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.


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