Glashow Interview

David Zierler, the oral historian at the American Institute of Physics, has done many in-depth interviews with theoretical physicists in recent years. Today I came across a 2020 interview with Shelly Glashow, which was very interesting in general, and also answered a question I had always wondered about. Glashow was my undergraduate advisor at Harvard, where I was a student from 1975-79. From what I remember, his office was more or less next door to Steven Weinberg’s. It was well-known that they had been close friends, in the same class first at Bronx High School of Science, and then at Cornell. Towards the end of my time at Harvard I heard that their friendship was over and they were barely on speaking terms, but I never knew what had happened. In the fall of 1979, they were (together with Abdus Salam), awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on the unified electroweak theory.

In the interview, Glashow explains the story from his point of view:

Glashow:
by the late 1970s I began to think of myself as a Nobel contender. But I was under the impression that my old friend Steven Weinberg was doing everything in his power to keep the prize for himself and Salam. In particular—at a conference that he attended in Tokyo—he went out of his way to avoid mentioning my name at all while presenting the history of weak interaction theory. I got very upset by that omission. It was the issue which terminated our friendship. In the summer of 1979, I was invited to a meeting in Stockholm, to discuss the current state of physics ideas and others. Prior to the meeting, I sent a transcript of my talk to Steve. He was violently against my giving the talk. Because it examined various alternatives to what was then known as Weinberg/Salam theory. In fact, it was an open-minded talk in which I was discussing whether their—or more properly—our theory was a correct one or not. But it was such a heated discussion that I eventually had to simply hang up on him, because I had no intention of revising my talk. And I did not.

Zierler:
Was his assessment of your paper accurate in your mind?

Glashow:
I did talk about alternatives to the Weinberg-Salam theory. Yes. I was not yet convinced that it had to be true.

Zierler:
And what was your sense of why this was so unacceptable to him?

Glashow:
He thought it would endanger the Nobel Prize that he had campaigned for and anticipated for Salam and himself.

A copy of Weinberg’s Tokyo paper is here.

In the interview Glashow is scornful about Salam’s work and the campaign to get him a part of the Nobel Prize:

Glashow:
… Recall that Salam made a great deal of noise about why the prize should be given to he, Salam. I’ve been told that there were dozens and dozens of nominations of Salam. In fact, there’s a whole paper written about his shenanigans, which I can refer to you; written by Norman Dombey. Everything he says is true, to my knowledge….

My Nobel Prize depended on that one paper written in 1960. Steve’s Nobel Prize depended exclusively on that one paper he wrote in 1967, a wonderful paper which applied the notion of spontaneous symmetry breaking to the—my electroweak model. So, the question arises, what did Salam do? He introduced the electroweak—the SU(2)XU(1) model in 1964. That was over three years after I did. He copied my work but did not cite me…

Zierler:
Do you want to comment on why then he would have been a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize with you for this copy of your work?

Glashow:
I’ll explain it in a moment. But let me come back to—he also claims to the first to introduce spontaneous symmetry breaking in the paper that he wrote in 1968, one year after Steve wrote his paper. But that paper even cites Steve’s paper, so it is hardly the first time. He did what each of us had previously done, but much later. So why did he get a Nobel Prize? Very simply, he was nominated many times. Because he was Director of the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy and he was very close with the directors of physics institutes in many countries; almost 100 of different institutions. And many of them wrote letters, by his instruction, using his words in some cases, encouraging the Nobel Committee to give the prize to him and also Steven. All of this documented, in fact, by the paper by Norman Dombey, who had access to Salam’s files in Italy, and has copies of the letters that he sent to other people encouraging them to nominate him. So, I think he shared the prize because he made a point of doing just that.

I wrote something on the blog about Donbey’s claims here.

Zierler also asks Glashow some questions about string theory, a topic on which Glashow’s views have been consistent from the beginning:

Zierler:
In retrospect, Shelly—how well do you think—has both string theory and your criticism of it aged over the past 30 years?

Glashow:
Well, it’s hard to answer that. String theory has become an established part of physics departments throughout the world, more so in Europe than in America. We still have some universities which are proudly string-free, like Boston University. We also have an awful lot of string theorists around who are twiddling their thumbs. It is not clear that string theory is going anywhere. I expect that string theorists would disagree with that assessment. But they are actually considering many other circumstances such as black holes in other spaces than ours, and there are all kinds of interesting things being done in mathematics, in physics, elsewhere by string theorists but with no relationship to the questions that interest me. They cannot answer the questions they set out to answer. That much is clear.

Zierler:
That’s as clear to you—

Glashow:
That was clear from the beginning, I think…

Glashow:
… I no longer feel so strongly about string theory. Why beat a dead horse? String Theory does not answer the questions that I’m interested in. I’m sad about that. I hope that they’re wrong. I have no reason to think that their horse is, in fact, dead, but it’s dead from the point of view of being useful to my way of thinking about physics. And I think that many experimenters feel exactly the same way, because string theorists say nothing about experiments that have or could be done. They only speak of experiments that cannot be done, which is somehow not interesting.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Glashow Interview

  1. Chris says:

    Peter, thanks for an interesting post. Did you happen to see where the audio recording of the interview is? I could only find the transcript.

  2. Brathmore says:

    Do mathematicians lobby for, and fret about, whether they’ll win the famous math prizes? Or is this just in the sciences? Contrast Weinberg/Glashow with Perelman or Scholze. As science has become so interdependent, the Nobel limit on 3 per year is as stupid as the madness it engenders.

  3. S says:

    “They only speak of experiments that cannot be done, which is somehow not interesting.”

    That seems a generous take.

  4. Georges E. Melki says:

    After reading this article, I lost most of the respect I had for both the Nobel Prize and its recipients! How could those so-called “great men” be so scornful of each other? How could they be bickering like this about precedence and priority in their fields? And what is the Nobel committee doing? What a shame!

  5. Steven Malarkey says:

    Why beat a dead horse?

    Perhaps something for us all to ponder.

  6. Having taught an undergrad course in particle physics at Harvard with Glashow, and rubbed elbows with Salam in Trieste, little in this surprises me. I only attended a couple of talks by Weinberg, but … My short assessments of the 3, in the order mentioned: good guy; preening; aloof.

  7. Anonyrat says:

    Glashow mentioned his summer 1979 talk here:
    https://inference-review.com/article/in-memoriam-steven-weinberg
    And gave a citation:
    https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/0031-8949/20/2/022
    Scenarios for Physics at LEP
    Sheldon L Glashow
    Published under licence by IOP Publishing Ltd
    Physica Scripta, Volume 20, Number 2
    Citation Sheldon L Glashow 1979 Phys. Scr. 20 283

  8. zzz says:

    that sort of politicing for a Nobel is not uniq to physics

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Anonyrat,
    Looking at the Glashow spring 1979 Stockholm talk paper, I see what upset Weinberg. On page 309 Glashow claims that current phenomenology was consistent with a different model, with “Weinberg” angle 0. Weinberg likely took that as an explicit attempt to go before the Nobel committee and tell them that Weinberg’s model might be wrong so they shouldn’t give a prize for it.

  10. Peter Shor says:

    Chris asks:

    Did you happen to see where the audio recording of the interview is? I could only find the transcript.

    I am fairly sure that for this series of interviews, they don’t release the original recording but just the transcript. I don’t know why—this is pure speculation, but maybe it’s because they think more people would be willing to be interviewed this way.

  11. Anonyrat says:

    Peter,

    In the first link, Glashow wrote:

    “I was invited to speak about the weak interactions at a conference in Stockholm in the spring of 1979.2 While in Stockholm, a member of the Nobel Physics Committee delighted in telling me that the Weinberg angle appearing in the Weinberg–Salam model was identical to the angle I introduced in my 1960 paper. I was delighted as well.”

    The “weak mixing angle” was invented by Sheldon Glashow in his 1961 paper, “Partial-symmetries of weak interactions.”

  12. Peter Woit says:

    Anonyrat,

    That’s why I put “Weinberg angle” in quotes. If you were around Glashow and his collaborators during the late 70s you were well aware that it wasn’t discovered by Weinberg…

  13. Palinuro says:

    Once I had the chance to talk with Glashow, and ask him when he was convinced that his model was true, he said that after neutral currents were observed, not 1961, not 1967 or 1971.

    Weinberg, great physics and books, but in both of them it is like if Veltman has not existed.

  14. curiouser says:

    It’s hard to understand why the theory, at least initially, was called the Weinberg/Salam model, and why “Weinberg was doing everything in his power to keep the prize for himself and Salam”, if all Salam did was to steal from Glashow and Weinberg. It’s unfortunate that Weinberg and Salam are no longer around to defend themselves against what sounds like childish bickering fifty years after the fact. Maybe they wouldn’t have cared to.

  15. Peter Woit says:

    curiouser,

    I’m also curious where the term “Weinberg-Salam”, with non-alphabetic ordering, first appeared. If Salam had independently discovered this model and written it down, why not “Salam-Weinberg”? The model got zero attention until after ‘t Hooft showed renormalizability. ‘t Hooft in his earliest mention I can find
    https://webspace.science.uu.nl/~hooft101/gthpub/massive.pdf
    refers to the model as Weinberg’s model, no mention of Salam.

    For much more detail about this story, I recommend Frank Close’s book “The Infinity Puzzle”.

    From everything I’ve read, Glashow has a good argument that Salam should not have gotten recognition for this. Writing a paper in 1964 describing the same model someone else well-known working in the same field had published three years earlier is not the kind of thing one normally gets any kind of credit for. Salam claimed to have independently discovered and discussed the Weinberg 1967 model for leptons in a series of fall term (Oct-Dec.) 1967 lectures at Imperial. There are no records from anyone of what he discussed in those lectures. Weinberg’s paper went to PRL Oct. 17 1967, was published Nov. 20, so quite possibly would have been available to Salam at some point during that period (there’s zero chance he would not have paid attention to a new paper from Weinberg).

    Glashow is almost 90 years old, and has every right (and arguably a duty) to try and set the historical record straight about the Salam story. About Weinberg, what he has to say has nothing to do with the science, it’s purely about their interpersonal conflict and why he stopped speaking to Weinberg. It seems to me he has every right to publicly explain that if he wants to.

    Weinberg was alive when Glashow was interviewed, but now can no longer respond. I doubt he would have wanted to. One can make a guess about how he felt about this: in 1978-9 he was clearly one of the first in line for the next physics Nobel Prize, perhaps had little patience for things that might interfere with this (such as arguments over claims about an earlier, incorrect, version of his model, or claims that it might yet turn out to be wrong).

  16. Shantanu says:

    Peter : in NASA/ADS you can do a full-text search
    NASA/ADS is not always 100% complete in terms of Physics papers but according to this, the first paper which used “Weinberg-Salam” model is
    https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1972PhRvD…6.2023M/abstract
    I don’t think inspirehep does a fulltext search. If it does someone can search via that too.

Leave a Reply

Informed comments relevant to the posting are very welcome and strongly encouraged. Comments that just add noise and/or hostility are not. Off-topic comments better be interesting... In addition, remember that this is not a general physics discussion board, or a place for people to promote their favorite ideas about fundamental physics. Your email address will not be published.