Saturday, August 18, 2012

Hard work vs groundbreaking discoveries in HE physics

I want to focus on one important aspect of the Milner Prize, namely the recognition of unexpected and original, creative research that goes beyond hard work.

Matt Strassler has been trying hard to make the boundary look more fuzzy or non-existent. But the boundary is still there.

There are findings in physics
  • that could be planned, whose relevance is immediately obvious, but that require hard work that someone unsurprisingly does and someone should pay for via grants
  • that are unexpected, qualitatively change the landscape and thinking, redirect the character of the future research, but still may be supported by solid evidence.
Both of these categories of physics papers are important but the elements of the second group are obviously rarer; that's also why the authors of such conceptual breakthroughs are celebrated e.g. by the Milner Prize.

Let me begin with a comment by "dude" that I subscribe to.

Incidentally, dude is a physicist who works in a physics town called Son-of-the-Queen – Thousand-Kilos in the U.S. state named Fashionable T-shirt (I hope that you know enough U.S. geography) and I am not quite sure about his or her identity. When something is obvious or obviously wrong, he or she doesn't hesitate to point it out. So I learned I was doped when I implicitly wrote that squarks were fermions :-).

The right explanation was that I woke up early to see a paper I had wanted to see for days and my brain wasn't still fully running when I was writing that sentence, but the general message of dude's criticism was of course right. My mistake was very silly.

On Matt Strassler's blog, dude wrote:
Such luxurious prizes are given to people who have done something that few others could do. Many of the recipients of the prize definitely answer to this criterion. Take any of them and imagine he did not exist, well, the world would look quite different

This is not true for hardcore higher-loop QCD computations. Somebody gotta do it, and if not them then somebody else would have stepped up.
As you could have noticed at the top, I completely agree with that. That doesn't mean that I don't admire the people who are the world's best professionals in higher-loop QCD computations. Thousands of insights, skills, facts, and formulae that I don't know are hardwired in their brains. Nevertheless, I am confident that I know enough to have a good idea about the "big picture" of their work and it seems clear that all the obstacles that ever emerge in their work may be overcome in rather straigthforward ways. They are constrained by lots of things that we know and they develop procedures to sail in between these constraints, using the method of trial and error (and other methods).

Matt Strassler disagrees with dude and thinks that dude's blasphemy is exactly the reason why there have to be prizes for the hard workers, to make them feel "equal" to the revolutionaries. Well, they're not quite equal. The world of modern physics would be totally different if we didn't know there exists M-theory, supersymmetry, that the Universe probably inflated some time ago, it could have large dimensions, quantum gravity obeyed the holographic principle, and so on. However, if someone didn't find a way to define jets that is accurate enough for two-loop calculations, someone else would find a different definition of jets that would be comparably accurate later.

I can't believe that Strassler doesn't see the difference between the importance and scarcity of these two types of contributions to physics. It seems more plausible to think that he sees the difference as clearly as everyone else does but he just decided to promote an egalitarian perspective in physics whether or not it is defensible.

While glorifying the BlackHat team (nothing whatsoever against them, of course, it's just that the things "for them" aren't infinite), Strassler writes:
I have to follow-up on this one, it’s such a stupid remark. Why do you think the BlackHat people are some of the leaders in the field of calculations? Because they were smart enough to invent new methods! It’s not as though just anyone can do that — you need both the smarts of good theorists and the years of experience with calculations to recognize something clever that will actually work.
It's probably fair. You need some of the best mathematicians-practitioners and years of work. But it's still an "engineering" job and you're bound to find such people and the solutions if you offer them good enough conditions (I don't mean just a salary but I do also mean a salary). Many similarly good mathematicians-practitioners are found in the experimental particle physics teams or hedge funds or other places. There is a large enough set of smart people who are replaceable, however.

But my point is the following one. To ignite conceptual breakthroughs in physics, you need much more than that. You need people who are able to think outside the box, at the right places outside the box, and maybe sometimes closer to the center of the box than where anyone else has ever been (i.e. deeply inside the box), people who have intuition that can't be planned, and you're never sure whether such people exist on the job market at all. Maybe such people are born once in 10 years or 20 years or 100 years, depending on the importance of the breakthrough we are talking about. They're just a higher category. Perhaps they also needed some good luck but if you see someone who is able to have good luck so many times, you should start to doubt that the "good luck" is the right explanation.

To argue that there's no difference between the Milner Prize winners and the higher-loop QCD professionals, Strassler offers this tricky argument:
And it’s not an accident that the BlackHat founders are the same people who have made major contributions, while this has all been going on, to both our understanding of the maximally supersymmetric gauge theory and the maximally supersymmetric gravity theory, including ones that the Milner prize winners Maldacena and Arkani-Hamed have often referred to in their own work.
So these higher-loop physicists are at the very top because they've been cited by Arkani-Hamed and Maldacena, LOL. Is Strassler serious or was it just a joke? I have lots of citations from Witten, Maldacena, and two papers co-written with Arkani-Hamed, among other things, but I don't claim and I have never claimed to be or to have been their full-fledged peer. People are citing other people's work and the citation doesn't mean that the "citer" and the "citee" are exactly at the same level.

Theorists who write more important papers or less important papers also refer to experimenters but that doesn't mean that every experiment that has been done has been as remarkable as a theoretical breakthrough and the experimenters had to be unusually exceptional physicists. Experiments simply may be done. Many of them could be done by pretty much any trained physicist. To a large extent, complicated numerical calculations are analogous to experiments. They may be done. It requires a significant amount of expertise and lots of hard work but they're "predictable". In particular, if you allow the results to be approximate, there's always a way to improve the accuracy or the number of loops (which are related). It's an evolutionary process, something that differs from a revolutionary event.

Bernhard stood on Strassler's side with this comment:

People working with these computer programs are actually very much acknowledged for their work (just not by Milner, but he is not a scientist so who cares?) and the world would indeed look quite different if they didn’t exist. Can you imagine the world without Pythia? Without HERWIG? Remember, writing these programs is a bit of an art as well as result of years of theoretical research. They carry the imprint of their fathers.
I think it's at least debatable whether Milner is a scientist. It depends how you define it. At any rate, many people surely care about what he thinks, at least because of those millions. Among the people who have been doing different things for more than a decade, Milner seems to be unusually aware about what's shaking, and that's another reason why I do care.

Can I imagine a world without Pythia? Yes, it would be a world that differs from ours in details but not in the grand features. There wouldn't be a Pythia but there would be a Kuthia (Czech readers may recall that the main unit of time is a sepynda). And maybe there would be two programs, Kut and Hia, that would approximately play the same role as Pythia when combined. The details of the program would surely be different. More efficient than Pythia in some respects, less efficient in others.

So I agree that Pythia or HERWIG carry the fingerprint of their creators. Most programs do. But just the fact that something carries someone's fingerprints doesn't make it critically important or revolutionary. Competent physicists have different fingerprints and the main point I want to make is that one's fingerprints aren't necessarily "much better" than someone else's fingerprints. So it's just irrational to worship someone's fingerprints just because they're there. It's a typical feature of an engineering work that there's a lot of ambiguity about the way how things may be done, different people choose different solutions, and their products therefore carry fingerprints.

And indeed, the reason why conceptual discoveries such as cosmic inflation, string theory, or large extra dimensions are more important is that the main ideas do not carry any fingerprints of their discoverers! That's really why they're important. The discoverers have found something that is objectively important, not just something that the best solution according to one particular person with one random fingerprint.

Spanish engineers could have been building landfills in Spain and they carried their fingerprints. On the other hand, Columbus has found a new continent and the new continent doesn't really carry his fingerprints. It's not even named after him. The richest part of the continent doesn't even consider itself to be a Spanish or British colony anymore. ;-) But that's exactly why the New World was important. Its importance went well beyond one person's idiosyncrasies. The era of exploration still demanded some bold people who were doing things that were needed for such discoveries.

Bernhard says that the creation of such programs is also an art. I agree with that. One needs to be an artist of a sort to find such solutions etc. But artists are creative workers who produce new things that are not unique but it's exactly the uniqueness and universal importance and inevitability that we cherish in physics. So being an artist in the sense of making lots of choices that could also be done differently is exactly one of the signs that a physicist is mainly a hard worker and not a revolutionary. So Bernhard's logic is really upside down. It's hard to say whether it's his reasoning or his primary values that are upside down.

In a subsequent comment, Strassler defends the hard workers in QCD against the evil barbarian string theorists in this way:
While I completely agree with this comment, I think the problem with it is that it doesn’t communicate across the knowledge barrier. Most string theorists think Pythia is just a silly computer program that simulates what any good theorist could do with a pen and paper. That’s because they don’t understand how much non-trivial physics insight goes into understanding the formation of jets (URL), [...]
Lots of knowledge about detailed physics goes into Pythia; most of this knowledge about elementary interactions, parton distributions, showers, and fragmentation were found previously by others and the Pythia creators combined them. It's an impressive piece of hard work that could have only been created when the expertise and trials and errors of lots of smart and hard-working folks was combined. But that's exactly why it's not fundamental, earth-shaking science. It's the union of previously known "qualitative knowledge" found by someone else and lots of new partial insights, technicalities that are guaranteed to be found if one works hard enough.
[...] or into the very observation that quantum mechanical processes in QCD can be simulated using a classical computer program, [...]
That's a totally unrealistic accusation. String theorists (and others) know that their brains work pretty much like classical gadgets – conventional computers – but they may still find out what happens in a system by pure thinking or "simulations" so it would be silly to think that computers with much higher frequencies and larger memories aren't useful. Of course that they're useful. From a mathematical viewpoint, the probability amplitudes are "ordinary" integrals (path integrals) that may be calculated. Parts of these expressions can be conveniently calculated in one way, parts of them are more conveniently translated to different concepts and opposite limits and these parts may be merged and interpolated in various ways. There's a lot of flexibility and lots of things have to be decided in a sensible way to do it right but that's exactly why it's not fundamental science. It's a form of engineering.
[...] or into the observation that there are things about the proton that we can learn in one class of experiments and then apply in a completely different class. [...]
Much of research in string theory or any other sufficiently abstract discipline of science is about learning things about one object and applying the knowledge elsewhere. It's crazy to suggest that string theorists are unfamiliar with this intellectual procedure; they're really the best ones in the world when it comes to the application of this concept because string theory is the longest intellectual bridge between objects and situations that are seemingly as separated as possible.
[...] All of these are non-obvious facts about QCD that someone really smart had to prove. [...]
Right. There's been lots of hard work and lots of things have been proved. Others haven't been proved. But exactly because there are lots of such similarly important insights, they must be treated statistically and none of them may be said to qualitatively transform all of physics.
[...] String theorists tend to assume that once you have the equations, the rest is just details; but almost none of them have actually read the very challenging and brilliant QCD literature from the 1970s and 1980s that made all of this stuff possible. [...]
This sentence is wrong at many levels.

First, it is nonsensical to say that string theory research is only about the search for the defining equations of the theory (although yes, I surely find this part of the research to be among the most fundamental ones). The easiest way to prove this proposition of mine is to notice a simple fact, namely that no one knows "the" primordial universal equations of all of string theory. We don't even know whether such universal equations exist.

String theory as we know it today is a "manifold" composed of many overlapping "patches", each of which is understood as a systematic expansion (often to all orders of perturbation theory) or a non-perturbatively exact set of equations that however prevent us from changing the asymptotic structure of the spacetime (i.e. they can't be extrapolated into another patch). But each of the patches uses the same kind of "phenomenology" that the people who study detailed QCD phenomena are familiar with. Again, string theorists are not unfamiliar with this mode of thinking; they are doing it all the time. Almost none of the important insights in string theory of the last decades were about "finding totally new elementary equations". Instead, the important insights were about relationships between the equations i.e. about effects that these equations surprisingly implied.

So Strassler has completely mischaracterized what the research of string theory actually looks like. But there is another, equally serious problem with his musings: he still tries to deny that there is a difference between shocking, earth-shaking, conceptual, qualitative, surprising discoveries on one side and collections of predictable contributions boiling down to lots of hard work and expertise on the other side.

Even though string theorists are ultimately doing "the same kind of research" as Strassler describes – they usually develop concept, tools, and methods needed to understand the physical behavior of known equations – they still distinguish revolutionary events from incremental evolutionary progress. They distinguish it not only outside string theory; they distinguish it within string theory, too. People in every meaningful scientific discipline make this distinction, too. When it comes to these basic features such as the existence of a "hierarchy of importance", string theory is just another scientific discipline.

So once one (Argentine guy) discovers the AdS/CFT correspondence and perhaps once some other guys outline the bulk interpretation of the boundary correlation functions, it's obvious to almost everyone that one may try to calculate these objects in many example theories and to various degrees of precision. So someone inevitably does lots of these things – that's what the 8,000 papers referring to Maldacena's AdS/CFT paper are about – and none of these papers' authors ever tries to claim that his or her paper is exactly as important as Maldacena's paper (unless there is some exception, and a clear exception for which this statement would be indisputably legitimate is still being waited for). It would simply be ludicrous.
[...] Almost none of them are keeping up with the problem of multi-scale calculations, which is again an issue of fundamental theoretical importance in quantum field theory. [...]
OK, I totally disagree. It's exactly one of the subdisciplines that isn't fundamental, almost by definition, because it is just a conglomerate of several fundamental categories of insights that are just merged and interpolated in a satisfactory way. Multi-scale calculations aren't fundamental physics for the same reason why the transport of genetically modified horses by aircraft isn't fundamental: there are many "combined problems" of this kind and one is solving some particular technicalities that arise from their combinations. There probably doesn't exist any surprising "holy grail" here, just the gradual evolutionary improvements of the "transfer of GM horses by air" technology. But (relatively) more fundamental issues are being solved by those who construct aircrafts of genetically modified horses themselves. ;-)

Hard calculations of this kind are important and must be done but they are just not fundamental. Fundamental insights have to be insights that may be formulated and repeatedly used and that wouldn't be true if they were modified. A methodology to do calculations is just a methodology to do a calculation. It's not unique, it's not fundamental, it's just an engineering solution to a "homework exercise" that had to exist if the underlying equations were truly consistent. Of course, even among these ideas and tricks, one finds more important (or universal) ones and less important (or universal) ones.
[...] And until very recently, almost none of them understood that the formation of jets is a problem in conformal field theory; this was well-known in some QCD circles (well, certainly I knew it, and I was on the borderline between the subfields) but I think Maldacena was the first string theorist to make it known to the string theory community. [...]
This insight tries to pretend to be completely true, novel, fundamental, and surprising, but it's really neither. Everyone has known from the 1970s that the formation of jets is a process that depends on the strong coupling in a gauge theory, one for which the perturbative i.e. weakly coupled QCD isn't enough. And everyone has known since the 1970s that conformal field theories are the "starting" point, rudimentary enough quantum field theories. And nontrivial (interacting) conformal field theories are the ultimate model for strongly coupled quantum field theories (e.g. strongly coupled QCD).

However, the real-world QCD just isn't exactly conformally invariant so predictions of a conformal field theory won't agree with the observations exactly. Some features will depend on the conformal physics, other observed phenomena depend on the theory's being non-conformal (well, the bottom quark, for example, always carries the same mass). This much has been known for nearly four decades, too.

So Strassler's claim isn't really accurate as it stands. It's analogous to the commercial mentioned by Feynman, "Wesson oil isn't absorbed by the food" which is partly right and partly wrong, depending on the temperature but not depending on the brand of the oil. So the commercial is intrinsically misleading. Analogously, to make Strassler's claim right, one has to separate the features that depend on the conformal dynamics and features that depend on the deviations of QCD from conformality. There is a fuzzy border somewhere in between the assumptions – this much has been known from the 1970s as well – and the location of this boundary is known much more accurately than it was known decades ago. But that's a result of hard detailed work, not qualitative breakthroughs.

So when it comes to the validity of Strassler's claim (and similarly most claims in the large body of scientific research as we know it), the devil is in the details. But that's different from fundamental breakthroughs because in the case of the fundamental breakthroughs, the devil is in their primary big-picture identity, not in the detail. The explosive power of a revolutionary insight in physics doesn't depend on the details. Quite on the contrary, it has its own "life support" and it opens many detailed questions that may be studied by others.

Matt Strassler doesn't understand how to distinguish vital, precious discoveries in physics from more or less minor hard work.

And that's the memo.


  1. What do you expect? Political correctness is the disease of modern civilization; but truth is a strange beast, it likes to takes sides.

    BTW Next year's Milner's prize should go to Vasiliev for his HS gauge theory...

  2. Vasiliev's work is fun. Not sure whether I would make the choice, however.

    Political correctness is bad enough but at least I would expect it to be applied at most to people, not scientific (sub)disciplines. With this "generalized" political correctness that applies outside people, we could soon be banned from saying that it's better to receive $200 than $100 - the ban would protect the equality between real numbers.

  3. Yes ban the > and the < symbols ;-)
    Instead we get
    = means equal.
    == means "more equal" so x==y means that x is more equal than y.
    I can see a new school of PC mathematical logic beginning.

  4. If I can briefly counterargue,

    It may appear to some that some "engineering" problems that need to be solved will eventually be solved, but that need not be the case. At any given time, most good scientists have several different problems they could be working on and not enough time to solve them all, and thus they make a value judgment of which problems to devote time too, and thus which problems to NOT devote time too. Therefore, when we give credit to someone for a successful engineering solution, we're also giving them the credit for making the right value judgment of where to focus their energies on. I realize that this is also true for theorists.

    I don't think we should take incremental successes for granted. It may be that somebody else would have stepped up and done it, but it may also be that it would remain one of those problems that "somebody should really look into".

    Further, for the cases where these engineering problems are "solved", I would say that they are solved to a varying degree of quality. Sometimes, frequently, people do a mediocre job, and this actually counts as a step backward, because even a mediocre job is enough to discourage other people from redoing the task, and it certainly delays it. It also gives a false confidence to the broader community. When somebody solves these problems efficiently, and adequately, that is quite good, and should be appreciated.

    I don't really distinguish theory and calculations as being at different levels of a hierarchy. The dominant hierarchy in my opinion is between good and bad theory, and good and bad engineering. The other hierarchies, if they exist, are less important.

  5. The obvious fix to please Matt would be for Milner to
    get a list of ALL active physicists and to divide the prize amongst them. But, then all those physics undergrads work hard too, as do students from other disciplines taking physics electives, so, to be fair, they should be on the list as well. I mean, if you give prizes to elitists like Witten, Nima, etc, you might be accused of not thinking that all scientists are equal.
    "All animals are equal. Some animals are more equal than others." :)
    Strassler can't be serious. I did not know that Milner did grad studies in particle physics. Good for him to promote original thinkers. Good for Bill Gates for all his
    philanthropy. Critics should get a grip and root out their
    own character defects like jealousy and misguided Marxism.

  6. "Not sure whether I would make the choice, however"

    Why is that? Could you elaborate? Vasiliev has done superb theoretical work and HS/CFT is the next big thing that could happen (is happening) to string theory. I would be bold enough to say that there is a third string revolution ahead. Check Gross' talk on "Strings 2012".

  7. One more brief point--It IS Milner's money, earned doing something cool, not just shifting money around, and he didn't give the money to Al Gore. I bet his critics would be mute if he had done so. Also, these days when baseball, basketball, and football players sign hundred million dollar contracts, $27 million is a modest step to rationality. Yes, great engineers deserve recognition.
    Maybe some rich engineer can endow a similar prize.
    The critics should shut up and get a life.

  8. I am reminded of Sheldon's derisive criticism of Leonard's work as merely "derivative". Actually, doesn't that say it all?

  9. While the search for the fundamental laws is unique among all human activities, your criterion of irreplaceability may have applications in other fields of endeavor. I think the world would be very different if Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln had not been around. Should Charles Darwin and, yes, Steve Jobs be in that exalted company?

    I think any CEO of a large company has to have some of these characteristics if the company is to achieve maximum potential. Their work is not "derivative" and if it is, someone will eventually kick their ass. Perhaps the same is true in politics and that is the whole problem.

  10. Right, during the day, exactly the word "derivative" is what I wanted to insert at some places of the text, most likely to the analogy with the horses on airplanes. ;-)

    Yes, "derivative" is the most accurate adjective that describes things that aren't fundamental.

  11. Dear Gene, it seems hard to reconstruct how the world would look without Jobs or Darwin or Churchill. Many things happened by chance etc. It could look very different. Just the likely possibility that the world could be very different is a reason to say that they fundamentally affected the world.

    I am pretty sure that the same thing can't be said about the particular smart folks who created Pythia. It seems pretty obvious that the world wouldn't be too different if those people were banned from working on that project. Someone else would do so and the result would be more or less equivalent.

    When it comes to many discoveries and brands etc., one should ask how much someone was ahead, and how much his idiosyncrasies mattered (and - which is obviously relevant in many other cases - to what extent his or her fame was an irrational mass hysteria). I think that Darwin was decades ahead of others. If there were no Darwin, those insights would have to wait through the 20th century perhaps.

    Of course that I do think that such things would inevitably have to be discovered. Without Darwin, there could be lots of competent biologists in 1910 or 1930 who would be working within the creationist paradigm and improving the interpretation of the species according to the Bible or whatever. Some physicists would perhaps just construct a microscope that could see the DNA because Darwin went into optics and electronics instead of biology - I didn't tell you - so this was sped up a little bit. So in 1930, the elite creationist biologists would start to see DNA and patterns how they're related to various God's species and they would first create some phenomenological theories about the DNA and species, interesting patterns.

    Let me make the story short (of course, one could redesign the history of science in many other ways). Of course that after some short enough time, they would figure out that the DNA changes and one may connect it and they would rediscover evolution. In our world, we didn't need molecular biology to realize the concept of biology, Darwin found it earlier, but if he didn't, there were other ways for biology to find evolution. Still, this different history of science that would lead to the evolution theory would transform e.g. 50 years of the history of science. That's a lot.

    I think that the timescale is shorter, perhaps a few years, for Steve Jobs. It's still impressively long.

  12. Your idea that an engineering-oriented guy should create a prize for rewarding impressive achievements of more technical type is great. There's a problem here, of course: the more practical, engineering-like the work by someone is, the more directly it is connected to the financial compensation so it is expected that people doing such things may already get the money for their great work by normal market mechanisms. That's an assumption one normally does about software, for example. Scientific software isn't really appropriately rewarded by the normal free markets but to create a useful prize of this kind, you would have to twist the conditions in such a way that people who are earning billions for the creations anyway aren't getting the prize. It's an unpleasant extra condition because the winners could no longer say that they're really best in their field. They would only be best among those who were unpaid, and by getting paid, they would lose even this limited exceptional status. ;-)

  13. Right, it does look to me that this is Matt's preferred picture...

    Milner dropped out of grad school in 1989. That's a long time ago, before the Duality Revolution (or Maldacena's famous findings), for example.

  14. I will look at it later because it surely sounds as a surprising claim (about the 3rd revolution due to Vasiliev).

    It still seems to me that this is a curiosity, a strange cousin of the important realistic vacua or theories, a theory that can be directly connected neither with the real world nor with a framework that is directly linked to real world (SM-like gauge theories or string theory). It doesn't even seem right to me to count it as a theory of quantum gravity.

    Is that wrong?

    Well, good that I may leave such decisions to Witten et al. ;-)

    Quite generally, I don't know what breadth of theoretical physics and mathematical physics the prize should honor. Of course that one may honor lots of work in 2 and 3 dimensions, for example, or topological theories, those are great things but their impact is localized as they're not "fully physical", and Vasiliev's theory seems analogous in this sense. I will surely try to fix my misconception if I am missing something important.

  15. Sorry, but this is just wrong. There has been and always will be a hierarchy in the market of ideas. General relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory etc cannot be dependent on human limitations like 'good judgement' or 'bad judgement', they're simply objectively there and if someone 'discovers' them early on, good for the human race, else too bad one has to wait for the next 'messiah' to come along. It's just obvious where one would have been had it not been for the fundamental insights of Einstein and so on.

  16. I think people do give credit to Einstein for having the good judgment to ask the right questions.

    General Relativity would have eventually been discovered, just not in 1915.

  17. Nice disussion and explanations of what is worth a Milner Prize and what not ... :-)

    Dude has made additional good comments over there, maybe they should get backed up too in this article, since such comments sometimes have a finite life time on Matt Strassler's site ...

  18. Hi, Lubos.
    Thanks for an exciting post. It is a must read for all those hard-working physicists!
    Sometimes, though, the boundary between `derivative work' and ground-breaking discoveries IS somewhat fuzzy. Various famous discoveries have a long pre-history.
    For example, you bring up Maldacena's discovery of AdS/CFT late in 1997. This is a really famous paper, the most cited among the papers in INSPIRE. If one looks at practically any popular book about string theory, one will read that Maldacena's paper was totally unexpected, like a thunderbolt on a bright sunny day. But in talking with some people who were working in the field in the 90's, I get a sense that this is not quite right. After Polchinski's great D-brane paper in 1995 many people were comparing D-branes with black holes in various ways. This was a whole separate field known as D-brane black hole correspondence. For example, there were papers comparing stacks of D3-branes, described at low energies by N=4 SYM theory, with the 3-brane metric. Such papers pointed out various connections between N=4 SYM theory at zero and finite temperature, and the 3-brane metric. Then Maldacena took a clever limit which showed that only the AdS region of the 3-brane metric matters in the low-energy limit (this is actually implicit in some of the earlier work). His paper made a very clear conjecture and really hit a nerve, I hear. But it did cite various earlier papers containing partial results on what is now called AdS/CFT. So, in some ways the AdS/CFT correspondence may be a derivative of the D-brane black hole correspondence, which is in turn a derivative of the D-brane paper, etc. And then after Maldacena's paper there were papers making the quantitative statments about correlation functions as you write. They were derivative to all the work metnioned.
    I am not sure I am getting all of this history right, but this would not surprise me. Various famous discoveries have some pre-history. This is why there is a field called History of Science...

  19. Well, I sort of agree about Gates, but he does fund good stuff----lots of money for malaria research, for example. Giving money to U.N. style charities is never a good idea. The money gets absorbed by the bureaucracy, and by the government officials. One of the best ideas was microloans (resulting in a Nobel Peace Prize for Muhammed Yunus):
    ..." pioneering a new category of banking known as micro-credit, which
    grants small loans to poor people who have no collateral and who do not
    qualify for conventional bank loans.

    This progam has enabled millions of Bangladeshis, almost all women, to
    buy everything from cows to cell phones in order to start and run their
    own businesses"
    The loans are expected to be repaid eventually, but the default rate is low because the recipients are motivated.
    I guess, though, this should not be called charity.

  20. Dear David, I completely agree with you that even incremental tasks may be done or not done before a deadline and the quality may vary. But that's still far from making them earth-shaking. These things are like a colonization of your continent. You move your army in various directions and your boundaries are increasing the territory of your empire into random places. Some places get included sooner, some places get included later, and some places will get a great infrastructure, others won't even get basic safety.

    But these are still details and the "predictable final outcome" is obvious; you overtake the continent. Someone's discovery of a different continent is a different story.

  21. I'm very disappointed with some of what I've seen from Matt recently. I've talked with him a few times over the years, and he had always seemed like a pretty reasonable, intelligent guy.

    I wonder if he's always thought like this, and his blog has just been the only opportunity for me to see it, or it is a more recent thing?

  22. Fine, but (assuming that all the contemporaries and "marginal" co-fathers of GR actually depended on Einstein's visions) it could be in 1980, after it was derived from bosonic string theory - a candidate model of strong interactions. They would be forced to study massless spin-2 excitations and the force they apparently mediate and all the nonlinearities and self-interactions and they would ultimately reconstruct string theory.

    If that were the major alternative, Einstein's being ahead of time would be 65 years. It's not just this impressive timescale that is longer than for minor work. What's also important is that very many other pieces of research totally depend on the existence of relativity. So Einstein's absence wouldn't just change the fate of 1 scientist or a few scientists for 65 years; it would have changed the character of work of most theoretical and not only theoretical physicists for 65 years. It seems pretty obvious that something comparable would happen. On the other hand, it's pretty likely that changing the character of work of a whole community doing a scientific discipline for 65 years wouldn't be the outcome of the replacement of anyone who just "had a good judgment".

  23. Dear Gordon, I think that the inability to protect communities against malaria with the existing tools (and things change a lot if one "allows" DDT) mostly boils down to the communities' poverty. One could say that malaria is just a manifestation, a particular strategy that the rule "poor communities suffer" adopts to highlight its validity. So to some extent, I am afraid that this whole thing is mostly masking symptoms rather than changing the underlying causes - which are of course hard to change.

    The Bangladesh microloans are fun, of course I heard about it, but my understanding is that this should be viewed as a creative business project which is why the Nobel prize for that is already a bit questionable. Once one starts to think that it's not purely commercial and commercial motivated but rather a form of charity, it pretty much means to admit that it will probably not be repaid so the investment-like image of this project is really fraudulent.

    Just to be sure, I don't know whether it's a viable business in the given circumstances. In principle, it's nothing else than some normal financial tools we know, just localized to very different conditions. But it seems clear to me that it can't be both good business and good charity, almost by definition.

  24. Dear Dilaton, I will be audacious enough to simply copy dude's observations that I completely agree with here:

    Dude wrote: We will now expose the real ignorant here. Name one conceptual advance by those people who wrote Pythia etc I will convert.
    Reminder: unitarity cuts, on shell methods, soft limits, collinear limits, are all known for (many!) decades.
    They were somewhat extended, but in most cases these extensions are not really rigorous even. And in any case there is nothing conceptually new here.
    Hadronization models: very elaborate phenomenological models, we never know when they are going to work, not grounded in fundamental theory except for very old general theorems (factorization etc.) so I would not call improvements in this field conceptual, since the whole framework rests on mere guesses…
    Jets: the fact that they are described in some limiting cases by CFTs is known for decades. You are just misguiding the readers here! See the refs in the relatively recent paper you mentioned.
    Recent advances in jets: have nothing to do with Pythia, and also are not conceptual, they just come from a better study of the IR-safe observables of Sterman-Weinberg.
    The construction of Pythia: combining a lot of known things and a lot of hard work and trial and error. Also many ways to get to end product that would do roughly the same thing. The end product is not unique, not earth-shaking, and not even ideal for the purposes it serves (I have worked with Pythia a few years rather intensively.)

    I end with note that comparing feat of creating Pythia with the feat of giving rigorous evidence for EM duality (Sen) or elucidating one of the building blocks of cosmology (Guth) is really preposterous.

  25. Dear fuzzy, thanks for your interest. And I completely agree that the boundary between derivative and ground-breaking original may be fuzzy and it's fuzzy in the AdS/CFT case itself. AdS/CFT is an application of the Duality (or Second Superstring) Revolution that just took life of its own and, in some sense, overgrew the revolution itself.

    Your description of the AdS/CFT birth is close to what I believe. Juan was working hard on calculating Strominger-Vafa-inspired black hole thermodynamics for 3-branes and similar things and he noticed that certain quantities calculated in the closed string sector and open string sector agreed with each other too well, more than obvious arguments implies, and he decided that there's really one sector only - the two theories redundantly describe the same degrees of freedom.

    The unification of the "2 co-existing pictures" into "1 picture with 2 equivalent descriptions" was really his ingenious moment by which he transcends anyone else who had been working on similar things. One could try to suggest that it was good luck except that Juan has made many other, less earth-shaking but still amazing, discoveries that the "good luck" can't be the right explanation for everything.

    You might mention similar prehistories in almost all other examples of breakthroughs in physics. Lorentz also had lots of "pieces" that would appear in relativity, like the Lorentz factor. He really had the Lorentz transformation before relativity, too - as a coordinate transformation. He was silly enough not to realize that coordinate changes form a group, and that's why he obviously couldn't be able to figure out that this was the right way to switch into another inertial frame. In this perspective, Einstein "only" found one idea that may be summarized in a short sentence. But it was a great leap for the mankind and I think it's just hard to make oneself sure that someone else, like Lorentz, could have done the same leap in their lifetime, too.

  26. I completely agree, J. I talked to Matt, too. Well, although he's a Rutgers Prof and I used to be a Rutgers grad student, it wasn't at Rutgers (at least I don't remember it: no overlap) - but it was e.g. during my talk in Seattle or his talks at Harvard etc.

    He's really a powerful technician, as his impressive work at the LHC Olympics

    testified. I also used to think he was a string theorist of a sort or someone who gets the big picture; I no longer think so. It's my understanding of his recent text that he was always "raped" e.g. by Igor Klebanov into work with more conceptual implications but he never wanted to do it himself and he probably doesn't understand why Klebanov-Strassler is his most cited paper, among other similar things.

    So concerning your "recent or not" question, I don't know but what I see is compatible with the hypothesis that he has always been thinking pretty much the same things about everything and he was just "manipulated" by the environment - and I happen to think the environment was manipulating him in the right direction but now the "manipulation" is gone.

  27. This is a false dichotomy, "hard work" versus "ground breaking discoveries" , in my maybe not so humble opinion.

    Hard work is a necessary condition for a ground breaking discovery. It just is not sufficient.

    Do not tell me that all those people on the committee have not been "hard workers". In any field of physics people have to work hard from highschool to graduate school to post doc environment etc. These people, and the ones they will choose, had the right combination : of data base ( acquired with hard work) ,intellectual ability, passion, timing, focus and inspiration to make all the difference, and maybe a bit of luck to get there first.

  28. Dear Anna, "hard work" above referred to "not much more than hard work" i.e. "hard work without the extra X-factor of creativity". But even if you don't allow me to make this clarification, I would still disagree with your text. Hard work is needed for lots of discoveries (and also for lots of ground-shaking discoveries) but it isn't a necessary condition e.g. for one earth-shaking discovery (or a small number of them).

    A person may be lazy and work 10 times more intensely than hard workers, by any sensible universal criteria, so he or she isn't a hard-working person. But if he or she has the extra X-factor, the probability for him to make an earth-shaking discovery may still be vastly higher than the probability that a hardworker (and nothing else) makes it. So I don't agree it's a necessary condition. They're pretty much two independent quantities. In some cases, it's hard to disentangle them or determine which one is crucial etc. but in other cases, it may be disentangled and attributed easily.

    The point of your last, long paragraph is completely incomprehensible to me. I don't understand whether it's serious, I don't understand whether it's a joke. I am just not getting it. It's the first time when "committees" appeared in this thread. But everyone knows that if someone primarily considers himself a committee member, he or she is not a scientist ready to make a breakthrough, he or she probably shouldn't be called a good enough scientist at all, and in most cases, he or she isn't even a hard-working person (if you kindly allow me not to consider sitting on a dull and meaningless meeting of a commitee for 2 hours to be hard work, and I surely don't consider it a hard work even though it's boring and tiring).

    The only committee I saw at Harvard that was genuinely lots of hard work - when done properly - was indeed the admission committee. But aside from hard work, one doesn't even need too much expertise for that. One may be the equivalent of 30 IQ points lower than the students who are ultimately admitted and he or she may still serve on such committees - where the bulk of the work is about the copying of the grades, counting nice words in recommendation letters, and computing the average.

    Again, just like in any other work, service on a committee may be done in a better and more responsible and independent way, or less good, more passive way etc. But that doesn't turn it into scientific research, surely not an earth-shaking one. So people who primarily serve on committees (and that's how they define their work or identity) are surely many, many categories below the fathers of Pythia and I have doubts whether they should be considered scientists at all. Apologies if you belong to this set but whether it's the case or not, I won't change this appraisal by a micron.

  29. Dear Lubos, I got "son of the queen" and "fashionable T-shirt" instantly, but "thousand kilos"---? O wait, I get it now! So, what do I win? :D

  30. I meant of course the Milner committee composed of the nine members he chose who will chose the next winners.

    What Greece has to do with the price of tea in China I do not know.

  31. Speculations on what might have been are guesswork but England's defeat might have been vastly more catastrophic yet. Hitler did declare war on the US and he might well have done so with the Soviet Union under his belt. The thought of a total European Holocaust and an all out nuclear attack on Germany is too awful to contemplate.

  32. i am not sure if what you said is something against libertarianism but what you said is mostly true in the current system.
    with a smaller government there would be more money for physics and science and for theoretical physics.
    you could have more money and more physicists if they were not supported mainly by government.
    one of the misconceptions that i see from people in academia is that the private sector wants research that will pay back quickly.
    if the government was not using its own money for research, the private sector would use it and they would do a better job. it's not like they are that stupid that they would not know that without physics research they would not be able to build products in the future.
    which scientific discovery did you ever hear that was not used in the markets?
    scientific software would have more users if there were more money in science, more scientists and if scientists had more money.
    the markets would support scientific software and those "open source" software guess who is paying for them. they are not really open source and they would be better if the government was not paying for them. there are many more points that someone can make and although the physics nobel prize is doing a good job until now giving awards-it's the same prize that gave a nobel to obama, that does not have a prize for math but gives nobels to hippies.

  33. I think I know what the physics town is but the "fashionable T-shirt" I dont understand ... :-/
    But if some earlier hints Lumo gave are still valid, it is enough for me to conclude that I probably like some of Dude's talks a lot :-D

  34. Dear Dilaton, just learn in what U.S. state the town is and what the name of the state means. Use google images, for example, and look at least at 100 of them. ;-)

  35. "So I don't agree it's a necessary condition. " - out of interest, can you name some people who made ground-breaking discoveries in physics but were not hard workers?

  36. Dear Old Wolf, sure.

    First concerning living people, I want to avoid controversies although, of course, I am much more familiar with the answer to that question within the people whom I know at least a bit. Let me only state a trivial fact. In the Milner Prize winner list, you find e.g. a person who found something really important, revolutionizing a whole descipline, and concise but who wrote 4x fewer papers than a 10-year-younger co-winner and I don't want to tell you what he or she most frequently does during talks. ;-) In any other field, having done 4x less work than many others around him (by normal measurable criteria) would surely classify one as non-hard-worker. Using the same convention, I am mysteriously talking about a non-hard-worker who has nevertheless made the greatest theoretical discovery in a part of physics... of the last 35 years ago.
    Einstein was a "lazy dog" according to Hermann Minkowski, his math teachers, "who never really cared to do work on maths". Even the intensity of hard work he did before his Annus Mirabilis papers was... decent - it was a result of a hobby done while at work (a different one) while having other kinds of fun as well. He then worked hard for 10 years to find GR but of course, it could be debated whether the work had to be *that* hard to write something like "S=R" after ten years. It was still dominated by creativity. Nevertheless, the amount of important insights per hour dropped after 1905 and it plummeted after 1915 or so. In some sense, Einstein did become a hard worker.

    Feynman would always paint himself as the ultimate ordinary man and he would say all other good physicists who knew were hard workers. ;-) But the sentence had a deliberate loophole - a possible exception he wasn't really trying to exclude. Feynman could concentrate for super-intense work for hours (and he was telling his students to be ready for such things - and keep their state of thinking in a notebook) but when you integrate such episodes over his life, he still wasn't a clear hard worker. Descriptions of his lots of time spent with bongo, bars, women, and other things aren't libelous and hiring Feynman *did* mean that you must be ready for years when he wouldn't write.

    Throughout his life, Feynman wrote 37 research papers which is still about 9 times fewer than e.g. Witten (or Einstein who was also above 300 at the end). He still made a huge difference. I hope I don't have to defend the statement that Feynman has made groundbreaking discoveries.

    I could continue with somewhat less super-top-layer physicists, too.

  37. just checking the ATLAS paper on the groundbreaking discovery of the Higgs boson. Oooops... no reference to any conceptual string theory BS in there... how did the geniuses of string theory forget to make a contribution?
    Respect to the "engineers"....More likely, they will solve field theory loop by loop sooner than the thousands of string theory clowns.