74 Questions

open_questions_cvjHello from the Aspen Center for Physics. One of the things I wanted to point out to you last month was the 74 questions that Andy Strominger put on the slides of his talk in the last session of the Strings 2014 conference (which, you may recall from earlier posts, I attended). This was one of the “Vision Talks” that ended the sessions, where a number of speakers gave some overview thoughts about work in the field at large.

Andy focused mostly on progress in quantum gravity matters in string theory, and was quite upbeat. He declines (wisely) to make predictions about where the field might be going, instead pointing out (not for the first time) that if you look at the things we’ve made progress on in the last N years, most (if not all) of those things would not have been on anyone’s list of predictions N years ago. (He gave a specific value for N, I just can’t recall what it is, but it does not matter.)

He sent an email to everyone who was either speaking, organising, moderating a session or similarly involved in the conference, asking them to send, off the [...] Click to continue reading this post

Strings Talks

20140627-080640-29200119.jpgThe conference is really rather good, with a varied program involving topics and speakers from all over the map. This includes the parallel sessions we had on Wednesday, which were held down at the Institute. Those were a lot of fun, because of the dodging back and forth between different auditoria at the IAS to get to talks of interest. I was chairing one of the sessions, and so did not get to dodge about in the first 90 minutes, and had to miss some interesting talks, but did a little talk-surfing in the second 90 after the break.

It had been many years ago now since I began to talk about there being a need for parallel sessions at strings conferences. Some people would object to them, saying that it would somehow be damaging to the field’s connected nature, where everyone is following many strands and topics in the field. To me that concern was always balanced by the problem of only having a small cluster of people and ideas represented each year due to the constraints of only having five days to present the activity of such a diverse population of researchers in the field. The main objection to having parallel sessions were, to my mind, based on a view of the field left over from when the field was smaller in terms of both people and thriving ideas. I think the conference organizers this year found a way of combining the two models rather well, with the single afternoon of parallel sessions, along with well chosen sets of half hour talks for the main sessions where we all sit together, roughly grouped by themes. There were three one hour big marquee plenary/summary talks. Theses are really useful. If I were to make a change, I’d perhaps have four or five of those, putting the two half hour talks that were displaced into the parallel section.

There is a two hour session of “Vision Talks” this afternoon. Should be interesting to hear what is said. We will perhaps get some good discussion going about where various ideas may be headed. I hope there is a lot of audience participation.

Poster sessions and the “gong show” were also great things to have as part of [...] Click to continue reading this post

Strings 2014 and a Return

20140623-114053-42053836.jpgToday is day one of Strings 2014, this year’s version of the official annual conference about the latest research in string theory. There’s a feeling that there is a buzz of excitement in the air, in part because (I’m guessing): (1) Well, it is the annual conference, you’re going to find out more about what’s been going on in the various corners of the field, and (2) everywhere you look there walks a giant of the field, and (3) more generally, people just like you who “get you”, and whose papers you’ve read that you’ve spent a good portion of your life thinking about, so it would be odd if you were not excited, and (4) it is in Princeton, which is sort of equal to Mount Olympus in our field, where a lot of the giants live, if you’ll permit me to mix metaphors a bit, and (5) apparently this is the largest Strings meeting since Paris in 2004. (I’ve heard that it is maybe 600 people registered, making it the biggest Strings ever?… Not sure.)

I could go on guessing about the buzz felt by others, but instead I’ll mention [...] Click to continue reading this post

News From the Front XII: The Nuts and Bolts of Enthalpy in Quantum Gravity

So it happened again. I got musing to myself about something and decided to do a quick computation to check it out, and it took me down an interesting rabbit hole, which resulted in me writing a nice little paper at the end of last week that appeared today on the arxiv. I think the physics is really really nice. Let me tell you a bit about it. It is in the same area of ideas that I mentioned last time, concerning that paper I wrote last month. So let me pick up the story there, since I did not really touch on the core of the story. [Note: for non-experts, the following will get somewhat technical and full of terms and ideas that I will not explain. Sorry.]

One of the things that might have struck you (if you’re an expert in the area) from my proposal to make heat engines out of black holes that do real mechanical work like the engines you read about in physics textbooks is that there ought to be no actual mechanical work since there’s no pistons – no pistons changing volumes and so forth. That is (or rather, was) a missing ingredient in the standard thermodynamics of black holes in quantum gravity. Well, that all changed a short few years ago with the work of a number of authors, particularly with the clear suggestion of David Kastor, Sourya Ray, and Jennie Traschen, and work by Brian Dolan, with a fair bit of followup investigations by various other authors including some I’ll mention below. (Update: Two reviews, with different foci, can be found in here and here.) The general idea is that if you allow the cosmological constant \Lambda to be a thermodynamical variable as well (and there is a long history of authors considering this in various contexts), where it naturally acts like a pressure p = -\Lambda/8\pi G, (G is Newton’s constant, and I’m setting various other constants to unity in the usual way) then you naturally include a conjugate to that variable that should be the pressure.

For a simple static black hole like Schwarzschild, the volume turns out to the the naive volume you get by taking the radius of the black hole and forming [...] Click to continue reading this post

News From the Front, XI: Holographic Heat Engines!

Yes, you heard me right. Holographic Heat Engines. I was thinking recently about black holes in universes with a cosmological constant and their thermodynamics. I had an idea, it led to another, then another, then some calculations, and then a couple of days of writing, calculating, and thinking… then a day to cool off and think about other things. Then I came back to it, decided it was still exciting as an idea and so tidied it all up as a paper, made some diagrams, tidied some more, and voila! A paper submitted to the arxiv.

I’m sort of pleased with all of it since it allowed me to combine a subject I think is really fun (although often so bleakly dull when presented at undergraduate level) – heat engines – with contemporary research ideas in quantum gravity and high energy physics. So I get to draw some of the cycles in the p-V plane (graph of pressure vs volume) representing the inner workings of engines of particular designs (just like you might have seen long ago in a physics class yourself) and compute their efficiency for doing mechanical work in exchange for some heat you supply. It is fundamental that you can’t heat_enginedo that with 100% efficiency otherwise you’d violate the second law of thermodynamics – that’s why all engines have to have some exhaust in the form of heat, giving an efficiency represented by a quantity \eta that is less than one, where one is 100% efficient. The diagram on the left illustrates the key pieces all engines must have, no matter what working substance you’re using. The details of the design of the engine are what kind of cycle you taking it through and what the properties (“equation of state”) your working substance has. In the case of a car, for example, the working substance is cleverly mixed up with the source of heat – the air/gasoline mix forms a “working substance” that gets expanded and compressed in various ways (in the green bit of the diagram), but the fact that it also burns releasing heat means it is also the source of the heat that comes into the engine (the flow from the red bit) to be (in part) turned to work, and the remainder flowing out to the blue (exhaust). Very clever.

The cool thing here is that I’m using black holes as the working substance for [...] Click to continue reading this post

Discovery Clarification

I’m actually in hiding and silence for a week. It is Spring Break and I have locked myself away in a seaside town to do some writing, as I did last year. But I must break my silence for a little while. Why? Well there’s been a really great announcement in physics today and while being very happy that it is getting a lot of press attention – and it should since the result is very important and exciting – I’ve been stunned by how confusingly it has been reported in several news reports. So I thought I’d say a few things that might help.

But first, let me acknowledge that there’s a ton of coverage out there and so I don’t need to point to any press articles. I will just point to the press release of the BICEP2 collaboration (yes, that’s what they’re called) here, and urge you once you’ve read that to follow the link within to the wealth of data (images, text, graphs, diagrams) that they provide. It’s fantastically comprehensive, so knock yourself out. The paper is here.

I keep hearing reports saying things like “Scientists have proved the Big Bang”. No. The Big Bang, while an exciting and important result for modern cosmology, is very old news. (You can tell since there’s even a TV comedy named after it.) This is not really about the Big Bang. This is about Inflation, the mechanism that made the universe expand rapidly from super-tiny scales to more macroscopic scales in fractions of a second. (I’ll say more about the super-tiny below).

I also hear (slightly more nuanced) reports about this being the first confirmation of Inflation. That’s a point we can argue about, but I’d say that’s not true either. We’ve had other strong clues that Inflation is correct. One of the key things that pops out of inflation is that it flattens out the curvature of universe a lot, and the various observations that have been made about the Cosmic Microwave Background over the years (the CMB is that radiation left over from when the universe was very young (about 380,000 years old – remember the universe is just under 14 million years old!)) have shown us that the universes is remarkably flat. Another previous exciting result in modern cosmology. Today’s result isn’t the first evidence.

So what is today’s exciting news about then? The clue to the correct [...] Click to continue reading this post

Take Part in the Festival!

I’ve just returned from a rather wonderful two rainy days in Santa Barbara celebrating the work of Joe Polchinski. (See my previous post for more about this, including a few reflections.) It was a combination of high school reunion, group hug (with Joe in the center), and serious reflection about physics, now, back then, and to come. Now the great news is that pretty much everything was recorded on video, and so you can take part in it by settling down in front of your computer (or other device – those of you in the further (but pre-singularity) future can just instruct the appropriate plug-in from [Cyberdine systems ] [Tyrell Corporation] Google to stream directly to the vision centres of your brain) and view the various excellent talks and panel discussions here.

I had the honour of chairing (and contributing to) one of the panel discussions reflecting on D-branes (as I promised last post). The title was “D-Branes: Tools of the Revolution” and it went very well thanks to my three excellent panelists (Greg Moore, Andreas Karch and Samir Mathur) and many members of the gathered audience who contributed to the free-form discussion in the 15 minutes at the end. Have a look at that right along side the really interesting and lively discussion that Steve Shenker chaired at the end of the conference (which sadly I had to miss because I had to get back to LA through the rainstorm for another engagement). The idea there was to speculate a bit about the future of physics and thereby “Planning for Joe’s 90th Birthday“.

Enjoy.

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

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 [...] Click to continue reading this post

Summing Numbers in a Small World

So here’s a slightly weird thing. So there’s been all this excitement over the web about the old old “shocker” that the sum of the positive integers is -1/12. You know, not even an integer, and not even positive. Apparently there have been articles in the New York Times and Slate and goodness knows where else… and I’ve been ignoring it all since I’m tired of what it often leads to: People wilfully using it as a device to manipulate people’s ignorance about subtleties with infinite processes to make the tired point that string theory is somehow wrong since it is based on “funny math”. I called Lawrence Krauss (who should have known better) out about it some years ago when he did that at an event I happened to attend. It’s a bit tedious, not the least because it is actually part of a wonderful field of mathematics that can get misrepresented, and of course because it has nothing to do with string theory.

So I ignored it all. Then some students in my class asked me about it. And I explained why it is interesting and so forth… Then I carried on ignoring it all.

Then a day or two ago a mathematician colleague emailed me to ask what [...] Click to continue reading this post

Hawking an Old Idea

On the one hand it is good to get members of the general public excited about scientific research, and so having some new excitement about something Stephen Hawking said, driven by gushingly written articles in the press and online, can be good. On the other hand, it is annoying that the thrust of the articles are largely that he’s stunned the world again with a brilliant and unlooked-for idea. People just lap this stuff up, unquestioningly. It is actually an old idea (and in fact one that is being mis-reported – see below). One’s instinct is to just say “Welcome, Stephen, we’ve been waiting for you to join us”, or “Come on in, the water’s lovely”, and just move on, but it seems so unfair. The thing that’s most puzzling in all of this is Hawking’s own paper (which is all of two pages of words – a transcript of a talk he gave in August), which makes no reference at all to (for example) Samir Mathur’s work, which has been explicitly saying essentially the same thing for well over a decade, with a very definite proposal for how it might work. That work has hardly been buried in obscurity. Samir and many other people who have liked his idea have been working out the consequences of the proposal in numerous papers for over a decade and reporting on their results at all the main conferences, and even talking to him about it (I note that Samir was in the audience during the August talk and even politely asked the speaker to compare and contrast the similar-sounding proposals). So it is puzzling that you get no hint from the paper’s citations that this is a well-considered and ongoing idea, even if (perhaps) in detail it may pan out differently from other suggestions.

light cones in  spacetime with a compact mass - a black holeWhat’s the idea?, you ask. Well, it is not, as you might get from most of the articles (somewhat confusingly), that black holes do not exist. It is that the black hole’s event horizon, thought of as a sharp “point of no return” boundary, may not exist. Instead, it is approximation or shorthand for the complicated physics (of both matter and spacetime) that happens in the vicinity of the black hole. Simply put, the horizon arises in classical solutions to classical (i.e. non-quantum) equations (such as in General Relativity) of gravity. (See an earlier post I did about them here, from which came the illustration [...] Click to continue reading this post

Ten Things…

black_hole_phil_club_talkSo I’ve been a bit quiet as I’ve had a lot going on. This includes preparing ten interesting slides to use as props for a talk I gave this evening to the USC Philosophy Club. It was entitled “Ten Things YOU Should Know About Black Holes”. It started with the original idea by Michell in 1783 (yes, really, that early!) and ended with topics of current research (what is the fate of the singularity? What really happens at a horizon? Etc., etc…) I spoke for a while and then fielded tons of questions, and am now (I am writing a draft of this on the subway train home – uploading later) suffering from a rather broken voice due to too much talking and projection…. Gosh. But it was fun. A really […] Click to continue reading this post

Weinberg on Physics Now

I just spotted (a bit late) that Steven Weinberg (one of the giants of my field) has written a piece in the New York Review ofBooks entitled “Physics: What We Do and Don’t Know”. I recommend it. He talks about astronomy, cosmology, particle physics, and by casting his eye over the arc of their recent (intertwined) histories of ideas, experiments and discoveries, tries to put the Standard Models of particle physics and of cosmology into perspective.

The article is […] Click to continue reading this post

SCSS San Diego

dinner_pic_cvjFriday’s meeting was rather nice. There was a really good turnout (especially from UCLA) and so in the end we had the perfect combination of an attentive and receptive audience and four really good speakers. As per design of the whole thing, plenty of time was allowed for discussion and pedagogy, and so I got the feeling that people felt really comfortable raising points during the talks and also chatting further during the breaks and lunch and dinner. It was really good to catch up with friends and colleagues from groups in the area, [...] Click to continue reading this post

Different Teacup, Same Storm

Meanwhile, poor Matt Strassler, who means well, is re-discovering the frustratingly convenient (for some) fact that blogs (or is it blog readers?) have no memory for stuff that has scrolled off the page, so attention-seekers get to make the same deliberately wrong claims and misrepresentations they did before, and that were thoroughly addressed before, and a whole new bunch of people who want to learn a bit of science will be drawn in to a non-debate, not knowing that none of this is new. Attention-seekers get the attention they desire, and since attention is the main point for them (not actual progress in science, oh no, not at all!), they succeed.

Matt is discovering this now… By trying to discuss a little nuance about what recent discoveries at the LHC may or may not mean for string theory, he has wandered into the same old tired shouting match about string theory with attention seekers who have nothing better to do but put their hands over their ears and yell misleading slogans from the sidelines to generate fake controversy, and/or split the world into pro-string vs anti-string which is so simplistic and, frankly, juvenile. An interesting game, if you’re up for it, would be to look at the noise in the long comment stream there, and then look at almost any of my Scenes from a Storm in a Teacup posts (from 2006!!!) and the long comment streams accompanying them (look at, for example IV, V, and VI), and see if you can see the same sorts of patterns. I deliberately collected those posts together to form a partial* record of some of that time’s discussion for precisely this purpose, for those who care to read and see that all attention-seekers (who have no real interest in letting science research run its course) have to do is wait for a while and then start yelling the same faux claims all over again to get attention, sell books, enlarge their mutual admiration society membership, etc.

You know, all this behaviour is hardly different from that of the annoying squirrels I have to deal with at my fruit trees from time to time. Not being so good at cultivating [..] Click to continue reading this post

Phase Diagram

phase_diagramFor those who have a thirst for something physics-y to follow the tomato chutney post, here’s a decorated physics diagram I made in Matlab this morning. Click for a larger view. It’s the phase diagram of interesting black hole transitions* (that I co-discovered 14 years ago) associated with part of the story I mentioned last month. On the right of the line you have small black holes favoured (of a given charge, so move horizontally), and on the left side of the line the system favours large black holes and so when you cross the line you have a sudden jump from one type to the other. That second order critical point I talked about there is the end of the line of first order points. The blue dot. Above there, you cross over smoothly from small to large holes. The blue dot is the border between the two cases.

It is a bit like having steam (or water vapour) on the left and liquid water on the right, and crossing the line is what you call boiling. The second order point is the place [...] Click to continue reading this post

News from the Front, X: Smoother Transition

second_order_transition_1Yesterday I submitted a new paper to the arxiv. This is is my favourite curve from it. Some of you who follow the blog will recognize the blue circle-dots and guess that this is the output of the dot-generation I’ve been tinkering away at (and reporting on somewhat cryptically) since April (see e.g. here, here, and here). Correct. There are many reasons why that is the case. One of them might well be because it looks like a very comfy chair, and by time I’d submitted the paper, I was rather tired. I’d pulled an all-nighter to finish the paper because I wanted to submit it by noon yesterday, and the night before I had to spend several hours at a social event.

So once it was an appropriate time to leave the place I was at, I said my goodbyes, jumped on my bike, pedalled home, all_nighter_things put on some coffee, some Ana Tijoux (through headphones, so as not to wake anyone. Why her? Kinetic energy was what I needed at that moment – her vocal style is full of that. Try “La Bala” or “1977″. It is in Spanish, but that’s just fine.), and from 10:30pm to about 12 hours later, ground out the paper. I had to do this since I took some time away from the research project for a week, and then on Tuesday evening noticed the title and abstract of a new paper on the arxiv that suggested some overlap with what I was doing. So I had no choice but to gather all the results I’d been gathering the last several weeks and write them up and get them out, putting off reading the other paper until afterwards, so as to remain independent. Hence the all-nighter to finish it all. It was a pretty easy paper to write since I’ve had the results for a while, knew what I wanted to say, and it was just a matter of pulling everything together and writing a lot of background to set the scene for the results. A fair amount of the time was spent fiddling with things like how to generate figures from Matlab that embed nicely into the text, and so forth. Technical tedium.

The physics? Another reason I like the above curve is because it examines physics from an old favourite phase transition I co-discovered almost 14 – gosh yes, cvj, fourteen! – years ago. To my knowledge it is perhaps the earliest example of a [...] Click to continue reading this post

SCSS Report

scss_may_2013Friday’s Southern California Strings Seminar was a success! Thanks to all who came, who spoke, and the UCLA organizers. I enjoyed all four talks that were put on, and learned a lot from each. (Sera Cremonini is giving her nice talk about duals of hyperscaling violating theories in the photo.)

I was particularly pleased about the talk by Daniel Harlow about the Firewall issue, [...] Click to continue reading this post

Southern California Strings Seminar

The group at UCLA is hosting the next SCSS, and it is on Friday. More details here. The schedule looks good:

9:30-11:00 Sera Cremonini (Texas A&M): “Probing the IR of hyperscaling violating geometries.”

11:15-12:45 Ken Intriligator (UCSD): “Aspects of 3d N=2 Chern-Simons-Matter Theories.”

12:45-2:15: Lunch

2:15-3:45: Daniel Harlow (Princeton): “On the Computational Complexity of Hawking Radiation”

4:00- 5:30: Eric D’Hoker (UCLA): “Supermoduli and supersymmery breaking”

Enjoy!

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Something’s not quite right, perhaps?

thing_vs_thing Yeah. Scary, right? I woke up one morning to this result (see earlier posts here, here, and here) from a night of an intensive computer run. It was not meant to be a straight line, but pretty close to it, so I knew that something was wrong with my code. Took me a good long while to trace the problem, but I did in the end. My signal was being swamped by both [...] Click to continue reading this post

Lines of Thought

So I’ve moved on to curved lines now, in case you’re wondering. :) (See previous posts.) The last several days (the research parts) have been taken up with more computations. A lot of the time has been spent calibrating the programs, and trying to assess and understand and characterize the inevitable errors that show up, by running the programs and checking the resulting plots of data points against expectations shaped by hand calculations. Calculating on the train to and from work, I’ve filled several pages of my small notebook with computations, alongside sketches of some of my surroundings as usual (people mostly). As a result (fingers crossed) I think I’ve now understood all the key aspects of the results I’ve been getting, and have good numerical control of things. To get such control, I’ve had to push the error tolerance and the size of the grid of points I’m computing on to regimes where I’m back again to waiting for the better part of an hour for each data point. (One sets up the problem on the computer by making continuous variables, such as space and time, into discrete ones, forming a grid. The problem is then to use various [...] Click to continue reading this post

A Much Shorter Straight Line

LinePlot2 How is the line coming along? It is very kind of you to ask (if indeed you were). Well, there it is to the left. (See the previous post for background.) In the end, I abandoned Maple since it was taking way too long to do each point, and just for the simple example. (When I tried to do one sample point of the complicated example it took 24 hours and I stopped it before it was done!) The point is that Maple does not easily [...] Click to continue reading this post

A Very Long Straight Line

I’ve been multitasking in an interesting way. Sort of. I’ve reached a certain point with some computations I am doing that I cannot go beyond by analytic means. LinePlotThis means that I can’t extract the physics I need by doing algebra and other exact manipulations on paper any more. Progress can continue however by using numerical means, employing a computer to solve the highly non-linear equations and extract the juice. There are several steps involved, and ultimately, I want to determine how a certain physical quantity depends on another physical quantity. (I’m sparing you the trouble of knowing what the details of the physical quantities are, since it does not matter for the thing I am trying to tell you. It relates to quantum field theory, gravity, and string theory, which connects the two.)

I can see that dependence quite clearly if I simply plot a graph of one versus the other, and in this case I need the computer to work out what the points on that graph are. I actually don’t know the answer for the cases I really am interested in, nobody does (that’s why it is research!), and so that’s what I want to find. I want lots of points to get a nice smooth graph, so the computer has to compute a lot of points, and I need to run it for a long time since I want it to compute the points very accurately. So I wrote a program (in Maple) to work on the problem, studying just one [...] Click to continue reading this post

TED Youth Talk – Hidden Structures of the Universe

cvj_TED_YouthYou might recall that last year I gave a talk at TED Youth, in their second year of short TED talks aimed at younger audiences. You’ll recall (see e.g. here and here) I made a special set of slides for it, composed from hundreds of my drawings to make it all in graphic novel style, and somehow trying to do (in 7 minutes!!) what the TED people wanted.

They wanted an explanation of string theory, but when I learned that telescopesI was the only person in the event talking about physics, I kind of insisted that (in a year when we’d discovered the Higgs boson especially!) I talk more broadly about the broader quest to understand what the world is made of, leaving a brief mention of string magnifytheory at the end as one of the possible next steps being worked on. Well, they’ve now edited it all together and made it into one of the lessons on the TED Ed site, and so you can look at it. Show it to friends, young and old, and remember that it is ok if you don’t get everything that is said… it is meant to invite you to find out more on your own. Also, as you see fit, use the pause button, scroll back, etc… to get the most out of the narrative.

I’m reasonably pleased with the outcome, except for one thing. WHY am I rocking [...] Click to continue reading this post

Congratulations!

In other interesting announcements today, the great physicist Alexander Polyakov has been given the Fundamental Physics Prize. (See the announcement here.) There was a remarkable award ceremony in Geneva yesterday, hosted by Morgan Freeman, and with lots of Physicists and others celebrating great work in various areas of physics. Polyakov has been a key and brilliant leader in many areas of theoretical physics, and influenced so many ideas and techniques that have fed into the whole field, and so this is a well deserved recognition.

I must note that it is a bit sad (to say the least) to do a google search on the news about this prize and see so many articles with a lot of just plain stupid focussing on a big prize going to a “string theorist”, as though this is somehow negative or ironic, and also missing the fact that Polyakov’s contributions are so broad and far-reaching [...] Click to continue reading this post

Interview!

A while ago I got an email out of the blue from an enthusiastic young fellow who wanted to do an interview with me on camera for his YouTube channel. After we bounced emails back and forth a bit and I got a sense that this was both legitimate, worth supporting, and that I had time to do it, we agreed that we’d meet to do it. So we met at the excellent Mystery and Imagination bookshop in Glendale, and he set the camera running and threw a bunch of questions at me. We talked about all sorts of things from dark matter, the LHC, supersymmetry and string theory to trumpets, jazz clubs, and noir films.

It was fun, and you can find the results on his YouTube channel (here), that he hopes to populate with more interviews with people working in science and other topics. He’s got an interview with mathematical physicist John Baez up there already, so go and look.

Below, I’ve embedded the interviews with me, for your convenience.

Enjoy! [...] Click to continue reading this post

They Seemed to Like It

What? The final exam I set on Friday. I spent a lot of time trying to get this final exam right. The problem is that I tend to decide at some point that I want to set an “interesting” exam, and then this usually ends up being more work for me than for the students, since you not only have to think of the questions and make them the right level of difficulty (made harder by being open book and, in this case, a take home -well, take to where ever for 4 hours), but then endlessly debug to see that it has no mistakes (since I won’t be present to answer questions). This time, I spent a lot of time on units, since I wanted to set an exam that kept all the factors of c and mu and epsilon present in all the relativistic notation and right down to the final unpacked Maxwell equations and all the quantities they computed in various examples. I decided to have them explore a little non-linear electrodynamics, since everything they’d seen was mostly linear. You start with the familiar (Maxwell) form of the equations:

[...] Click to continue reading this post

Local Connections

Well, Thursday’s meeting was a blast! I had decided not to try to get people to RSVP for the meeting this time, and so when it came down to the day before, I had no idea how many were going to show up. This meant that I had to make some guesses about how much coffee and tea and cookies to organize, which was a little bit of a challenge. But just before 9:00am people began to show up, and kept showing up, and by time I was ready to start off the day’s meeting, there was a really good crowd!

In the end it was a great day, with five really good talks and lots of excellent discussion. [...] Click to continue reading this post

Southern California Strings Seminar

Southern California String Seminar May 2011 in progressThe next Southern California Strings Seminar is on Thursday 13th December! I’ve now made the website for this one and it is here. Come back to it from time to time to see the updates of talk titles as speakers let me know what they are. It is a one-day event filled with five talks and plenty of time for discussion. I’ve snagged a lovely room in the Doheny library again. (Photo left has a shot of the room we used last time it was at USC in May 2011. The most recent one was over at UCLA.)

You are welcome to come and do physics with us! Also, if you’re part of a group in [...] Click to continue reading this post

Talking

…Again. I’ll be on the road again this morning. Heading to California State University Long Beach. They invited me to give a colloquium a while back and I agreed, and when I returned from New York last week I realized I needed to urgently spend a chunk of time thinking about what I was going to talk about, and designing a set of slides for it. The last couple of days saw me devoting a lot of time to it. Eventually I decided to dig back into ancient times (the 1990s) surveying some of the interesting things we’ve learned about strong coupling phenomena (involving unexpected reorganization of degrees of freedom and the number of spacetime dimensions at times), and then discuss what it all might be good for in view of work going on in the last decade or so.

Come to think of it just this moment, this is a chance to do a tribute to David Olive, who passed away earlier this month. (He was one of my professors when I was at Imperial College in the ’80s.) Ideas of strong/weak coupling dualities and their utility were given a huge boost by his work in this area from decades ago, perhaps the most famous being Montonen-Olive duality… I must remember to mention that in the talk. (See here for an archive of 2004 talks in celebration of his work. I borrowed the image to the right from there. I do not know who took it.)

Here’s the title and abstract: [...] Click to continue reading this post