Swampiness on Long Island

At first I thought this must be an April Fool’s day joke, but I just checked the calendar, and it’s not April 1 yet. For the last few years Stony Brook has been running a workshop on math and physics during the summer, funded by Jim Simons of Renaissance Technologies. The topic for this summer has just been announced, it’s “The String Landscape and the Swampland”. A poster for the workshop is now on-line, featuring a large picture of a swamp. You really couldn’t make this kind of thing up.

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13 Responses to Swampiness on Long Island

  1. Sakura-chan says:

    Susskind can be the Swamp Thing.

  2. Michael says:

    Peter, the swampland program aims at boiling down the landscape as much as possible — hopefully killing it eventually. It is a residual part of physics and reason in the whole landscape business and has recently lead to interesting progress (the “gravity is weak paper” by Vafa, Motl et. al.). Why would you mock such a thing? Oh, right! I forgot about your ignorance and agenda — for just one second…

  3. D R Lunsford says:



  4. sunderpeeche says:

    From the poster (2nd para)

    “These workshops focus on the intersection between physics and mathematics, particularly in the context of string theory. One of the themes of the fourth workshop will be the String Landscape and the Swampland — what are the general constraints on low energy physics that follow from string theory?”

    So it’s a picture of a swamp. Why not? At least there is an officially stated attempt to obtain general constraints on low energy physics. The workshop may not succeed (no falsifiable predictions after 20 years after all….) but it’s a reasonable poster and a reasonable agenda.

  5. Chris Oakley says:


    I cannot speak for Peter, but I can certainly tell you why I think that a conference on the Stringy Swampland chaired by Cumrun “the aliens have left us for a more happening universe” Vafa is a worthy subject of derision.

    This is supposed to be PHYSICS. Remember physics? Experiments that did not work at school … lots of mathematics. Names like Maxwell, Rayleigh, Rutherford and Thomson (after which the forms at my school were named – I was in Rayleigh, but I digress). It is an EXPERIMENTAL science. In the case of the Stringy Swampland possible experimental tests are so far away that one can hardly imagine them. It is a more a case of “I had a dream. It never became a reality, but I refuse to give up on it.”

    I did not go into particle physics for the chicks and the fast cars. Sorry, I should rephrase that: IF there had been chicks and fast cars on offer in going into particle physics, THEN it would not have been the reason for my choosing it. I went into it because I wanted answers.

    As an undergraduate, once I got over my initial difficulties with quantum mechanics, I came to appreciate what an outstanding framework it is. Atomic physics can just as easily be called “the application of quantum mechanics to single atoms” and solid state physics can just be called “the application of quantum mechanics to regular arrays of atoms”. Nuclear physics suffers from the problem that we do not know the equations of motion, but to the extent that we can apply quantum mechanics to it, we do.

    At the end of my undergraduate course a number of important questions were left unanswered. I was expecting graduate courses on quantum field theory to answer them. I also expected the QFT I learned to have ordinary quantum mechanics contained within it. It does not. QFT as currently practised only applies to scattering processes and so does not have anything to say about bound states. Those who laud the Lamb Shift calculation as one of the triumphs of modern science should remember this fact. You can get the phenomenally accurate theoretical value only if you step around a few truly nasty inconsistencies and use a different framework, supposedly more elementary, to provide the basis in which you operate.
    Of course, I did not like any of this, so as soon as I was reasonably able to do so, I set about trying to find something better.

    As this work progressed, I realised that nobody much wanted me to succeed. Whereas I could understand this coming from those whose claim to have already solved the problems I disputed, I could not understand it coming from the particle physics mainstream.

    My approach to problem solving is really quite simple: identify the biggest problem and just go and solve it in the most direct way possible. Listen to others, but ultimately trust only your own judgement.

    This philosophy, I felt, worked in re-doing the bathroom in my mother’s house in 1992. It also worked in building systems for derivatives trading at UBS and Nomura, but for theoretical physics, it was a disaster. Even now, if I were to ask to give a talk on my work on theoretical physics, I would just be fobbed off with excuses.

    Yet my philosophy is no different from that of the huge numbers of scientists and technicians trying to do their best at whatever they do throughout the world. These are the people who were not child prodigies, and about whom articles do not regularly appear in the New York Times. But it is through the efforts of these unsung heroes that the boundaries of knowledge are slowly pushed back, or the quality of life slowly improves. They know that most people will not be interested in their views on extra dimensions or aliens, but, through trial and a lot of error, they become good at one specific thing, something that would be totally boring to anyone other than themselves.

    String theorists will probably regard these people as inferior, but as far as I am concerned, it is the String theorists who need to learn.

    As far as I can see, theoretical particle physicists behave more like excitable teenagers than scientists. “Right” and “wrong” is irrelevant – “cool” and “uncool” is far more important. In 1982 it was “cool” to do Supersymmetry. So everyone had to do Supersymmetry. Everyone was watching each other, and regulating what they say, either in talks or papers, not on the basis of whether it was true of not, but on the basis of whether it corresponded to the consensual view. I refused to play this game after the first few months. If something was true, I said it was true. If it was false, I said it was false. Result? Soon nobody wanted to hear what I had to say at all. And then, of course, there is the guru factor. Not such a big deal in 1982, but now … if Ed Witten said that the universe was sneezed out of a being called the Great White Arkleseizure it would only be a matter of days before papers started to appear on the flow equations of the sneezing and the reasons why the Arkleseizure had to be white (the latter probably coming from some string theorist in the deep south).

    The reason why fundamental physics is where it is today, is simply because that is where it wants to be. There is no contact with experiment because they are not interested in experiments. They follow where the group mentality leads them, and if that is into a swamp, then so be it.

    “Gadarene swine” was the phrase I heard to describe this phenomenon. Not my words, but those of a highly-respected theoretical particle physicist, but now running the UK’s fusion project.

  6. Chris Oakley says:

    Anticipating objections from Lattice gauge theorists: I know that Lattice gauge theories are in reasonable shape for hadronic bound states, but this obviously does not include the Hydrogen atom.

  7. Dombono says:

    I don’t know where or how you learned quantum field theory but I guess you took a really bad course on it taught by a perturbative S-matrix guy :). Of course quantum field theory covers bound states and of course computations involving hydrogen atoms are much much simpler and easier and more accurate than computations involving hadrons, both because QED is weakly coupled and also because the hydrogen atom only involves two valence particles. People don’t work on lattice QED (as much) because they don’t need to but there’s nothing stopping anyone from working on it.

    If Witten were to write a paper on the Great White Arkleseizure, he will immediately lose all credibility within a day and will be dismissed as a formerly great physicist-turned-crackpot. Physicists take him seriously because his work has been consistently profound and CORRECT.

  8. woit says:

    I realize that this posting was kind of a rant of my own, so encourages ranting, but I’d rather keep that kind of thing to a minimum. Please, stop with the rants, or with responses to them. Except for Lubos of course, whose ranting is kind of entertaining….

    I’ve written about this swampland stuff elsewhere several times, but I guess I should again explain exactly what the problems with it are, since some people seem to not know what it’s about, thinking it is about “boiling down the landscape” or trying to understand whether the standard model can be the low energy limit of a string theory, something obviously of interest.

    Vafa et. al.’s swampland program isn’t about getting rid of the landscape at all, it accepts that all the possible string vacua coming from KKLT and other similar constructions all exist. The “swampland” consists of effective field theories that no one has yet come up with a proposed way of getting as low energy limits of string theory. It explicitly does not include the standard model, for which there are many proposed constructions as string vacua (whether any of them actually do give exactly the standard model, and if so, whether there are so many that the theory is unpredictive, is an open question). This whole subject explicitly is not about understanding the real world, it is about understanding aspects of low energy limits of string theories that have nothing to do with the real world.

    The most recent “swampland” work that has gotten a lot of attention argues that in effective field theories coming from string theory gauge forces cannot be much weaker than gravitational forces. Whether or not you believe this, it’s completely irrelevant to the real world, where gravitational forces are much, much weaker than gauge forces.

    Besides the fact that this subject explicitly has nothing to do with the real world, there’s another problem. Historically there have been lots of claims that “you can’t get X from string theory”, just about all of which have turned out to be true once someone seriously tried to get X from string theory. For one example of this phenomenon, take a look at


    which is a posting by Jacques Distler about Vafa’s original swampland note. In the posting Jacques gives as an example the supposed fact that you can’t get an effective field theory with only one or two generations of fermions out of string theory. More or less immediately, Volker Braun wrote in to tell him how to do it.

    Besides the above scientific problems, there are other reasons I find the whole thing completely bizarre. One uses the metaphor of a swamp to indicate somewhere extremely unpleasant that you are in danger of getting lost in, stuck in the mud, and unable to ever get out of (e.g. “Iraq is a swamp for the US military, just like Vietnam”). Why would anyone want to describe their proposed research program as going into a swamp, and make up posters with swamp pictures? This really amazes me no end…..

  9. sunderpeeche says:

    Swamps are often associated with disease (tropical swamps and malaria). But swamps are also rich ecological systems. They teem with life. Many tropical swamps have large deposits of crude oil under them. Things like peat bogs (not a swamp?) eventually become coal deposits, after millions of years. These things have to start off somehow, and perhaps don’t look pretty at the beginning (if ever). I guess the word swamp doesn’t bother me. But it’s just a personal opinion.

  10. J.F. Moore says:

    Perhaps there is an element of psychology at play: taking ownership of a perceived weakness to preempt its use in a derisive way. A common example of this is the outrageous dress used in gay rights marches, or people who poke fun at themselves to offset a deeper narcissism. Just a guess.

    Anyway, it’s not even a very nice graphic that they use.

  11. Who says:

    There may be an unconscious or unintended reference to [i] ignis fatuus[/i] (fools’ fire associated with marshes)

    another name for this is Will-‘o-the-Wisp

    “Both will-o’-the-wisp and ignis fatuus are used figuratively for some false idea or influence that leads people astray.”

    Folks lost in swamp may in some cases have pursued will-‘o-the-wisp.

  12. D R Lunsford says:

    Moore – that was profound. You’re onto something there.


  13. J.F. Moore says:

    Thanks, I’m glad you think so. That is probably the closest I will come to saying something profound here.

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