Princeton Center for Theoretical Physics

Princeton University has just announced the formation of a new Princeton Center for Theoretical Physics, to be led by Curtis Callan (who was my thesis advisor).

Interestingly, the concept of this new center seems to be to move away from Princeton’s traditional emphasis on particle theory (and more recently, string theory) as the central topic of theoretical physics, in favor of a much broader concept, bringing “together faculty, postdoctoral fellows and students from science departments across campus to study topics ranging from the Big Bang to quantum computing to evolution.”

In recent years Callan has been spending much of his time working on biology, and the idea seems to be for the center to encourage this sort of work by theoretical physicists in other disciplines. Callan says:

“A motivation for the center is the growing realization that some very exciting challenges in theoretical science arise when we ask what theoretical physics can do to help comprehend the new phenomena and enormous amounts of high-quality data that other disciplines are now producing.”

“In discussions among a group of faculty over the last year, we came to the conclusion that Princeton is remarkably well-placed to foster such developments: It is a leader in theoretical physics and it has an unusual number of faculty in other departments — including chemistry, engineering, molecular biology and genomics — who are trained in theoretical physics,” he said. “The purpose of the center is to create a framework in which these people can work together to expand the boundaries of theoretical science.”

The associate director will be cosmologist Paul Steinhardt, and the other faculty associated with the center include condensed matter theorists Ravindra Bhatt and Shivaji Sondhi, string theorist Igor Klebanov, astrophysicist David Spergel, biophysicist William Bialek, and materials scientist Salvatore Torquato. The center will open in the fall of 2006 with thematic programs in cosmology and quantum computation starting in 2007.

Across town at the IAS they’re not branching out into other subjects but sticking to pure string theory, recently announcing that next year’s Prospects in Theoretical Physics summer program will be devoted to training graduate students and postdocs in string theory.

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15 Responses to Princeton Center for Theoretical Physics

  1. Aaron Bergman says:

    They’re putting the thing inside Jadwin?

    That’s not very nice.

  2. anon says:

    Will they recruit Lubos to research climate change? 🙂

  3. secret milkshake says:

    Only if they desired to bring about a precipitous change in research climate there… (Seriously, I do think that LuMo should start doing something with his Misanthropic Principle.)

  4. Dave Bacon says:

    Woot! Quantum computing! This coming from theoretical physics? Woot!

  5. andy says:

    What if the chemists already have their own theorists?

  6. secret milkshake says:

    Chemistry theorists: Only theorists that work in physics-related part of chemistry (in applications like such as material science or NMR spectroscopy) are realy helpful. Chemistry is run by experimentalists – because they know about chemicals and theorists do not. Study of any real problem very quickly gets out hand from the theory standpoint. You can use physicist insights to explain something after observing it but problems in chemistry and biology (and generaly in any complex system) are pretty impossible to deal with from first priciples.

  7. anon says:

    Maybe Princeton will find an application of SuperString Theory to Chemistry!

  8. biophysics says:

    secret milkshake – you are definitely correct that complex systems are pretty impossible to deal with from first principles in the sense that it’s pretty useless to write down a Hamiltonian and then expect to describe the rich dynamics. But I think the programme (in biophysics as I understand and practise it at least) is more toward phenomenological model building to start with and then go back and see if the models point toward some kind of overarching framework. In particular (again for me) it will be interesting to see whether good quantitative models in biophysics will fulfill the promise of research into self-organisation, etc. A lot of beautiful mathematics from nonlinear dynamics seems not to have lived up to its hype vis a vis applications to physics but perhaps the search for new physics in biology will be the place where they shine. In fact I’m guessing that is what Princeton is betting on (of course as my pseudonym indicates I’m betting my career on this as well 🙂 ).

  9. Richard says:

    I would definitely welcome more involvement by physicists (and mathematicians) with biology, especially regarding molecular biology. Having been born with a flakey immune system, and done a lot of reading about the immune system, I realize how amazingly complex it is (probably more complex than the brain) and how difficult it is to model its dynamics with its very large array of cell types with complex functions, feed forward and feed backwards chemical signaling via a large number of cytokine types, and genetic variations. Understanding the immune system is a highly nontrivial problem that needs very bright people. And a related and worthwhile pursuit would be attempting to understand the relation and interaction between the immune system and evolution. This is something I’ve never noticed anyone discussing, but I think it could be fascinating.

  10. Chris W. says:


    From the May 2005 addendum to the biography of Gerald Edelman on

    Dr. Edelman has made significant research contributions in biophysics, protein chemistry, immunology, cell biology, and neurobiology. His early studies on the structure and diversity of antibodies led to the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1972. He then began research into the mechanisms involved in the regulation of primary cellular processes, particularly the control of cell growth and the development of multicellular organisms. He has focused on cell-cell interactions in early embryonic development and in the formation and function of the nervous system. These studies led to the discovery of cell adhesion molecules (CAMs), which have been found to guide the fundamental processes by which an animal achieves its shape and form, and by which nervous systems are built. One of the most significant insights provided by this work is that the precursor gene for the neural cell adhesion molecule gave rise in evolution to the entire molecular system of adaptive immunity.

    Most recently, he and his colleagues have been studying the fundamental cellular processes of transcription and translation in eukaryotic cells. They have developed a method to construct synthetic promoters and have also been able to enhance translation efficiency by constructing internal ribosomal entry sites of a modular composition. These findings have rich implications for the fields of genomics and proteomics.

    Dr. Edelman has formulated a detailed theory to explain the development and organization of higher brain functions in terms of a process known as neuronal group selection. This theory was presented in his 1987 volume Neural Darwinism, a widely known work. Dr. Edelman’s continuing work in theoretical neuroscience includes designing new kinds of machines, called recognition automata, that are capable of carrying out tests of the self-consistency of the theory of neuronal group selection and promise to shed new light on the fundamental workings of the human brain. A new, biologically based theory of consciousness extending the theory of neuronal group selection is presented in his 1989 volume The Remembered Present. A subsequent book, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, published in 1992, continues to explore the implications of neuronal group selection and neural evolution for a modern understanding of the mind and the brain. His book published with Giulio Tononi, entitled A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, presents exciting new data on the neural correlates of conscious experience. In his latest book, published this year, entitled Wider than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness, Dr. Edelman offers a model of the biology of consciousness.

  11. Juan R. says:

    The Princeton NEWS read,

    This is an exciting venture for the University that we believe will be immediately recognized as a site where some of the most important theoretical work around the world is being done

    This sound a bit to “Santa Fe Institute”. We still are waiting for some useful science from there!

    Or maybe sound a bit to “string theory is the last formulation of nature. Everything will be understood from string theory.”

    I am seeing that by “interdisciplinary” methodology Princeton means

    joint many people in a single room and wait

    As proved by “Santa Fe Institute” and explained next this does not work for obtaining “new physics”.

    biophysics said,

    secret milkshake – you are definitely correct that complex systems are pretty impossible to deal with from first principles in the sense that it’s pretty useless to write down a Hamiltonian and then expect to describe the rich dynamics.

    This is a myth! There is not Lagrangian or Hamiltonian description! this is one of billion of scientific reasons that string theory always was a wrong approach to theory of everything (see “String theory is not a TOE” in sci.physics.strings).

    The literature on the topic is huge and i cannot cite here, but see below some basic works and references cited therein.

    I am talking of real science. NOBODY studies electron transfer in biological systems, for instance, using a Hamiltonian approach. In fact, standard approaches as Redfield-like or Lindblad-like one are not based in Hamiltonian approaches.

    Lindblad approach is axiomatic and NOT derived from Hamiltonian dynamics. I have updated a xml page [] with last tendencies on the topic. Since it is not accesible to old browsers i add next some relavant literature cited.

    Prigogine, Ilya. The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature; The Free Press: New York, 1997.

    Wang, G. M; Sevick, E. M; Mittag, E; Searles, D. J; Evans, D. J. Phys. Rev. Lett. 2002, 89(5), 050601/1–050601/4.

    González-Álvarez, Juan R. Has thermodynamics been violated in the quantum domain? In press.

    Zwanzig, Robert. Nonequilibrium statistical mechanics; Oxford University Press, Inc: New York, 2001.

    Eu, Byung Chan. Nonequilibrium Statistical Mechanics, ensemble method; Kluver Academic Publishers: Dordrecht, 1998. In Fundamental theories of physics; van der Merwe, Alwyn (Ed.); vol 93.

    In Chan monograph is clearly explained that Hamiltonian/Lagrangian equations are not sufficient and a new equation (Eu equation) explaining experimental data (that Schrödinger or classical Hamiltonian cannot explain) is postulated as a complement to “old” physics.

    Eu equation (10.14) has the formal structure

    drho/dt = (H + B) rho

    H is Hamiltonian dynamics.

    B is a new dynamics!

    This expliting is formally similar to Prigogine one (see eq 7.19 on but experimentally more useful and theoretically sound that early Prigogine approach.

    That is NEW exciting physics!

    String theory is garbage (Note: some particle-string theorists are attempting to expand string theory via that new physics. See arXiv:hep-th/9406016) But their approach is tecnically wrong and lof ot advanced math proves that contains lot of wrong stuff, even if eq (45) ‘looks’ as Eu approach. Equation 37 was incorrectly copied!

    biophysics said,

    perhaps the search for new physics in biology will be the place where they shine.

    Precisely, on my study of biological systems via Keizer modelling (eggs metabolism, membrane fluctuation currents in Ca^2+ transport in muscle membranes, etc.) i obtained one of first formulations of nanothermodynamics [*].

    New physics, experimentally verifiable and contradicting some last wrong papers on PRL and PRE!

    Juan R.

    Center for CANONICAL |SCIENCE)

    [*] CPS: physchem/0309002 and references cited therein. The work is freely HTML-accesible via goggle Scholar, but it renders incorrect. A new extended version is in press.

  12. anon says:

    This is very bad news. Princeton monopolized and politicized Plasma Physics and destroyed it, exorcizing all honesty from it. It did the same thing with Theoretical High Energy Physics, spreading its superstring minions throughout all American universities. And now, Quantum Computing is in its sights. Yikes! Run for your lives

  13. Dissident says:

    Secret Milkshake, I guess LuMo was just scooped on a promising (?) application of the Misanthropic Principle:


  14. Richard says:


    One of the most significant insights provided by this work is that the precursor gene for the neural cell adhesion molecule gave rise in evolution to the entire molecular system of adaptive immunity.

    If so, this is very interesting! Thanks!

    While walking in the snowy woods with my dog today, I was thinking about related issues. There does seem to be some tight relationships between the nervous system and the immune system. The brain (especially the hypothalamus) is highly responsive to cytokines emitted by immune cells, and we have even discovered neural receptors on immune cells. One of the most difficult problems in immunology has been the self/non-self issue; that is, how do immune cells distinguish between tissue which is myself and that which is not myself. We only partially understand how the immune system is self-regulated so that it is aggressive enough to disable invaders but controlled enough so that it doesn’t begin attacking ourselves or overwhelming us with inflammation. [All of this breaks down with autoimmune diseases, of course, such as Lupus. And ironically, some people with immune deficiencies also have autoimmune diseases.] At any rate, it occurred to me that there could be (at least weakly) analogous issues with the brain. There must be a problem of self/non-self there, and at the actual neuronal system level, not just a philosophical issue. Well, my brain started spinning even further, and began to wonder how fundamental physics could be approached from a kind of self/non-self viewpoint. Is there any analogy there to what I’ve been talking about with biological systems? A quiet walk in the woods with your dog is conducive to free association! Now, back to math.

  15. Dave Bacon says:

    “And now, Quantum Computing is in its sights. Yikes! Run for your lives ”

    Resistance to our factoring machines is futile!

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