The Witten Thing

I had a bit of a discussion via Twitter with Eric Weinstein yesterday, starting with his statement:

Ed Witten has no Nobel Prize. Now tell me again how this era’s physics just feels different because we are too close to it.

Basically, he appears to feel that Witten is sufficiently smart that he ought to have a Nobel. My feeling is that if you look at the list of Nobel laureates in physics, you won’t find any theorists who won before their theory had experimental confirmation. It’s not an official rule, but it seems to be well established practice.

My attempt at an analogy was the late John Wheeler, who is a Name in physics, but doesn’t have a Nobel because he, like Witten, worked on problems that did not connect with experimental observations. No data, no dynamite money.

It’s an interesting topic for debate, though, so let’s throw this totally non-controversial subject out as a poll:


(UPDATE: I was misinterpreting Eric’s position somewhat, mostly due to the constraints of Twitter. See the comments for a more accurate explanation.)

Comments

  1. #1 Doug Natelson
    July 31, 2009

    Many lay-people out there think Hawking has or should have a Nobel, too. You’re totally on the money that theorists traditionally only get a prize if their theories (a) have testable consequences, and (b) those consequences are actually observed. It makes me wonder if this is part of the reason why inflationary cosmology hasn’t gotten a prize yet – it sure looks right, but things like dark energy suggest that we might be missing some really important physics.

  2. #2 Eric Weinstein
    July 31, 2009

    Hi Chad,

    Simply: no. Permit the non-physicist to clarify.

    You are asking an interesting question here. However it is completely divorced from the question I was raising. In fact, my question presupposes that the Nobel process is fairly consistent and that it is simply behaving as it has in the past.

    My question is about the era and whether this time in fundamental physics is different. To me, Witten is merely a probe here that I am scattering off the era to learn more about the nature of the time in which we live. I feel like many of us who have dealt with Ed professionally and personally are reasonably confident that if his birthday were a generation earlier there is little question as to whether he would have won a nobel prize by this relatively advanced stage in the life of a particle theorist.

    My irritation was with the very large number of folks who are fond of saying that all eras are similar. To me saying that recent physics is similar to previous eras is much like saying “intercontinental exploration is no less exciting than at any time in the past”.

    So let’s do that poll after we find out how this one turns out.

    Best,

    Eric Weinstein

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    July 31, 2009

    Many lay-people out there think Hawking has or should have a Nobel, too. You’re totally on the money that theorists traditionally only get a prize if their theories (a) have testable consequences, and (b) those consequences are actually observed. It makes me wonder if this is part of the reason why inflationary cosmology hasn’t gotten a prize yet – it sure looks right, but things like dark energy suggest that we might be missing some really important physics.

    I think that’s absolutely the reason why nobody’s gotten a Nobel for inflationary cosmology. The WMAP probe results might constitute enough “proof” (as I understand it, the power spectrum of the fluctuations can only be fit by models involving inflation), but it’s still a little early for that to lead to a prize. Dark energy mucks things up a bit, too.

    My question is about the era and whether this time in fundamental physics is different. To me, Witten is merely a probe here that I am scattering off the era to learn more about the nature of the time in which we live. I feel like many of us who have dealt with Ed professionally and personally are reasonably confident that if his birthday were a generation earlier there is little question as to whether he would have won a nobel prize by this relatively advanced stage in the life of a particle theorist.

    Ah. I misunderstood.
    So, you’re saying that had he been working in an earlier era, he naturally would’ve been working on problems that connect with actual data, and thus would have won a prize by now? I could agree with that, with one caveat:

    My irritation was with the very large number of folks who are fond of saying that all eras are similar. To me saying that recent physics is similar to previous eras is much like saying “intercontinental exploration is no less exciting than at any time in the past”.

    You’ve dropped two adjectives: that should read “saying that recent high-energy theorestical physics is similar to previous eras…”

    Physics is much bigger than high-energy theoretical physics, no matter what high-energy theorists may think. It could perfectly well be true that high-energy theory is in an unprecedented state of limbo, while also being true that physics as a whole is generally similar to physics as a whole in the past.

    If you want to talk about physics as a whole, then you need to scatter more probes than just Witten.

  4. #4 onymous
    July 31, 2009

    You might want to start with, e.g., this to make a case that he should have a Nobel Prize. I don’t have a clear opinion on this one way or the other. But there’s a strong implication in the above that he has never done any work with experimental consequences; this is simply not true. He made very important contributions to our understanding of QCD, in particular of the U(1) problem (eta’ mass) and chiral symmetry breaking. It’s true that ‘t Hooft made earlier, probably more important contributions to both these issues, but Witten’s role shouldn’t be underestimated.

    He’s also the first — or at least one of the first — people to describe how an experiment could directly detect dark matter, and could well be in contention for a Nobel Prize if such experiments pan out.

  5. #5 Bee
    July 31, 2009

    The Nobel Prize isn’t awarded for being intelligent. According to Nobel’s will it’s awarded to those who “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind,” and especially in physics to those who “have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics.” While Witten may be one of the most intelligent people alive, I frankly fail to see how his work is of great benefit for mankind.

    The question you are asking is badly posed because the point is not whether I or any of your readers would or wouldn’t give Witten a Nobel Prize, but if he fulfills Nobel’s criteria.

    In reply to Eric: Sorry, but the Nobel Price isn’t awarded either on the basis of “If he had been born a hundred years earlier he would have certainly fulfilled the requirements.” Leaving aside Witten, it’s an interesting question though whether the criteria for the Nobel Prize in physics are outdated. I don’t think they are. I think in a decade people will laugh their ass off we’ve seriously discussed that. I had a related post here Will Physics Turn Into Philosophy

    Best,

    B.

  6. #6 onymous
    July 31, 2009

    While Witten may be one of the most intelligent people alive, I frankly fail to see how his work is of great benefit for mankind.

    You could say the same thing about the prizes to ‘t Hooft and Veltman, or to Gross, Politzer and Wilczek. High-energy physics is of no use to mankind except to satisfy our curiosity. This hasn’t stopped the Nobel committee from giving prizes in it.

  7. #7 Eric Weinstein
    July 31, 2009

    Hey Chad,

    And I Saw that comin’ too so I put in the word “fundamental”:

    “My question is about the era and whether this time in fundamental physics is different.”

    And just to anticipate the next point in the chain, I agree that there is reverse flow from higher level theories (e.g. spontaneous magnetization -> spontaneous mass generation) but there is still something special about fundamental physics (Gravitation included).

    I want to say something like “All obvious points agreed to and ceded by all relevant parties, let’s stop with the BS and talk tachlis: Is this a sociological or an intellectual adaptive valley?”

    Best,

    Eric

  8. #8 Eric Weinstein
    July 31, 2009

    Hi Bee. We don’t disagree. I’m not lobbying here.

    When and if I want to explore a prize for Ed it will be a reasoned argument of the kind you are used to from me.

  9. #9 Brett
    July 31, 2009

    Bee—The criteria on which the Nobel prizes are awarded bears far less resemblance to what Nobel specified than is commonly believed. The most important divergence in this regard is that the prizes were all supposed to have been for work done within the previous year! How many physics laureates got their prizes that promptly? Lee and Yang are probably the only ones. The Nobel Peace Prize is also frequently given out for actions that clearly do not meet Nobel’s intended criteria.

    That said, there are established standards for what kind of work qualifies. These standards were certainly influenced by what Nobel specified, and they evolved somewhat through the early years of the prizes (although even the very first set of prizes were apparently based on criteria closer to the modern ones than what Nobel actually intended).

    I am satisfied with the criteria used to adjudicate advances in theoretical physics. People who want Nobel prizes for unverified theoretical work are often the same ones who suggest there should have been a prize in mathematics. Reading the very concrete terms of Nobel’s bequest, however, it’s easy to see why he didn’t make one. He wanted to honor the most important discoveries of each year, importance gauged in terms of their benefit for mankind. Pure mathematics just doesn’t really fit into this kind of framework. (Needless to say, the oft-repeated story about Nobel’s wife and some mathematician—accounts differ as to who—is poppycock. Nobel was never married, and his long-term mistress was not the type who went after academics. I think she finally left him for a Hungarian army officer.)

  10. #10 Uncle Al
    July 31, 2009

    Even chronic Nobel embarrassments – Literature, Economics, Peace – require product not merely process. This is insubordinate in an era when best intentions vastly override any slaughter they engender.

    To date, Witten is elegant not useful. The whole of contemporary physical theory is a disaster. It is mathematics without empirical validation. What will the most sublime Terran mentalities do when there is no Higgs – retool CERN into a cancer treatment center? Weaponize string theory and apply it to the Pentagon’s next defeat? Network Theory is doing a fabulous job in Afghanistan as Game Theory did in Vietnam.

    Implosion of planetary finance is directly traceable to legions of physicist wonks. Who gets the Nobel for Economics ($60 trillion in the hole renders Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman crushing Chile a dilettante), Literature (Paulson’s three page $infinite bailout), or Peace (is the world now too poor to wage war? No).

  11. #11 Dave Bacon
    July 31, 2009

    Chad I think you totally misrepresent what Eric was asking. Oh, wait, I see he’s commented. Parsing Weinstein speak seems tricky, especially in 140 characters :)

  12. #12 Marcus
    July 31, 2009

    Check out this about the ABEL prize for mathematicians:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abel_Prize

    My impression is that Edward Witten has not worked seriously on String/M for something like five years. I don’t think he even attended the main conference Strings 2008. He was invited to give a public lecture at Strings 2009 in Rome and chose not to talk about String. He gave the lecture but spoke of other things.

    I attended three 90 minute talks he gave at UC Berkeley about his current research in 2006 and he did not at any time mention String. At the end of the last lecture somebody in the audience asked about String and he gave a one-sentence answer.

    At that time his current research interest was the geometric Langlands program, which is deep interesting mathematics. Like other deeply creative mathematics including some for which the Abel Prize has been awarded, it could have long-range invigorating effects on physics or on other branches of human endeavor. Perhaps there is also the issue of work done for the honor of the human mind, if that doesn’t sound too silly to mention here.

    Anyway it looks like String was a bubble and Witten’s work on that may not win him prizes, but he already was awarded the Fields Medal in mathematics for nonstring work done previously, and he may yet win the Abel for nonstring work on the Langlands or something else.

    The Abel is Norway’s answer to Sweden having Nobel ceremonies. They are “keeping up with the Joneses” or maybe I should say keeping up with the Jansens. Hey Bee, you’re in Sweden now! Congratulations on the move.

  13. #13 thm
    July 31, 2009

    I am truly disappointed that “Uncle Al,” by lumping it together with Peace and Literature, perpetuated the myth that the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel is a real Nobel Prize.

    I must forward this transgression to the Congress of Contrarian Internet Trolls, who may need to place his membership on probationary status.

  14. #14 Aaron Bergman
    July 31, 2009

    Responding to Marcus, there just isn’t this hard division between string and non-string worlds. Witten’s work on Langlands involves many stringy subjects such as mirror symmetry and D-branes. If you look in his most recent paper with Gaiotto, for example, you will find many constructions in terms of D-branes. String theory has lots to say about field theory, and field theory obviously is vitally important to understand string theory.

    But if you really want string theory qua string theory, there’s 9208.0948.

  15. #15 Moshe
    July 31, 2009

    I think this particular faux controversy is long outdated. For a more modern one, how about speculating who might get the Nobel prize if there is a string dual for an experimentally observed quantum critical point?

  16. #16 Daniel de França MTd2
    July 31, 2009

    Witten has a kind of nobel prize, which is the Fields Medal. So, I guess he is as important to mathematics as a nobel prize for its respective science field. So, you can say that Witten is already “nobel prize” winner.

    As for what Marcus says, I don’t think the string bubble has bursted, yet. It will, as soon as people realize that SUSY will never be seen at LHC. However, I am a little bit puzzled to why Witten is absent from conferences. Maybe Marcus is right, and Witten is just interested in studying mathematics inspired by String Theories.

    For example, in the article pointed out by Aaron above, one can see lots of generalizations of arcane constructions, and he doesn’t seem to seek a realistic phenomenology not even as a motivation, like Cumrun Vafa has been doing lately with his F-Theory. Alright, new mathematics can yield new ideas in physics, but even the lack of a clear motivation in the article makes things boring. He could speak about the physical motivation in coferences, but he doesn’t lately…

  17. #17 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 31, 2009

    It’s rare enough (unique, in fact) for a Physicist to win The Fields Medal, that prize awarded to two, three, or four mathematicians not over 40 years of age at each International Congress of the International Mathematical Union, a meeting that takes place every four years. The Fields Medal is often viewed as the top honor a mathematician can receive, and roughly equivalent to a Nobel Prize.

    1990 Kyoto, Japan Vladimir Drinfel’d, Soviet Union;
    Vaughan F. R. Jones, New Zealand; Shigefumi Mori, Japan;
    Edward Witten, USA.

    I don’t want to go on the tangent of why is there is officially no Math nor Astronomy Nobel Prize, as that involves scurrilous anecdotes about Nobel wife who, in fact, did not exist.
    http://www.research.att.com/~njas/sequences/A122505
    A122505 Arises from energy spectrum of three dimensional gravity with negative cosmological constant, in analysis by Edward Witten.

  18. #18 fx
    July 31, 2009

    Hmm, arguing whether Ed’s string work deserves a Nobel Prize in physics, shouldn’t we give Einstein a Nobel Prize for his general relativity first?

  19. #19 onymous
    July 31, 2009

    if there is a string dual for an experimentally observed quantum critical point?

    That seems extremely unlikely, no? At least the large gap in operator dimensions necessary for the string dual to be calculable is unlikely to exist.

  20. #20 M
    July 31, 2009

    The Nobel prize is in a whole different class for Witten. What I mean is that Witten’s work is not really Nobel-prize material, just like any of the other string theorists that work with him. Ed already got the Fields Medal, which is much more suited for his specialty and it is specific to his work on the Jones polynomial. Maldacena might get one though…

    I bet there will be no more prizes like Einstein’s for “his services to theoretical physics…”.

  21. #21 Roman Werpachowski
    July 31, 2009

    String theory has a competitor, Loop Quantum Gravity. It seems premature to give out Nobel prizes for one of the competing theories when we haven’t yet decided which one is correct.

  22. #22 Tom Levenson
    July 31, 2009

    I have no physics qualifications to bring to bear on this (though I once (in 1995) spent a generous, fascinating and incomprehensible afternoon in Ed Witten’s office as we tried to build a narrative that would connect the film on Einstein I was working on to the work he was doing at that time. As Chaim Weizmann said of Albert after steaming across the Atlantic in his company, Witten carefully explained his ideas to me to the point where I became sure that he fully understood them. ;)

    But for the best statement I’ve heard on what Nobel Prizes in physics are really about, let me point this crowd to a bit of my own work I’m really proud of, an interview with Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson at the old horn antenna at Bell Labs in which, after an hour of retracing their steps to the CMB observation, I asked them what it felt like to receive a Nobel prize. Both men’s answers were interesting, but Wilson’s was directly on this topic. He said, paraphrasing, that he finally became comfortable with the idea that his name was going to be on the same list as Einstein’s when he realized that the Nobels are given for discoveries, and not for being the most intelligent person around.

    You can watch that clip here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/origins/program-3114.html. The relevant passage is a couple of minutes in to chapter two.

  23. #23 BAllanJ
    August 2, 2009

    But…. there isn’t a Nobel prize for mathematics. I wouldn’t describe it as physics until there’s an experiment or a prediction, at least.

  24. #24 scott fanetti
    August 2, 2009

    Fields medal for Witten. Nobel for the experimentalist that provides good evidence Witten is right.

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!