My Summer Vacation

When I was young, I recall that a standard assignment when restarting school was an essay on “what I did on my summer vacation”. Now that I’m back in the office after a vacation, here’s a version of that, covering the physics/math aspects:

  • In Paris I visited the Palais de la Découverte, the science museum in the heart of the city. This was the site of some of my earliest memories of getting interested in science, back in the late 1960s. I started out by visiting the physics section, some of which looked like it hadn’t changed much since those days. One addition was a video screen with some seating nearby. It was running Particle Fever, and surely someone trying to annoy me had timed things so that I got there just as the part promoting SUSY finished, and the part featuring Nima Arkani-Hamed promoting the multiverse got underway.

    Besides revisiting my youth, this made me wonder what the effect of trying to impress the young with glitzy pseudo-science will turn out to be. Will it turn off youngsters looking for something intellectually serious? What would my 12 year old self have made of this?

    I soon made my way though to a big LHC exhibit, which cheered me up immediately. This was quite well-done, giving a good idea of what a machine like the LHC really is and what the scientists working there are doing. I quite enjoyed the last part of the exhibit, a recreation of typical grimy offices at CERN that people work in. I’d like to think that I’d have appreciated that, with its unspoken message that these are people who care not about appearances but just about the fascinating work they are doing.

  • Now that scientific bookstores are gone in New York, checking out the ones in Paris is a high-priority when visiting there. This time I bought a few books in French, one of which was a new biography of Grothendieck, by Georges Bringuier. I’ve read widely among the many sources emphasizing Grothendieck’s mathematics, this is one that instead focuses on his life, including quite a bit about the years after he left the IHES in 1969. This is an amazing story, and there’s much in the book that I didn’t know, especially about Grothendieck’s mystical views.

    The last years of his life he was a hermit, just about completely isolated and perhaps paranoid, but still supposedly writing (the biography explains his view that one shouldn’t read mathematics, but write it). Perhaps someday we’ll find out what he was writing about, for some information about this, see here. While in the earlier part of his career Grothendieck wanted nothing to do with physics, associating it with the Bomb, evidently at the end he had physics books in his home rather than mathematics ones.

    One person Grothendieck was in communication with in the early 1990s was Robert Thomason, see a letter available here. Thomason died in Paris in 1995, his notebooks have just become available at this site.

  • Another book I found in Paris was from a few years back, about the “unification of mathematics” by Parrochia, Micali and Anglès. The topics are Clifford algebras, abstract algebraic geometry (a la Grothendieck), and the Langlands program, wrapped up in an argument that these provide a unified framework for mathematics. The point of view is the very French one emphasizing the “philosophy” of a subject, and much of the argument is that philosophers of science should be paying close attention to the “Langlands philosophy” and its significance as a unifying set of ideas. They also argue that physics should fit naturally into this sort of unification, an idea I’m very fond of, but they don’t seem to be very aware of the actual connections between physics and the Langlands story (they refer only to the classification of branes by twisted K-theory).
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16 Responses to My Summer Vacation

  1. RandomPaddy says:

    Oi! What did you do in Ireland?

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Nothing math/physics related. Seven days driving around the country, first to a place in East Cork, then two nights in Kerry, three up in Connemara, finally back to Dublin for two nights. Weather was very pleasant, greatly enjoyed getting to know a bit about the country (before this I had just spent a couple days in Dublin).

  3. nc says:

    A miracle. Pleasant weather in Eire!

  4. Reader says:

    I was reading AG’s autobio online soon after he died. The key idea I thought was most interesting was his following paraphrased comment.

    To really understand a subject you have to mentally live outside its room.

    That is, every subject has bounds of thinking in language and concepts. To live outside it, you have to step into the unknown and invent your own language and concepts.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    Sudip Paul,
    I don’t know much about pentaquarks. It seems quite plausible that QCD allows such states, but as far as I know there isn’t a reliable calculational method available.

  6. sdf says:

    “This was the site of some of my earliest memories of getting interested in science, back in the late 1960s”

    Somewhat similarly, my own earliest memories of same, were also from Paris but instead from the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie in the 19th arr. from the late 1990s. I think I can even remember most of the exhibits…

  7. Richard says:


    Understanding presupposes alienation — and profound understanding presupposes profound alienation.

  8. Michael Hutchings says:

    Where do you find scientific books in Paris? (French OK)

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Best places I’ve found are Eyrolles on Bld. St. Germain (downstairs) and Gibert Joseph on Bld. St. Michel (top floor). Maybe there are others I’m not aware of…

  10. Thomas says:

    @Michael: There is a small but interesting scientific library which often has hard-to-find second-hand books, rue Dante, between the Collège de France and Notre-Dame. I’ve seen books both in English and French there (although apparently you read both).

    @Peter: Wonderful that you are mentioning the Palais de la Découverte, for anyone who hasn’t been yet it is indeed worth a visit. Both for the building and what is inside. Very family friendly; I don’t know what the 12 yo Peter would have thought about Physics, but I can report that my 4 yo loved every moment of it (especially the biology section).

    It is not well known that the Palais was on the brink of disappearing a few years ago, threatened as it was by the much bigger and more modern Cité des Sciences. A petition circulated in the french scientific community to save this institution, and was successful. As a compromise now the Palais is semi-private, not entirely state-owned anymore, probably not a bad deal.

  11. Michael Hutchings says:

    OK, thanks for the tips. I’m one of those weird tourists who likes bookstores and not just museums. I previously managed to find Gibert Joseph (impressive place!) but didn’t know about the others.

  12. paddy says:

    Quite a bit off topic: To nc, The weather in Ireland is always fair and “soft”. Depends on ones perspective.

  13. James MC says:

    Hope you had a nice holiday Peter especially the Cork part that’s where I live 🙂

  14. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    OT, but Yoichiro Nambu passed away. It struck me that perhaps the last couple generations of particle physicists to see their fundamental predictions verified is rapidly dying off.

  15. We followed a similar trajectory – the museum in Paris is the place where my father first described a synchrotron to me. But it was well into the seventies for me.


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