Peter Goddard on the Birth of String Theory

Last spring there was a conference held in Florence which brought together many of those who worked on dual models and string theory during the late sixties and early seventies. Slides from the talks are here, and many of the speakers have written up contributions that have been posted on the arXiv. The latest of these is From Dual Models to String Theory, by Peter Goddard, who now is the director of the IAS in Princeton. It contains a detailed description of what he remembers of those early days when people were trying to sort out the significance of the Veneziano amplitudes and how to consistently quantize the string. Goddard also has some interesting remarks on the rapid changes in fashion during those years, and some excerpts follow.

On his student days at Cambridge working under Polkinghorne during the late sixties:

I, and nearly all my fellow research students, worked on strong interaction physics. (One of us was trying to work out the correct Feynman rules for gauge field theories, but this tended to be regarded as a rather recondite or eccentric enterprise.)

At a summer conference in 1971:

For me, it was a memorable meeting and one particular vignette has stuck in my mind as an illustration of the prevailing attitude towards the use of modern mathematics in theoretical high energy physics. A senior and warmly admired physicist gave some lectures on the Regge theory of high energy processes. With great technical mastery, he was covering the board with special functions, doing manipulations that I knew from my studies with Alan White (who was also at the School) could be handled efficiently and elegantly using harmonic analysis on noncompact groups. Just as I was wondering whether it might be too impertinent to make a remark to this effect, the lecturer turned to the audience and said, “They tell me that you can do this all more easily if you use group theory, but I tell you that, if you are strong, you do not need group theory.”

About his years (1970-72) at CERN:

The two years I had spent in CERN had built up to an crescendo of intellectual excitement and, though I have found much of my subsequent research work gripping and often extremely satisfying (when teaching duties and the largely self-inflicted wounds of administration have permitted), nothing has quite matched this period. In particular, I had the privilege of working closely for seven or eight months with Charles Thorn, whose combination of deep perception and formidable calculational power had provided the basis of what we managed to do. And, the exhilarating combination of the open and cooperative atmosphere that prevailed amongst (almost all) those working on dual models in CERN, the relative youth of most of those involved, the sense of elucidating a theory that was radically different, even the frisson of excitement that came from doing something that was regarded by some of those in power as wicked, because it might have nothing directly to do with the real world – this cocktail would never be offered to me again.

About the situation in 1973-4 , after the discovery of asymptotic freedom:

By the end of 1973, as the fascination of dual models or string theory remained undimmed, though with ever increasing technical demands, the interest of many was shifting elsewhere. On 21 December, David Olive wrote to me, “Very few people are now interested in dual theories here in CERN. Amati and Fubini independently made statements to the effect that dual theory is now the most exciting theory that they have seen but that it is too difficult for them to work with. The main excitement [is] the renormalization group and asymptotic freedom, which are indeed interesting.”

In Berkeley [summer 1974], I wrote a largely cathartic paper [76] on supersymmetry, which probably helped no one’s understanding, except marginally my own. It had one memorable effect: namely, that when I reached Princeton I was invited to give a general seminar on supersymmetry, which most people did not know much about then. When I said I would rather talk about string theory, my offer was politely declined on the grounds that no one in Princeton was
interested, a situation that has changed in the intervening years. Somewhat put out by this response, I did not give a seminar at all.

About his decision in 1975-6 to work on gauge theory rather than strings:

I started to realize that following my interests in strings or dual models might be a fine indulgence for me, but it was not going to help my students get jobs. (One of the great attractions of Cambridge at the time was that chances for promotion were so slim – Jeffrey Goldstone was still a Lecturer – that one did not need to be distracted by the prospects for advancement: they seemed negligible.)

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13 Responses to Peter Goddard on the Birth of String Theory

  1. Chris Oakley says:

    Peter Goddard – I remember him from Cambridge, c. 1981. He taught us “Advanced Quantum Field Theory” for the Part 3 Mathematics course which, at the time, mostly meant gauge theories and the Higgs mechanism. Mild-mannered, with the obligatory shabby donnish jacket, and hair that looked like it had been cut by his wife or daughter. Great lecture notes, though – legible handwriting and a half-decent job done of explaining things (not that I accepted the Higgs mechanism – even then – of course, but …)

  2. S-P Chan says:

    -similar story-as an undergrad at St John’s College Cambridge early 80’s I was supervised by Peter Goddard in Quantum Mechanics and other sundry applied math courses.

    He was the archetypal professor-type, very gentle (re my crappy undergrad tutorial work) and helpful.

  3. csrster says:

    Yes, I remember him lecturing me on something-way-over-my-head during a brief foray into mathematical physics in 1986. I may not have learned much in Part III Maths but at least I got to add some A-list names to my “tried to teach me to think” list – Gary Gibbons, Martin Rees, George Efstathiou, Don Lynden-Bell …

  4. Sandro says:

    “I started to realize that following my interests in strings or dual models might be a fine indulgence for me, but it was not going to help my students get jobs”
    I find this utterly remarkable: the number of Ph.D. supervisors willing to do this nowadays is really close to, if not, 0. Seriously.

  5. Peter Woit says:


    There’s a big difference: in the mid-seventies, strings were out of fashion, now they are in fashion.

    Goddard is right when he points out that one consequence of working on something unfashionable is that it is hard for one’s students to get jobs. But of course there are others. He notes that one won’t get promoted to higher positions, and that’s why he explains that promotion at Cambridge was so unlikely that this wasn’t much of a concern. Other serious consequences are that one is likely to essentially become a nobody in one’s community, not invited to conferences, etc., etc. See his story about how people at Princeton wouldn’t let him talk about what he was working on, but did want him to talk about the trendy idea (34 years ago and counting…) of supersymmetry even though he didn’t know much about it and wasn’t very interested.

    Back in 1973-75, gauge theories were fashionable, but for extremely good reasons. The Standard model had just been born and revolutionized physics, and gauge theories were not well-understood at all. The revolution had opened a whole new area of theoretical physics, full of new things to do, and deeply grounded in and vindicated by experiment. To ignore this and continue to work on string theory, which was going nowhere and had failed in what it was supposed to do (explain the strong interactions) was to make a decision that most of one’s colleagues would see as perverse, motivated purely by an unwillingness to learn anything new, and insistence on sticking to doing the same thing one had been doing since graduate school.

    For nearly a quarter-century now, the shoe has been on the other foot, with string theory the fashion, and work on gauge theories unfashionable (acceptable only if it at least involves supersymmetry…). The common opinion has been that those who don’t work on string theory just can’t cut it as serious theorists. The sociology may be similar to the reverse situation of the 1970s, but scientifically there is a huge difference: gauge theories worked and were a huge success, string theories have been a huge failure. Despite this the political situation remains the same. Any theorist who decides to work on something unfashionable is going to have trouble getting jobs for his or her students, and get told by people at Princeton that they don’t want to hear about it….

  6. Sandro says:


    you are right, but I think I had something different in mind.
    I was referring to the attitude towards students as to “people that have got to get a job in the next future”, and not as to “people which are carrying on curiosities that I’d personally like to solve but I’ve got no time to”.(At least that’s how I read it.)
    This is something I think few supervisors do, whatever their discipline is, and yes, they are not obliged to, but..

  7. csrster says:

    I wonder if there’s just something different in the air in Cambridge – or perhaps everywhere in Europe – that makes it easier for individuals to work on their own “interesting” ideas away from the dominant paradigm? I can’t imagine an external speaker being turned away by Cambridge just because they’re working a little outside the box. (I _can_ imagine them being given a very rough ride if they haven’t thought through what they’re talking about.)

  8. censored out says:

    csrster, it’s just money. Cambridge is the richest university. You used to be able to walk from Cambridge to Oxford without stepping off land owned by Cambridge University. It can still afford to find highly speculative research, e.g. Josephson’s ‘Mind-Matter Unification Project’,

  9. csrster says:

    Isn’t that Oxford-Cambridge thing just one of those urban legends? And are you saying that Princeton is poor 🙂 ?

    As for Josephson, I suspect that the reason behind that is the Nobel Effect – ie once you’ve got a Nobel Prize you can get away with anything (with the possible exception of outright racism).

  10. MathPhys says:

    Peter Goddard is a very good lecturer and an excellent supervisor. Back in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, his students learnt a lot, graduated and many of them got academic jobs. I know. I’m not so sure if he still teaches and supervises students at IAS.

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  12. Professor R says:

    hi Peter,
    I thought you might be interested to know that one of the excerpts above from Peter Goddard’s excellent talk pretty much mirror my Dad’s experience. In the period 1974-75, Lochlainn was invited to tour several US universities in the US, in order to give talks on the emerging theory known as super gauge symmetry (a much better name in my opinion!).

    As a result, Dad had to furiously brush up on the work of Wess, Zumino et al (although he had worked quite closely with Wess before). Just like Goddard, Dad then felt the need to formally put down what he had learnt on his return, resulting in Lecture Notes on Supersymmetry (published by the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies in 1975). I’ve been wondering if this is the world’s first formal series of lecture notes on the topic..

    Before and after, I think Lochlainn’s interest remained in the general area of gauge theory (or the application of group theory to gauge theories)….not in the specific area of string theory. He would not have been pleased with a dominance of string theorists over others in hiring practice – however, it seems this is much more of an issue in the US and the UK, than in continental Europe or Japan.

  13. Ben says:

    There are no students to be taught or advised at IAS. I’m 26, and suspect I’m the youngest person here. You can, in theory, adopt students from Princeton, but this is relatively rare, and I doubt Goddard has time for it, being director and all.

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