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Looking for Revolutions in Physics

Cosmic Variance
By cjohnson
Jul 20, 2005 2:45 AMNov 5, 2019 8:01 AM


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Jacques' blog has an interesting post about advising the young people in the field concerning whether they should be worried about the future of what topic they are working on before deciding to continue on it. I think that overall, his advice is excellent. It followed on from an earlier, related discussion and comments which made it seem that there is some stark choice to be made: You either work on something entirely because it is interesting (not worrying whether it is going to yield results reasonably rapidly or whether other people are working on it), or, you worry about whether it can produce results reasonably rapidly and whether others care about those results (not caring whether it is interesting to you the researcher). Funny how these things get framed in this way. Come on. It need not be one or the other. Clearly it's a little bit of both. We have finite resources of time and money. Of course we also have to keep an eye on things other than just the pure physics goals of any given project. But we must do things in balance. Not all of one, nor all of the other. A bit of both. Compromise. There. Having sorted that one out...No, you're too kind. Stop applauding, please. It was no trouble, really.... I'd like to move on. There was another issue, which actually began all of this discussion. Should Strings 2005 have had a panel discussion considering the next Revolution in the field? (For those of you not in the field, I should tell you that string theory had two famous Revolutions in the field, roughly ten years apart, and so being a bit spoiled (and immature), we as a field get a bit scared when another ten years go by and we have not had another one.) Well, I sort of agree with Jacques that such an exercise -a set up with a panel of experts- should not be taken too seriously, but I don't agree that it is in principle a waste of time. I was not there for the discussion and so don't know the details. But in principle there is nothing whatsoever wrong with serious reflection and taking stock, but we must remember that the "experts" don't know the answers either. This sort of taking stock exercise has happened regularly all through the history of the field, so why is it a priori a "wrong-headed" thing to do now? In fact, one of the reasons I've been unhappy with the format of several Strings conferences is that there is no time set aside for reflection or discussion. I would argue that this is in fact more important that presenting increasingly glossy computer slides actually. We can just look at those on the web and not bother showing up to have them flashed before us if we can't discuss them together. I suspect that this panel discussion was an attempt to rectify the situation and have some real spontaneous discussion. So maybe the thing to do as a member of the audience would have been to help shape the discussion at the time, had the format allowed. But I was not there, so can't comment in detail if that was feasible (e.g. microphones in the audience, etc). My own "advice" to the young string theorist. If you want to know what might well be the window to the next revolution, wait until you hear that Steve Shenker is giving a seminar. If in the first five minutes of the talk he says something like "I'm confused", and begins to survey certain sets of results and try to synthesize them, pay full attention and take notes! I know of at least two times he's done this and it has paid off big time. In my experience, Joe Polchinski is another person who's been notably confused by the right things. Keep an eye on those guys' confusions! -cvj

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