TV: Don't forget that aside from S11E06 episode of The Big Bang Theory, the S01E02 episode of Young Sheldon finally aired yesterday – it's full of cool boy genius stuff – Sheldon was using Carnegie science to find friends.If you search INSPIRE, a particle physics database, for find topcite 50+ and date 2017, you will get 102 hits – papers timestamped as 2017 that have already earned at least 50 followups. An unusually high percentage are experimental papers.
Various papers were published by the LHC collaborations – ATLAS, CMS, LHCb (various properties of mesons) – as well as LIGO and direct searches for dark matter such as XENON1T. LIGO has found the gravitational waves – from black holes and kilonovae – but otherwise the results of all these experiments have confirmed the null hypotheses.
The number of papers submitted to hep-th (pure particle physics theory) in this list is just 15. They include some papers about the microscopic information of black holes, soft hair, matrices in them, as well as the SYK model – a microrevolution of recent years – and Erik Verlinde's irritating abolition of dark matter. Except for SYK, these or similar papers have been covered in various TRF blog posts.
There are 26 papers in the list labeled as hep-ph. Some of those are still about the \(750\GeV\) diphoton excess that disappeared in the previous year. Most of the others focus on fermions' mass matrices and mixing – neutrino mass matrices, lepton universality and flavor physics in general, anomalies seen in mesons. Some of them are about radions, others propose new experiments – search for dark matter and colliders.
I think that the apparent suppression of the brilliant and creative theoretical work is disappointing and worrisome. There is nothing wrong about experiments. We've been looking forward to many of these experiments and most of us expected some new physics which really hasn't emerged. But the confirmations of the status quo were likely enough and it's clear that people must refocus much of their attention on theory where the expenses for "more sophisticated models" don't grow as rapidly as the costs of increasingly penetrating experiments.
If you search for find topcite 500+ and date 2007, i.e. 10-year-older search with a 10 times higher requirement for the citations, you find 85 papers. Among them 16 papers – a higher percentage than in the 2017 search at the top – are denoted as hep-th. Those are papers on AdS/CFT hydrodynamics, membrane minirevolution, Higgs as inflaton, transcendentality in amplitudes, flux compactifications, and also some MOND. Although the black hole hair papers of recent years are deep, I feel that the 10-year-old papers are more intellectually diverse and generally used more sophisticated and beautiful mathematics. 24 hep-ph papers in that list are about jets and conventional topics but some of those were about MSSM, a topic that isn't seen in the 2017 search.
At many old moments I remember, there would be some beacons, papers that were famous enough and that e.g. young people could elaborate upon and get interesting enough work – with some chance of surpassing the original paper they started with. The beacons were uncountable e.g. during the superstring revolutions but even afterwards, one went through the AdS/CFT wave and subwaves, BMN and \(pp\)-waves, cosmological constant in string theory, old matrix models, twistor minirevolution with various subwaves and amplitude industry ramifications, and others. I am not sure it's still the case. The "cutting-edge" with its fashionable topics almost universally agreed to be "cool" has almost disappeared. I was trying to imagine how a brilliant graduate student actually feels these days.
She does some physics and may do so. But imagine she wants to show that she is really on par with the likes of Witten, or perhaps just a level or two beneath Witten. Witten has accumulated over 130,000 citations. How much should you expect before your PhD defense? 50? 100? Isn't it too much to ask? It seems extremely difficult these days for a new person to write a paper that gets over 10 citations in a year. Is one supposed to write 10,000 papers then?
I would bet that citation counts like Witten's 130,000 won't be beaten by anybody for a very, very long time if ever. It would be great to be proven wrong – and soon.
If one accepts the observation that things have soured, what is the reason? Is it completely natural? Have people run out of ideas and/or excitement naturally? I don't really believe it. A reason why I don't believe it is that there have been lots of these minirevolutions that have still left some interesting enough projects that should be continued. I do think that the fading of the cutting-edge waiting for the brilliant graduate student is a result of the ideological atmosphere in the environment that surrounds the HEP research community.
To simplify things just a little bit, I do think that brilliance has de facto become politically incorrect and it is not being rewarded, at least not among the generation of people who are graduate students today. This blog has recently – and often – discussed some insanities that are far from the HEP research community. Like the claims that the Pythagorean theorem and \(\pi\) are examples of white supremacy. Similar lunacies are extreme and they're signs of what's wrong in the broader society, not the HEP research community per se.
But there are lots of similar, much less extreme, but still brutally harmful changes to the atmosphere that are going on within universities, even their physics departments, and sometimes even fundamental-particle physics groups. Many of those have lost their self-confidence and their natural happiness about the insights and about their and their colleagues' natural brilliance. Some top people have been silent about – tolerating – crap like Sabine Hossenfelder's "physics is lost in math and gone astray" that they have really surrendered. I think that pseudointellectual junk such as Sabine Hossenfelder – I don't mean her specifically, she's just a very particular example that's been discussed here – are really in charge of important things such as "what you may be loudly excited about". And that's the main reason why the creative work rooted in remarkable math has weakened. People who want to do such things are discouraged by their nearly heretical status – or at least the shortage of rewards for this kind of work.
The result is that much of the work is dull and doesn't differ much from what could have been done in the 1980s if not 1960s. The cutting edge has been obfuscated and apparently disappeared. For a hypothetical #1 ingenious teenager, it's hard to show that he is #1. Maybe even if he discovered something amazing, no one seems to be waiting for that, and that may be why he doesn't even try. Some billionaires or other influential people will have to create some artificial environment where "things are alright again", where brilliant people don't have to be ashamed of their brilliance.