Short Items

  • There’s a wonderful interview at the Notices with last year’s Abel Prize winner John Tate (video here). He blames the fact that his name is on so many mathematical results and concepts on Serge Lang. The 2011 Abel Prize winner will be announced on March 23rd.
  • Sir Michael Atiyah’s February 1 talk at the College de France titled A Geometer Explores the Universe is now on-line.
  • Through the intervention of, Barry Mazur managed to retrieve a copy of his 1963/64 unpublished paper that first promoted the idea of an analogy between prime numbers and knots in a 3d space.

    In 1963 or 1964 I wrote an article Remarks on the Alexander Polynomial [PDF]) about the analogy between knots in the three-dimensional sphere and prime numbers (and, correspondingly, the relationship between the Alexander polynomial and Iwasawa Theory). I distributed some copies of my article but never published it, and I misplaced my own copy. In subsequent years I have had many requests for my article and would often try to search through my files to find it, but never did. A few weeks ago Minh-Tri Do asked me for my article, and when I said I had none, he very kindly went on the web and magically found a scanned copy[PDF] of it. I’m extremely grateful to Minh-Tri Do for his efforts (and many thanks, too, to David Feldman who provided the lead).

    For more about this fascinating topic, see a summary by Lieven le Bruyn here.

  • LHC beam commissioning is now in progress, it is supposed to start colliding beams for physics again in another week or so.
  • In the Dark Matter world, all eyes are on Xenon100, waiting to see what their results will be. Nature News has an update here. Next week Elena Aprile will be speaking at NEUTEL11 (which has a blog here) and revelations may occur.
  • This year’s Asimov debate is on the topic of string theory and whether there’s any hope for a unified theory. I’ll have to miss this, I’ll be at local bookstore Book Culture introducing Richard Panek who is giving a talk there that evening about his recent book that I wrote a review of for the Wall Street Journal. I’ll be curious though to hear from anyone who does go to the debate what they thought of it.
  • Blogging may become more sporadic over the next couple weeks. If so it’s because I’m on Spring Break in Paris.
  • Things don’t seem to have gone well for Raja of Invincible America John Hagelin and his Global Financial Capital of New York down on Wall Street. He has given up the mansion/headquarters building at 70 Broad Street, sold to a Chinese construction company. Nowadays he is President of the David Lynch Foundation and working on a much more conventional way to make a living, offering an on-line course on Quantum Field Theory, Superstring Theory, Inflationary Cosmology, and Higher States of Consciousness, $1400 if you take it for credit, $600 otherwise.
  • Update: A podcast of the Asimov debate is available here.

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    30 Responses to Short Items

    1. Yatima says:

      QFT and Higher States of Consciousness?

      Do we really need a repeat of Scientology…

      What’s with people trying to link that barely adequate debugging tool called “consciousness” to quantum whatever and claim that there are ‘higher states’. For some reason consciousness being thrown overboard whole through meditation or laudanum is assigned to it being in a “higher state”. It makes me nauseous.

    2. Yatima says:

      And while we are doing the laundry list:

      “String Theory Made Easy: Two books tackle one of the most complex theories known to man — with surprisingly satisfactory results”

    3. pos says:

      Surely it is not necessary to focus only on the negative. I had not heard of the Asimov debates until now. Thanks to PW for bringing them to my attention. So this year’s debate is about string theory (so what?) … looking at the list of debate topics in years past, there are some fascinating choices (and I missed them all, of course, and seats for this year are sold out). But anyway, Xenon100 is physics at its best, tackling a really difficult problem on the cutting edge of research, it will be fascinating to see how it all works out. My best to them.

    4. Shantanu says:

      If somone knows of a link to the webcast of the event, maybe they
      can point it out. At times I like this I wish was in NYC

    5. Bugsy says:

      I just listened to a bit of Hagelin on You Tube and find it very hard to take… it’s to me unfortunate that he seems to find it necessary to forcibly “unify” two of his personal interests (physics and TM meditation), the effect of which could be to bring both into some ridicule. Physics and math are infinitely beautiful and so is human consciousness. So what? The fact that we use our reason and our intuition, our logic and our dreams, and that there are so many very different kinds of minds successfully pursuing science is fascinating. On the other hand meditation can be a valid practice for gaining deep insights into oneself or into life, and that can have profound beneficial effects for individuals who happen to find that such a practice fits them. And that could naturally include scientists (as well as artists, writers and dish washers). Why not? Poetry is also inspiring, so is listening to a bird sing or
      Brad Mehldau play the piano. But that doesn’t mean we need to claim that string theory explains why Brad’s or the bird’s song is beautiful or why
      a proof of John Tate’s is. Mashing these things together diminishes all of them, and misses the surprise of the smile that can be hidden in a line of prose, or the mystically marvelous taste of an apple pie, which could provide a wonderful moment to prove a truly new theorem, whether not not we happen to be levitating at the time….Oh well….

    6. Pingback: Weekly picks « — the Blog

    7. Clara Moskowitz, in her 3/8/11 article on the 3/7/11 11th Asimov Debate:

      When filtered through the lens of string theory, general relativity and quantum mechanics can be made to get along.

      From the article:

      “The progress [in string theory] over the last 10 years has only solidified my confidence that this is a worthwhile direction to pursue.”
      … Brian Greene

      “Are you [string theorists] chasing a ghost or is the collection of you just too stupid to figure this out?” Neil deGrasse Tyson teased, beginning a friendly banter that would continue throughout the night.

      deGrasse Tyson later says if you’re making progress, keep pursuing it.

    8. Peter Woit says:

      Thanks Steven,

      I’d be curious to know what these “string theory predictions”are about large dimensions at the LHC and about structure in the CMB. As far as I know there are no such predictions, and for Freese to claim that they exist is intentionally misleading. Presumably what’s involved are things that stretch the term “prediction” far away from its conventional usage.

      I suspect that when Brian is referring to progress in string theory, he’s thinking of things like AdS/CFT, not string theory unification. As far as unification goes, progress in the last decade has been negative (the landscape is not progress, quite the opposite).

      It’s funny that it looks like the organizers were only able to come up with one person willing to argue that the extra dimensions lead to deadly problems, and that’s Jim Gates, who is a string theorist.

      It also looks like the previously fashionable argument that “string theory predicts supersymmetry” has now vanished down the memory hole.

    9. You’re more than welcome Peter but is is we who thank you for a frank weblog about these important topics.

      We have a second article up on the event, also very frank and not overstretching in the least, by participant Marcelo Gleiser at NPR Blogs: here.

    10. Geometrick says:

      As much as I love David Lynch, I’m a bit uncomfortable when spiritualists try to invoke quantum mechanics. I believe that Rhonda Byrne tried to use quantum physics in “The Secret.” I would say more about her and her ilk, but I don’t want to slander her.

    11. Peter Woit says:


      Thanks again. I wrote a posting last year about Gleiser’s recent book about this.

    12. Bernhard says:


      Perhaps not exactly what you´re looking for but I saw a talk in Boston (SUSY 09) on “Strings at the LHC” that could interest you (if you don´t already know it):

      I remember Lüst said in the end “we could see something only if we are very very lucky”.

      Lüst has by the way some articles on the subject:

      And you can find more in hep-th.

    13. Peter Woit says:


      I have seen that work, but I don’t think anyone has ever taken it (the idea of strings with a TeV string scale) seriously or promoted it as a string “prediction” for the LHC.

    14. Coin says:

      Way back in 2000 when John Hagelin was running for President, the Natural Law Party campaign website had this absolutely mind-boggling diagram on it that– I am not sure I am remembering this exactly correctly– had “SUBATOMIC PARTICLES” at the bottom and “HUMAN RIGHTS” at the top. The diagram was built like a pyramid where somehow constitutional law rested on top of quantum field theory, or… something. Alas, I didn’t bother to save this masterpiece of incoherence when I first saw it, and I’ve been trying to locate a copy ever since to no avail. (The Natural Law Party website does not appear to have updated since about 2003, but somehow that diagram doesn’t seem to still be on it…)

    15. @ Coin says:

      Not exactly the one you mentioned, but nearly equally hilarious (also with some Natural Law Party affiliation):

    16. Nigel says:

      “… working on a much more conventional way to make a living, offering an on-line course on Quantum Field Theory, Superstring Theory, Inflationary Cosmology, and Higher States of Consciousness, $1400 if you take it for credit, $600 otherwise.”

      Just curious, but do you see stringy theory continuing its trip into pseudoscience if it fails at the LHC, just as the S-matrix continued with The tao of physics eastern mysticism after it was superseded by the standard model?

    17. Coin says:

      @: OMG, there may have been more layers in the version I saw, but that is so totally it! Except I don’t remember it being INVINCIBLE before.

    18. Peter Woit says:

      Thanks Shantanu,

      I’m on vacation right now, which seems like a good excuse for not listening to this at the moment…

    19. Peter Woit says:


      I think the string theorists who have gone down the route of anthropic multiverse pseudo-science are already on thin ice in terms of retaining any credibility with their colleagues. They’ll concentrate on trying to ahore up this situation by promoting the multiverse, and won’t engage in obvious nonsense like the consciousness stuff. This is not new for Hagelin, he’s been doing this for 25 years now.

    20. Giotis says:

      When somebody from the audience asked Marcello Gleiser about which experiment in his opinion would help most in the quest of a unification theory, he replied the detection of gravitons.

      I completely agree.

      There is a lot of speculation that gravity might not be a fundamental force but some emergent collective phenomenon. If this is true everything changes regarding unification and Quantum gravity.

      If somehow we could verify that gravitons exist as mediators of the gravitational force then our confidence to String theory where gravitons find their natural place would increase substantially.

      On the other hand if you could verify somehow that gravitons don’t exist you kill String theory automatically.

    21. Peter Woit says:


      The problem is that you can give a good order of magnitude estimate of the probability of detecting a graviton, using any kind of apparatus conceivable in you, my or our great-grandchildren’s lifetime. It’s essentially zero, so string theory remains immune from this “test” like all others. In any case, I disagree that detection of a graviton would be evidence for string theory, but that’s irrelevant since we know it’s not going to happen, whether or not they’re there.

    22. Anonymous says:

      Only 3 days to go before Xenon100 announces SUSY WIMP!

    23. Coin says:

      …dumb question… Given the kind of data produced by Xenon100/XMASS/whatever, if they got a signal would they actually be able to distinguish a SUSY/superpartner WIMP from a normal WIMP? If so, how?

    24. Shantanu says:

      Coin, no you cannot.
      All you get from dd experiments is the mass and WIMP-nucleon cross-section.
      The result is agnostic to whatever BSM theory produces this mass and
      coupling constant

    25. martibal says:


      why are you so pessimistic on graviton detection ? What about the detection of gravitational wave (several experiments are going on on that matter): couldn’it be related to the existence of graviton ? Or say differently, if gravity is an “emergent phenomenon” (whatever its means, I am still not sure I understand what people intend by that), would it mean that there is no gravitational wave ? Or simply that there are classical gravitational wave with no corresponding quanta ?

    26. Peter Woit says:


      Classical GR effects, including classical gravitational waves, are certainly measurable, and experiments likely will see them. But seeing the quanta of any quantization of a theory with classical gravitational waves is a very different story.

    27. Paul says:

      Smolin’s point was never really addressed in the debate. He said spacetime is dynamical, so any extra dimensions have to be dynamical too, but this leads to the extra dimensions blowing up to spacetime-size. Does anybody know how this is dealt with?

    28. Giotis says:


      The overall size (volume) of the compactified dimensions is a modulus from 4D point of view i.e. a massless scalar field. This modulus is stabilized in small values by various techniques. In general a potential is obtained in 4D for the volume modulus which is then minimized in a stable/metastable vacuum and thus the field acquires an expectation value (a small size in this case). There are many geometric and other moduli in String theory compactifications; it is a very large subject called moduli stabilization.

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