Worth Reading

The latest issue of the Cern Courier contains a wonderful article entitled From BCS to the LHC by Steven Weinberg. It is based on a talk he gave at a recent conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the BCS theory of superconductivity, and explains the relation between electroweak symmetry breaking and superconductivity, by way of telling about some of the history, in which he played a central role.

From the Mathematical Intelligencer, there’s an excellent review by Leila Schneps of a book which contains much of the correspondence over the years between two of the greatest mathematicians of the last century, Grothendieck and Serre. The review covers not just the mathematics, but also the very different personal styles that were part of what was such a fruitful interaction. She refers to the existence of “a much larger collection of existing letters” from the later period in his life when he had begun to stop regularly doing mathematics which are still unpublished, one of which answers Serre’s question about why his mathematical research program had come to a halt. She ends with the summary:

In some sense, the difference between them might be expressed by saying that Serre devoted his life to the pursuit of beauty, Grothendieck to the pursuit of truth.

Barry Mazur has a new article giving his very personal take on the philosophy of mathematics: Mathematical Platonism and its Opposites.

MSRI celebrated its 25th Anniversary last week, and Dan Freed gave a talk on Chern-Simons-Witten theory (slides here). He is careful to put a warning label in red on the standard path integral definition of the theory, writing “this path integral is only a motivating heuristic”. Together with collaborators Mike Hopkins and Constantin Teleman he has been working on coming up with a very abstract definition of the theory, far removed from the path integral, but at the end he notes that in the stationary phase approximation one can make sense of the path integral, putting up a page from one of his old papers where this was shown calculationally.

The latest Physics Today has a long article about the disastrous budget situation for HEP in FY2008. The politics of this are described as follows:

Congress and the administration took turns blaming each other for the bad news. The omnibus bill “turned its back on Congress’s concern for competitiveness,” Marburger said, by wiping out most of the increases for science and technology that had received strong bipartisan support in the America COMPETES Act, which was signed into law in August 2007.

But the White House was hardly without fault. Bush’s 11th-hour refusal to negotiate with Democrats on a spending ceiling he had imposed forced lawmakers in the dead of night to trim back spending bills that had been assembled and approved in a far more thoughtful process. In doing so, they unsurprisingly took their red pen to presidential priorities. The increases for the physical sciences were part of Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative to revitalize US technological leadership. Marburger said he had little doubt that Congress has deliberately chosen the science programs for the budget-cutting scissors.

Ironically, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) “Innovation Agenda” proposed to double nondefense R&D spending over 10 years. Admitting that funding levels this year fall short of the 7% annual increases needed to meet the goal, Pelosi assured the scientific community in a letter that her commitment to growing the physical sciences budgets “remains strong and steadfast.”

In the Chicago Tribune, Fermilab director Oddone describes what he thinks about the budget process. He now has to fire 200 people, while a huge budget increase is proposed by the administration, which the Congress probably won’t act on until deep into the next fiscal year, with no indication now of what they will do:

This is not the way a developed country manages a scientific enterprise… It’s more like a banana republic.

Update: One more. A popular talk by Richard Taylor about reciprocity laws and density theorems (such as Sato-Tate) in number theory.

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2 Responses to Worth Reading

  1. DB says:

    Chapter 21 section 6 of Weinberg’s The Quantum Theory of Fields Vol.2 (pp.332-352) contains a useful technical treatment of how symmetry breaking relates to superconductivity and the BCS theory. Although a superconductor is a material in which just the electromagnetic gauge invariance is spontaneously broken, he explains some of the interesting parallels between it and the electroweak theory, for example, the distinction between Type I and Type II superconductors which is mirrored by a corresponding distinction in the electroweak model between theories where the scalar mass is less than or greater than the W and Z masses.

  2. wb says:

    RE: “Oddone describes what he thinks about the budget process. He now has to fire 200 people, while a huge budget increase is proposed by the administration, which the Congress probably won’t act on until deep into the next fiscal year.”

    Oddone’s situation is mirrored by that at other labs. By September hundreds will be off the job. If Congress were actually pass the President’s budget or something close to it regarding science, the national labs (FNAL and SLAC in particular) would see enormous increases (well over the President’s FY2008 levels) that they would be greatly understaffed to spend wisely. One might have wished that DOE had been wise enough identify this year of disaster opening as a golden opportunity to rebuild the university science infrastructure while still bringing the Labs to a state of health. Alas the top management of America’s great universities have not yet been wise enough to communicate this to the Administration. But it is Congress that writes the checks, so let them begin.

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