A Lost Generation?

I’m in Northern California, on a vacation originally intended to be short, but started early due to the storm in New York. I wanted though to recommend reading something that a commenter here pointed to. It’s an article by Mikhail Shifman (author by the way, of an excellent recent textbook I somehow haven’t found time to discuss here) about the current state of particle theory that he has just posted on the arXiv, with the title Reflections and Impressionistic Portrait at the Conference “Frontiers Beyond the Standard Model,” FTPI, Oct. 2012. The reference is to this recent conference, held at his institution.

Shifman surveys the current state of particle theory, with a range of interesting comments about the paradigms of grand unification, extra dimensions, supersymmetry and string theory that have dominated the subject for nearly 30 years. The negative LHC results provide a serious challenge to these paradigms, although I’d argue that they have been in trouble for a very long time, with the LHC just the final nail in the coffin. Much of the activity among theorists reported at the conference referred to by Shifman revolves around attempts to prop up some of these ideas. This is going to be increasingly unsustainable as stronger and stronger LHC bounds emerge. Where will this leave the field? Shifman argues that this is a time of opportunity, with the death of old paradigms opening the way for new ideas. I hope he’s right. Here are his final comments, of a sociological nature:

It is easy to estimate the total number of active high-energy theorists. Every day hep-th and hep-ph bring us about thirty new papers. Assuming that on average an active theorist publishes 3-4 papers per year, we get 2500 to 3000 theorists. The majority of them are young theorists in their thirties or early forties. During their careers many of them never worked on any issues beyond supersymmetry-based phenomenology or string theory. Given the crises (or, at least, huge question marks) in these two areas we currently face, there seems to be a serious problem in the community. Usually such times of uncertainty as to the direction of future research offer wide opportunities to young people, in the prime of their careers. To grab these opportunities a certain reorientation and reeducation are apparently needed. Will this happen?

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