The past couple days the YITP at Stony Brook has been celebrating its 50th birthday. It was started back in 1966 by C. N. Yang and has been an active center for theoretical physics ever since. The ITP at Stony Brook was as some point renamed in honor of Yang, now it’s officially the “C. N. Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics”. I was a postdoc there in 1984-87, when it was just the ITP, and Yang was still the director. I had been hoping to go out to Stony Brook for at least one day of the event, but unfortunately other things have kept me here in New York.
Luckily, with today’s technology one can watch the talks online (see here) and follow what happened at the conference. I’ve watched a few of the talks, and they give a good survey of the kind of work that has been going on at the institute over the last 50 years. One aspect that isn’t emphasized in the talks (although there’s a little bit in Fred Goldhaber’s talk) is that the institute is in the same building as the mathematics department with, at least back in my day, some physicists and some mathematicians even having offices nearby on the same floor. Being able to talk to and learn from some great mathematicians (soon after Yang, in 1968 Jim Simons came to Stony Brook and brought together a world-class mathematics department) was a big influence on me during my postdoc years. These days, with the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics, Stony Brook is one of the great centers of mathematical physics.
The last talk of the event was a public talk by Ashoke Sen on What is String Theory? (slides here), one which made me think that maybe it wasn’t a bad thing that I hadn’t made it out to Stony Brook, since I might have been there for this. Sen’s talk was a depressing compilation of ancient hype and misleading claims about string theory, with the standard multiverse excuse for why it predicts nothing at all about particle physics.
My time at the ITP coincided with the early years of this kind of string theory hype, which got started in late 1984, about the time I got there. By my last year there (exactly 30 years ago, 1986-87), everyone in the physics community had already been subjected to a couple years of this kind of thing, so much so that Ginsparg and Glashow had published in spring 1986 their Desperately Seeking Superstrings article, noting that
…years of intense effort by dozens of the best and the brightest have yielded not one verifiable prediction, nor should any soon be expected.
They worried that
Contemplation of superstrings may evolve into an activity as remote from conventional particle physics as particle physics is from chemistry, to be conducted at schools of divinity by future equivalents of medieval theologians.
which many at the time thought was kind of harsh, but in retrospect looks quite prescient. I doubt that even they thought that anyone in the physics community would sit still 30 years later to listen to a talk like Sen’s.
My own attitude at the time was that superstring theory was just one in a sequence of fads that had gotten the attention of particle theorists, with one to two years the usual decay time for such things. So by 86-87, I figured this one was now past its sell-by date and would soon be on the way out. How wrong I was.