach further and further back in time. Has anyone accumulated statistics on the average age of a physics Nobel recipient vs. time?

  18. sol says:

    Must be Psychic?:)

  19. Dick Thompson says:

    Couldn’t have been more deserved! Props to them!

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