Links and Gossip

Well, no, I’m not going to start putting up here the really interesting gossip that people tell me. If I did so they’d stop telling me such things.

The Theoretical Particle Physics Jobs Rumor Mill has moved yet again. First it was hosted at the University of Washington, then the College of William and Mary, now it’s at UC Davis. No idea why it moved this last time, but earlier this year some gossip told me the entertaining story of why it was booted out of Washington. To be honest, I’ve now completely forgotten all the details, so even if I wanted to violate their confidence, I couldn’t.

The new Rumor Mill site confirms previous gossip I had heard that shows UC Santa Barbara having great success in hiring people in mathematical physics. Is Singer has been a regular visitor there in recent years, spending part of the year in Santa Barbara, part at MIT. This year they’ve hired two very good people: Dave Morrison and Sergei Gukov. Morrison has a mathematics background (algebraic geometry), and Gukov was educated as a physicist (a student of Witten’s), but they both do interesting things at the interface of the two subjects.

Also at UCSB, Michael Freedman has moved his Microsoft Research group down from Redmond, and it is now temporarily in residence at the KITP, waiting to move into offices in the building next door when it is finished and will house the California Nanosystems Institute. Freedman is a topologist and Fields medalist, who was hired away from UC San Diego by my ex-grad school roommate Nathan Myhrvold when he was running Microsoft Research. From what I remember, at the time Nathan told me some mildly entertaining gossip about this, but, again, I’ve forgotten the details, so can’t violate his confidence even if I wanted to.

Also on the move is John Horgan’s blog. His Scientific Curmudgeon blog is being shut down, re-opened as a blog hosted by Discover magazine (which has its own blog). The new blog is called Horganism, and he has some advice which I don’t endorse for would-be scientists;

Also, don’t go into particle physics! Especially don’t waste your time on string theory, or loop-space theory, or multi-universe theories, or any of the other pseudo-scientific crap in physics and cosmology that we science journalists love so much.

Seed magazine has some interesting new articles: one by mathematician Jordan Ellenberg about Fields Medalist and MacArthur winner Terry Tao, another by Joshua Roebke about Jim Simons and his Math for America project, the inspiration for which came over a poker game (OK, it was a poker game to raise money for charity).

The Cern Council Strategy Group has put out a briefing book that gives an excellent survey of the prospects for particle physics and particle physics experiments, especially in Europe, during the new few decades. Very much worth reading.

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34 Responses to Links and Gossip

  1. Thomas Love says:

    Thanks for the link to Horganism, I wonder what a Horgasm would be like.

  2. John Ryskamp says:

    I also sent you an email about this. If you want a different perspective on string theory as it relates to the history of mathematics and physics, I strongly suggest you learn more about the important work which has been done over the past decade and a half in the history of set theory. Above all, read A. Garciadiego’s BERTRAND RUSSELL AND THE ORIGINS OF THE SET-THEORETIC ‘PARADOXES.’ Some of the set theory paradoxes have already had holes poked in them, but Garciadiego does a remarkably thorough job in laying the groundwork for understanding the most important aspect of set theory: the response to it. You should ignore the huge number of typos in the book and pay close attention to the footnotes.

    But to the response: “natural” mathematics was developed, and traded under different names, with a program of “avoiding” the “paradoxes.” This polemical point of view is well summarized in Penelope Maddy’s polemic, NATURALISM IN MATHEMATICS.

    Poincare was one of the first of the “natural” mathematicians. The program informs his vastly influence SCIENCE AND HYPOTHESIS. Einstein rhapsodizes about this book. For many non-mathematical scientists, it was influential, and I believe Einstein took over its program into his physics.

    You should certainly ground yourself in the avant garde mathematics in which Einstein developed, if you propose to understand his work and what came after it. I believe you will develop a very different understanding, if you do.

    Here is my own take on the influence of “natural” mathematics during the twentieth century:

    Ryskamp, John Henry, “The Unity of Twentieth Century Ideas” (April 14, 2006). Available at SSRN:

  3. Stefan says:


    As a (especially) theoretical physicist / mathematician of course you will not endorse John Horgan’s advice to potential entrants; but what then are the [\italics]actual[italics] *realistic* responses to his qualm?
    I have been thinking about this for quite some time now, and each time it seems that going into HEP research would likely result in (or atleast set a path towards) financial and professional destitution and destruction (unless of course one possibly chooses to make fundamental compromises to one’s intellectual principles, i.e. join one of the bandwagons of current theory [especially string theory]; this seems – sadly – more like playing Russian Rullet with one’s professional career than anything else).

    My hypothetical responses to this quandary are the following:

    a) go into mathematical physics; [more on this below]

    b) go into condensed matter physics (atleast some job prospects can be expected after finishing studies);

    c) go into mathematics proper (-same reason as (b)-)

    d) forgo this area (math and physics) and study something like ‘computational science’ (atleast there is some relation – albeit indirect to my knowledge – with theoretical physics; this area includes ‘chaos and complexity theory’ I assume;

    e) forgo all of the above and become a computer scientist / programmer; this should be sufficient to guarantee a job no matter what the prevailing circumstances in academia (I hope!).

    As for mathematical physics, what are the likely scenario(s) from your vantage point?


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  5. Stefan says:


    Peter, as you can guess I don’t know how to work the font system. Any suggestions?

  6. MathPhys says:


    In a certain sense, string theory really has nothing to do with high energy physics, although (like many other topics) it was motivated by questions arising in that subject.

    String theory is very inspired (and inspiring) mathematical physics (or even mathematics).

    Just forget about trying to make connections with what we see in (and expect from) high energy particle colliders and everything will be fine.

  7. woit says:

    Best advice about the fonts is probably to not even try to get that kind of formatting into comments here. Most blogging software handles html inside comments in an inconsistent way.

    It’s very difficult to give people career advice about HEP research at this point. I certainly have no idea what the field is going to look like in a few years from now. A lot depends on what happens at the LHC, and how the physics community deals with the continuing dominance of string theory despite its conclusive failure to give any insight into unification. But, even in healthier times, going into speculative HEP research is not something someone should do who is looking for a straightforward career path and a well-paid, secure job. If those are important to you, do something else. There are just too many smart people and too few good permanent jobs in this field. On the other hand, if one has reasonably wide interests, and is very flexible in what one does to earn a living, one can most likely sooner or later find some reasonable sort of job after starting out trying to do HEP research.

    If one is interested in the mathematical end of particle theory, one is probably better off getting a Ph.D. in math than in physics these days. Mathematics is a much healthier field, both intellectually and in terms of numbers of jobs. There are a lot of interesting questions at the boundary of math and physics to work on, and a reasonable number of good people and research activity going on in this area.

  8. anthropologist says:

    This is my first post here. While not exactly in the string theory, I am very fascinated by this whole psychology (people’s) angle. And, I have seen both Brian Greene’s and Ed Witten’s public talks, certainly, polished they were! So, these are my thoughts. On the side of the actual (tangible!) physics, what we have now is no new experiments that prove or disprove existing theories. Everything is wishy-washy, and there are no breakthrough experiments on the horizon, at least according to predictions by ANY theory. Yet it is still very desirable for people in the field of theoretical physics to eat (so to speak), and do something. So, these are the constraints.

    One could argue that the string theory has evolved exactly to fit into this set of constraints. It captures public’s imagination, thus providing continuing public interest (and funding!). It cannot be readily falsified, so nobody can ever claim it is wrong, which also guarantees a good grace period for people to bail out if they start to have private doubts. Researchers are still able to do interesting (if irrelevant) mathematical things, with a twist, that instead of math they call it physics. And for a good reason, if they called it math, life would be a lot less comfortable, since math is more like art in terms of funding (most of practically useful math is probably no less than 50-100 years old).

    Were the string theory doubted on a large scale, so that the public does lose the faith and interest, the funding for the entire field of theoretical physics might very well shrink. It is a mistake to think that the freed up funds would end up paying for less fashionable physics research areas, they might just go away altogether if the overall public interest is lower. For example, these money would go toward the “war on cancer”, where it is hard to believe that small increment of expenditures (percentage wise) will ever lead to any significant breakthroughs not achieved otherwise.

    Now, coming back to the prevailing “strong peer pressure makes everybody conform” criticism that has been voiced in 2 recent books. In any event, if a “rogue” physicist has any good new ideas, then it would be possible to get tenure somewhere, and then just start promoting them heavily. That is because the personal gain in the case of true success is very high, perhaps, the Nobel prize (damn the string theory!). For a tenured faculty the risks would be relatively low, and the potential reward would be very high. Otherwise, why give up such a great brand such as “the string theory” for something that needs to be promoted, especially, if this new theory has no present day technical means to be proven/disproven even if offering falsifiable predictions? Of course, it might be that ALL theoretical physics people are too deep in the same hole, with the same set of tools. But visionaries like Enstein come once per hundred years, so, the whole vision thing is just very rare regardless of whether it is the string theory or something else.

    So, it appears that while the criticism of the string theory might very well be valid, it is still the best thing for the physics field at the moment, since it keeps it going, and going strong. The only important thing is that the young people entering the theoretical physics fully understand the implicit rules of engagement, or otherwise irreversible damage to one’s career might result.

  9. Stefan says:


    Thanks greatly for the advice; I do appreciate it. 🙂

    You write:

    “If one is interested in the mathematical end of particle theory, one is probably better off getting a Ph.D. in math than in physics these days.”

    Coming from you [as a theoretical physicist] this is a little saddening and disappointing – one would have hoped there existed some optimism within the community. (This may be valid (indirect) confirmation that the “Golden Age” of particle physics has expired, and the field has changed in character from its glorious heydays…).

    Anyhow, my question(s) then are:

    1) What are the topics you recommend we study to gain expertise in this area [mathematics of particle theory]? (especially in relation to QFT-math; and if relevant – I suppose?! – to the Clay problem… one can hope, can’t one?!)

    [If you have recommended texts, please include as you like.]

    2) What (research) topics do you feel may pay dividends for future mathematical physicists (especially for the area above)?

    3) [somewhat off-topic] What is the Representation Theory relation to all this? (You previously wrote that you were studying / reading the new text: ‘Dirac Operators in Representation Theory’.)


  10. Aaron Bergman says:

    And for a good reason, if they called it math, life would be a lot less comfortable, since math is more like art in terms of funding (most of practically useful math is probably no less than 50-100 years old).

    A lot less comfortable? There are no monetary differences that I can discern. People call themselves physicists rather than mathematicians because the cultures are distinct. The training, the way problems are attacked, the standards of rigor and the incentives are all quite different.

  11. woit says:


    I have no idea what kind of ideas will ultimately solve the Clay Yang-Mills problem (or any other of the Clay problems..)

    My 2002 arxiv paper is kind of a sketch of ideas that I find promising, more recently I’ve mostly been working on BRST (and its relation to the Dirac operator and representation theory). There’s a lot of mathematics related to BRST that has yet to be exploited.

    Finally, geometric Langlands has all sorts of interesting math and possibly physics associated to it. If Witten keeps working in that are and turning up more things, it may get more people willing to join him and could get very interesting.

  12. Dan says:

    Speaking of links, the physics forum has a review of your book and a string theorists disagrees as a matter of fact with your book. While I suspect the reviewer is yours truly, the profile says France, not Harvard.

    Here’s a link:
    Go to first new post Opinions of ideas in “Not Even Wrong”


    [reposting of this long comment deleted]

  13. Stefan says:


    Thanks for the response; (was hoping for a more substantive one though). It’s alright however: I know you have other duties at hand too.


    Take care,

  14. woit says:


    Please don’t repost long things here from the middle of discussions on other blogs. It’s fine to point out discussions elsewhere that people here might be interested in joining, but in general they should do so where the discussion is already taking place.

    “R.X.” is not Lubos Motl, he’s a string theory partisan who posts on various blogs using various pseudonyms (from what I remember, I think he’s “MoveOn” when he posts here). For some reason he doesn’t want his real name and identity attached to what he has to say, perhaps because it is often incorrect and full of nasty personal attacks.

    The comment of his you quoted doesn’t appear to be a review, since he doesn’t actually say anything about the book or claim to have read it. It’s just the usual ad hominem personal attack on me, together with standard issue string theory propaganda and incorrect claims (no, you can’t falsify string theory by not finding 10 d string excitations at the Planck scale, since some versions of string theory don’t have these, ever heard of M-theory?).

  15. anthropologist says:

    Peter, actually, R.X. does not really attack anybody personally, where do you see that? R.X. does disagree with you, but surely healthy dissent is a good thing. Or you do not think so?

    Also, R.X. points are well-reasoned, specifically, it is just not plausible that some smart individual would not abandon the string theory in heartbeat if something more promising came up. So I think that the particular claim of yours that “everybody is too locked up in the string theory to look around” does not stand under detailed scrutiny.

    It is much easier to disagree with something than to be constructive. So again, R.X. argument is well-made, if you had some constructive material on the subject, you’d probably be publishing it in scientific, and not popular literature in order to properly collect your credit.

  16. Peter Woit says:


    Actually, R.X., begins his comment with “I suspect if he [Woit] would be able to contribute something positive to science, he would have already done so in the form of real publications. Instead he chooses to gain his 15 minutes of fame by discrediting the work of others.” and then goes on to not address any of the arguments in my book. I don’t see why I should spend much time answering anonymous criticisms from people who personally attack me, show no willingness to even read what I have to say, and just endlessly repeat the same incorrect hype about string theory.

    I’m not claiming there is an obvious much more promising thing than string theory that all string theorists should start working on. I am claiming that what they are working on has conclusively failed and they need to admit this. I don’t think one can defend continuing to work on a failed idea. If they want to argue about this, they need to deal with my argument that string theory has failed. It’s given in detail in the book. I’d be happy to argue these scientific issues with R.X. or anyone else.

    Sure, it’s very difficult to come up with constructive new ideas. I’ve written some of mine up, in hep-th/0206135.

  17. Peter Orland says:


    As a theoretical physicist, I don’t agree with Peter (W)’s advice about going into math as a path to high-energy physics. Mathematicians have made valuable contributions here and there to physics, but going to graduate school in math won’t make you a physicist. You will instead need experience doing
    research in physics to understand the issues. I predict that whoever solves the Clay problem you mentioned above won’t be a mathemtatician.

  18. anthropologist says:


    Your approach is idealistic, and not realistic.

    “I am claiming that what they are working on has conclusively failed and they need to admit this. I don’t think one can defend continuing to work on a failed idea.”

    So, how do you exactly see such an admission? Like the following: All talks at the string conference would go “we failed, the string theory is dead”. Then, since there is nothing obviously promising out there, upon return everybody turns in their resignation letters, and goes to work at McDonalds. Would that be the plan?

    The only way the string theory would die out if it was displaced by something more promising (and not less!). That is the only possibility for an implicit admission. Without a replacement, the efforts on ST will continue.

    Naturally, one way to gauge the real ST community sentiment would be to go to a string conference, feed some younger attendants some beer, and then collect opinions. Often big shots express their sentiments to the students, and those propargate, so with beer one could extract that. Many younger people not too close to the critical points of their career would be rather willing to discuss the perceived state of things, at least that is what I found in my field.

  19. Peter Woit says:


    Have you read my book or Lee Smolin’s? Both books very explicitly deal with the questions you are raising.

    I’ve had many conversations with string theorists, young and old, over beers, wine and other beverages. Many of them are very disturbed about the current state of the theory and we agree on much more than we disagree.

    The question is: how do you make it possible for the kind of young, bright, ambitious physicists who might be able to develop alternatives to get the kind of training needed and spend the years of work necessary to make some progress on alternatives, while still having a decent chance at a successful career? It seems to me a necessary ingredient is admitting failure. As long as the field is dominated by people who claim that string theory is the best thing for people to work on, refuse to admit that it has failed, and provide no support for young people trying to do something else, things will not change.

  20. anthropologist says:


    I agree that to have a career one needs a lot of support from the establishment. And, with alternatives to ST, it still would be very risky to bet a career on an alternative, even with some supportive senior people (unless those have such great connections that a tenured job would be nearly guaranteed at a later point). That is because if you get relatively nothing interesting in a new area (no flashy or popular publications), you have nothing to apply for jobs with, and nobody would spend any time to understand what you did. Thus you would have been much better off incrementally improving the string theory where you would do something OK and be relatively widely understood, with good support by the establishement.

    In my field, situation in some ways even worse, since there is certain “mafia” in the establishement which gets all the interviews for their people, so then not even the area is constraining, but the choice of people to work with! If you did not forsee that before, and ended up on the other side of such a divide, tough luck.

  21. nc says:

    “… tough luck.” – anthropologist

    I wish Peter or someone would plot out in a flow chart the standard responses to criticisms of string theory. All the responses are unoriginal, and follow the following sequence:

    1. Critics should shut up complaining or else talk about an alternative to string. They all just want 15 minutes of fame.

    2. OK, the critics have some ideas about alternatives, but they aren’t hyped as much as string, so they must be wrong.

    3. If you made the error of not being a sycophant of the stringy mainstream from your early years, tough luck.

    This is really interesting because to ride out criticism, the stringy mainstream gets ever more arrogant. How long can such political tactics divert attention from their lack of physics?

  22. jeremy says:


    I am going to add something to what Peter (W) and Peter (O) already wrote, but I wouldn’t call it advice.

    In case you want to do your research in a mathematics department and working on the Clay problems, but still have worries about the future job opportunities, Navier-Stokes equations would be a good problem to work on. There has been a great deal of effort tackling this problem in applied mathematics in the last thirty years. So, in the worst case scenario, you don’t get to win the million dollar prize given by Clay Institute and you cann’t find an academic position in pure mathematics, but you always have applied mathematics to fall back on.

  23. Stefan says:


    Thought this might be helpful to look through:

    ‘Results of the Survey on the Future of HEP’ by Young Particle Physicists (YPP) during the Snowmass ’01 Conference.


  24. Alejandro Rivero says:


    “So, how do you exactly see such an admission? Like the following: All talks at the string conference would go “we failed, the string theory is dead”.,”

    A smotther way should be to produce a lot of talks to discusse “where did we go wrong?” and “why?” . There are some Field Medals relating to string theory, and one sould wonder how is that string theory has got to reach new mathematical structures.

    My current answer is that these structures were so general than any bold attempt to go beyond QFT was dammed to find them in some disguise. It could follow that even if string theory is wrong, they were wronged by a mirage of some objects really related to physics, and it is still wothwhile to locate these objects. Of course better mathematics than strings is needed (here a toast to representation theory, for instance 😉

  25. Observer says:


    I was thinking about this issue whether blogging and publishing polemic books constitutes scientific activity or not (it was raised several times on this blog).

    And my conclusion is that it can be determined easily. If we assume that scientific activity is the thing that if someone does very well then he/she is entitled to a good academic job at a respectable university, then my question to you is this:

    Do you think that anyone should be hired as a faculty member at a physics department based on his/her blogging and polemic book publishing activity?

    If your (or anyone’s) answer is ‘yes’ then you (or anyone) think(s) that blogging, etc, is a scientific activity, otherwise you (or anyone) think(s) that it is not.


  26. Peter Woit says:


    Obviously it all depends on what is in the blog and in the book. If someone were to put up a correct proof of the Riemann hypothesis on their blog or include it as a chapter in their polemic book, obviously a respectable university should offer them a good academic job. It’s also true that someone with no blog and no book, but a lot of worthless publications in journals on, say the Landscape, should not be offered a job by a respectable university.

    One example of a blogger whose blog is devoted mostly to his ongoing research is Urs Schreiber. Respectable universities have certainly hired people based on worse scientific activity than that on his blog. My own blog entries dealing with current scientific research are often devoted to showing what is wrong with a new scientific argument. I happen to think this is scientific activity, and of non-negligible value, but also that more positve scientific activity (such as hep-th/0206135) is of much greater value. This kind of positive scientific work is on the whole likely to be too long and technical to fit comfortably as a blog posting.

    This is completely off-topic, and I’m having trouble believing it’s not personally aimed at me. Anyone who wants to discuss this further at a minimum will have to be willing to not hide their identity and credentials behind the cover of anonymity.

  27. anthropologist says:

    nc –

    “2. OK, the critics have some ideas about alternatives, but they aren’t hyped as much as string, so they must be wrong.

    3. If you made the error of not being a sycophant of the stringy mainstream from your early years, tough luck.”

    Point 2 is more valid because people still have to do something to get noticed, and have a record to apply with. If the area is only weakly promising, and not much progress is made by a job applicant to be, then that is too tiny of a program to run on, so to speak. It is better to be a mediocrity in an known field, rather than in an unknown one.

    Point 3 is valid because the present day establishement is all string theory, and rule 1 of academia that you do not go against the establishment when applying for jobs. In any field.

    So these are not just purely pro-string theory arguments, but they are more generically relevant for any dominant worldview, however dillusional it might be.

  28. Thomas Larsson says:


    So, how do you exactly see such an admission? Like the following: All talks at the string conference would go “we failed, the string theory is dead”.

    They could say something like string theory pioneer Dan Friedan did in hep-th/0204131:

    “String theory has no credibility as a candidate theory of physics. […] Complete scientific failure must be recognized eventually.”

    The only way the string theory would die out if it was displaced by something more promising (and not less!).

    As I pointed out in my 1999 manifesto, gr-qc/9909039, the multi-dimensional Virasoro algebra is the correct quantum form of the correct constraint algebra of general relativity (in covariant formulations). It is thus to GR what the ordinary Virasoro algebra is to perturbative string theory. That is why this mathematical discovery is a necessary prerequisite for quantum gravity, and that is why I decided to discover it.

  29. Stefan says:


    Great reply! 😉

    As a person not affiliated (directly, at least) with either side of this debate (or for that matter any committed research direction), I found it rather sorry-like (and even somewhat pathetic) that Ph.D. scholars [professional string theorists, albeit not all] were stooping to such un-professional levels to defend their position(s); this perhaps more than anything else suggests that inside each [defender / critic] lies a perpetual fear that his / her much-touted intellectual-academic enterprise may have lost its once-sparkling lustre, or even its stature within broader academia. The time has rightly come to conduct a *sobering* study of string ‘theory’, and (perhaps more importantly), how it has been effectively able to gobble up the lion’s share of funding for hep-research… at the cost of other well-meaning avenues (i.e. LQG, twistor theory, non-commutative geometry, Algebraic/Constructive QFT, etc.).

    P.S.: Incidentally, I am now studying Ch. 31 of Penrose’s book [The Road to Reality, UK version] – ‘Supersymmetry, supra-dimensionality, and strings’ – and I would recommend any undergrad physics major contemplating doing future studies in hep to read his views on strings and supersymmetry. (I can assure you it reads nothing like Lubos’ unintelligible and sometimes offensive/crude/impolite, (but all-in-all a great source of diversion and amusement), rants.)


  30. Steve Myers says:

    On jobs & careers: industry needs good math & physics grads. People would be surprised at the level of math & physics involved with modelling. The pay is good & often the problems are interesting. But make sure you take a good statistics course. And no one in industry would be left to work on something that was as disconnected from reality as string theory.

    But if you have a problem you must work on, one that won’t let you go, get your phD & follow Einstein’s advice and be a plumber. I haed a fellowship at NYU when I woke up in the middle of an exam and walked away froim the academic life.

  31. nc says:

    ‘If the area is only weakly promising, and not much progress is made by a job applicant to be, then that is too tiny of a program to run on, so to speak.’ – anthropologist

    The higher standards of alternatives make them more vulnerable to dismissal as ‘only weakly promising’ mainly because the people working on them don’t hype them up so much.

    Caution is wrongly taken as a sign of incompetence, or a sign that the researcher is at least not confident in the alternative idea.

    Contrast this to the mainstream, who justify their extraordinary claims using extraordinary hype.

  32. Thomas Love says:

    Peter wrote:

    “If one is interested in the mathematical end of particle theory, one is probably better off getting a Ph.D. in math than in physics these days. Mathematics is a much healthier field, both intellectually and in terms of numbers of jobs. ”

    The situation was the same when I was in graduate school. After a Bachelor’s degree in physics(1968), I did one year of grad school in physics before my education was interrupted by the Vietnam war. After serving 5 years as a pilot, I returned to grad school, switching to math because I felt that my physics education had ceased and my indoctrination begun. In my experience, the physicists want us to sit in awe of their work and not question it. There is far more academic freedom in math than in physics. In the intervening years, the fads had changed but the math requirements for the newer fields were much greater. I wrote a physics dissertation (The Geometry of Elementary Particles, UCSC, 1987) for a PhD in Math. Some members of the physics department fought against its acceptance. I arrived at some conclusions the physicists didn’t want to hear: Einstein was right about quantum mechanics;quarks are a mathematical fiction; the ultimate theory cannot be a lagrangian field theory. I’ve added more heresies since.

  33. jeremy says:


    Please have a look at what Hamilton has to say about Yau at

    Check for the UPDATE.

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