Physics Murder Mystery

After the recent news that Lisa Randall is writing the libretto for an opera, there’s further evidence that particle theorists in Cambridge are moving in the direction of creative writing. Today’s Wall Street Journal has a feature article about various people’s plans for 2009. One of these is Frank Wilczek, who writes:

I’m writing a physics murder mystery. The idea is that two men and two women from Harvard and MIT collaborate and discover dark matter. It’s clear that they should win a Nobel Prize, but according to the rules of the prize, only three people at most can share.

This is an entertaining idea for a plot, and perhaps it has some personal resonance with Wilczek. For much of his career, he was well-known to be one of the people responsible for a definitely Nobel-prize caliber discovery, but he did not have a Nobel prize. By some counts, there were four people (Gross, Politzer, ‘t Hooft, Wilczek) who had a hand in the discovery of asymptotic freedom back in 1973. It was only with the award of a Nobel for related work to ‘t Hooft and Veltman in 1999 that the numerical obstruction to an asymptotic freedom award was removed, with the award going to the other three in 2004. Over this quarter century or so, surely it did not occur to any of the four that it might not be an entirely bad thing if one of them didn’t live to a ripe old age….

Next month I’ll be spending a week or so in Paris, partly for vacation, partly to attend a conference about Grothendieck’s mathematical legacy, to be held at the IHES, a place I’ve never before visited. There’s a murder mystery about the IHES that I’ve heard about but haven’t yet read, so I hope to get a copy in France. The author is Nicole Gaume, who worked for the IHES director, and was forced out when a new director (Marcel Berger) came on the scene. Under the pen-name Margot Bruyère she wrote a roman à clef featuring the mathematicians of the IHES and the murder of a new director. The book first came out under the title Dis-moi qui tu aimes (je te dirai qui tu hais), but was republished in 2002 under the new title Maths à mort. For more information about the book, see here.

Update: I just noticed that Wilczek has posted on his web-site an essay about Hermann Weyl’s Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science that will be the introduction to a new edition of the book appearing next year.

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13 Responses to Physics Murder Mystery

  1. anon. says:

    “Writing a book for a general audience connected Randall with a new set of people in fields outside of physics. One of them, the Spanish composer Hector Parra, intrigued Randall by asking if she would try writing a libretto for an opera about her work. The resulting piece, a collaboration with the artist Matthew Ritchie, is scheduled to debut in Paris at the Georges Pompidou Centre this summer, then travel throughout Europe in the fall. …

    “The piece has the puzzling title of “Hypermusic Prologue: A projective opera in seven planes,” the seven planes referring to space and to the opera’s seven acts. The work’s broader goal is to suggest new approaches to both science and art. The old-fashioned form of opera, Randall and her colleagues hope, can become a vehicle for modern science, using sound and voice to re-create the many dimensions that physicists now explore.”

    It’s interesting that string theorists are so successful in popularizing their ideas that people now actually ask them to convey the ideas by media such as opera. Lisa can’t be blamed, since she was asked to write it. But will anyone ever ask people working on alternatives to string theory to write operas to popularize those? Is it obviously the Matthew effect (Matthew 25:29), i.e. once an idea has attained a critical mass of publicity, nothing can prevent a media frenzy about it that ignores alternative ideas completely. Extra dimensions have so much buzz, they’re in fashion. Does opera want to be fashionable, or is it really the best medium for exploring the physics of string theory?

  2. Coin says:

    Incidentally, if this question is sufficiently on topic: Has anyone read Wilczek’s “The Lightness of Being”, is it recommended? Does it do much to teach physics concepts or is it more a philosophy-of-science sort of thing?

  3. Peter Woit says:


    It’s not designed for people who already know a lot about particle physics, but more aimed at (among other things) giving the general public some idea of the insights from the Standard Model about where mass comes from. I liked the fact that it’s free of the kind of speculative hype and science fiction that too often characterizes popular books about physics these days.

    For a more technically sophisticated reader, I’d recommend Wilczek’s “Fantastic Realities”, which I wrote about here:

  4. Chris W. says:

    It’s interesting that string theorists are so successful in popularizing their ideas that people now actually ask them to convey the ideas by media such as opera. Lisa can’t be blamed, since she was asked to write it.

    Lisa Randall is not a string theorist. Of course one can argue that Kaluza-Klein inspired models of the sort for which she has become known have become about as trendy (and problematic) as string theory itself, but the distinction should be maintained.

  5. Thingumbob says:

    It was certainly eye opening to see in Wilczek’s survey of Weyl such an emphasis on Leibniz’ philosophy. I believe we would be hard pressed today to find a mere handful of theoreticians who comprehend the legacy and vector of method running through Leibniz, Gauss, Dirichlet, Riemann, Cantor, Hilbert to Goedel, et al.

  6. Hi Peter, interesting post as always.
    Lochlainn spent a year at IHES in the seventies, working with Louis Michel – that is also where his book on the group structure of gauge theories was written. All the family have happy memories of both Bures and the IHES.
    Re Nobel, I’ve never understood hy the Swedish Academy have stuck to such a literal interpretation of the rules, it’s really a pity..

  7. theoreticalminimum says:

    Maybe you could enquire how things are going with IHES’ edition of “Récoltes et semailles” when you are in Bures-sur-Yvette? 🙂

  8. One should not be surprised by the subgenre of Physics Murder Mystery” given precursors such as:

    “Special Topics in Calamity Physics”
    by Marisha Pessl
    ISBN13: 9780670037773
    ISBN10: 067003777x
    “is a darkly hilarious coming-of-age novel and a richly plotted suspense tale told through the distinctive voice of its heroine, Blue van Meer. After a childhood moving from one academic outpost to another with her father (a man prone to aphorisms and meteoric affairs), Blue is clever, deadpan, and possessed of a vast lexicon of literary, political, philosophical, and scientific knowledge”

    Einstein Year – a year celebrating physics – Who killed Prof Jaeger?
    “Rufus Jaeger, a world-famous physicist, is killed while demonstrating a live quantum experiment on stage – but was it an accident? Follow‘s murder mystery to track down the killer.”

    I. Goldhaber-Gordon and D. Goldhaber-Gordon, “Schrodinger’s mouse- trap – Part 6: A cryptic response”, Nature 433, 805 (2005). Chapter of a serialized physics murder mystery.

    Innes, Michael The Weight of the Evidence. 1943, Harper/Perennial. A somewhat ordinary murder mystery, but the murder was committed using a meteorite in a university setting.

    Preuss, Paul Broken Symmetries. 1983, Pocket Books. A novel of science, politics, and intrigue surrounding the building of a giant particle accelerator in Hawaii. (A 1997 sequel is entitled Secret Passages.)

    Benford, Gregory “Matter’s End” in Matter’s End. 1994, Bantam. Physicists in India find that protons do decay as predicted by some Grand Unified Theories, with dire consequences for reality.

    Egan, Greg Quarantine.1992, Harper Prism. A sophisticated detective mystery that addresses serious ideas in the interpretation of quantum mechanics.

    Lem, Stanislav The Investigation. 1959, Avon. A novel that considers the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics: what if a mystery is unsolvable in principle?

    Niven, Larry “All the Myriad Ways” in All the Myriad Ways. 1971, Ballantine. Works out some of the implications of the many-worlds interpretation for solving murder mysteries.

    The Physics of Murder by Don Light.

    I could go on at length, given my Physics training at Caltech , my coauthorship with Isaac Asimov (who wrote many Mystery stories and books, and several popular books of Physics and Chemsitry), and my father and myself having been Active Members of Mystery Writers of America. But I hope that these 10 data in an existence proof show that Lisa Randall, whether or not you can narrowly call her a String Theorist, is wiring in a grand tradition, and should be welcomed by scientists and the literati alike.

  9. Hi, Peter. This story is consistent with the finding that not getting the Nobel Prize reduces your expected lifespan by two years. The fited article frames it as that winning the prize increases your lifespan, but so many more eligible people don’t get it than do (and the No comes year after year). I’d guess that it’s a net reducer of scientists’ lifespans. Even setting murder aside.

  10. Jon A. says:

    Peter, is the IHES conference open to the public, or do you have to be a registered guest?

    I am a math PhD student, and will be traveling in the area. I would like to attend the talks on Monday.

  11. Jon A. says:

    I just found out that the registration is closed for the conference. Thanks.

  12. Pingback: Dis-moi qui tu aimes (je te dirai que tu hais) « Not Even Wrong

  13. coolstar says:

    It’s probably not well know to regular readers here, but there’s a similar “4 person” problem in astronomy now. The four are Marcy & Butler and Mayor & Queloz for their work in discovering extra-solar planets. I strongly suspect that if THAT number was reduced by one (not that I’m hoping for that), then the survivors would have a good shot at the Nobel. Unlike the example given in physics, the chances of a “good” solution to this seems unlikely.

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