Back when I was a student I remember learning that there were two possible sign conventions to use for the Minkowski space metric: the “East coast” one, mostly + signs, favored by relativists and Steven Weinberg, and the “West coast” one, mostly – signs, which was the one in Bjorken and Drell. Then, as now, the big centers of influence in US particle theory were on the coasts: Princeton and Harvard on the East coast, Berkeley, Stanford and Caltech on the West (these days one might want to add the KITP at Santa Barbara). I was educated by the Eastern establishment (who sometimes used the “West coast” sign convention), where gauge theory and the new standard model were the order of the day. The West coast, with its remaining pockets of S-matrix theorists and authors of popular books like “The Tao of Physics” and “The Dancing Wu Li Masters”, was considered to be rather behind the times and a bit soft in the head, perhaps attributable to too much time spent in hot tubs at Esalen and too much use of the agricultural products of Mendocino and Humboldt county.
Remarkably, these days the two coasts remain dominant, with US Fundamental Physics Prizes going only to theorists living within a relatively short drive to an ocean beach. An East coast – West coast disjunction in interests remains, one that it remains tempting to speculate may have something to do with California’s main cash crop. For quite a few years the West coast has been the center of multiverse-mania, and I’ve often wondered what the theorists there would turn to when that lost its “new cutting-edge theory” shine.
It remains unclear what will happen in the long-term, but there’s now a new hot topic in California these past few months. It was the subject a few weeks ago of a workshop (AKA “brain-storming session”) with 50 or so in attendance at Stanford, and is being described by Raphael Bousso (across the Bay at Berkeley) as “this is probably the most exciting thing that’s happened to me since I entered physics.” A full-blown conference is rumoured for April.
LA-based science writer Jennifer Ouellette does a characteristically excellent job of covering the story, starting here by explaining the appeal of the subject (as well as the problem with explaining it):
To include every last detail, the piece would have had to be a good 6000 words long, and frankly, very few general readers would care to slog through all the gory details. So why even bother to try, if one can’t be comprehensive? Because FIREWALLS! That’s why! Seriously, how cool is this concept? There’s nothing more crowd-pleasing than death by black hole (just ask Neil de Grasse Tyson) and now there could be more than one way to die. Spaghetiffication, or incineration? Take your pick.
All of this started with “AMPS” a July paper by four Santa Barbara physicists that already has 25 citations and counting (although of the three papers on the topic by Susskind, one is already “Withdrawn because the author no longer thinks it is correct”). For more on the topic, you can try Bousso’s Strings 2012 talk, blog entries by Polchinski at Cosmic Variance, Caltech’s John Preskill at Quantum Frontiers, Santa Barbara’s Aron Wall at his Physics and Theology blog, or Robert Helling here. I haven’t myself tried reading these papers, partly because I strongly suspect that I’d end up with the same reaction as Robert:
Now, of course I had to read (some of) the papers and I have to say that I am confused. I admit, I did not get the point. Even more, I cannot understand a large part of the discussion. There is a lot of prose and very little formulas and I have failed to translate the prose to formulas or hard facts for myself. Many of the statements taken at face value do not make sense to me but on the other hand, I know the authors to be extremely clever people and thus the problem is most likely on my end.
The problem may be that Robert isn’t in California, but, like me, is too far East. Someone else brought up in the East coast tradition (and now so far East he has kind of fallen off the edge…) is Lubos Motl, whose reaction to this topic is that the whole thing is Peter Woit’s fault:
AMPS isn’t as bad or as obviously wrong as “gravity as an entropic force” but it’s still wrong and what’s worse about it is that it is pushed by some of the names that are more famous than Erik Verlinde’s name. None of those bad apples would really destroy an otherwise healthy research community but the main problem I see is that the bad apples can no longer be efficiently wrestled with. Or it’s not happening. It doesn’t look like anyone cares at all. Instead, it seems to me that people are defending their subjective and increasingly non-quantitative (and often downright wrong) ideas and these people’s connectedness to the journalists and other folks outside the research community itself and the related populism – instead of the scientific evaluation by those who actually understand the things as experts – have become the key determinants of success.
Will firewall-fever spread from the West coast, or is it just a flash in the pan? Time will tell…
On a personal note, blogging may be lighter than usual for the next couple weeks or so, as I travel further East for a vacation in Spain, Portugal and Paris.
Update: Bee’s comment reminds me that I had planned to include a link to George Musser’s SciAm piece about this.
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