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Edward Witten on science, strings, himself

Two months ago, the Institute of Physics revealed this YouTube video:



Edward Witten, whom they still call "a 2010 Newton Medal Winner" rather than the "An Inaugural Milner Prize Winner" because they think that £1,000 with a stamp "IOP" on it (plus the name of Isaac Newton, without his permission) is more than $3,000,000 ;-), is talking for 25 minutes about his CV, previous scholarly interests, as well as hot topics in string theory.




Edward Witten is known for having studied some social sciences – journalism, history, linguistics – and being a tool of the Democratic Party candidates (such as George McGovern 1972 who just died) but he has been interested in physical sciences from his childhood. He was interested in astronomy but he was afraid that the job required him to be an astronaut. It is cute to mix astronomers and astronauts. My dad doesn't distinguish astronomers from astrologers.

Of course, his father – a theoretical physicist – was probably affecting Edward Witten, too.

He has been interested in the peace in the Middle East. In fact, some of his $3 million Milner money is going to J Street, a left-wing NGO trying to create peace between the Israeli Arabs and Jews in some of the most naive ways. Of course, just like anyone who takes string theory seriously, he shows an old picture of himself on a camel.

He talks about his wife, kids, and interests. His parents didn't believe in pushing kids too far too quickly. He got a standard theoretical physics education rather soon. Only when he was a postdoc, his maths was getting deeper. Supersymmetry became essential when he was a student. It has played a key role in his research from the beginning.

Some extra remarks are dedicated to Einstein's general relativity, extra dimensions, and unification of all forces. He talks about his negative-energy instability of higher dimensions without SUSY. He paints himself as a relative latecomer to string theory. Of course, it depends whom you compare him with. Witten compares the beauty of the sound of different musical instruments depending on the admixtures of the higher Fourier modes.

In the early 1980s, he realized that the available consistent string vacua failed to violate the left-right symmetry (P and CP). At some moment in 1984, the first superstring revolution explodes and it was the first string miracle that occurred when Witten was watching. That's why it was a signal from the Heaven for him. String theory got much more realistic.

The 1990s are the decade of dualities and M-theory. Who needed the other four string theories, and so on. From that time, he's been intrigued by the application of string/M-theoretical methods to understand issues in "ordinary" established particle physics theories (why positive energy, why confinement, ...). This light that string theory manages to shine upon the established theories is Witten's main reason to be convinced that string theory is on the right track. The elegance with which string theory sheds the light is another reason. Witten still calls our understanding of string theory "the rough draft" but this rough draft has already led to amazing insights and Witten doesn't believe that such a chain of astonishing discoveries has happened by coincidence.

The last reason why string theory seems right to him is that it teaches us new and deeper things about the geometry – including things that surprised mathematicians and inspired those at the frontier. He hadn't expected such a thing when he was young but these insights did materialize. Our confusion has actually helped to develop the new concepts.

A special discussion is dedicated to the big mystery what is the core principle underlying string theory much like the equivalence principle or spatial curvature underlying Einstein's general relativity. What string theory really means? It fascinates him most. But for decades, the theory has been smarter than us and forced us to move in previously unanticipated direction with twists – and that's probably still true today.

Witten isn't actively trying to solve the biggest questions. He says a thing often told by Andy Strominger as well – an important skill in the research is to choose a question small enough so that you have a chance to answer it but big enough so that it is worth answering. The Khovanov issues are mentioned as an example. Witten couldn't understand what the stuff was about – but he did understand it was physics-related (I am not that far). Witten makes it clear he realizes that most string theorists aren't interested in those things but he's independent enough not to care. Of course, there's no guarantee this stuff will be important. He knows that but he suspects it will be important. ;-)

At the end, he compares the string theory research with the discovery of new continents and with finding a treasure underground that we don't fully understand but we see that pieces fit together.

New element

Some fun via Fred S. – a new densest element was just found.

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snail feedback (32) :


reader Dilaton said...

Oh yeah, I look forward to watch this :-D

As the picture on a camel is a sign of coolness ;-), trying to play the fundamental physics prize down by not mentioning or ignoring it is quite a sourballish attitude :-/


reader Dilaton said...

...BTW Lumo, as a 7 year old I was in Isreal with my family for holidays, and on that occasion I had the oportunity to sit on a camel and having a picture taken too :-P ;-) :-D


reader Luboš Motl said...

That's cool it's from Israel - you're probably just like Witten. I was older and it was in Tunisia, not Israel. ;-)


reader Eugene S said...

J Street... *sigh*


reader dopey_john said...

I'm not sure whether to feel depressed or awe at Witten's natural talent: Up to his early 20s he didn't take much of an interest in physics/maths, he then takes a few maths/physics books home from the library, studies them, then enrolls on a physics graduate course at Princeton. OMG... I just want to cry...


reader George Christodoulides said...

so his dad that if i remember correctly worked on supersymmetry didn't matter?


reader George Christodoulides said...

i personally prefer guys that are less good in mathematics than Witten


reader James Gallagher said...

I have a picture astride a donkey in Ireland.


reader George Christodoulides said...

he is also not a libertarian!


reader Shannon said...

Very nice interview... Witten makes String Theory glamorous : "...an underground treasure, we don't know what the treasure is... we just know that when we dig we find bits and pieces of the treasure"...


On the Obamacronium I have a question : would a Mormon be a moron's super-partner ? ;-)


reader George Christodoulides said...

does anyone know if Ed Witten was also really good in economics? and if he was why he supported the Democratic party?


reader Shannon said...

George is off again :-D


reader commenter said...

Lubos caused a serious anachronism here. I have seen this vid more than a year ago, indeed, it is from 2010.


This is why the ''fundamental physics prize'' is not mentioned :)


reader George Christodoulides said...

my brother just told me off that i should not make comments in particle physics blogs since i don't have a clue about particle physics!
so in case people read my comments. George and Kyriakos are different...i am the good looking one.


reader Gene said...

Absolutely, Shannon. In the Mormon tradition the word of God was brought down to Joseph Smith, the Latter Day Saints founder, by the angel Moroni. No doubt the angel Moron is the angel Moroni’s super-partner.


reader Luboš Motl said...

This copy of the video was posted by IOP 2 months ago, August 10th, when the Milner Prize could have been mentioned in the description of the video etc.


reader Luke Lea said...

Witten has an unusual personality, at lease in his public addresses, which I find remarkable. I'm not sure how to characterize it except as a kind of even-toned modesty in an almost feminine high voice that seems guaranteed to not arouse envy in his colleagues. Is it true that he is almost in a league by himself? He's not from another planet is he? :)


reader Sreekar Guddeti said...

Sir,
The part "...My dad doesn't distinguish astronomers from astrologers..." was hilarious. I too find many people from my country do not have the capacity to differentiate between a science and a pseudoscience. On the basis of this ignorance, they try to justify and unfortunately support age-old, exploitative practices.


reader Mike said...

I like what Witten said: an important skill in the research is to choose a question small enough
so that you have a chance to answer it but big enough so that it is
worth answering. Even the best mind won't challenge to answer the most difficult questions and that is what I would remember from this interview.


reader Peter F. said...

Hopefully, Witten's interest in "Khovanov issues" is not getting him stuck in an inversely similar way to how Einstein got stuck. %-}


reader Shannon said...

Lol ! My intuition told me right.


reader Justin said...

Edward Witten, an excellent mathematician. I'm not sure I'd call him a physicist of any sort given that his entire career has been dedicated to mathematical abstractions whose connection to the real world is non-existant.


reader Mitchell Porter said...

I would point out his early work on the standard model... but with web critics of physics, one never knows just how much they want to reject. Do you reject quarks? Quantum mechanics? Or do you just restrict your criticism to theories that haven't been verified yet?


reader Dilaton said...

May I kindly ask you to go away and troll somewhere else?
The language of physics IS math, like it or not !


reader Marcela Mota said...

i think that the solution discoverede by donaldson to the topology all totally smooth to the 4-dimensional manifolds are to the metrics of spacetime of einstein that are the part of the exotics structures that g


reader Marcela Mota said...

has vector vector bundles not differentiables to the 4-dimensional topological geometry,that exotic structures can to be perceived by quantum fields or discreteness of time conected to the space in spacetime continuos that generate the 4-dimensional manifolds( with chiralities) are the exotic structures defined to the connection of space and time


reader Marcela Mota said...

i think that the antimatter diesn't exist in the nature,the asymmetry between the particles and antiparticles are due the asymmetry of proper matter in the relativistic transformations of energy into of mass and viceversa due the asymmetry of space and time( generating the spacetime continuos) that is associated the violation of CP or maximalmally PT that demonstrate the asymmetry of mass and energy with the incresing of speeds between the relative inertial frames.the time dilatation and the contraction of space implies the existence of symmetry between the rotational invariance broken´thence appear the the antiparticles as "energy locally bundled in the quantic vacuum.then the antiparticles appear as hypersymmetries of the dirac's equations.that implies in the 5-dimensional spacetime continuos to the broken symmetry in the 4-dimensional manifolds with two opposite torsions in the hyperbolic and elliptic non-euclidean tpology geometries in the conjugation of space and time in spacetime continuos with derivatives of violation of stronger of PT or to conservation of cp in the strong interactions that is associated to loops of spacetime to electromagnetics fields deformeds


reader Marcela Mota said...

i thinh through STR.GTR,QUANTUM THEORY,AND STRING THEORY THAT THE UNIVERSE IS MADE NOT OF POINTS ,OR STRAIGHTS,BUT YES BY COLLECTIONS THAT ARE THREE SPECTRAL ENTITIES THAT CAN TO BE MATRICES,SPLIT-BIQUATERNIONS,OCTONIONS AND OTHERS GENERALIZATIONS OF ALGEBRIC GEOMETRY,THAT HAS THE NON-COMMUTATIVE AND SEMI-ASSOCIATIVE PROPERTIES THAT CONTAIN IN ITS INTERNE STRUCTURE,SIMULTANEOUSLY: THECONDICTION OF CONTINUITY AND DISCRETENESS TO FUNDAMENTAL ENTITIES TO THE SPACETIME-THAT ARE ALGEBRIC TOPOLOGIC,GEOMETRICS OBJECTS NOT ENCOUNTERED IN THE NATURE,BUT AS THOUGHT STRUCTURES.


reader Marcela Mota said...

particles-antiparticles9 right-left symmetry) are property of the metrics of spacetime continuum.the violation of pt( or stronger CP) induce to the metrics of spacetime continuos,each one with an only one frequency-where does appear the constancy of speed of light to measure the spacetime-to measure the space and time as openned and closed curvatures-the contraction of space and time dilatation -that is due the violation of cp and the uniformity not of variation of spacetime with the incresing of speed,nearest to the speed of light,demonstrating that the violation of cp is associated to the deformations of spacetime,it is the variability of both entities when connecteds.


reader Marcela Mota said...

the strings might be all equals? or there are of several forms,srtrucures,sizes?


reader Rosy Mota said...

is interesting to see that the 4-dimensional manifolds
is very rich in topologicaland algebrical ,geometry and therefore physical entities that does the constructions of spacetime,the metrics and non totally smooth that

is equivalent to structures multidimensional


reader antonio carlos pocobi said...

i believe that exist antiparticles,antimatter,dark matter ,dark energy,or any others things.all is linked to miss of mathematical structures to physical theory yet,or
ours mathematical conceptions are faults yet
the STR,GTR,QUANTUM MECHANICS,STRING THEORIES AND OTHERS SUFFER OF PROBLEMS
OF FOUNDATIONS.THE PROPER OF THEORY OF NEWTON IN MECHANICS AND OPTICS HAS SEVERAL LOOPHOLES AND THE PHYSICAL LANDSCAPES AND MODELS ARE INCOMPLETES