At The Other Monastery

By cjohnson | July 24, 2006 4:59 pm

aspens and sculptureDrinking tea at high altitude again. Still a bad idea…. must remember to bring a pressure cooker next time. See this link if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Yes, on my short tour of research hideaways this Summer, I’m at another monastery, the Aspen Center for Physics, where I’ll be continuing my quest to get some coherent research thoughts fully explored before the end of the Summer and my other academic duties begin in earnest. For some of the time I’m here, I’ll overlap with a couple of workshops in my area (and other interesting ones besides), and hence several old friends and colleagues, which is always very nice to do. I’m coming in near the middle of the workshop entitled “String Theory, Gauge Theory & Particle Physics”, and have already today heard two excellent outdoor talks, one by Savdeep Sethi entitled “Can Time End?” and the other by Frederik Denef entitled “Factorization of BPS Degeneracies and the OSV Conjecture”.

We found out the answer to the first question when Sav firmly ran out of time before he got to say all he wished to. Seriously, his talk (see papers hep-th/0603104, hep-th/0601062, and hep-th/0509204 on the arXiv) is all about the physics of certain types of spacetime singularities -such as the one that lives in our universe’s past- and whether we can make sense of the idea of space and time coming into being after such a singularity, while not existing prior to that. He describes certain recently constructed models using string and matrix theory which do give you some rather good control over such issues, it seems. The “funny region” -where time and space have no meaning- is handled (via a “dual” or “indirect” description) by a particular type of non-abelian gauge theory (for the non-expert: roughly the same sort of theory that, for example, describes how nuclei hold themselves together) which does not seem particularly exotic, despite the novel spacetime physics it allows them to get a handle on. This is typical of the kinds of things we’re understanding a lot better about spacetime in recent years (and long before the AdS/CFT example, I should mention), which is that many puzzling questions about spacetime -such as how to describe a complete breakdown of its existence as a nice, smooth arena in which we live to for example the (expected) more primitive state of earlier eras in the universe’s history- seem to be better phrased in terms of gauge theory questions.

frederik denef

Frederik (in action in the photo above) spoke about the subtleties in understanding the OSV conjecture, which is -if you’ve never heard of it- a nice conjecture relating properties of certain types of black holes to a seemingly irrelevant computation involving what are called topological string theories. I won’t go into it here, but refer you instead to discussions of it on Jacques’ blog. It is a technical discussion. Part of the issues of subtleties arising have to do with understanding the BPS spectrum -the spectrum of a very special set of objects in the theory which generically are extremely stable (and therefore useful to keep track of when you’re trying to understand the physics)- when the theory takes you to places where the spectrum changes. “Moving across curves of marginal stability” would be the technical term to use, if you wanted to be in the in crowd. Typically, what happens is that some of these BPS states (generically, extended objects or “branes” of various types… see several earlier posts of mine for what branes are) are in fact bound states of smaller objects (other types of brane), which fall apart in certain regimes, thus changing the spectrum of what BPS states you thought you had available to you. Getting the count right is really crucial in understanding the big picture of what is going on with the conjecture.

It should be a good time – very productive. There are a number of projects to move along, and also I’m burning to find time to sit and write up an idea I conceived on the plane over from the other monastery (thanks to Lufthansa’s dreadful old falling-apart plane I took as a United code-share flight over from Frankfurt to Chicago – I think that United partners with some of these airlines just to make themselves seem really good -and they are, at least from my point of view). I basically ended up computing with good old fashioned pen and paper in one nine-hour sitting pretty much everything I needed because the flight -particularly the plane itself- was so substandard.

frederik denefI’ll try to get some cycling and hiking done on the side (got my boots here, and the Brompton folding bike -pictured on the right in a suitcase, ready to travel- is here with me and already in service) and since Ofer Aharony is here (hurrah!) I’ll probably play (dreadfully) some basketball (I wish the rest of the old Rutgers basketball gang was here, for old times sake), and since Sav Sethi is here (hurrah!) I’ll probably play some (lousy) volleyball (….and maybe cruise some bars…. er., research purposes only, of course). This is all once my bloodstream has remembered how to better transport the meagre supply of oxygen that you get in each breath at this altitude.


P.S. There’ll be two more public readings of that play (in progress) I’m writing with Oliver Mayer on Tuesday and Wednesday, in the greater Los Angeles area. If interested in going, please email me for more details. See here and here for earlier reading descriptions. We’ve got two new actors for two of the parts….. and yes -I can’t believe it either- once again, you’ll know them as having played shadowy evil characters from the show 24! I’m sure this is all a coincidence that it keeps happening.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Science
  • Jack

    I don’t understand how taking an orbifold of Minkowski space can give us any understanding of time-dependent spacetimes or of the [utterly different] bang/crunch singularities.

  • Plato


    Seriously his talk is all about the physics of certain type of spacetime singularites-such as the one that live’s in our universe’s past-and whether life can make sense of the idea of space and time coming into being after such a singularity, while not existing prior to that.

    You know all roads lead too, out of the box thinking? Reductionist views? Why do them?

    So having shown the connection to “what” exists prior, seems like a “controversial point made” and supports the in the box people(Sean Mark Risa, JoAnne)? :) No flights of fantasy, or “ammunition” for distorting reality?

    Unless, you are willing to discuss apriore? May Gabriele Veneziano burn in H***?:) or come through “smelling” like roses?

  • spyder

    Quite often i don’t find myself in agreement with Plato’s comments, but in reading his own blog post, and working my way through the above, i get the feeling that at a certain point physicists could really benefit from taking some serious philosophy course work early in their academic studies.

    It may just be a matter of translation (my father always taught me that math needed to be understood as a linguistic system) from the formulas and equations to English (and my own lack of knowledge regarding the mathematical semioticities of space and time), but the nearly haphazard tossing out of first principles and basic a priori assumptions rankles some of my consciousness studying sensibilities. non lo so..

    It may also be that ultimately none of us really can know if any of these speculations on … whether we can make sense of the idea of space and time coming into being after such a singularity,… are really valid outside of virtual realms of the math. The scientific study of consciousness requires those doing the research to also study philosophy (mostly to provide the linguistic and semiotic constructs for making sense), and i think, at times like these, physicists could benefit from same.

    As for the tea problem at 2500+ meters, my experience backpacking in the high country of North America has led me to choose types of teas that are better suited for steeping/ infusing into water at lower temperatures (it is like sun tea, some herbs and tea leafs need the plus 100ºC and others don’t). This alleviates the need to travel with special pots and kettles.

  • Clifford

    Spyder, With all due respect, I never understand Plato’s remarks even remotely well enough to know whether i agre or disagree with them. I’m sure it is just me being obtuse….. However, what you said, I disagree with. That physics and *not* philosophy has very definite and measurable things to say about the changing nature of time due to real physical processes is a fact that has been established for slightly over 100 years now. It is rather old news in fact. It is a fact that you use every time you use a GPS locator, or the pilot flying your commercial aircraft does. Philosophy can be interesting and fun (and important in its own realm, I don’t doubt), but it is not neccessary to study it to get at the physics of what is going on. I give you the example of quantum mechanics. An awful lot of fancy philosophical words have been written about it, and continue to be written about it…. But the people who use it to invent, understand, and design the components of the computer you are using right now to read this never needed to read a single one of those words.

    The physics leads – the philosphy comes later. ’twas ever thus.



    P.S. We agree on the tea issue, however.

  • pe

    The physics leads – the philosphy comes later. ’twas ever thus.

    I think it is not hard to find a few examples to the contrary–althouth i would not claim that such examples are common. Variational principles in mechanics would be one place to find such examples, and general relativity also had its share of philosophical motivation. I am not claiming that such philosophical motivations end up being crucial for the understanding of the theories after they are constructed.

    On another note: I don’t know much about philosophy, and if I am not mistaken (I am willing to be corrected here), you are not particularly strong in it, either. I think it is not fair to make such sweeping statements if your only basis is work by philosophers who have written about physical theories after they have been constructed.

  • Dimitri Terryn

    “thanks to Lufthansa’s dreadful old falling-apart plane I took as a United code-share flight over from Frankfurt to Chicago – I think that United partners with some of these airlines just to make themselves seem really good -and they are, at least from my point of view”

    No, it’s just that European carriers tend to use the crappier planes when they know that the passengers will be mostly American…they’re used to low-standard airlines πŸ˜‰

  • Clifford

    Actually, Dimitri, the passengers were mostly European (principally German), if I recall correctly. Sorry to spoil your joke with a fact.


  • Clifford

    pe – First, my qualifications in philosophy are irrelevant here. I’m talking about physics here, including the history of the ideas in the field of physics, which I study and teach. I did not say that philosophy was irrelevant, merely that it is not usually useful at this stage of doing physical science. If all that great body of philosophic work that drove physics is really out there but hidden (as you seem to imply), then it is hard to see how it drove the physics.

    In the large part, physics has not advanced by people sitting around declaring that an issue is wierd or spooky and therefore a matter for the philosophers. Not the philosophy of the sort Spyder is referrring to. We’d never have had Galileo or Newton or Einstein, to name just a few. The philosophy (and I don’t mean “natural philosophy” (roughly what we would call physics now)) that is associated with those people and their physics came *after* the physics. People will no doubt come in and try to romanticize what they were doing and blow out of proportion some philosophy-sounding things they might have said in their writings, but they will be wrong. Strip down what those scientists were doing to the core and you will see that they were doing good old fashioned physics, and using a firmly pragmatic scientific method as their guide.

    I don’t want to overstate things here (since I like the idea of healthy dialogue between disciplines), but it is very important to distinguish the process of doing physical science from doing philosophy, and we’ve done a lot better at accurately describing our world in physical terms by doing the former. To simplify a bit, I know, one could say that the latter is useful for trying to make sense of the description once it has been found. Trying to make sense of it all is another matter entirely. That is not what physics is about.

    So physics (=observation, experiment and constructing physical theories to underlie the results) comes first, while philosphy follows. ’twas ever thus. Sorry if you don’t like it, but the weight of history is against you on this one.

    Kindly present me with a good measure of significant counter examples rather than questioning my qualifications, and I’ll be happy to reconsider.


  • Cynthia

    Clifford – long time no see…

    Looks as though you have moved onto a more attractive monastery. Despite your body bathing in less atmospheric pressure and your blood circulating with less oxygen, I’m certain your stay at this outdoor monatary is riveling to your senses.;-)

    Hmmm…Can time end? Equally profound, how did time begin? Doubtlessly, the component of time, as opposed to the multi-components of space, still remains the fundamental wild-card in theoretical physics. Intuitively speaking, the flow of time is intertwined with the process of entropy production. Likewise, the component of time appears to be the key mechanism behind the evolution of the Universe.

    Perhaps on his quest to make sense of time, your fellow theorist – Savdeep Sethi- can solve the cosmological constant problem, in turn, can unveil the ubiquitous dark energy as well.

    Best, Cynthia

  • Plato

    Are you a SuperCosmologist? :)

    You know what happens when you have to explain yourself?

    Well, it could be interpreted that maybe I didn’t understand it at all? Well that’s partially true, and I do know the trouble philosphers have?

    Oh your not “obtuse” at all either Clifford.

    SuperCosmologists Think Out of the Box Clifford at 1:13 a.m. August 3 2005


    Physicist are attracted by the idea of showing that the types of 3+1 dimensional models and equations which regular cosmologists study actually have their origins “outside the box,” in the larger setting….

    Better? :)

  • Plato

    Maybe, Brian Greene is what we call a Supercosmologist? :)

    Maybe you too, Clifford?

  • LambchopofGod

    “The “funny region” where space and time have no meaning….”

    Well, if space and time have no meaning, we shouldn’t be talking about “regions” or “where”, should we now? And even that “have” looks rather questionable :-)

    I agree with CVJ that it may not be very helpful to get all philosophical here. But philosophy might just remind us that “replacing space and time” is likely to be a *lot* harder than we think. I recall an amusing talk by a quantum gravity theorist who insisted that space and time would be replaced by “a well-known substance, familiar to all quantum gravity theorists, which appears in all discussions of this subject, including those by string theorists”, which he denoted by SE. At the end of the talk it was revealed that the “substance” was “Something Else”. Such honesty is all too rare; too many people think that the magic incantation “Duality!” automatically generates “Something Else”. It doesn’t.
    By the way, it is true that the singularities studied by Sethi et al have only a very tenuous connection with real cosmological singularities. The hope, however, is that their so-called singularities might turn into something more interesting when back-reaction is turned on……

  • Amara

    Hi Clifford- Welcome to yet another Monastery. Other ideas for you for the future for interesting places to stay or to host workshops are the Portuguese Pousadas and the Spanish Paradors. The idea for each is that the government takes a historical or otherwise special site and preserves it by turning it into guest quarters. The Paradors are extremely expensive, but the management are happy to offer such places for reduced prices for scientists and scientific workshops. I stayed at the Parador located at the top of the dormant volcano El Teide in 2001 with a group of volcanologists for their yearly workshop (I gave a talk about the dust from the volcanoes on Io) and you can’t beat such scenery. One of the hotel workers even owned a dobsonian telescope that we could borrow to look at the sky. The Portuguese Pousadas are much more affordable. I used them occassionally for a 2002 Portugal bicycle trip in order to help me pick up more cultural history of the region I was passing through.

    Watch the code-sharing.. Lufthansa (as poor as the planes have become) and United airlines work well together, but United Airlines and US Airways don’t (they don’t talk to each other and make dreadful mistakes transferring luggage between the two airlines), and in general I’ve learned that it is good to check the flight designation to know for sure “which” airline is actually flying to know better about the ‘sharing’. In 2003, I used Air Canada to go to Denver for a workshop in the Rocky Mountains because the price was good, and because Air Canada was part of the Star Alliance network. Somehow Alitalia code-shared the Air Canada flight and flew that part. Since Alitalia is not part of the Star Alliance network, I lost miles on my Mileage Plus for that round-trip Transatlantic flight.

    (OK, not about string theory, gauge theory or particle physics, but thoughts that came to my mind when you spoke about your trip.)

  • Elliot

    So the last season of 24 ended in a “Cliff” hanger (no pun intended) with Jack spirited off to China. Perhaps the fact these actors keep coincidently “showing up” in your life, means that the evil doers in next seasons show will be using weapons based on string theory. They will not only threaten to destroy the earth but the entire universe.



  • Plato

    No Elliot.

    There’s another twist, and Jack meets Higgins?:)

    Higgins is beyond anything Jack is use too. The fictional conspiracy grows with this new turn of events.

    The crew begins to delve into “other possible” terror scenarios?

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