Assorted News

  • This past weekend I was up in Boston and attended quite a few talks at the Gelfand Centennial conference at MIT, in honor of the 100th anniversary of I. M. Gelfand’s birth. Abstracts of the talks are available, but most of them were blackboard talks, not being recorded as far as I could tell. I’ve been starting again on my project to learn more number theory, so found Matt Emerton’s and Akshay Venkatesh’s survey talks especially helpful.
    There was one long afternoon program of recollections of Gelfand and his seminar from a long list of speakers, which went on into the evening banquet. This was being recorded, so video will perhaps appear some day (Gindikin’s contribution was on video, available here). Another long afternoon session dealt with Gelfand’s mathematical legacy, again perhaps at some point there will be video available of this.
  • In mathematical news, speakers at next year’s ICM have now been announced, for both the plenary and the various sections. Those interested in tea-leaf reading can consider for themselves what this new information says about who will get a Fields Medal next year. They might also appreciate this.
  • A Fields Medal is worth just 15,000 Canadian dollars. If you can claim some relation to physics, much better to have your friends get to work nominating you for a $3 million fundamental physics prize. Online nominations for 2014 are here, and the news is that the three finalists for the $3 million will be announced this November. The Selection committee will be the 11 previous theorist winners of the $3 million prize plus three LHC physicists from the experimental side. The FPP also has some news here about what some of the LHC experimentalist prize winners have done with the money.
  • Historically unparalleled payments to the stars of the field seem to be part of a larger societal pattern, as well as a much grimmer picture for young non-stars. The situation on the theorist side is not news, but Adrian Cho at Science magazine has a story about the extremely ugly job prospects facing young LHC experimentalists, with the title After the LHC, the Deluge.
  • In case you weren’t aware of this, see here for an explanation of why The STEM Crisis is a Myth. One thing in that article I’d never seen before is Alan Greenspan’s explanation of why we need more H1B visas: the inequality problem in the US is due to overpaid computer programmers, and these plutocrats can be dealt with by importing low-wage labor to take their jobs.
  • Finally, for the latest in multiverse mania, New Scientist has Death by Higgs rids cosmos of space brain threat (and an editorial about how this shows the Higgs is not “boring”). I knew there was no way they could resist Sean Carroll’s new paper dealing with the question: Can the Higgs Boson Save Us From the Menace of the Boltzmann Brains?. Sean has more about this here, and Jacques Distler has a discussion here which I think accurately reflects the views of physicists outside certain West Coast enclaves:

    Normally, I wouldn’t touch a paper, with the phrase “Boltzmann brains” in the title, with a 10-foot pole. And anyone accosting me, intent on discussing the subject, would normally be treated as one of the walking undead…

    This is plainly nuts.

    I confess that this kind of thing completely mystifies me. Carroll is an intelligent, well-informed, and almost always reliably sensible sort, with a keen devotion to the battle for scientific rationality against the forces of religion and obscurantism. But he likes to pair this with an enthusiasm for pseudo-scientific multiverse wackiness that Distler’s “nuts” describes pretty well. Very weird, and if you want to know why I keep referring to “mania” in this context, this is a good example.

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42 Responses to Assorted News

  1. Bernhard says:

    “… what some of the LHC experimentalist prize winners have done with the money.”

    Bravo for Incandela and Virdee. We are still waiting to know about the rest though.

  2. CU Phil says:

    It looks like Sean Carroll will be giving a physics colloquium at NYU in October, so maybe you’ll get a chance to hear about this straight from the horse’s mouth.

  3. Alex says:

    You say there’s no STEM crisis, but in August of 2008 somebody from my university’s office of instructional technology told me to my face that the economy will collapse if we don’t get every available warm body into STEM. A few weeks later the banking system melted down. I wish I had taken his pious sermon more seriously.

    Next you’ll try to tell me that there’s no experimental evidence for string theory!

  4. Peter Shor says:

    Unless it’s changed, the plenary speakers and the Fields Medals are chosen by two different committees who don’t talk to each other, so information theoretically, the list of plenary speakers doesn’t give any information about the Fields Medalists that isn’t already public knowledge.

  5. X says:

    I’m a bit surprised by this reaction to the Boltzmann brains paper. One way to resolve the BB paradox is to put a finite lifetime on the universe. A metastable Higgs phase does that. These two statements seem unremarkably standard physics, so what’s the big problem? My reaction to the paper was more “Duh, isn’t this obvious? Who’s trying to get a publication out of this?”

  6. El-Coco says:

    Gelfand wrote some amazing introductory primers to elementary topics in mathematics. I wish other top talents would do the same. Perhaps they believe it a waste of their time, but Gelfand’s little books changed a lot of lives (mine included).

  7. Peter Woit says:

    At the conference I think Gelfand’s widow Tatiana mentioned that she was working on getting out an elementary geometry textbook written with him.

    A couple links I should have included in the posting:

    and Tanya Khovanova’s toast at the banquet

  8. Peter Peterson says:

    Peter, you already had a pretty prolonged discussion about STEM, and I commented there also. I hold you in high respect in anything related to physics and mathematics. However on this topic both you and the author of an article are very wrong. I am sure there are more than these two articles, but there are many more on the opposite side of the issue. The crux of the matter here is as always not quantity but quality of STEM workers. Or, in other words, a need to find a few diamonds in a pile of rubble.

  9. tt says:

    we need more skilled economists, not STEM workers

  10. z says:

    In terms of STEM research jobs, there will always be a job shortage since most science is done via a finite number of federal grants that eventually produce PhDs with a multiplicity factor greater than unity. Even if you increase the amount of money for grants, this model is still has no equilibrium solution. H1Bs however are not usually PhDs, but programmers and thus mostly only drive down wages for BA/BS-level jobs. Computer programmers _are_ overpaid compared to other high skill work, like say, science teachers or community college professors — and it is dictated by supply and demand.

    There is also another STEM crisis, but it’s not about degrees or credentialism, but that the general public is highly deficient understanding quantitatively and logically how the natural world works.

    What needs to happen is that every college student, regardless of major, needs to know how to program, know calculus-based physics that includes thermodynamics and E&M, and take a biology course that teaches evolution. I find it unbelievable that people can graduate college without this basic knowledge, when I had it taught to me in a public high school. I am aware some undergraduate programs do this, but it needs to be more widespread as I think it’s the 21st century equivalent of a 19th century classical/liberal arts education.

  11. T.G. says:

    According to the results of these two polls, the Fields medalists will be Bhargava, Avila, Lurie and one more not from the list in the first poll.

  12. Alex says:

    Peter Peterson-

    In regard to quality of STEM grads, there are at least three distinct things going on:
    1) Are the graduates smart (whatever that means) and rigorously trained to think through hard problems? I would argue that laments about “new grads these days” are probably timeless, but if there is any truth to them then efforts to increase quantity might actually be hurting quality.

    2) Is their training relevant to the needs of industry? This is more of a problem of the disconnect between academia and industry than a problem of quantity. There is indeed “not enough”, but it’s a lack of grads with the right training, and increasing the raw number of grads without changing their training would not help.

    The second problem requires faculty to take a hard look at curricula, projects, internships, etc. Adopting the latest edu-fad buzzwords is not what’s really important here. What’s important is us making a connection with industry and understanding what they need.

    3) Industry seems less interested in investing in training, so the days of “Hire a smart grad and then train them to do what our company does” is gone. They want us to produce people specific to their needs. Depending on how broadly they define those needs that might be fine, but we can’t design one degree program per job opening. We need to construct degree programs a bit more broadly than that.

    I don’t see any problems here that require greater quantity. What they require is a refocusing of educational efforts, and some effort by academia and industry to meet each other half-way.

  13. Wyman says:

    Were there a real shortage of qualified workers in STEM disciplines then employers would be forced to raise wages and actually provide training. Giving that the trend is broadly in the opposite direction on both counts, I’m not sure how anyone could conclude that there’s a shortage outside of some specific positions. Really, a labor shortage of any sort without growing wages is just nonsense.

  14. davetweed says:

    Alex: there’s an even deeper issue with your point 3. If you take the (reasonable view) that the best people to teach area X are those with some degree of experience in X (which isn’t to deny that sometimes the best practitioners are hopeless teachers, but that teaching something one only knows about through being taught to teach it doesn’t work that well), then universities can’t be a good way to produce people trained for jobs in company Z because most of what university people do when not teaching (research) is very different from what employees in company Z do. (The few exceptions — eg, law schools where the professors are also practicing lawyers/judges — tend also to produce the graduate populations that companies complain least about.)

    If companies want people who are tailored to their environment then they have no alternatives to doing training, whether it’s “on-the-job training” or getting substantially more involved in degree level teaching. (To be fair, quite a few companies do actually do good on-the-job training, sometimes taking people without university degrees if they feel the training of a degree doesn’t help them.) Unfortunately the prevailing atitude of many companies/business organsiations seems to be that they want a certain output from degrees without contributing significant input.

  15. Yatima says:

    > I’m a bit surprised by this reaction to the Boltzmann brains paper. One way to resolve the BB paradox is to put a finite lifetime on the universe. A metastable Higgs phase does that.

    As you no knowledge about how “the universe” looks after “the metastable Higgs phase” has done its job, this doesn’t resolve anything at all.

  16. Art says:

    Keep in mind that the STEM article you quoted appeared in the IEEE Spectrum mag. IEEE is a professional organization and has long desired to be the electrical engineering equivalent of the American Medical Association, controlling the supply of its members to keep their wages high. Nothing wrong with that; the point is that they have a big dog in this fight, so caveat emptor .

  17. Tom says:

    @Art said:
    ” … IEEE is a professional organization and has long desired to be the electrical engineering equivalent of the American Medical Association, controlling the supply of its members to keep their wages high. … ”
    I’ve been an IEEE member for some 30 yrs. I’ve not encountered or observed any such systematic policies from IEEE. If anything, it’s tended toward the opposite.

    OTOH, my main interest in IEEE is their technical publications, conferences, and opportunities for professional networking. The “leadership” of the various IEEE divisions seem to be academic or research-oriented engineers with too much time on their hands. I admit — I tend to tune them out.

  18. Visitor says:

    “Carroll is an intelligent, well-informed, and almost always reliably sensible sort, with a keen devotion to the battle for scientific rationality against the forces of religion and obscurantism.”

    Carrol also seems to be engaged in an attempt to advance himself as Michio Kaku’s successor in the trash media. Hence such puerile foolishness as equating cooking eggs with doing cosmology. I’m not sure if he will ever be “The Fried-Egg Cosmologist” in the same way that Stanton Friedman is “The Flying-Saucer Physicist” but, as the lottery slogan has it, hey, you never know.

  19. srp says:

    Another (though least important) reason for trying to invest in advanced accelerator concepts: Some of the proposed AAC technologies have complementarities with more-applied areas (e.g. possibly building tabletop soft X-ray lasers). Anything that reduces the gap between the working technology used in particle physics and the problems of other fields can only improve the employment situation.

  20. CIP says:

    In the future, physicists will be expected to wear the livery of their patrons.

  21. Alex says:

    I don’t know about IEEE specifically, but my experience has been that most professional societies in STEM whole-heartedly endorse “We need more students in STEM! We need more students in STEM!” Some of it might be the self-interest of their academic members, but I think most of it is the psychology of regarding one’s profession as Important. Electrical engineers love electrical engineering, they think it’s important, anybody who cares enough about it to get involved in IEEE probably loves to share their enthusiasm for engineering, so their psychological leaning will probably be to encourage interest among the young.

  22. Peter Woit says:

    Actually, while I’m sure he’d love to take over Kaku’s role in the media (and maybe already has), Carroll is generally much more sensible in his public discussion of physics. He mainly seems to go over the top on multiverse-related issues, sometimes going beyond what Kaku ever tried (e.g. writing wacky scientific papers).

  23. Mike says:

    The subject of STEM workers and H1B visas is always frustrating – reports from everywhere seem to come out that we have a shortage of technical people and there are jobs for the taking out there – we just need more grads in the science and engineering field. In the meantime, we should just increase H1B visas. Most of these reports can be traced back to lobbying groups that support the clamoring of corporations that will play any game to get those high-paying jobs down into the “acceptable range” as seen by economists and accountants who immediately see a better balance sheet for the companies they work for when any labor cost drops. It seems like our economy has suffered enough at the hands of people who’s idea of math is add, subract, multiply and divide (and maybe some watered-down calculus they had to suffer through in business school)!

  24. Mark says:

    “Peter, you already had a pretty prolonged discussion about STEM, and I commented there also. I hold you in high respect in anything related to physics and mathematics. However on this topic both you and the author of an article are very wrong. I am sure there are more than these two articles, but there are many more on the opposite side of the issue. The crux of the matter here is as always not quantity but quality of STEM workers. Or, in other words, a need to find a few diamonds in a pile of rubble.”

    But when many industry jobs requiring STEM people pay peanuts why would they attract the best and brightest? In the uk science jobs in industry are very badly paid from what I can see (similar salaries to relatively unskilled jobs – when I see how much money other highly skilled professionals are paid its quite a gulf….) – thats probably why a lot of physicists go and work in banks, or move to other countries offering higher salaries relative to the cost of living.

    In fact I would have to take a significant pay cut to take a science job in industry in the UK, so if I ever leave my university research group it won’t be for a STEM job in the UK.

    As far as I can see we have two problems:

    (1) We produce far too many STEM people compared to jobs
    (2) STEM jobs can’t get the good STEM people, because the best are attracted to other careers or countries with much better pay and conditions, and so perhaps are left with the dross from (1)

  25. John Urbanik says:

    As one of those so called over paid programmers I’ve been around long enough to see that H1B’s (and L1’s) are nothing more then attempts to lower the standard of living here in the US to other coutnries. At first companies tried to off-shore work. Then came on-shore/off-shore teams. These attempts all failed for verious reasons.

    Companies soon realized that they only alternative is to say there is a shortage of skilled workers here in the US. What they really mean is there is a shortage of skilled workers in the US willing to work for $20K per year. BTW over paid to these ‘economists’ is anything above $50K per year.

  26. srp says:

    @Mark: Low wages only keep the more talented out of a field if the more talented are unable to demonstrate their superiority in some observable way. Marginal chefs and novelists are quite ill-paid, but there is no shortage of talent in those fields making good incomes. Neither field has strong entry restrictions. (On the other hand, neither field has the inherent oversupply of new workers by grant requirement that STEM has.)

    In some fields, supply creates its own demand, e.g. lawyers suing, doctors referring, possibly active money managers trying to outperform the market. In some technological areas “arms race” dynamics have the same effect–radar and electronic countermeasure experts making work for each other, semiconductor manufacturing technologists at rival firms pushing each other to speed up miniaturization, biomedical engineers struggling to come up with better medical devices than their rivals, etc.. Nothing like that kind of dynamic operates in particle physics, which implies the field has to generate demand by 1) popularization and 2) doing “physics appreciation” classes at the high school and undergraduate levels.

  27. tt says:

    ” Low wages only keep the more talented out of a field if the more talented are unable to demonstrate their superiority in some observable way.” or if they can make more money doing something else.

  28. Mark Decker says:

    Speaking of Kaku’s role in the media: Charlie Rose had him on this morning and played back an interview segment from a few months ago showing his (now erroneous) prediction for the 2013 hurricaine season. I guess that’s the risk you run when switching from discussing extra dimensions to meteorological predictions since meteorological predictions can be tested.

  29. T.G. says:


    Check out this economics paper, especially, the summary on page 33, and figures and tables on pages 33-35. They show that the rate of output of the Fields medalists declines noticeably in the post-medal period, and medalists are pursuing topics that are far less likely to be related to their pre-medal work. One cool statistic stands out:

    Average age at death of Fields medalists: 74
    Average age at death of “contenders”: 60.5

    “Contenders” are mathematicians who were awarded at least one of six other mathematics prizes (the Abel, Wolf, Cole Algebra, Bôcher, Veblen, and Salem Prizes) but were not awarded the Fields Medal, and who had above-median per-year citations during the eligibility period for the Fields Medal.

  30. T.G. says:

    Here is an article about that paper.

  31. Peter Shor says:

    Something that bothers me a lot about that study is that to decide who were the contenders for the Fields Medal, they look at the Abel and Wolf prizes, which are typically awarded much later in the medalist’s career. I think this post-selection biases the entire study. Suppose contenders for the Abel prize are (a) people who had a great early career and won the Fields medal and (b) people who weren’t quite good enough for a Fields medal at 40, but who had a great late career. Including category (b) in the study biases it towards people whose output doesn’t decline after 40.

    The study should be redone just looking at people who won the Cole, Bôcher, Veblen, and Salem prizes at the age of 40 or younger.

  32. AndreasK says:

    ” A question immediately arises: what exactly are the
    medalists doing with their time in the post medal period?”

    well the answer immediately arises that they were at least not writing questionable, obviously flawed economics papers on cultural subjects they have little or no understanding of. Possibly Mr. Borjas should spend instead more time on writing further papers on the necessity of reducing immigration rates to the US, or does he try to manifest ‘intellectual mobility’?

    “The harmful effects of immigration will not go away simply because some people do not wish to see them.”

  33. Peter Shor says:

    My thoughts: the authors of that paper have PhDs in Economics from Columbia and Princeton, and are employed at two reasonably–well-respected institutions of higher learning.

    The word “statistics” is derived from the word “state”, because the science of dealing with data is fundamental for running a government and an economy.

    And the paper contains what looks to me like an absolutely elementary fundamental in statistics.
    This is very scary.

  34. Peter Shor says:

    Oops … I meant to write absolutely elementary fundamental error.

  35. Bill says:

    Peter Shor,

    I agree, they probably thought that all these awards are equivalent. They could have asked mathematicians at Harvard (where the paper was written) to tell them more about these awards. Or, perhaps, they did ask, but nobody knows anything about statistics at Harvard math?

  36. Peter Shor says:

    The “age at death” statistic is also suspect. The first Fields Medal was awarded in 1936, the first Bôcher prize in 1923, first Cole prize was given in 1928, the first Veblen Prize in 1964, and the first Salem Prize in 1968, the first Wolf prize in 1978 and the first Abel prize in 2003.

    Many of the Veblen and Salem prize winners haven’t yet had enough time to die of old age.

    This could, of course, be compensated for by using the proper statistics. The authors didn’t.

  37. Bill says:

    I thought that only mathematicians who already died were counted to compute the “age at death”? The increase of lifespan over the last half a century, probably, can not explain such a big gap by itself.

  38. Peter Shor says:

    Hi Bill: Suppose I compare the age at death of a bunch of mathematicians born in 1920, and a bunch of mathematicians born in 1950. I guarantee you that the average age of death of those born in 1950 is less than 63.

    Assuming the Veblen and Salem prizes are given to mathematicians at the age of 40, then the average year of birth of a Vablen or Salem prize-winner is around 1950.

    I have no idea whether the Veblen and Salem prize-winners being born later on average will skew the average age of death of contenders 14 years younger, but the authors clearly should have take these correlations into account.

  39. AndreasK says:

    whilte there seem to be other ‘oddities’ in the study (Wolf- and Abel-prize/non-Fields winners seem to be considered irrespective of age restrictions while non-Fields-winners of Cole-, Veblen-, Bocher- and Salem prize seem to be considered as ‘contestors’ only if winning one of the prizes before the age of 40, the Salem prize is referred to on one and the same page as a determinant for being ‘contestor’ and as non-determinant because ‘less prestigous’ [footnote]), the main problem for me seems to be the questionable use of ‘productivity measures’ in cultural affairs like mathematics in general. The very first sentence in the abstract of the study already symbolizes the direction of the ideology: mathematics as a means to increase ‘economic growth’, the use of technoid terms like ‘knowledge generation’, the always re-occuring term ‘productivity’.

    Having said this I do indeed believe that the mathematical community, by being oblivious to the widespread introduction of ‘industrial measures’ into mathematical culture, paved the way for western representants of ‘state institutions’ to come up with articles like the above which, under the disguise of criticising ‘wealth effects on labour productivity’ actually aim to put a dubious light on mathematics in general, since depicting the most prestigous members of its community as ‘lazy and/or experimenting and/or ‘striking out” post-Fields-medaillists means more or less depicting the whole culture as in tendency prestige-governed, narcissistic and irresponsible.

    I wonder if anyone ever wrote such papers on prize winners in the field of art or literature, but clearly a public or state institution being seriously interested in ‘production rates’ of Nobel laureates in literature before or after receiving the prize is quite hard to imagine, quite in contrary to mathematics obviously. So what went wrong?

  40. Bill says:

    Peter Shor, you are smarter than I am. But we already knew that.

  41. Shantanu says:

    OT: Peter and other interested folks.
    Videos of conference of 50th anniversary of discovery Kerr metric
    This includes a talk by Roy Kerr on how he came up with Kerr metric
    Note that until

  42. Peter Shor says:

    Bill … this is getting off-topic, but I think more undergrads should take a course in statistics like the one I took from Gary Lorden at Caltech, where he illustrates with examples many of the mistakes you can make by blindly applying statistical tests. If I’m smarter than you in this respect, it’s largely due to him.

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