Some Ancient History

A couple months ago there was a session at an APS meeting with the topic Sidney Coleman Remembered. Slides are available for talks by Coleman’s student Erick Weinberg and colleague Howard Georgi. Georgi has recently posted a written version of the talk here. He also a few years ago wrote this biographical memoir about Coleman for the National Academy of Sciences.

David Derbes and collaborators [see comment section for details] are putting together a book version of Coleman’s famous lectures on quantum field theory, hope to be finished with this by the end of the summer. I’ve helped out in a very small way by sending them a scan of my notes from when I took Coleman’s course very long ago.

This will be a great resource for anyone learning QFT and, in the meantime, if you don’t have a copy of Coleman’s Erice lectures, Aspects of Symmetry, you should get one. The period of these lectures spans the late sixties and seventies, and at the time they were required reading for everyone, giving every couple years a lucid explanation of the most important new ideas in the field. The last (1979) lectures are about the 1/N expansion, and I notice that Coleman extensively credits Witten, who was a postdoc at Harvard at the time. A couple years later, Witten in some sense took over from Coleman, lecturing about supersymmetry (a topic Coleman never warmed to) at Erice in 1981.

Last Friday at CERN there was an event devoted to the 40th anniversary of supergravity. Coleman makes a couple appearances, with Sergio Ferrara claiming he was responsible for the name “gravitino” and Peter van Nieuwenhuizen quoting him as saying

I am uninterested in gravity, and superuninterested in supergravity.

One reason for this was surely the ferociously technical difficulties of constructing supergravity, with Coleman not interested in difficult calculations. Another was likely a lack of interest in topics with no known relation to experiment, which likely had to do with his comments about both gravity and supergravity. At the CERN event, Albert De Roecke’s presentation, Desperately Seeking SUSY, reviews the long story of the failure of SUSY and supergravity to make contact with experiment, including a New York Times 1993 article about the failure to find SUSY at the Tevatron. It has extensive detail about the unsuccessful searches at the LHC.

De Roeck also includes a copy of David Gross’s 1994 bet with Ken Lane that SUSY will appear at the LHC (when at least 50 inverse fb have been accumulated). Gross will likely have to pay this off next year, but another such bet just came due on June 16th, so a group of theorists should by now be buying expensive cognac for their more prescient colleagues.

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24 Responses to Some Ancient History

  1. Tony Smith says:

    How would the Derbes et al version of Sidney Coleman’s lectures on quantum field theory compare with the 1999 Cambridge University Press book by Robin Ticciati
    Quantum Field Theory for Mathematicians in which the preface says that Ticciati
    “… had audited Sidney Coleman’s outstanding Harvard lectures
    and had taken very good notes …[and]… had Robert Brandenburger’s official solutions to all the homework sets. …”.


  2. Peter Woit says:

    Tony Smith,

    Ticciati’s book is quite different, although in places one can certainly see Coleman’s influence. Probably quite a few modern QFT books were influenced, directly or indirectly, by Coleman’s course. Picking up a few at random, I see that in their introductions Tony Zee and Michael Peskin mention learning QFT from Coleman.

  3. Jeff M says:

    I notice that Peter Orland is a NO on the linked bet, which should be paid off now. Enjoy the cognac Peter 🙂

  4. susy says:

    how many inverse fb is needed before any conclusions about SUSY can be made at LHC energies?

  5. David Derbes says:

    Hi, Peter.

    Thank you very much for the plug, and also for the xeroxed notes, which have been invaluable. But I want to be sure that my colleagues’ names are front and center. First and foremost, none of this would have happened without Brian Hill’s notes. Brian was a friend of Sidney’s and a grader of Sidney’s QFT course for three years. His handwritten notes were the closest thing to a textbook that the course had for at least fifteen years. About three years ago, Bryan Ging-Ge Chen and Yuan-Sen Ting LaTeX’d Brian’s notes for the arXiv (and you can get them today, if you like). I got in touch with Brian, Bryan and Yuan-Sen and asked about the second semester. They hadn’t any notes for that. I emailed a former high school student of mine (I’m a high school teacher, but I have a PhD in theoretical physics), Matt Headrick, who had a set of second semester notes by a grad student who prefers to remain anonymous. Yuan-Sen made the initial suggestion that we try to turn the notes, the videos and all the rest into a book. Yuan-Sen suggested I get in touch with Richard Sohn, who was very helpful to him and Bryan when they were LaTeX’ing Brian’s notes. Richard has taken over the job of the second semester, I’m about done with the first. Richard has done more work on the book than anyone. I mentioned this project to Peter about two years ago, and he sent me his notes. As most of your readers know, Harvard videotaped Coleman’s lectures in 1975-76, and these are on the web. Richard and I have transcribed nearly all of them. In addition, we hope to have a foreword by David Kaiser, a former Coleman grad student (though he finished with Alan Guth), who has also edited a big chunk of the first semester. He also got copies of Sidney’s own notes from Diana Coleman, Sidney’s widow. When Richard and I had been at it for a few months, David Griffiths (of textbook fame, and also a Coleman PhD student) emailed Yuan-Sen to ask about the second semester. Yuan-Sen told him to get in touch with me. David has provided unbelievably wonderful criticism, great suggestions and rewording, and generally improved the manuscript’s quality by a factor of at least 2 and probably 3. There ought to be at least seven names on the cover: Brian Hill, Yuan-Sen Ting, Bryan Ging-Ge Chen, Richard Sohn, David Griffiths, David Kaiser and me. (I would also include the anonymous grad student, but that’s not in keeping with his wishes.) At present only Bryan’s, Yuan-Sen’s, Richard’s and my names are on it (tentatively) (very probably David K will be credited on the cover for the foreword), but I’m going to ask Brian, David G and the anonymous grad student again once we’re nearly done. I should also add that all proceeds are going to Diana Coleman. We’re all doing this work for free, out of affection and respect for Sidney Coleman. Harvard’s IP people are OK with it, nobody asked for royalties (not even Harvard), and I hope the community will be reasonably happy with the result. It isn’t going to be the book Sidney would have written, no one should be fooled, but we hope it will be a reasonable approximation, and we think Sidney’s voice is clearly heard. Finally, we’re also including problem sets and solutions; these were supplied by Matt Headrick, Peter Woit, Brian Hill, and the graders Nathan Salwen and David Lee. At present we’re not including final exams and answers, but maybe we should. This is a big book, perhaps 900 pp. We hope to deliver the finished manuscript (LaTeX source and illustrations) to World Scientific by September 1.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    To get some rough numbers, Tevatron gluino mass bounds were something like 350 GeV. Naively scaling to the LHC at a factor of 6.5 higher in energy, one would expect to be able to reach up to something like 2300 GeV. Results from 3 inverse fb reported late last year give (see De Roeck) something like 1700 GeV bounds. Measured in logarithmic terms, there’s not that much space left between 1700 and 2300 GeV, most of the increased reach expected from the LHC has already happened. I don’t think David Gross would be making his bet with Ken Lane today…

    There are of course lots of different SUSY particles one can look for, and higher luminosity is more relevant to states that are not strongly interacting. There will be a very long story of slowly rising bounds of different sorts, best to leave more discussion of this to August, when we’ll see what gets announced at ICHEP (and whether that starts to cause SUSY enthusiasts to finally give up…)

  7. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks David for the details, I think this is a great project, congratulations to all of you on getting near the end!

  8. Lee Smolin says:

    Dear Peter,

    I was told that “I am uninterested in gravity, and super-uninterested in supergravity…but…” was most of Sydney’s letter of recommendation for me. Perhaps he used it for others as well.


  9. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Lee,
    That’s consistent with another version of the talk by Peter van Nieuwenhuizen, see here
    where he tells the story this way:

    I remember a recommendation letter from Sydney Coleman that began as
    follows: “I am uninterested in gravity, and superuninterested in supergravity”.

  10. Harrison says:

    “If you tell yourself something over and over again, right or wrong, it becomes intuitive.”-Sidney Coleman

    Thanks very much for that biographic item on him.

  11. Peter Orland says:

    Jeff M,

    Thanks for the good wishes. For some reason, an earlier bet (from 2000) was extended, without consulting most of the signers.

    I drink milliliters of alcohol per year, but I look forward to getting a contact high from other winners (if the bet is ever paid off).

  12. David Appell says:

    A few years ago I wrote an article about the discovery of supergravity, including the night Peter van Nieuwenhuizen verified by computer that a prominent term vanished:

    “When supergravity was born,” Physics World, September 2012, pp 32-36.

    He told me that right afterwards he was depressed for days. And he told me that he got emotional while reading my article about it, 36 years later.

  13. Alan says:

    In the De Roeck presentation, he suggested 1500GeV was a limit to gluino mass for SUSY being natural. If mass of gluino is already constrained for >1700GeV, does it mean that naturalness has already be lost?

  14. Peter Woit says:

    The problem is that there is no well-defined definition of what “naturalness” precisely means. It is now widely recognized though that the LHC results are in stark contrast to pre-LHC expectations based on such “naturalness” arguments.

  15. lzp says:

    Ouch, these are strong words, quoted from Peter van Nieuwenhuizen’s presentation linked above–but in line with the feelings/beliefs/preferences of the majority of the readers of this blog:

    “The reader may ask why in this book [Facts and Mysteries of Elementary Particles, 2003] string theory and supersymmetry have not been discussed. . . The fact is that this book is about physics and this implies that theoretical ideas must be supported by experimental facts. Neither supersymmetry nor string theory satisfy this criterion. They are figments of the theoretical mind. To quote Pauli, they are not even wrong. They have no place here. . .” (M. Veltman)

  16. Alan says:

    Ok, more precisely, when will 84% -1 sigma- of pMSSM models be discarded, taking the prior as experimental constraints which where in 1977 -when MSSM was created-.

  17. Peter Woit says:

    The problem with that formulation is that there’s no obvious way to choose a measure on the space of pMSSM models. You want “naturalness” to mean that this measure falls off at higher masses, but how to do this is ill-defined.

  18. GoletaBeach says:

    Perhaps the most successful endeavor in broader particle physics in the past 20-or-so years was… the LHC detector collaborations argued for very challenging and expensive calorimeters… far better than D0 or CDF… at a time when Higgs to gamma gamma was largely disbelieved for two reasons…. 1)the bias of experimentalists to believe new particles are usually very heavy, particularly a fundamental scalar (with the well known theoretical support for the Higgs)…. that was why the no-lose Higgs theorems were attractive for SSC experimental advocates…. 2)Higgs to gamma gamma is just too darned hard, experimentally speaking.

    ATLAS and CMS pushed for fantastically expensive calorimeters anyway, and they were right. Of course Higgs to Z0 Z0 is excellent too. But once again, seeing that is another testament to the quality of the detectors… good coverage, excellent systems, etc. All the while, ferocious downward pressure on budgets, and ATLAS and CMS came through.

    Not much connection with Sidney Coleman, who was a delightful guy… in fact ATLAS and CMS (and LIGO, and maybe LSST, Planck, LZ, etc) are collectives where single great personalities aren’t particularly effective… endless institutional reviews and internal assessments drive the modern big science collaborations. Celebrating that rather boring process isn’t as fun as the celebrating the 40th anniversary of supergravity, and a good party is always good, even if it celebrates 25 years of not seeing dark matter or SUSY.

    Big science collaborations are sometimes called the last refuge of communism. Nobody wants to laud that. Maybe we should.

  19. George Pennington says:


    Having recently struggled to review some of Karl Popper’s works on the philosophical problem of induction, I’m totally in favor of placing a deadline on proving a theory. The bet, be it a bottle of cognac or a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, puts the unfalsifiable theory to rest so that science can continue to advance along other fronts. I have great respect for the theorist who is willing to set an end date and a bottle of France’s finest on the table to either connect their theory with empirical experiment or set it aside in favor of others willing to take the same challenge.

  20. zzz says:

    they have bet like that, what they need is a bookie to enforce it.

  21. Andrew Porter says:

    I knew him as someone I saw at science fiction conventions, often at in the Boston area, but also at the annual World Science Fiction Conventions, held at various places around the world. His help for SF writers struggling to put real and logical physics into their stories and novels was legendary.
    In the SF field, he was long known as “the best physicist to have never won a Nobel Prize,” as detailed here:

  22. Richard A. Lupoff says:

    As a onetime science fiction fan and sometime science fiction writer, I knew Sidney Coleman in another, and non-technical, context. When I was grappling with a scientific concept that was vital to a story I was writing, I would ask Sid for help. He was endlessly patient and generous in this regard. Importantly, he was utterly lucid, explaining concepts in terms that I–very much a layman!–could understand. Sid is fondly remembered in the literary field, and it is gratifying to see the attention he is now receiving among his former colleagues. He deserves to receive great credit and to be fondly and warmly remembered!

  23. I’m a physicist at UCI and wrote a memoir about Sid in 2012 that focuses on the man, an old friend:

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