News From NSF THY

A presentation at a recent SLAC Users Group meeting included some of the following data about NSF support for HEP theory:

Theory funding (including cosmology and astro-particle physics) for FY 2008: \$11.68 million. For FY 2009, \$11.31 million + \$2.3 million from the stimulus legislation.

In FY 2008, these grants supported 128 senior personnel, 84 postdocs and 104 graduate students. For FY 2009 the numbers were 184 senior personnel, 50 postdocs and 70 graduate students.

During FY 2008, 24 out of 57 new submitted proposals were funded, 17 out 21 renewals were funded.

Group grants were categorized as 11 phenomenology, 11 strings, 2 cosmology, 1 general.

Individual grants were categorized as 17 cosmology, 12 strings, 9 phenomenology, 3 astrophysics, 2 lattice QCD, 3 general.

So, as far as NSF HEP grants go these days, if you’re not doing cosmology, string theory, or phenomenology, basically you’re out of luck…

NSF THY has a new program manager who started Oct. 1. It’s Keith Dienes of the University of Arizona, whose research in recent years has focused on the “string vacuum project”. He’ll be giving a colloquium at Fermilab next month on Probing the String Landscape, which is advertised with the abstract:

We are currently in the throes of a potentially huge paradigm shift in physics. Motivated by recent developments in string theory and the discovery of the so-called “string landscape”, physicists are beginning to question the uniqueness of fundamental theories of physics and the methods by which such theories might be understood and investigated.

Since the late eighties, the two institutions in the US most heavily invested in string theory have been Princeton and Rutgers. Recently they have been moving aggressively to try and diversify, especially in the direction of LHC phenomenology, with the hiring of Nima Arkani-Hamed at the IAS and Matt Strassler at Rutgers. Last year the two institutions collaborated on a proposal for a new Physics Frontier Center with a budget of \$1 million or so per year. This would be called the PARTICLE Center (Princeton And Rutgers Theory Institute for Collaboration with LHC Experiments) and would aim to be the main US center for LHC phenomenology. The proposal promoted the possibility of experimental anomalies to be discovered by the LHC in fall 2009, quickly followed by PARTICLE physicists inventing a model that would explain the data and predict a subtle effect that would require a new triggering strategy to see. The result of this would be a surprising measurement that would explain supersymmetry breaking.

Anyway, that proposal doesn’t appear to have been funded, with reviewers rather dubious about the idea of retraining Princeton and Rutgers string theorists as LHC phenomenologists, as well as the idea of devoting significant new resources to funding the Princeton and Rutgers theory groups, centralizing LHC phenomenology efforts there. However, two new year-long grants for \$130,000 each were awarded to Strassler and Arkani-Hamed, who promise to use them to “create the nucleus of an LHC center on the East Coast” at Princeton and Rutgers. One of the goals of these grants is listed as “to help in the process of … retraining postdocs from more formal areas of high-energy theory”, since the job market for young string theorists has more or less collapsed.

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10 Responses to News From NSF THY

  1. Mitch Miller says:

    “This would be called the PARTICLE Center (Princeton And Rutgers Theory Institute for Collaboration with LHC Experiments)”

    I would have funded it based on the acronym alone.

  2. Bob Levine says:

    Re Dienes’ comment—isn’t part of the semantics of ‘discover/discovery’ an entailment that whatever you’re talking about demonstrably exists? Talking about the ‘discovery’ of something is only felicitous if that something is really *there*, no? Or does Dienes really believe that the landscape is just, well, *necessarily* true?

  3. Peter Woit says:


    I wouldn’t so much quarrel with the use by Dienes of the word “discovery”. One can “discover” a previously unknown feature of a speculative model, and that’s how I think he’s using the term.

    More dubious is actually the adjective “recent” applied to this “discovery”. The Bousso-Polchinski paper that set this off was written nearly ten years ago, in an earlier millennium than the current one.

  4. Pawl says:

    Dienes’ abstract seems not to quite make sense. If we’re “in the throes” of a paradigm shift to landscapes, there’s nothing “potential” about the hugeness of the change. (Or maybe there’s a “landscape lite” alternative I’m not aware of….)

    There’s also the timing issue Peter touched on: people are not “beginning to question” uniqueness of fundamental theories — those who wanted to question it have done so, with limilted success in convincing the rest of the community. (In fact, this sentence of Dienes’ sounds depressingly like what appears to be the standard-issue wishful thinking common among some of those advocating the multiverse in public, as opposed to scientific, fora.)

    True, Dienes does go one to say

    I will also discuss some of the questions to which it has led, and the nature of the controversies it has spawned.

    which at least sounds more objective.

  5. Kea says:

    Ah, the way of the world. Retrain the people who did what they were told, rather than hire one single person who was critical, in the right direction, all along.

  6. Serifo says:

    Humm , perhapes there is a significant number of people in NSF HEP lobbying for string theory , cosmology and phenomenology ! 🙂


  7. Robert says:

    any news about consequences of the birds’ droppings on a cooling aggregate of LHC?

  8. Matt says:


    Any sense of why lattic QCD and astro-particle physics make up such a small grants in HEP theory? With these two subfields having access to the greatest amount of applicable experimental data to fit, I am a bit at a loss of how few grants there are in these areas compared to strings & phenomenology. Also a bit interesting the difference between group and individual grants for cosmology as well.

  9. Peter Woit says:


    astro-particle physics overlaps with astrophysics, and that is funded separately from HEP. Lattice QFT is a subject that has never really been pursued at the most prestigious places in the US (for example Harvard, Princeton), and has always been seen as a minority and rather un-sexy subject to be working in. It’s an interesting question why this is.

  10. SteveB says:

    Like lattice QFT, there is a similar phenomena in fluid dynamics. There is the establishment majority that solves the Navier-Stokes equations with various techniques and a small offshoot that reformulated fluid flow into a Boltzman lattice model. At the end of the day both converge to the right answer and it is nice to have two separate methods for consideration. There is a bit of acrimony between the two camps, and sometimes more than a bit. In my opinion, NS is the most popular since it lends itself to easier application of the necessary approximations and simplifications for solving various different phenomena (turbulence, energy, multiphase, etc.) with a reasonable amount of computer power.

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