Dark Matters

Initial 2010 data from the Theoretical Particle Physics Jobs Rumor Mill indicates that the particle theory job market remains as trend-driven as ever. This year, it seems that if you want a tenure-track job in the US, you must be working on phenomenology. And not just any sort of phenomenology, your work has to be about dark matter. Of the seven theorists offered tenure track jobs so far, no less than 6 are phenomenologists working on dark matter. The seventh is Davide Gaiotto, who has been working with Witten and others at the IAS on mathematically quite interesting topics that use N=2 and N=4 supersymmetric gauge theory. His offer is from Stony Brook, where much of the funding comes from Jim Simons of Renaissance Technologies. Simons is putting profits from the world’s most successful hedge fund to work keeping alive the idea that the intersection of mathematics and physics is still worth pursuing, so not everyone has to become a dark matter phenomenologist.

(By the way, the rumor mill seems to indicate that Kachru and Silverstein are leaving the KITP, heading back to Stanford. Is that right?)

If you’re a young theorist who wants to remain in the field, you better get to work on dark matter phenomenology. I’m afraid that this blog won’t be of much help, you should carefully follow Resonaances, which has the latest news and rumors.

Update: It seems that my point about the dominance of dark matter hiring has even more backing than I thought, since Sergei Dubovsky evidently has an offer from Stony Brook (and other places). So, that makes it seven out of eight for dark matter so far this year.

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28 Responses to Dark Matters

  1. M says:

    Woit writes:
    “If you’re a young theorist who wants to remain in the field, you better get to work on dark matter phenomenology.”

    That makes no sense. If you want to remain in the field then stay in the field. If you want to do phenomenology, then you go ahead and work on dark matter and other venues.

  2. graviton383 says:

    Shamit & Eva will be back in Stanford-land this Fall.

  3. Avidan says:

    M, what you say makes no sense:

    How do you suggest non-dark-matter people will stay in the field (which I define as academic high energy theory) if they have no job ? Fill out a lottery card ? get a day job as a software engineer ?

    You know, physicists also usually eat, pay bills, and even (maybe to some extent rarely) have families…

  4. Rien says:

    Of course, it could be because dark matter is where there is something interesting going on at the moment, what with recent and coming data. There is only so much you can do while waiting for LHC.

    Some people, as weird as it may sound, still think physics is related to experiments.

  5. Peter Woit says:


    I won’t argue against the idea that dark matter is a hot topic for good reason. This doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for US physics departments to only hire people working on the latest, hottest topic. They’ve been doing this now for a very long time, and this has a lot to do with the sad current state of the field.

  6. M says:

    What I mean is that you should follow what you like, not what is trendy. Your research topic should not be dictated by what is popular. If you have gained the basic knowledge in physics to understand the current problems then you ought to be able to come up with a few ways to tackle at least one of them. Then you try to solve the problem and in the end you should learn something: why your thing worked or why it did not. These problems do not live in the academia. They are free for anyone to try.

    If you want to get an academic job, then you have to play the game and do cartwheels. That game changes every year / decade / generation / etc. The situation is nasty; the lottery ticket summarizes it well. Nothing is fair in life. But if you want to understand something you actually like, surely you do not need to be in the academia. Just follow the rules of the scientific method and you should be able to stay away from crackpotery.

  7. Rien says:

    Peter, of course I agree that this trend-following is not good. I believe one should try to hire smart people foremost. But actually, many of the people on the list are not working on only dark matter but phenomenology in general.

  8. Theorist says:

    Peter, have you considered that you might be confusing causation and correlation? Is it possible that the people hired are simply the best candidates and the reason that dark matter is a hot topic is (in part) because the best young people are working on it?

    I know part of the theme of this blog is to expose the shadowy conspiracy that is high energy theory, but it is possible that the dark overlords don’t control every hire.

  9. Peter Woit says:


    I didn’t say anything about dark overlords or any conspiracy, I’m well aware of how the hiring systems in both physics and math work. What’s happening is a lot of people with the same point of view independently making the same decision about priorities. And sure, the decisions of the best young people about what to work on and of the older people doing the hiring are both part of the picture.

    What I was pointing out is the end-result of the whole process: virtually everyone working on the same topic. I think there’s a good case to be made that this end-result is not a healthy one, that people should be acknowledging this and thinking about what can be done about it. I take it that your conclusion is that nothing’s wrong, there’s no reason to be concerned about this kind of pattern, it’s just the result of everyone making the best possible decisions. Others may disagree…

  10. Anonymouse says:

    However, Rien’s point is valid — if you look at the phenomenologists you classify as ‘working on dark matter’, I would have to concede that every one of them has a paper on the subject. However, less than half of them have worked for, say, 50% of their career (measured in publications) on the subject, and several of them not in the past year or two. What makes for a dark matter theorist? Or even virtually everyone working on the same topic? I also find the faddishness unfortunate, but I’m not seeing more than a vague trend here.

    I think it is fair to say that phenomenology remains more attractive to search committees than more formal work, as has been true for a few years now. Dark matter is an important component of phenomenology in general. Particularly given the slow start-up of the LHC. Wanting a general phenomenologist is not being faddish, it’s being smart in the sense that someone with a track record of being able to follow interesting results is, long term, a much better investment.

    Also let me point out that at least three of the jobs listed on the HEP theory rumor mill (Carnegie Mellon, Case Western, and Oregon) state they are looking for someone specifically with interests in cosmology. That pre-selects them for dark matter and away from HEP theory. It may be that this just shows they were more organized about following a fad than other places, but I doubt it.

  11. Peter Shor says:

    Maybe the question should be not: why do Physics departments hire only people working on the latest trendy fad but: why do Math departments avoid hiring based on the latest fads? From what I’ve seen of other disciplines, in many of them hiring is significantly more tilted to hot areas than it is in Math departments. There may be something in the mathematics culture that discourages this.

    Of course, from a personal perspective I probably should be asking: How can we make quantum computing the hot topics in Physics departments?

  12. Peter Woit says:

    Peter Shor,

    Yes, mathematics does seem to avoid excess faddishness, it would be a very good idea for particle theorists to think about why this is and whether they could learn anything from it. My own speculative ideas about the sources of the difference are:

    1. The ratio of people to jobs is better in math. In particle theory there are more people with excellent credentials then jobs, so hiring committees can add the criterion of working in what they see as the most promising area. In math if you tried to add this criterion, you’d typically end up not being able to hire the best people.

    2. For 40 years 1. has been true, so the permanent faculty now consists completely of people chosen using the criterion of having made their career by working on the latest hot topic. Not unreasonably, they take the attitude that the best people are the ones who work on the hot topic, those not doing so are those that just can’t cut it.

    3. Particle theory now has a well-developed ideology about what speculative ideas (supersymmetry, extra dimensions, GUTs) are promising, limiting the attention of those in the field to a relatively narrow range of ideas.

    4. Mathematicians have a culture which values expertise, and the idea that really understanding a particular subject is very difficult and requires many years of work. When a subject all of a sudden becomes hotter, say after Wiles or Perelman’s work, you see some more activity in it, but people from other fields don’t jump into the now hot one, since they don’t believe they can do it successfully, and others would tend to not take them seriously. Particle theorists often have a much more arrogant attitude, convinced that they can jump into something they don’t know about and a couple months later be writing useful papers on the subject. Witten can do this, lots of other people think they can….

  13. Peter Shor says:

    Peter Woit,

    In addition to your points, there may be another factor in play. In mathematics, you can expand the boundaries of mathematics in many directions, all of which are potentially worthwhile. In physics, there’s only one “right” answer, so some directions of exploration are preordained to be blind alleys. This can be used to justify the attention to hot topics; historically, at any time there have only been a few directions of research which led to the next step in discovering the laws of nature. (Of course, these weren’t always the “hot” topics at the time, but with hindsight this is easily forgotten.)

  14. theorist2 says:

    I think Peter Shor makes an important point. However close the ties between physics and mathematics are, they are fundamentally different disciplines. Research in each field is carried out in very different manners. Given that there is only one universe, unless we digress into multiverse discussions, there is only one “right” answer. Whether a theorist’s best guess is correct or not can only be judged by experiment. While some ideas are more promising and more mathematically compelling than others, which in turn creates trends in high energy theory, if in the end of the day the ideas are falsified by experiment then they are ultimately wrong. Therefore, it might not be wise to take clues from Mathematics departments as far as hiring practices are concerned.

    It would be hard to compare the “faddishness” of dark matter or phenomenology hires to string theory or “formal” theory hires. What are the most interesting experimental results, or those ideas which have the most interesting experimental consequences, will presumably always drive the field to a large part as it always has. That is of course when there are interesting experimental prospects or results (outside of those times who knows what the best guide should be). A number of questions could be relevant: Does HET do worse as far as results go in the long term compared to other areas of theoretical physics? Is hiring in HET that different than in other fields of theoretical physics? How different are hiring practices in more related disciplines like Biology and Chemistry(rather than Math)?

  15. Peter Woit says:

    Peter Shor,

    It’s true that this kind of physics is different in that ultimately there will be just one correct better theory. But, it’s quite likely that there are multiple possible ways to get from here to there, and the current situation is that we don’t know at all what the right direction to go is. In such a situation, focusing on one particular highly speculative direction and making anyone who works on anything else jobless is probably not a good idea.

    One reason particle theory is so faddish is that (in the distant past…) fads were driven by experimental results. When a ground-breaking unexpected experimental result arrives, there’s a very good reason to focus on it and what it means. Unfortunately, I think what is going on now is experimentally-driven faddishness with no significant experimental results. If someone actually had a dark matter signal, that would justify what is going on, but there is no solid evidence for such a signal out there right now, and the idea that it is just around the corner remains quite speculative.

  16. Remus says:

    historically, at any time there have only been a few directions of research which led to the next step in discovering the laws of nature. (Of course, these weren’t always the “hot” topics at the time, but with hindsight this is easily forgotten.)

    Maybe to easily… One can turn the question around, and ask how many laws of nature were found that way.

    General Relativity? QED? QCD? Electroweak Theory? Antimatter?
    Renormalizability of the SM? Asymptotic freedom?

    As far as I know, none of them was a hot topic immediately before they were discovered. They became a hot topic afterwards, and no further natural laws were found in those directions.

  17. Peter Shor says:

    Peter Woit,

    My post seems to have been misinterpreted. I didn’t mean to say faddishness was a good idea. What I meant to say is that there are reasons why over-confident physicists who think they know where the next breakthrough is coming from think it’s a good idea. Remus understood exactly what I was trying to say.

  18. Why do you count Dubovsky for DM ?

  19. Peter Woit says:


    1. That’s how my source, who was very well-informed about Dubovsky and his work, counted him.

    2. Of his last 5 papers, only one isn’t about phenomena that involve dark matter candidates.

  20. I would say exactly the opposite, that only one among his last 5 papers deals directly with DM.

  21. Anonymouse says:

    Here are my take on the stats, listing the person with the offer on the rumor mill, number of papers about dark matter, total number of papers, and a paper about dark matter in the last 12 months (yes or no):

    Chang: 6 dark matter, 22 total, Almost 100% DM this year

    Dubovsky: 6 dark matter, 52 total, Yes to DM this year

    Gaiotto: 0 dark matter, 46 total, No DM this year

    Graham: 4 dark matter, 14 total, Yes to DM this year

    Kong: 4 dark matter, 32 total, Yes to DM this year

    Papucci: 4 dark matter, 22 total, yes to DM this year

    Schuster/Toro: 4 dark matter, 13 total, yes to DM this year

    Toro’s papers are complete subset of Schuster’s (Schuster has 4 more, 2 of which are dark matter), so I listed them together. Also, it amused me to do so.

    I was strict in choosing papers about dark matter, meaning I did not accept work on other aspects of cosmology as a dark matter paper. In a couple cases I also avoided articles that had dark matter in the title but were clearly about collider physics (but only a couple like that). You can quibble about what was meant by various comments made above, but given the over-all discussion I believe that this is fair. I did not separate out published from unpublished, which does represent an over all bias of some kind.

    I draw a very different conclusion from these data: forget working on dark matter, just get Arkani-Hamed or Dimopoulos to support you. Particularly if your CV is on the weaker side. I understand that numbers do not capture impact or any number of other important metrics by which research should be judged, but I feel I know the individuals well enough to judge them that none of them clearly deviates by huge amount in terms of impact that would substantially change the picture the numbers is painting. The two who impress me the most as scientists actually have the largest number of publications independently of that fact.

    To reiterate: I don’t see a huge jump on a dark matter fad this year. Dark matter is interesting, and there is data available, questionable in interpretation though it may be. A large number of phenomenologists worked on dark matter in the last two years (amny of whom already had faculty positions, and still more who did not receive one), and I believe this is just intelligent people following interesting results.

  22. A Phenomenologist says:

    The phenomenologists who got jobs this year are all highly deserving candidates and their work extends way beyond “Dark Matter”. It is extremely silly to label these people as “dark matter phenomenologists”. In particular, Peter Woit’s counting of Dubovsky’s last five papers and labeling four of them as Dark Matter papers is just plain asinine. Perhaps’s Peter Woit’s illustrious publication record of five papers in the last 20 years makes it difficult for him to count papers and understand their content.

    It is high time that young people who are either guided by data, or whose work leads to new experimental probes of physics are rewarded with faculty positions. In fact, I find it very odd that people whose work explicitly deals with theories that cannot possibly describe the world or involve dualities between worlds that are also not our own world continue getting jobs. They ought to find themselves positions in a dual world.

  23. Peter Woit says:

    “A Phenomenologist”,

    You seem to be rather upset that even one out of eight of these jobs is going to a non-phenomenologist.

    It’s interesting to see that now that phenomenologists have vanquished their enemies and successfully won the political fight in HEP theory, at least some of them have adopted the arrogant and juvenile attitude that in the past so endeared many string theorists to their peers.

  24. noname says:

    I’m surprised that you haven’t corrected your wrong statement about Dubovsky.

  25. Anonymouse says:

    I guess there are many scarred people out there on both the phenomenological and “non” (in all forms) sides. I think saying phenomenology has won is not accurate. Winning at the moment, to be sure, but that particular pendulum has swung back and forth at least twice in my memory.

    Add Johannes Walcher to the list of faculty positions, not dark matter and not phenomenology. And Chris Jackson, phenomenology and some dark matter component.

    Without the polemic of “A Phenomenologist”, which I think is pointless, I am also surprised that Peter Woit is not interested in the debate as to whether his assessment that dark matter earned people jobs this year is accurate. He seems to studiously avoid it, which may be because I think the facts just don’t bear it out. Which is his choice, but he is the one who made the pronouncement to begin with.

    Phenomenologist: Even among the people getting jobs in your camp this year, are you really sure they are at all relevant for the real world? Despite the upswing in phenomenological positions, there is still very very little representation in the past ten years for people who do work on the Standard Model. People seem to be happy reward inventing unlikely or baseless theories for how nature could be, but the work of studying how it is seems to get very little attention.

  26. Peter Woit says:


    I haven’t responded to your arguments partly because I’ve been out of town, but mainly because I just don’t have anything significant to add. Yes, the world is complicated and “the people getting jobs are dark matter phenomenologists” is an over-simplification of a complicated situation. On the other hand, I still believe that the point I was making in the posting is quite valid: particle theory hiring is often very faddish, and this year the fad is phenomenology, with an emphasis on work relevant to dark matter.

    Some other people’s arguments I haven’t responded to just because long experience has shown it’s a waste of time trying to have an intelligent discussion with people who want to carry on a hostile argument from behind the cover of anonymity.

  27. Anonymouse says:

    That’s fair enough.

  28. Eric says:

    I only have one thing to add, which is that hiring choices are frequently determined by which candidates are considered to have the best chances of bringing in grant money. Research topics which seem to have the best chance of getting funding are frequently those which some consider to be faddish.

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