Summer Programming

As far as academics are concerned, summer has started, which means that there are lots and lots of conferences going on. The past couple weeks we’ve had two here in the Columbia math department, one in algebraic geometry, and another covering various related topics in hyperbolic geometry and knot theory.

Next week 450 or so physicists will gather for the big annual string theory conference, and a couple weeks ago there were more than 400 participants at the big annual SUSY conference, SUSY 2009. For more on this, see reports from Jester and Sabine. Jester’s take on the conference included:

Over 400 participants, not counting squatters. 42 plenary speakers, most of whom witnessed the glorious days when supersymmetry was conceived. Seven parallel parallel sessions to cover every aspect of supersymmetry that has not yet been covered thoroughly enough. Royal coffee break menu fully adequate to the royal conference fee. And so on and on since 16 years and into the future.

Meanwhile, there is no single hint from experiment that supersymmetry is realized in nature… but that should not upset anyone. As my fellow blogger skillfully put it, supersymmetry is the “shining beacon”, the “raison d’etre” and for this reason “the conundrum is how it will be discovered, not if”. That’s why every year we come together to enjoy old familiar faces and old familiar talks. The point is, while waiting for the inevitable, to maintain that kind of spirit that David Lodge praised in his books.

At Santa Cruz this week, there was a conference in honor of the 60th birthdays of Tom Banks and Willy Fischler, blogging from David Berenstein.

At Penn there’s a summer school on Geometry of Quantum Fields and Strings, blogging at Rigorous Trivialities.

On the multiverse front, Thibault Damour has a survey article about constancy of physical constants, where he makes the reasonable argument that checking such constancy is one of our few ways of getting insight into the origin of these parameters of physical theory. Sometimes you see the claim made that string theory predicts time-dependence of constants (since they are moduli parameters), other times the claim is made that string theory does make one prediction, that such constants won’t change (due to energetics of the landscape). Damour summarizes this as

However, there is no firm prediction for the observable level of EP violation. Actually, the current majority view about the “moduli stabilization” issue in String Theory is to assume that, in each string vacuum, the coupling constants are fixed by an energy-minimizing mechanism which is generically expected to forbid any long-range violation of the EP. This, however, makes EP tests quite important: indeed, they represent crucial tests of a widespread key assumption of string-theory model building. This exemplifies how EP tests are intimately connected with some of the basic aspects of modern attempts at unifying gravity with particle physics.
Some phenomenological models (inspired by string-theory structures, or attempting to understand the cosmological-constant issue) give examples where the observable EP violations would (without fine-tuning parameters) be just below the currently tested level.

The “string universality” principle discussed here recently is related to Leibniz’s “Principle of Plenitude”:

all logically possible “things” (be they objects, beings or, even, worlds) have a tendency to (and therefore must, if one does not want contingency – be it God’s whim – to reign) exist.

So, experimental measurements are important not because they can tell us whether string theory is right or wrong, but because they can tell us which kind of string theory is right….

The latest Seminaire Bourbaki was last week, here’s a summary of the talks. Edward Frenkel has posted his survey of Gauge theory and Langlands duality on the arXiv.

Earlier this week I learned from my colleagues one obscure piece of mathematical culture that I had been unaware of. Physicists have the famous story of how Alpher and Gamow brought in Bethe as co-author to improve the author list, but it turns out that mathematicians have a somewhat different story of this kind. At lunch one eminent algebraic geometer started snickering when someone (using standard terminology) brought up the well-known ring associated to an algebraic variety due to David Cox. At this, it was pointed out that Cox was co-author of a famous paper with Steven Zucker, and the story goes that this came about because Cox had decided once he heard of Zucker that a Cox-Zucker paper just was asking to be written. A supposedly authoritative source on the internet claims:

Cox and Zucker were admitted as grad students to Princeton in precisely the hope that they would someday collaborate. This kind of forethought is why Princeton is Princeton.

For a related mention of this, see the Journal of Improbable Research.

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14 Responses to Summer Programming

  1. mifune says:

    It was Alpher and Gamow who brought in Bethe.

  2. Shantanu says:

    Peter, I think I mentioned this, but another meeting in Columbia next week.

  3. hackenkaus says:

    Nati Seiberg I’m sure will be shocked to learn he is turning 60.

  4. woit says:

    mifune and hackenkaus

    Oops, thanks for the quick corrections, now fixed.

  5. Felipe Zaldivar says:

    You may be interested in the following picture:

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Felipe,

    Well, at least part of that story seems to be true…
    Interesting to see that Frank Wilczek was in the same year.

  7. ? says:

    My english is not good enough to understand why “Cox-Zucker” is funny, can somebody please explain?

  8. Pingback: Anything that can exist, must « Calcutta Chronicles

  9. !! says:

    funny, can somebody please explain?

    If you read it backwards you’ll notice an allusion to an old Yiddish joke first quoted in English by Shakespeare.

  10. Peter Woit says:


    Here’s a hint: everyone who tried to explain this explicitly here had their comment intercepted by the automatic spam detector.

    Beyond that, I’m not convinced that your English is really that bad…

  11. Pingback: Anything that can exist, must | Phasing

  12. Henry Tucker says:

    Felipe, where can one find scans of those Princeton entering mathematics graduate student group photos? I’ve seen them around the web and have been curious.

  13. Felipe Zaldivar says:

    Hi Henry!

    I found that one picture when looking for something else at the “Hopf Archive”, a site created by Clarence Wilkerson with news and an album of photographs of fellow algebraic topologists, but I don’t think that there are more of those “entering class photos” in that site:

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