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Non-string QG positions in US (some data)

  1. May 20, 2006 #1

    marcus

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    Lee Smolin posted this today on Woit's blog. His comment and the surrounding discussion raise some interesting issues.
    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=392#comment-10953

    ===quote===
    Lee Smolin Says:
    May 20th, 2006 at 12:07 pm
    Since Peter asked, let me just introduce some objectivity into the discussion about the consequences of choosing to work on an approach to quantum gravity apart from string theory. In the US now there is a single research group with more than one faculty member working on non-string quantum gravity; at Penn State it has one senior and two junior faculty. Apart from Penn State, and a single person who left Penn State and got a position largely on the basis of his work in another field, the last time there was a new faculty position in the US for someone working on a non-string approach to quantum gravity was 1990. There are at most 4-5 NSF funded postdocs now in the US that a non-string quantum gravity person might apply for. The situation is slightly better in Canada, Mexico, and a few European countries, but the situation is that there is no graduate student or postdoc-even the stars with widely read and admired single authored papers-who has an easy or assured career.

    The situation would be vastly improved if there were open competition on the basis of quality, originality and promise for the large number of postdoc and faculty positions controlled by string theorists. But I am unaware of a single instance of a string theory group hiring a postdoc or faculty member in any other approach to quantum gravity, in spite of the fact that this has happened in reverse several times- because the ethic in non-string quantum gravity is to choose on the basis of quality and individual promise, whereas the string theorists seem uninterested in applicants who do not work in the mainstream of string theory.

    As far as someone wanting to do a Ph.D. in non-string quantum gravity, there are many and indeed the number of applicants is increasing dramatically because of the visibility of recent important results. But there are very few places in the few groups around the world where this work is done. We literally turn away good applicants weekly who apply to our group. As a result, an increasing number of very promising students are doing PhDs in non-string quantum gravity on their own without the benefit of an advisor in the field.

    The only advantage of this is that the few young people who persevere against these odds have visibly much more creativity, intellectual independence and courage than their counterparts in trendy, mainstream fields. So they do better science, and indeed young people are responsible for the bulk of the new results and ideas which have driven the fast rate of progress of recent years. So it is getting increasingly evident that their exclusion from consideration for the best positions cannot be justified on any objective scientific basis.

    And yes, my forthcoming book is not an attack on string theory, it is an examination of how this kind of situation can develop, which hurts not just many of the best young researchers but the progress of science itself.
    ===endquote===

    To clarify one point note that John Baez at UC Riverside has been exploring non-string QG approaches----and has graduate students doing that. But it is not a group with several faculty members AFAIK.

    the number of QG research "groups" in the US with only one faculty person could also be counted, as another statistic indicative of the situation, and would i think prove to be strikingly small. However Smolin chose to count the groups with several.

    there was some quibbling about this in the blog comments.

    Some may wish to argue that this situation represents a wise science policy. Others may consider it a shortsighted way for the nation to handle investment in physics theory.

    In any case, what one sees here is that Smolin is preparing another BOOK. And this time it is about how science institutions manage intellectual resources---like extra bright independent assets among the postdocs, what freedom do you allow them---like research positions, how do you allocate them (to the individual mind or to the camp)---and interesting policy questions like that.

    So it could be quite a fascinating book. If anyone has heard more about it please let us know!
     
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  3. May 20, 2006 #2

    marcus

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    Smolin posted a followup which is interesting because it allows one to count the SINGLE facultymember points of QG research in the US, in addition to the one physics department (Penn State) where there is a GROUP, of one senior faculty and two junior faculty plus their postdocs and students.
    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=392#comment-10965
    he was replying to a quibble:

    ===quote===
    Lee Smolin Says:
    May 20th, 2006 at 1:16 pm
    Dear Wolfgang, I chose my words carefully. Raphael Sorkin at Syracuse, Herbert Hamber at Irvine, John Baez at UC Riverside, and a few others (Steve Carlip, Louis Crane, Ted Jacobson, Jorge Pullin, Bob Wald) are doing important work but they are single faculty members. As good as they are, by current NSF rules they are not always able to support a postdoc, as single faculty members are rarely given postdocs.

    It is a bit better in a few European and Latin American countries, as I said, whose systems are structured so that there are a few good positions where the competition is in terms of individual accomplishment and promise without regard to research program or subfield.

    Thanks,

    Lee
    ===endquote===

    I find the overall picture intriguing because it appears to me that NON-string QG is making considerably more significant progress right at the moment than string is, world-wide. Several of the non-string reseach lines are advancing rapidly and producing quite interesting results.
    But the world-centers have shifted outside the US to a considerable extent because US is way under-invested in RESEARCH GROUPS pursuing the more promising non-string lines. (in multifacultymember groups one can say specifically)
    Way-way-underinvested is what it looks like---because of the overwhelming string preponderance (a kind of "hundred-to-one" lopsidedness). The present US scene doesnt even make good sense from a "spread-your-bets" viewpoint even if you were blind to the value of the new research.

    So it looks like SOME key people and committees at NSF are screwing up bigtime with the national physics theory assets. this adds to the general zest and excitement of observing the goings-on.

    I had the pleasure in the 1970s of playing a minor staff role in an NAS/NAE study that struggled for an unexpectedly long time over what to advise Congress to do with a big ticket technology project or two. And kept an amazing number of people employed doing computer-model scenarios and economic future forecasting and jazz. And I feel lucky for having been able to hang out in Washington a bit, part of the time at a nice clubhouse, and be a fly on the wall. coming away with a sense of amazement and a lot of impressions of how science (and technology) policy gets made and what kind of people are influential, how they act, and so on.

    So even though I dont know any details of this PRESENT high-establishment research policy screw-up, I can kind of picture what is being said at some of the committee meetings and what the staff report-writers are coping with and so on. My feeling is that it is going to be fun to watch how this plays, on at least a 2 or 3 year timescale----actually much longer if you consider repercussions.

    I wonder if Lee Smolin's book will have any impact. It seems to directly address some of the central most critical issues. I hope it does! but there is no way of telling now if it will. Sounds like something that ought to be written regardless, however. Certain things need to be discussed (for honor's sake whether policy is affected or not)
     
    Last edited: May 20, 2006
  4. May 20, 2006 #3
    So you're in your 60's or so. That's what I figured.
     
  5. May 21, 2006 #4

    Haelfix

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    Forget about string theory perse, there are very very few jobs for theorists in quantum gravity in general. Most major departments won't even consider your app if you are working in something so far removed from experiment; *unless* they have confidence you might be of some relevance to something important and relative to them in small timescales, like phenomonology.

    And it so happens that a lot of interesting modern phenomonlogy is founded or had its roots in string theory. Eg Quiver diagrams, brane world scenarios, supersymmetry, Ads/Cft or Twistor theory inspired QCD etc etc.

    I dare say the majority of people who work in the pure theory side are either tenured proffessors or a few bigshots who command enough respect by the department so that they can hire their own grad students/postdocs. But either way, the job prospect is bleak.
     
  6. May 21, 2006 #5

    john baez

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    Quite a bit longer: people in tenured positions will need to, umm, die off to make way for new ones. You know that famous quote by Planck.

    But, much sooner you'll be able to hear the howls of protest when the Foundational Questions Institute grants are announced. Actually the howls started as soon as FQXi said they weren't interested in string theory proposals... but just wait until it turns out they meant it. :surprised

    And, sometime around 2007 (Smolin says 2008) we'll begin to see if the Large Hadron Collider detects any hints of supersymmetry. If not, string theory will take a hit. The NSF will pay attention to these results.

    I'm sure it will fan the flames - along with Peter Woit's book and the stuff Penrose has written about this issue.

    Smolin has already played an important role in setting up the Perimeter Institute, and a lesser but still real role in the Foundational Questions Institute. Changes may come like this, not from traditional centers of excellence but from unorthodox places.

    You're helping out too! A lot of people don't even know there are active alternatives to string theory... you're helping change that.
     
  7. May 21, 2006 #6

    marcus

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    holy moses
    i had no idea

    Yes! I think that our group at PF does in fact help to make QG alternatives better and more widely understood.
    Part of that is the combination of viewpoints and backgrounds here, that makes a kind of "group mind" with
    an impedance-match to wider audience. It is a nice place. I enjoy it and am glad whenever you show up.
     
    Last edited: May 21, 2006
  8. May 22, 2006 #7

    Chronos

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    The LHC will make or break a lot of predictions. Detecting, or not detecting, the Higgs will be the most important result, IMO. Modern physics is ripe for a revolution without this result - which is not necessarily a bad thing. Pushing detection of the Higgs beyond the LHC energy realm will pose serious problems - again, IMO.
     
  9. May 22, 2006 #8
    ** A lot of people don't even know there are active alternatives to string theory... you're helping change that**

    Come on, be serious, any student (and more general : any creature which has learned that there never exists only one answer to a difficult question) with some brain capacity has to find out by him/her-self that there are alternatives possible and a google search does the rest. The problem is that it is not clear at all that these so called alternatives are better ones than string theory itself (from the physics perspective), and neither do I see these proponents - who claim that these approaches are more foundational - doing new physics. Actually, I have recently read a comment by Smolin on Penrose's book where he says that it is a very risky and dangerous enterprise to follow Roger *because* you have to invent new physics for that ! Fabulatastic :cool:
     
    Last edited: May 22, 2006
  10. May 22, 2006 #9

    marcus

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    the problem with your position (I shouldnt have to point it out) is that your own work (as Johan Noldus or one whose thought closely parallels his) BELONGS to the category you are talking about---an alternative approach which aspires to be more foundational.

    http://arxiv.org/find/grp_physics/1/au:+noldus/0/1/0/all/0/1

    You too, Mr. Careful, are an outlaw.

    By what you have often expounded to us in other discussion-threads, you are recognizable as one of those very "proponents - who claim that [their] approaches are more foundational" whom you appear to deprecate! This is too modest.

    But for some reason you are bashful about acknowledging this, and make an artificial distinction between your work and other QG. You advocate modifying the foundations of QM in a way to make it more compatible with GR (instead of quantizing GR comme d'habitude). But in the end the goal is the same: a successful quantum physics of spacetime.

    Bashful means "self-deprecating". I don't know if there is a Belgian equivalent. I think it is time for you to come out of the closet, or we will begin to think of you as Mr. Bashful, instead of Mr. Careful.

    this modest establishment, such as it is, welcomes forthright outlaws----who can serve here as respected pillars of the community.
     
    Last edited: May 22, 2006
  11. May 22, 2006 #10

    marcus

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    Yes to a ludicrous extent.
    Over the past several years I have encountered quite a few people who think that LQG is a kind of "string theory", and/or who have never heard of spinfoam models.

    The confused include some string theorists whom I've witnessed using the term LQG as a blanket category for ALL alternatives, and who then, by an odd logical inversion, contrive to dismiss ALL alternatives by referring to a flaw in a specific type of LQG they've heard of.

    On the whole I enjoy the tumult in the background. Ironically the people who have done the most to widely publicize non-string QGs are string theorists in CLAMOROUS DENIAL. (the medium is resonant to controversy---every little bit helps:smile: )

    so whatever we do, let's all disagree with each other and have a good time.

    Mr Careful is wrong about one thing though, the non-string approaches have made remarkable unmistakable technical advances in the past 2 years (compared to which public awareness and nonawareness are inconsequential)
     
  12. May 22, 2006 #11
    **BELONGS to the category you are talking about---an alternative approach which aspires to be more foundational. **

    There are two things to say :

    (a) I do *not* think of work in QG at the moment as being of foundational nature. When you want to think about nature, you have to look at *all* the pieces of the puzzle at once (as far as is possible for a human being) and you have to try to form a consistent picture of them (that means that you alter some of them of shape and so on). This by itself is an immensely hard task which absorbs lots of time and brings lot's of frustration. I have suggested shortly why many approaches do not satisfy these criteria and I am glad to see Baez's no nonsense attitude in this regard (although I do regret part of the conclusions he draws from this).

    (b) Having different sensible ideas (than contemporary ones) about quantum mechanics (which I believe to be the key aspect) and DOING something with them, means that you encounter a wall of historical papers by excellent scientists who have more or less done the same to some extend to what you have in mind. So, first you have to go through a new study period - a second PhD if you want to - before you can start doing something of some significance (unless you want to duplicate existing results or are prepared to write blatant nonsense like conspirational approaches to Bell inequalities/measurement problem). This is entirely incommensurable with how the entire scientific apparatus works - since this is a *long term* project with some guarantuee for progress but not necessarily for succes.

    Being Bashful is good since it often means thoughtful, it means you see (and try to see) different possibilities but do not immediately speak about them (and mostly I try to suggest them carefully); moreover it is innate to ``the general belgian attitude´´ not to sell a pig for more than it is worth; but on the other hand we tend to be very insulted when an overpriced steak is offered to us (Vanesch can testify for this :-)). And don't call me an outlaw, I am just somone who thinks independently simply because I want to understand; moreover the latter word makes me think about bad western movies involving clint eastwood or another gun hero.
     
    Last edited: May 22, 2006
  13. May 22, 2006 #12

    selfAdjoint

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    That's the European stereotype of Americans, "The Man With No Name", note that that character was created by Italian Sergio Leone; Eastwood was just the actor.

    The archetypal outlaw of US fiction was Huck Finn, who refused to accept the conventional wisdom of the towns (symbolized by Aunt Polly) and "lit out for the territory", aka the frontier. You should be proiud to be called an outlaw by someone as literarily hip as Marcus!
     
  14. May 22, 2006 #13

    vanesch

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    Sollicited by these wise words on these important topics, I can only say this:
    - I never return to a restaurant where I had to eat an overpriced steak (unless I wasn't the one who pays the bill)
    - I love bad Westerns with Clint Eastwood when I'm drunk - though not when I'm eating an overpriced steak.

    I hope this settles the issue...
    :rofl: :rofl:
     
  15. May 22, 2006 #14
    :rofl: :rofl: :rofl:
     
  16. May 22, 2006 #15

    john baez

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    I am serious - I'm always serious except when I'm joking.

    I know lots of beginners who can't even list the different approaches to quantum gravity, much less describe them or say who is working where on what. For such people, it helps a lot to bump into a forum like this, where a bunch of people are publicly discussing various theories in a not-very-technical way, and Marcus is providing links to lots of new papers, together with not-too-technical commentary.

    You're right - all known approaches to quantum gravity have terrible flaws. That's why, after a decade of beating my brains out on it, I decided to quit. More precisely, I decided to put most of my energy into math. I can do math.

    But, there will always be some youngsters who think they can succeed where others have failed... and someday, some of them may in fact do just that.

    I believe physics is stuck on certain basic issues. When this happens, people need to explore lots of alternatives... and these alternatives will inevitably look worse than what the bigshots have been spending the last few decades doing. Theories of physics don't spring into existence fully formed and beautiful.

    The process of looking for a good theory of physics resembles the way ants crawl around looking for your sandwich at a picnic. Most of the ants spend most of their time wandering aimlessly in what looks like a completely idiotic manner. But, occasionally one of them comes upon a crumb and brings it back to the anthill. Other ants then follow his trail... and eventually, they'll find the sandwich.

    In other words: to find the exciting local maxima, one has to pass through fairly bleak regions of concept space.

    I don't care for people who run around claiming that their work is "more foundational" - there's a lot of fluff out there masquerading as profundity. I prefer people who actually do new solid interesting stuff. Renate Loll and Laurent Freidel, for example.
     
  17. May 22, 2006 #16

    john baez

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    Hmm. I wonder, I really really wonder, just whom you might be alluding to.

    Heh. The history of this era of physics will be quite funny when it's finally written - no matter how things turn out.
     
  18. May 22, 2006 #17
    **
    I know lots of beginners who can't even list the different approaches to quantum gravity, much less describe them or say who is working where on what. For such people, it helps a lot to bump into a forum like this, where a bunch of people are publicly discussing various theories in a not-very-technical way, and Marcus is providing links to lots of new papers, together with not-too-technical commentary. **

    Why should *beginners* ''know'' about many different approaches to quantum gravity (I mean, this is not about buying tomatos on the market) ? These students will - in at least 90 percent of the cases - choose for this particular approach which is closest to what their local idol thought them. Beginners should first *understand* (some of the problems of) QFT and GR and that usually consumes quite some time. Actually, I am convinced that everyone should go through the process of dealing with the conceptual as well as some of the technical problems of QG by him/her-self in an unbiased manner when they are just beginners. This has nothing to do with string theory, LQG or whatever - this has to do with how many different perspectives a student can develop by *him/her-self* by going through some aspects of the problem in his/her own mind.

    **
    You're right - all known approaches to quantum gravity have terrible flaws. That's why, after a decade of beating my brains out on it, I decided to quit. More precisely, I decided to put most of my energy into math. I can do math. **

    I am harassing myself for 6 years now, and the only thing I can say is that the problem - as it is posed today - does not make sense to me. I can only conclude for myself that perhaps it is better to acquire a more profound physical understanding of some older problems first.

    **But, there will always be some youngsters who think they can succeed where others have failed... and someday, some of them may in fact do just that. **

    Haha, of course we think that.

    **
    I believe physics is stuck on certain basic issues. When this happens, people need to explore lots of alternatives... and these alternatives will inevitably look worse than what the bigshots have been spending the last few decades doing. Theories of physics don't spring into existence fully formed and beautiful. **

    I fully agree with that, but one has to be cautious that the remedy does not become worse as the desease (if the lack of perturbative renormalizability of GR is a problem in the sense people think it is) and mind boggling abstraction has never been something which has lead to real progress in physics.

    **
    I don't care for people who run around claiming that their work is "more foundational" - there's a lot of fluff out there masquerading as profundity. I prefer people who actually do new solid interesting stuff.**

    Studying specific models (examples) is the *only* way to make progress provided the latter have enough ``meat´´ to them (and here opinions differ). This also reflects in the output of particular approaches : for example causal sets versus causal dynamical triangulations. The latter approach definetly got more solid results up till now, however it remains to be seen how far one can reasonably go further here (this approach is still facing the acid test : the results up till now are encouraging if you take into account what went wrong in the euclidean models in the first place) and what the physical significance of it all is.

    About fluff masquerading as profundity : talk about the Bell inequalities and all this blabla surrounding quantum mechanics (strangely enough people can build a physics career on that) - and by this I also mean the shear denial of macroscopic reality by many QG practitioners (until this funny observer creeps in). What would be good to know however is what the precise demarcation line between ``classical´´, deterministic physics and quantum mechanics - and more importantly experiment -is ! I am learning every day that this line is much less clear (and certainly way beyond the conventional arguments) than people believe it is; frankly I am quite astonished that virtually no attention is paid to that rather elementary aspect of physics. It would occur to me that trying to weld things together, it is desirable to know precisely in what sense they are different and wether some predictions/aspects of both of them should be taken literally. And if certain idealizations turn out to be the *only* troublesome aspect, then one should *really* investigate these prior to attempting to wed the devil with God.


    Careful

    PS: I said before that when I use the word foundational, this means an approach which changes/questions the presumed foundations/axioms of accepted physics. Therefore, it is not a matter of personal taste when I call approaches to QG not foundational.
     
    Last edited: May 23, 2006
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