Festival of Joe

20140226-214941.jpgEarly evening. Cocktail (made with Hendricks gin, muddled tangerine, and basil…). Roast pork on the way. Old haunt.

Where am I? At Roy’s, in Santa Barbara. I’m here for a two day celebration of the work of Joe Polchinski, one of the giants of my field. It all begins tomorrow, and I am taking the opportunity to have a quiet bit of time in an old haunt. I was a postdoc of Joe’s back in the mid 1990s, just when the world of theoretical physics was waking up to the awesome power of D-branes. D-branes are a special type of dynamical extended object in physics, and Joe had discovered their importance for string theory just around that time. Roy’s opened around that time too, if I recall, and a group of us became regulars, helping it along in those early days when it was smaller than it is now. (That small group included my friend and fellow postdoc Andrew Chamblin, who passed away some years ago.)

A D-braneSo I am here to help celebrate Joe’s work on the occasion of his 60th (hard to believe that number, frankly), and it will be good to see all the people who show up, and of course it’ll be excellent to see Joe. Part of my help in the celebrations is to organize and run a panel about D-branes, which will be on at 11:00 tomorrow. I’ll be reflecting a bit on the good old days when D-branes really broke, and turned out to be the key tool of the Revolution that took place in the field. In lectures and writings from that time and long after I used to refer to them as the Heroes of the Revolution, and in honor of that and of Joe I have named this session D-Branes, Tools of the Revolutionary, or something like that. Joe helped bring about the revolution, and his tools were D-branes, you see.

I was lucky to be here as a postdoc at that time, and happily I had the good sense to be quite sure that it was going to be important to quickly spread the language and techniques needed to get the whole field on the same page about how to work with D-branes, and so helped (along with another postdoc) convince Joe that we should write up some detailed pedagogical lecture notes and put them on the web. It was fun to do, and I learned a lot working on those. It turned out that they were a huge hit. The payoff was a wide universal language, notation, and set of ideas and techniques that the field had to tackle some of the various problems D-branes were applied to – all around the world. It was fantastic to see the quantity and variety of papers that flowed into the ArXiv (where papers in our field are mostly all sent for the first time for everyone to see) at that time, and they were all sharing this wonderful new technology of D-branes… You could go anywhere on there planet and start talking about D-branes to workers there and we’d all be using the same normalizations for their charges, etc., things that turned out to be super-important because we were describing lots of things as being built out of them (like black holes for example) and so being able to keep track of things like their charges properly was key to getting very precise answers right about things like the Bekenstien-Hawking entropy of the black holes, and so forth. Precision was key for many of those results… It was Joe’s careful work that helped get this precision right. As I used to say in my lectures on the subject, D-branes are sharp tools. Precision instruments.

As chair of the panel I will kick off by reflecting a little on this, and then try to bring out a bit about how various corners of the field were affected, with the help of Greg Moore, Andreas Karch, and Samir Mathur, who will each say a little on mathematical aspects, field theory, and quantum gravity, respectively. I hope we will then have time for a back and forth discussion, perhaps reflecting on where we are now as a field, and speculating about what may come next, maybe including some thoughts from the audience. And then we shall be certainly out of time.

So anyway, I think it is good to be here at Roy’s the night before, since I did a lot of thinking here in the old days of the Revolution, about D-branes and string theory and M theory and black holes and so forth, and and also a lot of relaxing at the end of the day over a glass of wine and a good meal, sometimes with friends.

[...]

…And I got to do it again just now! Those three dots? They represent a break from writing this post since my friend and collaborator from those days Rob Myers showed up (a pleasant surprise even though I had mentioned I would be coming here – I was not sure he’d make it) and we chatted over dinner and caught up. I’d not seen him since 2010 (in Vienna…. You may recall some blog posts from there) and so it was certainly time for a catch up.

Well, I think I had better get to sleep now. (I am back in my hotel room.) it has been a long day and I’ve two long ones of celebration coming up. Need to recuperate to gather energy for the festivities (which, in case you are wondering, is a bunch of physics talks and discussions, mostly – there’ll probably not be much in the way of people bursting out of cakes and so forth).

-cvj

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