Sunday, February 03, 2013

High energy physics jobs: terror against formal theory

After some time, I checked the work of all the people listed in shortlists at the
Theoretical Particle Physics Jobs Rumor Mill
And I think that the composition of the folks is scary. Even though the page claims to list "theoretical" jobs, I haven't found a single person – among the dozens – who is primarily a formal theorist in high-energy physics – i.e. who mostly posts to hep-th. Correct me if I have missed someone. It's not just about the attribution to the archives; none of the people in the list is clearly thinking in the top-down way.

This strikingly differs from the best years of the discipline.

I think that the atmosphere behind this heavily skewed statistics is extremely unhealthy and is working on the elimination of the elite status of high-energy physics among the scientific disciplines. Pretty much all the people in the list are concerned with some analyses of ongoing or near-future experiments and wonderful interpretations of what the various findings could mean.

However, there have been no discoveries of new physics. Some new physics will eventually be found but the strategy to speculate about too many details of the models that could be the next experimental discovery – a way to describe the driver behind much of work on the hep-ph archive – simply hasn't been successful in recent years and decades. The lasting value was predominantly found by hep-th theorists.

It seems to me that the decrease of the hiring of ingenious young theorists in the field has already been apparent in the quality and excitement of the hep-th literature in recent years. There have been some ingenious or near-ingenious papers but they usually get very little attention simply because there aren't too many people who are near the top and who could write interesting followups. Instead, the high energy literature is getting filled with lots of papers that "almost everyone with the appropriate kind of PhD could write", i.e. average papers. Something that would make me scream "Wow" is even rarer than ever before. This worrisome comparison works even for papers by the same folks who happen to publish some wonderful theoretical papers as well as somewhat ordinary phenomenological ones.

It's clear to me that almost no one who is really responsible for this trend is listening to me; this is clearly done deliberately. Still, I find the trend immensely pathological. Both the global statistical overview as well as my knowledge of the stories of individual people makes it clear to me that the best young people in high-energy physics – and yes, most (but not all) of those whom I would count into this group are hep-th folks – are struggling in extremely modest jobs while the average folks (sorry, I won't name particular names) are having the green light everywhere.

Especially because it's so likely that Nature will continue to be austere in the new effects it will allow us to discover, and this fact has become even more clear when the new experiments were actually launched and their first data analyzed, it's more important than ever to build physicists' work on something else than a wishful thinking and speculative belief in fireworks that may be demonstrated by direct experiments. That's a very cheap, and probably ultimately counterproductive, strategy to build and maintain the skeleton of what used to be known as science's most prestigious discipline and whose foundations used to be far deeper and more far-reaching and ambitious.


  1. If mediocrity weren't so popular (and comfortable), people might just make the mistake of trying to excel (something which Microsoft made into a rude word).

    And if one is excellent, especially in a field in which there is no public excitement, then the audience is small and the number of challenging sparring partners approaches zero.

    The Internet was "supposed to" fix the latter; to connect as many minds as possible to a particular subject; to challenges and test ideas. That was before its potential as a bazaar became exploited on a grand scale.

    There is, in the wider world; great fear of excellence; of employing people who do excellent things because the business specialists see those things as risk factors. "What'll happen if Luboš gets run over by a bus? How will we be able to continue to be excellent without him?"

    Their only refuge is within mediocrity; even when you make it quite clear that doing the same things as everybody else, in the same way, leaves no latitude for having a competitive edge. To many muddle managers; that's a null argument anyway. They'll simply get a new job in their usual 18 to 24-month damage cycle.

    You will never convince the mediocre that excellence is "better". Because it isn't. It's risky. It's hard. It's heart-breaking. Only those who appreciate excellence understand its pursuit.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts!

    Just to be sure, I need to say that there's no contradiction between producing "work different from a majority" and being "well-known". When the field works, the excellent papers are those that differ because they change things but they have lots of followups that do smaller things. But they're followups in some extraordinary enough insight or possible ideas, not just random ideas written down for their own sake. When things don't work, most people write small ideas and they're not really perceptive to extraordinary work that is or may be happening around them - possibly because they don't even have the prerequisites to read it, but even if they can read it, they know they don't have the prerequisites to technically master it and extend it. When this situation takes place and the best ideas just don't have a big enough audience, there's a decoupling between the best people and the numerically prevalent work in the field and citations, for example, cease to count the quality of work.


  3. That is not good and should alert the whole HEP-th community ... :-(

  4. This is a common trend, and I think is largely linked to the natural tendency for most people to not recognize brilliance outside their own capabilities. Individual egos I think cause an inability to realize when brilliant person A has some fantastic insight, average manager B doesn't have the ability to realize that they could never have thought these things themselves. Sometimes things die on the vine because of manager B's lack of recognizing A's genius, and sometimes manager B believes that A's idea was their own and takes credit in a sort of soft plagiarism.

    This is the problem of what I think of incompatibility of people's mental horizons. Some people have mental horizons that for outreach those of their peers and are always invariable forced into a position to coach people until the catch up. Sometimes that takes a long time, and I use Gauss as the prime historical example of someone who had to hold back. Newton was also in this category, and Feynman's interest in educating people is a good indicator of at least of subconscious recognition of the state of affairs (amongst others one can think of).

    HEP is a relatively new discipline, and as disciplines become institutionalized, the inevitable reality is that there are more B's than A's. I have a theory about institutional IQ. Invariably as the population of an institution increases, the IQ of the institution decreases, and the probability of B's to get to the top increases. Your better institutions will tend to have a very small elite, which appear to be a natural response to managing this problem, since statistically it is highly probably that the elite are A's by limiting their number (assuming a competitive process and not a political or other similar non competitive selection method).

    Just remember, at the end of the day, not everyone can be a rock star, and no one can become a real rock star by decree.

  5. David Zaslavsky once said that he is pretty interested in ST too but that it is too far outlying to base a PhD on it ...

    Maybe People thinking like this is already due to the bad prospects for good jobs for HEP-th physicists as described in this article ... ?

  6. Dear Lubos,

    at the expense of being repetitive I will once more repeat that this too is the result of the commercialization of science and the stranglehold of grants on the academy.

    When to get a respectable physics grant from the EU one has to go through contortions of paying lip service to the applications of the research, and the judges are chosen by EU bureaucrats the probability of a theorists' theorist to get a grant is zero. This leaves tenure track jobs and post docs in academic institutions, but they are also poisoned by the money bug. They choose candidates who can bring in money to the institutes. Unfortunately the market forces dominate academic decisions too.

    A drastic change in financing is necessary. Maybe this Miller fellow who has gathered top theorists in a committee could give 50 fellowships for basic theory, the candidates chosen for excellence by that committee.

    The distribution of funds should return to the academic institutes on internal peer committees.

  7. Yeah, Milner could probably help :-)

  8. Hi Lubos,

    Actually the first two names on the list are string theorists (Jockers, Melnikov). I wouldn't argue with your general picture. Also, let me add that the Harvard shortlist will show string people when disclosed.

  9. Hi Lubos,

    Actually the first two names on the list (Jockers, Melnikov) are string theorists. Also, the Harvard shortlist will include many string people when disclosed. This doesn't invalidate your general picture though.

  10. 1.) To those who mentioned Harvard: This is not a job, but practically a long post-doc (as the last 10 years have shown).

    2.) Lubos: What this people do is still much better than F-theory crap, but much worse than what some other formal people are doing.

  11. "it's so likely that Nature will continue to be austere in the new effects it will allow us to discover...."

    Don't quote me I wasn't here but last time I looked the paranormal effects were still there waiting for the elite physicists to check them out. Hang on a sec, I'll look again. Yep they're still there. What could possibly go wrong?

  12. In what kind of period should experimentalists be prioritized, phenomenologists be prioritized, and theorists be prioritized?

    Historically, science needs at least two things to move forward:

    - An experiment or observation, one that is rigorously done, that is not consistent with canonical ideas.
    - A theoretical framework to incorporate said experiment.

    With the Michelson-Morley experiment being an example of both.

    It's not obvious which of the two is more lacking right now.

  13. Hey
    What Cumrum Vava does gives quite nice low energy phenomenology, so please ...

  14. Dear David, the right description of the optimal situation is not "prioritization" but "equilibrium".

    An equilibrium doesn't mean that there is an equal number of both types. Equilibrium means that the benefits from one additional theorist are as large as those of one new phenomenologist, and so on.

    Generally, if one group is excessive, the value of a new addition will decrease due to the law of diminishing returns. However, depending on the situation, the equilibrium may happen at distinct ratios of theorists and phenomenologists, and other ratios.

    It is not really true that the advances we call special relativity depended on the Morley-Michelson experiment. It just happened that the guy who ultimately found the right fix of the old physics was a Gentleman who wasn't thinking about the experiment - and who hasn't mentioned it in his papers - at all.

    I wasn't comparing anyone with the experimenters. We're clearly in an exciting experimental era that needs a certain number of experimenters - clearly it could be done with 1/4 of the existing number but the waste isn't extreme. I was comparing theorists and phenomenologists.

  15. Looking forward to see at least some additional relief. I admit I may have skipped the first two names. ;-)

  16. Dear orientifold, Harvard is a name of a (renowned) university, not a job occupation. Harvard employs lots of postdocs, lots of "better postdoc-like jobs", lots of tenure-track faculty, lots of tenured faculty, and some untenured faculty.

    It has a strong group doing F-theory but that's extremely far from being the only thing that is done at Harvard. F-theory is not "crap" and only a primitive could think so. Also, it's not clear what "this people" in your sentence refers to.