New Year Links

There’s a conference going on in Jerusalem now on the topic of Particle Physics in the Age of the LHC. Some slides and other talk materials are here, video may start appearing here. Not clear when the “Age of the LHC” is; unfortunately we’re still a ways away from first collisions, even farther from new physics. Next year, starting in May, the KITP will be running a program on The First Year of the LHC, which may also be jumping the gun a bit, at least to the extent that the topic is LHC physics results. Last year’s LHC program, Physics of the Large Hadron Collider, has a web-site that still begins with the counter-factual “The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will begin operation by the end of 2007.”

Also next year, the KITP will be running another supposedly LHC-related program, entitled Strings at the LHC and in the Early Universe. I wonder what the KITP director thinks of this, since he’s on record as thinking it unlikely that the LHC will have anything to say about string theory. A much less dubious KITP program about string theory is the one starting today, with the title Fundamental Aspects of String Theory. This program focuses on the current lack of understanding of what string theory really is:

Over the last decade, string theory has seen important conceptual and technical advances on a host of long-standing problems involving non-pertur-bative and strongly-coupled physics. However, the fundamental ingredients of superstring theory and M-theory are still not well understood, and this five month program will be directed at these open questions.

The first week will be devoted to introductory talks about string field theory and the pure spinor formalism, two quite different attempts to give a new and different formulation of string theory.

Also starting today is the big annual meeting of the AMS, held this year in Washington, DC. One of the important features of this meeting is that many institutions, especially smaller ones, do their initial interviews for next year’s jobs at the meeting. This coming hiring season promises to be an exceptionally brutal one for job candidates, with financial problems leading to freezes and reduced hiring at many places. One resource for young mathematicians on the job market is the web-site of the Young Mathematicians Network.

I wrote about Witten’s talk on quantum Yang-Mills theory at the Yau birthday conference here. A write-up of the talk is now available as a preprint here.

There’s a new book coming out this month that I’m looking forward to reading, Graham Farmelo’s biography of Dirac, entitled The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius. Nature Physics has a review here.

This week’s Science Saturday featured John Horgan and George Johnson discussing the state of science journalism and what it has to do with blogging. As science journalists, they take exception to the point of view common among scientists that their job is just to try and accurately transmit to the public the claims being made by scientists.

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8 Responses to New Year Links

  1. MathPhys says:

    Thank you, Peter, for the link to Dirac’s biography. There is another by Kragh and a number of biographical sketches by others, but I never thought they were adequate.

    Best wishes for 2009.

  2. To expand on the brutal hiring season: word on the street here at the Joint Meetings is that fully one third of the employers have pulled out of the job fair. And as for me: I quit.

  3. anon. says:

    Thanks for the link to Farmelo’s book on Dirac. I’m surprised that you are keen to read about the guy, seeing how much he argued against mainstream QFT developments after his own work. (E.g., quotations from Dirac here and here.) Dirac also claimed that there was some argument for a physical Dirac sea of virtual particles in the vacuum:

    ‘Physical knowledge has advanced much since 1905, notably by the arrival of quantum mechanics, and the situation has again changed. If one examines the question in the light of present-day knowledge, one finds that the aether is no longer ruled out by relativity, and good reasons can now be advanced for postulating an æther. . . .

    ‘We must make some profound alterations to the theoretical idea of the vacuum. . . . Thus, with the new theory of electrodynamics we are rather forced to have an æther.’ – P. A. M. Dirac, ‘Is There an æther?’, Nature, v168 (1951), pp. 906-7.

    ‘Infeld has shown how the field equations of my new electrodynamics can be written so as not to require an æther. This is not sufficient to make a complete dynamical theory. It is necessary to set up an action principle and to get a Hamiltonian formulation of the equations suitable for quantization purposes, and for this the æther velocity is required.’ – P. A. M. Dirac, ‘Is there an æther?’, Nature, v169 (1952), p. 702.

    In addition, there was his large numbers hypothesis with the argument that G varies with time. In addition, he was an electrical engineer before studying mathematics. Surely all this crackpottery makes the guy unworthy of serious attention?

  4. Peter Woit says:


    Thanks for the report from the meeting. Good luck to you and others dealing with the job situation. About the only encouragement I can provide is to note that just about all of the many people I know who have left academia over the years look back on that as a good decision…

  5. Peter Woit says:


    Adopting the standard of ignoring any of the great physicists of the past if some of their ideas don’t hold up well half a century later would make the study of the history of physics a great deal simpler…

  6. Thomas Larsson says:

    Scientists are not remembered for their mistakes and blunders, but for their successes. The list of great physicists doing fundamental mistakes is long. E.g., Lorentz and Poincare were leaders in ether theory, Kelvin ridiculed Einstein’s discoveries, Einstein denied QM, Heisenberg’s Urfeld theory, Witten promoted string theory 🙂 , and many others. The only safe way to avoid wrong ideas is to not have any ideas at all.

  7. theoreticalminimum says:

    Dear Peter,

    I was just wondering if you have had the opportunity to read Farmelo’s book on Dirac yet. It would be nice to know what you think about it. I am very much looking forward to buy a copy of the book, since Dirac was so special a human being.

  8. Peter Woit says:

    No, haven’t got a copy of the book yet. Hope to soon, and probably will write something about it after I get to read it.

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