Green sits in Hawking's chair

By Daniel Holz | October 27, 2009 12:37 pm

folding chairAs we recently noted, Stephen Hawking has stepped down from the Lucasian Chair at Cambridge. The chair didn’t stay empty for long. It has been announced that Michael Green will become the new Lucasian Professor. Green is one of the pioneers of string theory, and is already at Cambridge. I’m not sure he even switches offices, or chairs for that matter.

Hawking did seminal work in general relativity. He proved a number of singularity theorems (with Roger Penrose). He wrote The Large Scale Structure of Spacetime (with George Ellis). John Wheeler conjectured that quiescent black holes have “no hair” (i.e., all black holes look identical, being distinguished only by mass, charge, and angular momentum), and Hawking (with Israel, Carter, and Robinson) proved this to be true. Hawking is a true expert on gravity, which seems completely appropriate for someone donning Newton’s mantle. Does Green’s appointment indicate that, at least in Cambridge’s mind, string theory is the anointed successor to general relativity?

Hawking sat in the Lucasian Chair for three decades. Green is expected to occupy it for a little less than four years, at which point he reaches Lucasian retirement age (67). Aren’t there any young whippersnappers worthy of the seat?

  • Charles Tye

    I am surprised to see ageism surface on such a politically correct blog. What does it matter how old he is?

    Surely the chair should go to the best qualified person who would be prepared to accept it.

    I can’t think of anyone more qualified than Green who has also done seminal work in his own field.

  • Doug

    Not sure if it’s really ageism so much as traditionalism – if you look at the list of people who have have that position, with the exception the first occupant and a run of 4 short tenures in the 1820’s, all had the position for at least a decade, and often 3 decades. Choosing someone whom you know can only occupy such a position for a short amount of time, given its history, does sound like they couldn’t find anyone relatively young the committee could agree on. The chair has been more of a place for people to do seminal work rather than a reward for work already done.

  • Ben Martin

    It was decided years ago (it was common knowledge within DAMTP at least as far back as 2004) that Green would succeed Hawking to the Lucasian. Just as it’s already been decided who will hold the chair next once Green steps down.

    I don’t think I’m giving too much away by mentioning that it’s someone with an office on the second floor of Pavilion B at DAMTP.


  • none of the above

    I must take issue with your characterization of the provenance of the black hole uniqueness theorems.
    The original uniqueness theorems, in the static case, for both charged and uncharged black holes, were due
    to Werner Israel (1967). The uniqueness theorems of Israel were then extended to the stationary case by others, including Carter, Hawking, and Robinson.

    Similarly, I must take issue with your characterization of the provenance of the singularity theorems. The original singularity theorem was for black hole interiors, and was due solely to Penrose (1965). This was a remarkable paper, and to the best of my knowledge was the first paper to utilize methods of differential topology to rigorously resolve issues of principle in general relativity. Subsequently Penrose, together with Hawking, applied these same methods to show the existence of singularities in cosmology subject to some modest assumptions.

    Hawking has done seminal work in sufficiently many areas of general relativity and quantum gravity, that one does not need to credit him with originating lines of research that began with Israel or Penrose.

    With regard to Michael Green’s appointment to the Lucasian Chair, I think that it is a superb choice. Not only does he have a record of profound and original research matched by at most a handful of people on the planet, but he continues to be active at the same high level today. And he is forthright, personable, modest, and has great common sense. He will be an excellent ambassador for fundamental physics, and my only regret is that the age gap between him and Hawking is not larger, so that he could undertake such a role for a longer period of time.

  • tacitus

    So, without wanting to derail the thread too much, what is the current outlook for string theory? What are the odds of it being the correct mathematical model for the universe? Is there anything else waiting in the wings?

  • none of the above

    tacitus Says:

    “What are the odds of it being the correct mathematical model for the universe?”

    I have no idea how you would calculate such odds. At present, via gauge string dualities, it is making real progress at doing what it was invented for in the 1960’s: ie. giving a (continuum; Wilsonian lattice gauge theory also describes QCD as the dynamics of a string) string description of the strong interactions. It is also providing new methods for calculation in other conformally invariant systems, such as quantum critical points in condensed matter physics. It has had great success in resolving issues in quantum gravity; eg. AdS-CFT has given convincing evidence that Hawking evaporation of black holes can proceed without information loss, and it has given microscopic statistical mechanical explanations of the thermodynamics of Hawking evaporation, including grey-body factors etc. Whether we will be able to write down a solution that describes all of particle physics (including quantum gravity) and underlies all the understanding of the Particle Data Book is an open question, and I have no idea how you would put odds for or against such a solution. We’ll see…

  • Michael T.

    Could Prof. Brian Greene be considered such a whippersnapper?

  • Charon

    “What are the odds of [string theory] being the correct mathematical model for the universe?”


    I’ve applied a detailed Bayesian analysis, where I’ve assumed the obvious prior of 1/6 and have no data.

  • Brian Mingus

    Honestly, a string theorist? It won’t be long before we can develop an AI that can sputter out as many logically coherent theories that over explain the data as you care to program it to. I would prefer that the seat go to someone that produces testable theories that conform to our modern notion of science.

  • net nerd

    Ben Martin, not to knock Gibbons, but there is also a good chance of squeezing more good work out of Kelly (although maybe he prefers a different career trajectory), and it’s been a while since Babbage.

  • Jimbo

    Brian is RightOn !
    The Lucasian appts. literally ooze PC, and the unethical reality of many academic appts is that legally speaking, they HAVE to put an ad out first, even if they’ve already locked in a selection. How many people are grist for that mill, silently hoping, believing they have an even chance, when the deal is already sealed. Its very sad, and should be fixed.

    Appt’g someone who must give up the job only after a short tenure is just as ludicrous. Similar to hiring an airline pilot at 56, whom the FAA will force by fed. law to retire at 60.
    With regard to Brian’s point, it now appears that at least analogues of Hawking radiation may soon be produced, sans BHs, and hopefully Hawking will get the dangerously overdue Nobel he so richly deserves. After two decades tho, the stringers will probably remain in empirical purgatory.

  • Timon of Athens

    Aren’t there any young whippersnappers worthy of the seat?

    Try suggesting some names, compare them with Hawking, and you have your answer.

  • Timon of Athens

    By the way, Gibbons would be an excellent choice: he has done an enormous amount of *very* original [and underestimated] work. No whippersnapper though….

  • Frank

    What were they waiting for from Hawking to step down, a death rattle? The Lucasian chair is supposed to be an active one, not just a letterhead like the Nobel peace prize has become.

  • Haelfix

    @12: There are no young researchers with Hawkings credentials, simply b/c discovering something in physics nowdays is an order of magnitude harder than it was, even 15 years ago.

    Maldecena is the one that comes the closest.

  • Sili

    Well, I’ll be uncharitable and air the suggestion that this is an interim appointment – like John Paul I and others before him.

    So, indeed, bright young things out there, get going! You have four years to line yourself up.

    In fact, why not let’s get even more politically incorrect. Give us a list of people who won’t have turned forty in four years, but who now seem set to become the it-people for gravity.

  • Phillip Helbig

    Ageism? Probably not. Tradition is that the holder retires at 67.

    Whether or not it has been long known in some quarters that Green would be the successor,
    perhaps the closeness and age and thus the fact that (unless Hawking had died) his tenure
    would be a short one was intentional, rather like John Paul I or, perhaps, the current Pope.

    I’m not familiar with the floor plan at DAMTP. If it’s that obvious, no reason not to let the
    cat out of the bag. Personally, I would choose John D. Barrow.

  • http://none Jon

    @Phillip Helbig

    You’ve GOT to be kidding about Barrow…. he’s a superb writer about science for the public, but hardly done anything groundbreaking in his own research. Paul Townsend has got to be in the frame though….basically got to M-Theory about the same time as Witten.

  • Ellipsis

    They might not have the money right now for a completely new hire (plus keeping Green in his current/past professorial position). Such concerns often trump “what would be best.”

  • boreds

    MBG is an excellent choice, as one of the leading theoretical physicists of his generation, and someone who clearly can cope well with the pressures of following Stephen. In four years time, the potential pressure on a younger physicist will have dissipated I would imagine, allowing him or her simply to get on with the job and do some (hopefully) outstanding research.

    @Ben Martin, I am intrigued as to who is the Lucasian-elect. Any clues? Second floor? If it is someone young, does that mean HR or DT? Interesting.

    @Timon. Gary Gibbons is a few months younger than Michael. As much as he would be a worthy choice, if a tenure of four years is being criticized, anything less than that seems unlikely.

  • Eunoia

    If I remember correctly ,the paper was titled ‘Black holes have no hairs’ because that gives an exceedingly vulgar translation into Russian 😉

  • Anonymous

    Why is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics traditionally a physicist? Why don’t they change the name of the chair, or appoint a mathematician?

  • Clare

    “Aren’t there any young whippersnappers worthy of the seat?”

    Maybe young wippersnappers don’t want to move to the UK?

  • C. Oward

    @Ben Martin and others

    Barrow is on the ground floor. Gibbons one above.

    And did Ben Martin surely meant it is already decided? I can’t think of anyone besides T., and he too would have to do something bit more extraordinary than to date.

  • Christina Viering

    Sounds like a dilemma.

  • Sili

    Why is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics traditionally a physicist? Why don’t they change the name of the chair, or appoint a mathematician?

    Well, the common complaint is that String Theory is all Mathematics and no Physics.

    You can’t have it both ways.

  • Joey

    I vote for Daniel Holz (and Sean Carroll as a back up).


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