News From The Front, VI: Simultaneity

aspen from gondolaI stopped the previous post rather abruptly (I had to do another task and then run some errands) without getting to tell you a little twist at the end of the story. Here it is.

Having chipped away at the thoughts that Strominger’s talk stirred in my head for several days last week, scribbling equations to check that all I was thinking was on the right track (and chatting a couple of times with Nick Halmagyi down the hall), I decided that it was all fitting together so nicely that the framework and my extensions of it just had to be true. There was that feeling that it was too nice to be wrong, and it passed all the obvious checks I could think of. There were two independent consistency checks everything had to pass (using my way of formulating things) and they gave exactly the right results as required by the general setup, with no room for maneuver.

When that happens so nicely, usually at that point in thinking about a physics problem, a thought occurs to me. If I’m playing with a good idea and everything is working so well, then there’s at least 200 other people in the field who probably are also playing with it, and 199 of them have way more time than I do to think it through and write it up before I can. One should not really worry about these things in an ideal world, but I’d be lying to you if I said it did not come up as a concern from time to time. I’ve a history of having my thunder stolen out from under me several times in the field (and not always accidentally), so I’m a bit gun shy.

Anyway, I started writing a draft of the paper on Thursday the way I usually do: I write the title page. I have a nice physics story in my head and I come up with a title I like, and an abstract. Once those are in shape, I print them out and look at the completed title page there in front of me. Somehow that sets everything into free flow in my mind, as I pretty much put my head down and pour the story out into the computer, sometimes in essentially one sitting if it is a short enough paper, and if I don’t have a million other distractions (so much the case these days). So on Friday I spent most of the day in Ink Coffee Co. (a nice cafe here in Aspen) and built about 95% of the paper, hardly referring to my notes at all since everything was still warm and fresh from thinking it through earlier in the week.

On Saturday, it was time to do the boring bits… Build a list of references to the literature. This meant going online (to the SPIRES database and to the arXiv) and finding the key papers one wanted to cite, and also cross referencing where one can, and also forward searching to see what papers cite an earlier paper. It was in doing the latter that I spotted the thing I feared. On Friday, a paper by Atish Dabholkar and Sameer Murthy entitled “Fundamental Superstrings as Holograms” had appeared! I don’t check the arXiv for recent papers very often, I confess, so I’d not seen it. Well, as you can imagine if you read the background to the project that I wrote in the previous post, I only needed to look at the title to know that they’d been thinking about the same system of ideas as I had been. I was horrified!

Reading no further than that, I sent an email to Atish and Sameer to to let them know that I saw that they had a paper out on the same subject area I was currently writing one about, and that while I did not know the contents of their paper, I thought I should let them know out of courtesy that I will be putting mine out, and that I hoped we were at least complementary in our approaches.

Atish replied soon after and was very gracious, saying he was looking forward to the paper. I had no choice now. My plan to tinker with references on Saturday and then polish it all up on Sunday and maybe submit it on Monday, all interspersed with some nice hiking, went out the window. The worry that they’d done exactly the same thing that I’d done was then weighing on me for the rest of the day, and after lamenting a bit (as I do) about why this always seems to happen to me (and it feels like it does – I have my moments of having a persecution complex, ok? But I can tell you stories…), I spent the rest of the day polishing and tinkering. Sunday morning I woke up late, read the paper one or two more times and then uploaded it to the ArXiv. It appeared today at 6:00pm local time (the Tuesday listing), and my slight fear that there were three other papers all on the same subject in the Tuesday listing were not realized. I’ve yet to read Atish and Sameer’s paper, but I’m happy to say that having printed it out and glanced through the introduction, it seems that we are indeed quite complementary. I’m not even sure if we are doing the same thing or not. A thorough reading will tell.

This is one of the slight drawbacks of the (mostly marvellous) electronic means by which we make our results available to each other. If you’re working on the same thing as someone else and one of you – in all innocence, as happened here – puts their results out in a new paper on the web, there’s tremendous pressure on the other person to put their own out as soon as possible – within one cycle of the ArXiv preferably, which amounts to 24 hours most times since there are lists of new papers every day. My personal policy when it happens to me is to not look at all at the work that came out, and just get my head down and write. I can look at the other work once mine is out there too, and so there is no doubt in anyone’s mind (including my own) that any similarities in the works are anything other than coincidental. I don’t know how others deal with that situation. It still feels awful while you’re writing though, which is nobody’s fault really. And I feel especially bad when it happens with a project I’m working on with my students, since they’re more vulnerable in a way, and sometimes it is the only project they’ve ever worked on and so it must be so heartbreaking. Even when I was a postdoc and had infinitely more time than I do now it was awful, and it seemed to happen all too many times for my liking.

It is one of the perils of working the same rich seam of ideas that many others are working. The upside is that the ideas are rich and free-flowing. Everything is exciting. The downside is this sort of situation. It was especially prevalent back in the hot days of the Second Superstring Revolution when new duality ideas (which showed that so many different things were actually connected) combined with rapid publication on the ArXiv (which allowed so many people in the field with a range of expertise to be connected) produced a rapid explosion of activity. I imagine that everyone working on something they considered exciting back then had their heart in their mouths every evening the listing of new papers came out.

Stressful, yes. Would I trade this all for a quiet life thinking about physics nobody else cares about? Well, the answer is mostly No! (one of the joys of doing science is the collective nature of the enterprise) – but not entirely so. I try to do both type of research now, you see. I write my share of papers on stuff that nobody is likely working on. These are the more long haul and/or speculative efforts that might not lead anywhere immediately, but may well form the groundwork for things that will be relevant much later on, to be worked on either by me of by others. In fact, the 1994 work I recalled in the last post on how to nicely construct those “heterotic” conformal field theories – suddenly seemingly relevant again – is maybe an example of that.

chipmunkSunday after the paper was submitted I decided to go up Ajax Mountain to calm myself and clear my head, travelling via a mixture of the Ute trail and some steep ski slopes. It was not the greatest of hikes for me that day. I set off too long after breakfast and was determined to each lunch up there at the top. I’d set off really late and to make things worse I was really much more physically tired than I’d realized right from the start, and I still don’t know why. But once I struggled, a bit depressed about a number of things, all the way up, ate lunch, sniffed the air, thought about the work, played hide and seek with the chipmunk-like fellow to the left, and looked at the view… I felt good again.

Then I cheated and took the gondola (above right) back down to Aspen.


Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to News From The Front, VI: Simultaneity

  1. pedant says:

    I remember episodes like this in my youth: seemingly perennial pre-emption can gnaw at the soul. ‘Would I trade this all for a quiet life thinking about physics (or whatever) nobody else cares about?’ Well, I went for yes, and have had a lot of fun, and am embarking on a comfortable old age. Nonetheless I can only salute, and also envy, those who have what it takes to keep going to the edge. An interesting post, that has its heart quite close to its sleeve.

  2. John Branch says:

    Clifford, allow me to assume something about your past that may not be true. I’d bet that in public school and possibly on through undergraduate school, you were one of the leading students in your math and science classes. Everyone was working on the same things, namely your homework assignments, but you were (probably) doing a better job on the homework and the tests than most.

    This experience of being correct and also being ahead of most other people in the class: did it maybe influence your later expectations subconsciously? So that now, you’d still like to be “ahead of the class”? I’m just guessing, and I hope this doesn’t seem to suggest anything disrespectful.

    To put it another way, it seems to me that the early academic experience (and sometimes the family experience too) of people with exceptional skills accustoms them to being a big fish in a little pond, and that’s not what they encounter later.

  3. Clifford says:


    Thanks for the thought. I’m not offended at all. It seems like your simply misunderstanding why we do what we do, and definitely misunderstanding what motivates me… what makes me get out of bed every morning and carry on. It is nothing to do with who is smarter than whom. I’ve never played those childish games, even when I was a child. I don’t see the point. I delight in what I do for its own sake, not because I want to show that I am better at it than anyone else. I find that way of being (which, sadly, does exist in this field) rather destructive of the whole enterprise. I don’t see how what I explained above can be interpreted as me wanting to be the smartest person, or not wanting anyone else to think about the same issues as me. This is simply the old old issue of bringing your product to market (as it were), and the additional impact the immediacy of publication via the web has had on how we operate. It is nothing to do with wanting to be the smartest person in the room. I’ve no idea who the smartest person is in the room, I don’t even know how you measure that, and frankly, I think it is irrelevant.

    For the record, I was not some uber-school-kid or uber-undergraduate who aced everything and was always at or near the head of my class. I was good at some things here and there, and there were lots of other people who were too. I’d say that exactly the same thing is true in my current field… there’s lots of good people happily getting on with doing good things. To repeat: In the scheme of things, I was (and remain) pretty ordinary.



  4. Jude says:

    I loved this post and I’d it (I know, that can’t possibly be a verb, but it makes more sense than just saying “bookmarked” since using involves applying tags). To me, it speaks to the scientific process, which is necessarily collaborative. I didn’t read it as a competition at all–just a matter of wanting to be certain that your contribution was original. I think I’ll also tag it as an example of Flow (Csikszentmihalyi’s term).

    Today while I was waiting for the concert to start at the Aspen Music Tent, I was reading a book called “Parenting Gifted Kids” which talks about the misperceptions people have about being smart. One chapter is titled “Know the Distinction between ‘Better At’ and ‘Better Than.’ I think every fairly smart person learns that distinction early on. Anyway, although the book is about parenting, I think it’s a useful book for adults as well, especially the ones who, like Prince Prigio, are perceived as being “too clever.”

  5. John Branch says:

    Clifford, sorry if I seem to have misread your post. I don’t think anything you said indicates that you want to be the smartest person in the room, so maybe I shouldn’t have used those terms at all. But I do imagine there’s a difference, or at least can be a difference, in the experience one has pursuing science in school and the experience one has later on, when one is part of a bigger world of people doing the same things. I also didn’t mean to suggest there’s any conscious element of competition. I’m just trying to explore what may be a difference in situation (which may lead to a different subconscious feeling, though not a different attitude) between training days and the life of the working professional scientist.

    Maybe an analogy will make more clear what I was thinking of, drawn from the arts, which I’m more acquainted with. Imagine an acting student. He (or she) is quite capable in school, often gets leading roles in plays, gets ample experience during that training period. He then graduates and moves to New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. Now, instead of being one of the two or three most likely candidates for big roles, he’s only one of four or five hundred. The difference between that and science is that you can pursue the same idea that others are pursuing, while the actor who doesn’t get the role basically can do nothing until the next chance comes along.

    Perhaps I’ve overstressed this…

  6. Clifford says:



    Of course there is competition in science, like in many other professional endeavours. It plays a role. Kept at a sensible and honest level, it is one way of bringing out the best in all of us, for the good of the whole enterprise. It’s not (and should not be) the only way of going about things, of course.

    But the fact that when you leave school and go out into the big wide world to make your way and it is somewhat different as the pool of people is bigger, etc, etc,…. that’s a fact of life. All walks of life. I don’t see why that aspect of things (which really aren’t much to do with the central points I was trying to make) particularly get at the heart of the matter.

    But it was fine for you to bring it up, of course. I really don’t mind. Here’s my take on the matter: If anything, I would say that most people (myself included) yearn to leave the small pool of their salad days and go out into the big wide world to be challenged. It is quite wonderful to seek challenges and see what it brings out of you. I wouldn’t have it any other way.


  7. Clifford says:

    Pedant, Jude – sorry, not ignoring you… thanks for the remarks (and the link)! Pedant – absolutely nothing wrong with choosing the “yes” option. Whatever works for you… Jude, while you were in the Music Tent, I was a stone’s throw away in the middle of a long and somewhat energy-draining meeting with lots of back and forth over various issues. Sorry to have not got a chance to meet you. I’m sure there’ll be another chance. Hey, I like the usage “’d”. It works.