Interview With Sidney Coleman

Via Steve Hsu, at the AIP Center for History of Physics, there’s a transcript of an interview with Sidney Coleman from 1977. It’s provocative and amusing, like the man himself, as well as informative history. Go and read the whole thing, but here are some excerpts:

But you do enjoy working with students or do you?

No. I hate it. You do it as part of the job. Well, that’s of course false…or maybe more true than false when I say I hate it. Occasionally there’s a student who is a joy to work with. But I certainly would be just as happy if I had no graduate students…

I guess your remark means then that you would like to avoid teaching undergraduate courses or even required graduate courses…

Or even special topics courses. Teaching is unpleasant work. No question about it. It has its rewards. One feels happy about having a job well done. Washing the dishes, waxing the floors (things I also do on a regular basis since I’m a bachelor) have their rewards. I am pleased when I have done a good job waxing the floor and I’ve taken an enormous pile of dirty dishes and reduced them to sparkling clean ones. On the other hand, if I didn’t have to, I would never engage in waxing the floors, although I’m good at it. I’m also good at teaching; I’m considered very good at teaching, both by myself and others. And I’m also terrifically good at washing dishes, in fact. On the other hand, I certainly would never make a bunch of dirty dishes just for the joy of washing them and I would not teach a course just for the joy of teaching a course…

So I guess really you would be happier with the format of an institute of theoretical physics? Rather than a teaching institution like a university?

Well no. That makes it too abstract. Because that means, would you like to have a position at, say, the Institute for Advanced Studies? And then all sorts of other things would enter the picture. Like you’d have to live in Princeton which is truly an awful experience.

I was there as a young bride a long time ago.

Young brides get the worst of it. They’re even worse off than the people who are at the University or the Institute because at least the people at the University or the Institute can fill their days by engaging in their professional interests from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to sleep. But if you don’t have that, there is really nothing. Nothing. It’s a terrible place. Dullest place in the world. No I wouldn’t say that, but certainly the dullest place at which decent science or decent scholarship is done in the world today. The only advantage to Princeton is that it’s close to Princeton Junction.

Personally I’m quite glad that Harvard was wealthy enough to support Coleman, while forcing him to teach, since I benefited quite a bit from his teaching, right around the time of this interview. I had heard before that he didn’t enjoy his time in Princeton. Once at lunch at the IAS, a senior physicist visiting there told me about the advice Coleman had given him when he told him he was going to Princeton for a year. The advice was “Be sure to bring with you everything you need.” The senior physicist then told me that: “I recently realized what Sidney was trying to tell me: there are no women here so I should have brought someone with me…”

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27 Responses to Interview With Sidney Coleman

  1. erice says:

    Taking all of the above at face value, one wonders why Sidney taught at the Erice summer schools (some of the most brilliant lectures they have had). Harvard could force him to lecture at Harvard, but nobody could force him to lecture at Erice. Zichichi must have had fantastic powers of persuasion.

  2. Kea says:

    I was in Princeton for a few months in ’96 (studying mathematics) and I loved it precisely because it was so quiet. One can sit at lunch at the IAS without being bothered by passing traffic, work in a quiet space, and watch squirrels in peace. I have never seen a better working environment anywhere.

  3. Bob Levine says:

    Coleman’s dislike of teaching reminds me of something that the great G. H. Hardy said in his A Mathematician’s Apology: that he disliked teaching but loved lecturing. I suspect that quite a few of the professoriate, if they were being completely candid, would have something similar to say.

  4. Peren Woondeen says:

    I would happily wash dishes and wax floors for a one-week trip to Erice, all expenses paid. Sicily is a beautiful place, you know.

  5. Shantanu says:

    Peter, thanks for the link. very nice interview. Btw do (or anyone else) know whether Harvard think of forming a relativity group during the heydays in 70s?
    Do you recollect the attitude of Harvard folks in 70s towards relativity?

  6. Chris Oakley says:

    Erice was rumoured to have connections with the Mafia. Maybe they threatened to kneecap Coleman if he refused to give lectures there.

  7. Thomas R Love says:

    I sincerely doubt that Princeton is the “Dullest place in the world”, outside the Lab, it has to be Los Alamos.

  8. Peter Woit says:


    When I was there (75-79), the November revolution had just happened and the Standard Model was becoming widely accepted, with new confirming results coming in regularly. The investigation of QCD had really just begun, with people trying to extract as much from perturbation theory as possible (jets, charmonium), and beginning to try to understand its non-perturbative behavior. With all of these dramatic developments, gravity was not something that many people were thinking about. I’m sure there was no discussion of starting a new relativity group then. Elsewhere, supergravity was getting off the ground. Lee Smolin was a graduate student, working on gravity, nominally with Coleman, but I think mostly with Stanley Deser at Brandeis. I vaguely remember that he discusses this period in his book.

  9. I took Quantum Field Theory from Sidney Coleman way back. I remember how he had planned his lectures down to the jokes. I also remember how he would sometimes respond to students in the class, “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.”

  10. Edward Pickman Derby says:

    I don’t get it; if Princeton is such a sh*t hole then why would Witten, who could get a lucrative job at any university in the world at a moment’s notice, choose to work there?

  11. Richard says:

    It’s always worth reminding people of the the splendid Coleman QFT lecture notes from 1985, transcribed from Brian Hill‘s records.

  12. MathPhys says:

    I knew Coleman a bit and from the little that I knew, Princeton was too quiet for him.

  13. Jim Rohlf says:

    I knew Sidney pretty well when I was at Harvard. Two of the funniest things I ever heard him say were:
    1) at a poker game in the middle of the night in Aspen (keep in mind we played poker often in Cambridge) a prominent Cornell physicist exclaimed after as I recall was a very strange situation, “Professor Coleman why did you fold?” and Sidney without a missing beat said “I don’t know, I’m a poker player not an analyst.”
    2) for those that know David Cline (also a friend of mine) who was calculated to travel at an average speed of 43 mph because he flew so much, in a chance encounter of the 3 of us at the CERN cafeteria, I said to Sydney, “You’ve met Dave Cline, I presume.”
    Coleman: “No. The flux is large but the cross section is very small.”

  14. MathPhys says:

    I was told by no less authority than (okay, let’s not get into dropping names) that Sidney C did not know a word of French, but he was an expert on reading the menu in French restaurants.

  15. M. Wang says:

    My favorite story about Sidney is that when he was asked to give a talk at 10am, he replied, “I don’t think I can stay up that late.”

  16. MathPhys says:

    When lecturing on magnetic monoploes, Sidney would make a circle with the thumb and index finger of one hand to represent closed magnetic flux lines, use the index finger of the other hand to represent charges flowing through it, then look at the audience and say “I shouldn’t be making these obscene gestures”. He was great fun.

  17. chris says:

    M Wang,

    that was Pauli to Heissenberg…

  18. JadedIdealist says:

    A recent newscientist article argued (well enough to give the idea credit in my eyes) that part of the reason for the backlash against science funding in the american right wing was due to poor engagement with a) the public and especially b) the rich – ironically due in part to secure science funding.

    This interview fits right in with that 70’s zeitgeist of “we don’t want to and don’t need to talk to ignorant people”, I hope we can see now that in the long run that attitude is a mistake.

  19. Steve Christensen says:

    I was at Harvard 1977-79 in Physics and at the Center for Astrophysics. Also there doing relativity related work were Bill Press and Larry Smarr. Most of the other gravity related work was being done by Mike Duff, Stan Deser, Marc Grisaru, Burt Ovrut, and others at Brandeis where I spend most of my time working with Mike. My discussions with Sidney at the time were all about science fiction due to his writings in Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine.

  20. Chris Oakley says:

    This interview fits right in with that 70′s zeitgeist of “we don’t want to and don’t need to talk to ignorant people”, I hope we can see now that in the long run that attitude is a mistake.

    Sure, but if, when journalists telephone, scientists start prattling on about extra dimensions, supersymmetry, wormholes, parallel universes, strings and other stuff that has no experimental support whatever then *they* are the ignorant people.

  21. Patrice Ayme says:

    JadedIdealist and Oakley have it exactly right. The most important function of scientists is not to pose as if they had made great strides in magic, but to explain humbly and thoroughly real science, and how it progressed through more exact thinking, and the general interest this has for society, thus insuring the social support of science and the powers that be, for a long time to come.
    Certainly presenting as facts fancy flights of the imagination is long term disastrous for the support of thinking by this civilization. Because when those turn out completely silly, scientists, and, therefore science, lose all credibility. We should be modest, because our theories are modest, and so doing other decision makers can take heed.

  22. aa says:

    re the staying up that late joke,
    i have heard that attributed to Maxwell

    “Aye, I suppose I could stay up that late.”
    Maxwell, on being told on his arrival at Cambridge University that there would be a compulsory 6 a.m. church service, as quoted in Spice in Science : The Best of Science Funnies (2006) by K. Krishna Murty

  23. Chris Austin says:

    The Sidney Coleman lecture notes taken by Brian Hill are now available on arXiv.

  24. Pich Hambroy says:

    The Sidney Coleman lecture notes taken by Brian Hill are now available on arXiv.

    I think I know who Sidney Coleman is, having read his book (Aspects of symmetry) and several of his papers. But who is this guy Brian Hill who has been mentioned already twice in this thread? What is he famous for?

  25. Peter Woit says:

    Pich Hambroy,

    In this context, he’s famous for writing up notes for the Coleman course…

    But, for more about him, you can try

  26. John Baez says:

    “Washing the dishes, waxing the floors (things I also do on a regular basis since I’m a bachelor”.

    And if he weren’t, he wouldn’t? Interesting assumption about the natural order of things.

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