Fortress of Solitude

By cjohnson | July 19, 2005 5:25 am

durham cathedral So I’m in Durham for a month. Not Durham, North Carolina, not Durham New Hampshire, places I know because they’re both blessed with the presence of string theorists (see e.g. here, and here.). No, I mean Durham, Durham (so good they named it twice), in England. The original Durham, I think. It’s the one with the Castle and Cathedral which date from the 11th Century, and which are across the road from me as I type (take a virtual tour here). It was a walled citadel on a natural peninsula in the North East of England, and was a natural fortress -the river Wear forms a U shape, and it had a fortified bridge on each side near the top of the U, leading to the mainland, and if you go into the castle you can look out of the slotted windows and see how wonderfully placed they are for shooting arrows straight down onto the bridge.

As I have done for the last two years, I came here to hide away a bit, see my old colleagues and friends in the Mathematical Sciences and Physics Departments, work with my students, and get a bit of work done quietly, away from the mainstream. Since leaving the Mathematical Sciences Dept. for my current situation, I try to spend a month in Durham every year to do the above. I stay in Castle here, which is the University College, of which I am still a member. (This does not always mean I stay within the walls of the castle. I usually take a cheap room or rooms -used for students during term time- in one of the surrounding buildings.) So Durham is sort of my Fortress of Solitude, you might think. You’d imagine that I can relax, take off my cape, and focus on the problems of the (physics) world. I thought so too.

Well, you and I are just plain wrong. For a number of reasons (perhaps more later) I decided not to go to Strings 2005 this year, and having made the decision felt a bit relieved to be away from it for a year and looked forward to walking the quiet streets of Durham, still mostly covered in cobblestones. To my surprise, horror, and eventual amusement, I arrived to find that Durham could in fact be honestly mistaken for the centre of the high energy physics universe! There are in fact effectively four meetings which I’m ending up attending in as many weeks. This is what they are:

(1) Within a day of arriving there’s the “Quantum Gravity: Theory and Experiment” two-day meeting, sponsored by the Insitute of Physics. This was held at the Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology (IPPP), part of the Centre for Particle Theory (CPT) which is comprised of faculty from both Physics and Mathematics. (This was interesting in places, [update: see a bit about content in comments] but most interesting because one got to see the great and the good of the Quantum Gravity community -British style- sitting in one room which is interesting in its bipolarity: a bunch of very clever people split into a group who want to have nothing to do with string theory and seem to treat it with suspicion, and the rest. They just seemed to talk past each other, and seemed uninterested in discussing each other’s approaches to any extent. Very occasionally, one member of a group would say something in their talk which would be blatantly incorrect about the other’s approach and……nothing. Nobody would say a thing! So I would raise my hand and ask a few questions, and very quickly got the impression that I’d committed some awful social mistake approximately equivalent to farting lengthily, loudly and generally horribly during the silence between polite and largely pointless questions at the end. For what its worth, I later learned that several of them thought I was American, which in their minds of course explained why I was asking all those questions (because that’s what “they” do “over there”), making a mess of the tidy schedule. Welcome back home to the UK, cvj!)

(2) In preparation for number (3) below, there were several days of the “Pre-SUSY 2005“. This I like to think of as a tribute event to the “Pre-Strings 2002” idea we in the Mathematical Sciences Dept. implemented several years ago before Strings 2002, held in Cambridge. Back then, the good folks at Cambridge, in their wisdom, were singularly unimpressed with the idea of students coming to the Strings conference and made no provision for them in the form of a discount of the record level (for our field at the time) registration fee. It was a “professional” conference, you see, and so students were not a prioriry. (Even after several protests, they relented, giving a discount but said that there’d be no guarantee that the students would get to sit in the main auditorium.) We at Durham thought this was not altogether supportive of the UK string theory community’s youth element, and so we thought we’d do a Pre-Strings, where we committed to pay the travel for students coming from anywhere in the UK, have a two-day meeting, give them a night’s accommodation, and focus on a series of pedagogical talks on the hot topics of the day aimed specifically at the students. We managed to get some of the speakers on their way to Cambridge to come early and come to Durham to give those talks. It was a rip-roaring success as it gave some students a lot of preparation for the issues to be discussed at the “grown-ups’” meeting. So the IPPP is doing this again, but over several days: Two talks per day over a week and a half, with some pedagogy -plenty aimed at the “youth” on several topics in the issue of phenomenological high energy physics. Excellent idea. And I had fun asking questions and learned a lot in a couple of them. Nobody “looked at me funny”. Might be because several Americans (and other non-UK physicists) had shown up by then and were in the audience, and also speaking (such as JoAnne of Cosmic Variance)- I had strength in numbers.

(3) SUSY 2005. This just started yesterday. This meeting is a natural complement to say, Strings 2005, in that it is focusing on phenomenological issues a hair’s breadth away from real experiments and observations, and it gets more exciting every year since we are closer to testing out some key ideas in big upcoming experiments at the LHC. (See Mark’s recent post by the way.) JoAnne, being one of the people (a “phenomenologist”) who can bridge the gap between the sometimes esoteric stringy constructions of my people and the actual signatures of those ideas in real experiments done in those marvelous machines, is here too, as I said above and is speaking at some point. I really should do a daily report to the world about what’s going on (such as Jacques Distler’s reports from Strings), but I’m really a tourist here, so I won’t. I don’t know enough of the language and the detailed issues to give a good report on most of the talks. I’m sitting and learning what I can here and there, and largely shutting up with the questions as is appropriate, since this is a large meeting of reports on work, not a chit-chat. Also, since I’m supposed to be working, I won’t be going to everything. Oh. I should mention one other excellent thing the organizers did. Their poster and website have a picture of the newest stained glass window in the cathedral. It is called the “Millennium Window”, from about five years ago when anything new in the UK had to have the word “Millennium” in the title. (Had I not stupidly left the cable for my camera in LA, I’d show you some of the other splendid windows, both old and new. There’s even a Marks and Spencer’s window, which I think has cabbages and a loaf of bread among other things. This never fails to crack me up. Oh. If you thought some of the palace interiors and windows were splendid in the movie “Elizabeth” some years ago, it might be because you were looking at some of the scenes shot in the Cathedral used as a stand – in. Also, the cloisters of the cathedral (tour here) are used as part of Hogwart’s in the Harry Potter movies. See here.) Where was I? Oh yes. The conference’s title has a subtitle, and so the full thing says “SUSY 2005, the Millennium Window to Particle Physics”. Nice. Would have been better if they’d done it for SUSY 1999, 2000 or 2001 maybe, but still nice.

(4) LMS workshop on Geometry, Conformal Field Theory and String Theory. Ah. Ok, this one I did know about because its organization started back when I was here. I was one of the co-conspirators on the proposal to the LMS and the EPSRC for funds to get it going. Then I left. So I’m one of the international advisors, and an attendee. This starts later this week. I suspect this is going to be really good. At the very least, I’ll chat some more with Paul Aspinwall, learn more geometry from him of which I will forget 99% due to non-use, and hopefully reminisce about the good ol’ days when we were postdocs at the IAS, Princeton. We began doing this reminiscence last month when we ran into each other both lecturing at the first week of the Perimeter Institute’s Summer School. (Mark of Cosmic Variance was there too, and also other friends and colleagues.) What is this LMS thing? Durham is the Summer home of several of the London Mathematical Society’s workshops. These can be on all sorts of topics, and are small focused workshops where a lot of good stuff often gets done, as I recall. I love this sort of small workshops more than any other type of meeting these days. I get to ask simple questions, and talk to people and learn things. Maybe I’m getting old. More about this issue later. Not about getting old, about meetings and conferences.

So what do you and I learn from this? I should have stayed in LA, and continued tending my garden (which I miss terribly) if I wanted to hide from the mainstream. Durham is a hotbed of activity this month. Actually, the bed’s pretty warm the year around. Despite the English way of not really asking questions much in seminars and the like (which drove me nuts when I was here, and still does now), I think that Durham offers the best all-round training for students or postdocs in theoretical high energy physics (either phenomenological or more formal, such as conformal field theory, integrable systems, strings) in the UK, and can give several places around the world a run for their money. Its main weakness is its lack of people doing lattice gauge theory, but you can’t have everything. There’s so much exposure to seminars, conferences, workshops and about 30 full time faculty from both departments (making it the largest theoretical high energy physics group on the planet by the way). Strange you don’t hear more about it, to be honest. There’s an excellent one-year course of lectures which cover the basics from quantum field theory all the way to advanced topics in string theory and Beyond the Standard Model Physics. The PhD students use that as a focussed springboard into their research studies (although why did you recently give into pressure and make some of the second term’s lectures optional guys? That’s a mistake!), and several students come and just take it as a one year Masters level course too. Its a great place to spend some time intellectually, and I have not even mentioned Carlos Frenk’s excellent cosmology group which is here too.

So as you might guess, I can’t really think of this as my Fortress of Solitude any more. It’s not a hiding place, which is why I am telling you about it. A ton of people I know have begun to show up for the SUSY 2005 events and more will show up for the LMS meeting. And people have begun to realise that this is a great place to visit for physics even when there aren’t conferences on. I’ll still come here for a period every year, but I’ll have to look elsewhere for my retreat from the world (while still having web access and library facilities).

On the plus side, there are several other fortresses to be found. solitude Some really close to home. For example, last Summer I discovered the utility of hiking for an hour and a half or so up to the top of a wonderful view in some of the mountains not far from LA in the middle of the day and sitting up there inside one of several small caves working on a paper I was writing. Excellent solitude there, since only mad dogs and Englishmen (such as me) go out in the midday sun.


  • Ijon Tichy

    The sociology was interesting, but what about the scientific content of the “Quantum Gravity: Theory and Experiment” meeting? I’m particularly interested in promising proposals to experimentally probe the Planck scale. As you well know, the development of quantum mechanics and relativity went hand in hand with numerous experiments exploring the domains of these theories. I suppose it’s not controversial to believe that theorists can’t get very far without real world data guiding them.

  • Clifford

    Good Question. Thanks for asking. I missed the second day, as I was working with my student James the whole day, so cannot tell you about the content of the talks on that day, and there was disruption due to the events in London, so not all speakers made it. See the schedule (I gave a link) of the conference for the people and titles. That’s where the experimental work was mentioned. On the first day, the morning had a mixture of various Quantum Gravity approaches. There was no overall theme. What struck me about those was that it was not obvious exactly where hbar makes an appearance, but that might have been my failing and not the speakers’. For example, Fay’s Causal Sets approach seemed interesting and she spent some time describing how to replace a smooth spacetime with lists of data corresponding to a set of points and the causal structure connecting them. She needed then to demonstrate that the procedure gives you Lorentz invariance in some appropriate sense. I got confused about that because her description did not seem to be a demonstration, but she was short of time (‘cos some jerk kept asking questions, perhaps?). However she did assure us that there was a theorem to take care of it. I could not see how her approach was informed by recent lessons in holography, as she kept insisting on preserving such “fundamental” structures as the volume of a patch of spacetime but she did not seem (rightly or wrongly) to care about holography. Nobody else (including the string theorists) in the audience seemed to either so at that point I rightly shut up. My confusion about hbar. Does it arise in the construction of the dynamics on the causal sets? A path integral whcih sums over them? What? She ran out of time. Fay’s pretty smart and has been doing this for a while so I’m sure she’s thought about it. I did not understand a number of the other talks like the spin foam material (largely because I was very confused about what they were calling observables…they seemed very metric dependent to me…I thought we were only allowed things like Wilson Loops). On the “stringy” side, there were an awful lot of talks on various braneworld scenarios. This is all well and good, and there’s good materiel there (Charmoussis, Padilla, etc), but most of the gravity parts of those talks are definitely more classical than Brahms. So I was very annoyed to have missed Ian Moss’s talk since his title said he was talking precisely about the quantum effects in braneworld scenarios. His talks are always interesting. Bernard Kay gave an excellent review of techniques for doing QFT in curved space. Panagiota Kanti talked about accelerator signatures of black holes if the true scale (due to brane world scenarios) of gravity is of order a TeV. That is fun stuff, but I found myself very worried about the assumptions that go into the various stages of decay of the holes depending upon how much angular momentum they have. But it’s early days for this sort of computation still. JoAnne is talking about that sort of thing today in one of her talks in SUSY 2005. -cvj

  • Ijon Tichy

    Thanks for the informative reply. Gravity is such an unaccomodating beast!

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