Saturday, February 16, 2019

On Graduate School

For a graduate student it can be very difficult. It’s very easy to get discouraged if you have no real understanding that you’re going to be stuck for a very long time.

I could very easily have imagined myself getting discouraged and dropping out of graduate school. That could have easily happened to me under different circumstances.

Graduate school is a different environment and then you start to wonder—“Am I really good enough to do research-level math?” It’s hard, in fact, to tell. You see all these people who are doing great things around you and then you think, well, maybe you’re not cut out for this. So I think it’s important [long pause] to have someone who believes in you.
from an interview with Akshay Venkatesh.

Akshay Venkatesh in the news.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Wincing at the state of physics

High energy particle physics theorists - the people who lead the investigations into the most fundamental aspects of nature - have been having a bad streak.  They have had no major successful new idea in the last forty years, all the theories they've proposed -- and there are lots of them -- have failed to yield an experimental signature.  The excuses for failure are flying thick.

Mathematician Peter Woit at Columbia University in his blog, recently quoted physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed of the Institute of Advanced Studies, Princeton, from an answer given in the Q&A session after a seminar, thus:
You could very justifiably say “look, you’re just continuing to make excuses for a paradigm that failed”, OK, and I would say that’s true, and even the paradigm most of your advisors love [e.g. usual SUSY] was already an excuse for the failure of non-supersymmetric GUTs before that.
That is a perfectly decent attitude to take, but I would like to at least tell you that you should study some of the history of physics. This very, very, very rarely happens, that some idea that seems basically right is just crap and wrong, It’s probably mostly right with a tweak or some reinterpretation. You’d have to go back over…, I don’t know how far you’d have to go back, even Ptolemy wasn’t so far from wrong
Ouch! That is some seriously bad reading of the history of physics.   That was amply pointed out in the comments on the blog.

Rutgers University physicist  Amitabh Lath rightly, I think, pointed out:
Stop picking on Nima. You all are doing the internet thing of taking one statement in an hour talk and ganging up.
But challenged on it, he continued:
Even the pre-Copernican Ptolemaic stuff made sense to me. Basically, there are concepts in a failed theory that you might want to keep (things moving in circles around other things) and others you might want to jettison. Granted, he is not very good at history of science.
 Double Ouch!  Is "things moving in circles around other things" a valuable idea from the Ptolemaic theory of the solar system?  I think it is wrong on two counts -- firstly, the idea of things moving in circles around other things is present in earlier theories of the heavens; and secondly, things moving in circles around other things is not a theoretical idea; it is a root observation, the experience early humans had of the skies, at the very start of the study of the heavens.   For example, the sun rises at the east horizon in the morning every day, sets at the west horizon in the evening  and presumably somehow finds its way back in the dark to the east horizon the next morning, completing a closed loop if not a circle, per the early earth-bound humans.

I'm happy that I'm not in the high energy physics milieu at all.  Lot of mathematics, very little understanding.