Category Archives: Life as a Physicist

Visiting LBNL

I’ve been traveling this week, giving a talk at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, so this will be a short post.

In my experience, most non-scientists don’t know about the national labs. In the US, the majority of scientists work for universities, but a substantial number work at one of the seventeen national labs overseen by the Department of Energy. It’s a good gig, if you can get it: no teaching duties, and a fair amount of freedom in what you research.

Each lab has its own focus, and its own culture. In the past I’ve spent a lot of time at SLAC, which runs a particle accelerator near Stanford (among other things). Visiting LBNL, I was amused by some of the differences. At SLAC, the guest rooms have ads for Stanford-branded bed covers. LBNL, meanwhile, brags about its beeswax-based toiletries in recyclable cardboard bottles. SLAC is flat, spread out, and fairly easy to navigate. LBNL is a maze of buildings arranged in tight terraces on a steep hill.


I forgot to take a picture, but someone appears to have drawn one.

While the differences were amusing, physicists are physicists everywhere. It was nice to share my work with people who mostly hadn’t heard about it before, and to get an impression of what they were working on.

Thoughts from the Winter School

There are two things I’d like to talk about this week.

First, as promised, I’ll talk about what I worked on at the PSI Winter School.

Freddy Cachazo and I study what are called scattering amplitudes. At first glance, these are probabilities that two subatomic particles scatter off each other, relevant for experiments like the Large Hadron Collider. In practice, though, they can calculate much more.

For example, let’s say you have two black holes circling each other, like the ones LIGO detected. Zoom out far enough, and you can think of each one as a particle. The two particle-black holes exchange gravitons, and those exchanges give rise to the force of gravity between them.


In the end, it’s all just particle physics.


Based on that, we can use our favorite scattering amplitudes to make predictions for gravitational wave telescopes like LIGO.

There’s a bit of weirdness to this story, though, because these amplitudes don’t line up with predictions in quite the way we’re used to. The way we calculate amplitudes involves drawing diagrams, and those diagrams have loops. Normally, each “loop” makes the amplitude more quantum-mechanical. Only the diagrams with no loops (“tree diagrams”) come from classical physics alone.

(Here “classical physics” just means “not quantum”: I’m calling general relativity “classical”.)

For this problem, we only care about classical physics: LIGO isn’t sensitive enough to see quantum effects. The weird thing is, despite that, we still need loops.

(Why? This is a story I haven’t figured out how to tell in a non-technical way. The technical explanation has to do with the fact that we’re calculating a potential, not an amplitude, so there’s a Fourier transformation, and keeping track of the dimensions entails tossing around some factors of Planck’s constant. But I feel like this still isn’t quite the full story.)

So if we want to make predictions for LIGO, we want to compute amplitudes with loops. And as amplitudeologists, we should be pretty good at that.

As it turns out, plenty of other people have already had that idea, but there’s still room for improvement.

Our time with the students at the Winter School was limited, so our goal was fairly modest. We wanted to understand those other peoples’ calculations, and perhaps to think about them in a slightly cleaner way. In particular, we wanted to understand why “loops” are really necessary, and whether there was some way of understanding what the “loops” were doing in a more purely classical picture.

At this point, we feel like we’ve got the beginning of an idea of what’s going on. Time will tell whether it works out, and I’ll update you guys when we have a more presentable picture.


Unfortunately, physics wasn’t the only thing I was thinking about last week, which brings me to my other topic.

This blog has a fairly strong policy against talking politics. This is for several reasons. Partly, it’s because politics simply isn’t my area of expertise. Partly, it’s because talking politics tends to lead to long arguments in which nobody manages to learn anything. Despite this, I’m about to talk politics.

Last week, citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen were barred from entering the US. This included not only new visa applicants, but also those who already have visas or green cards. The latter group includes long-term residents of the US, many of whom were detained in airports and threatened with deportation when their flights arrived shortly after the ban was announced. Among those was the president of the Graduate Student Organization at my former grad school.

A federal judge has blocked parts of the order, and the Department of Homeland Security has announced that there will be case-by-case exceptions. Still, plenty of people are stuck: either abroad if they didn’t get in in time, or in the US, afraid that if they leave they won’t be able to return.

Politics isn’t in my area of expertise. But…

I travel for work pretty often. I know how terrifying and arbitrary border enforcement can be. I know how it feels to risk thousands of dollars and months of planning because some consulate or border official is having a bad day.

I also know how essential travel is to doing science. When there’s only one expert in the world who does the sort of work you need, you can’t just find a local substitute.

And so for this, I don’t need to be an expert in politics. I don’t need a detailed case about the risks of terrorism. I already know what I need to, and I know that this is cruel.

And so I stand in solidarity with the people who were trapped in airports, and those still trapped abroad and trapped in the US. You have been treated cruelly, and you shouldn’t have been. Hopefully, that sort of message can transcend politics.


One final thing: I’m going to be a massive hypocrite and continue to ban political comments on this blog. If you want to talk to me about any of this (and you think one or both of us might actually learn something from the exchange) please contact me in private.

Digging up Variations

The best parts of physics research are when I get a chance to push out into the unknown, doing calculations no-one has done before. Sometimes, though, research is more…archeological.


Pictured: not what I signed up for

Recently, I’ve been digging through a tangle of papers, each of which calculates roughly the same thing in a slightly different way. Like any good archeologist, I need to figure out not just what the authors of these papers were doing, but also why.

(As a physicist, why do I care about “why”? In this case, it’s because I want to know which of the authors’ choices are worth building on. If I can figure out why they made the choices they did, I can decide whether I share their motivations, and thus which aspects of their calculations are useful for mine.)

My first guess at “why” was a deeply cynical one. Why would someone publish slight variations on an old calculation? To get more publications!

This is a real problem in science. In certain countries in particular, promotions and tenure are based not on honestly assessing someone’s work but on quick and dirty calculations based on how many papers they’ve published. This motivates scientists to do the smallest amount possible in order to get a paper out.

That wasn’t what was happening in these papers, though. None of the authors lived in those kinds of countries, and most were pretty well established people: not the sort who worry about keeping up with publications.

So I put aside my cynical first-guess, and actually looked at the papers. Doing that, I found a more optimistic explanation.

These authors were in the process of building research programs. Each had their own long-term goal, a set of concepts and methods they were building towards. And each stopped along the way, to do another variation on this well-trod calculation. They weren’t doing this just because they needed a paper, or just because they could. They were trying to sift out insights, to debug their nascent research program in a well-understood case.

Thinking about it this way helped untwist the tangle of papers. The confusion of different choices suddenly made sense, as the result of different programs with different goals. And in turn, understanding which goals contributed to which papers helped me sort out which goals I shared, and which ideas would turn out to be helpful.

Would it have been less confusing if some of these people had sat on their calculations, and not published? Maybe at first. But in the end, the variations help, giving me a clearer understanding of the whole.

Next Year in Copenhagen!

As some of you might be aware, this is my last year at the Perimeter Institute. It’s been great, but the contract was only for three years, and come August I’ll be heading elsewhere.

Determining that “elsewhere” was the subject of an extensive job search. Now that the search has resolved, I can tell you that “elsewhere” is the Niels Bohr International Academy at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, where I’ll be starting a three-year postdoc job in the fall.


Probably in the building on the left

There are some pretty stellar amplitudes people at NBIA, so I’m pretty excited to be going there. It’s going to be a great opportunity to both build on what I’ve been doing and expand beyond. They’re also hiring several other amplitudes-focused postdocs this year, so overall it should be a really fun group.

It’s also a bit daunting. Moving to Canada from the US was reasonably smooth, I could drive most of my things over in a U-Haul truck. Moving to Denmark is going to be quite a bit more complicated. I’ll need to learn a new language and get used to a fairly different culture.

I can take solace in the fact that in some sense I’m retracing my great-grandfather’s journey in the opposite direction. My great-grandfather worked at the Niels Bohr Institute on his way out of Europe in the 1930’s, and made friends with the Bohrs along the way, before coming to the US. I’ll get a chance to explore a piece of family history, and likely collaborate with a Bohr as well.

A Tale of Two Archives

When it comes to articles about theoretical physics, I have a pet peeve, one made all the more annoying by the fact that it appears even in pieces that are otherwise well written. It involves the following disclaimer:

“This article has not been peer-reviewed.”

Here’s the thing: if you’re dealing with experiments, peer review is very important. Plenty of experiments have subtle problems with their methods, enough that it’s important to have a group of experts who can check them. In experimental fields, you really shouldn’t trust things that haven’t been through a journal yet: there’s just a lot that can go wrong.

In theoretical physics, though, peer review is important for different reasons. Most papers are mathematically rigorous enough that they’re not going to be wrong per se, and most of the ways they could be wrong won’t be caught by peer review. While peer review sometimes does catch mistakes, much more often it’s about assessing the significance of a result. Peer review determines whether a result gets into a prestigious journal or a less prestigious one, which in turn matters for job and grant applications.

As such, it doesn’t really make sense for a journalist to point out that a theoretical physics paper hasn’t been peer reviewed yet. If you think it’s important enough to write an article about, then you’ve already decided it’s significant: peer review wasn’t going to tell you anything else.

We physicists post our papers to arXiv, a free-to-access paper repository, before submitting them to journals. While arXiv does have some moderation, it’s not much: pretty much anyone in the field can post whatever they want.

This leaves a lot of people confused. In that sort of system, how do we know which papers to trust?

Let’s compare to another archive: Archive of Our Own, or AO3 for short.

Unlike arXiv, AO3 hosts not physics, but fanfiction. However, like arXiv it’s quite lightly moderated and free to access. On arXiv you want papers you can trust, on AO3 you want stories you enjoy. In each case, if anyone can post, how do you find them?

The first step is filtering. AO3 and arXiv both have systems of tags and subject headings. The headings on arXiv are simpler and more heavily moderated than those on AO3, but they both serve the purpose of letting people filter out the subjects, whether scientific or fictional, that they find interesting. If you’re interested in astrophysics, try astro-ph on arXiv. If you want Harry Potter fanfiction, try the “Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling” tag on AO3.

Beyond that, it helps to pay attention to authors. When an author has written something you like, it’s worth it not only to keep up with other things they write, but to see which other authors they like and pay attention to them as well. That’s true whether the author is Juan Maldacena or your favorite source of Twilight fanfic.

Even if you follow all of this, you can’t trust every paper you find on arXiv. You also won’t enjoy everything you dig up on AO3. Either way, publication (in journals or books) won’t solve your problem: both are an additional filter, but not an infallible one. Judgement is still necessary.

This is all to say that “this article has not been peer-reviewed” can be a useful warning, but often isn’t. In theoretical physics, knowing who wrote an article and what it’s about will often tell you much more than whether or not it’s been peer-reviewed yet.

Wait, How Do Academics Make Money?

I’ve been working on submitting one of my papers to a journal, which reminded me of the existence of publication fees. That in turn reminded me of a conversation I saw on tumblr a while back:


“beatonna” here is Kate Beaton, of the history-themed webcomic Hark! a Vagrant. She’s about as academia-adjacent as a non-academic gets, but even she thought that the academic database JSTOR paid academics for their contributions, presumably on some kind of royalty system.

In fact, academics don’t get paid by databases, journals, or anyone else that publishes or hosts our work. In the case of journals, we’re often the ones who pay publication fees. Those who write textbooks get royalties, but that’s about it on that front.

Kate Beaton’s confusion here is part of a more general confusion: in my experience, most people don’t know how academics are paid.

The first assumption is usually that we’re paid to teach. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone respond to someone studying physics or math with the question “Oh, so you’re going to teach?”

This one is at least sort of true. Most academics work at universities, and usually have teaching duties. Often, part of an academic’s salary is explicitly related to teaching.

Still, it’s a bit misleading to think of academics as paid to teach: at a big research university, teaching often doesn’t get much emphasis. The extent to which the quality of teaching determines a professor’s funding or career prospects is often quite minimal. Academics teach, but their job isn’t “teacher”.

From there, the next assumption is the one Kate Beaton made. If academics aren’t paid to teach, are they paid to write?

Academia is often described as publish-or-perish, and research doesn’t really “count” until it’s made it to a journal. It would be reasonable to assume that academics are like writers, paid when someone buys our content. As mentioned, though, that’s just not how it works: if anything, sometimes we are the ones who pay the publishers!

It’s probably more accurate (though still not the full story) to say that academics are paid to research.

Research universities expect professors not only to teach, but to do novel and interesting research. Publications are important not because we get paid to write them, but because they give universities an idea of how productive we are. Promotions and the like, at least at research universities, are mostly based on those sorts of metrics.

Professors get some of their money from their universities, for teaching and research. The rest comes from grants. Usually, these come from governments, though private donors are a longstanding and increasingly important group. In both cases, someone decides that a certain general sort of research ought to be done and solicits applications from people interested in doing it. Different people apply with specific proposals, which are assessed with a wide range of esoteric criteria (but yes publications are important), and some people get funding. That funding includes not just equipment, but contributions to salaries as well. Academics really are, in many cases, paid by grants.

This is really pretty dramatically different from any other job. There’s no “customer” in the normal sense, and even the people in charge of paying us are more concerned that a certain sort of work be done than that they have control over it. It’s completely understandable that the public rounds that off to “teaching” or “writing”. It’s certainly more familiar.


What If the Field Is Doomed?

Around Halloween, I have a tradition of exploring the spooky and/or scary side of physics (sometimes rather tenuously). This time, I want to talk about something particle physicists find scary: the future of the field.

For a long time, now, our field has centered around particle colliders. Early colliders confirmed the existence of quarks and gluons, and populated the Standard Model with a wealth of particles, some expected and some not. Now, an enormous amount of effort has poured into the Large Hadron Collider, which found the Higgs…and so far, nothing else.

Plans are being discussed for an even larger collider, in Europe or China, but it’s not clear that either will be funded. Even if the case for new physics isn’t as strong in such a collider, there are properties of the Higgs that the LHC won’t be able to measure, things it’s important to check with a more powerful machine.

That’s the case we’ll have to make to the public, if we want such a collider to be built. But in addition to the scientific reasons, there are selfish reasons to hope for a new collider. Without one, it’s not clear the field can survive in its current form.

By “the field”, here, I don’t just mean those focused on making predictions for collider physics. My work isn’t plugged particularly tightly into the real world, the same is true of most string theorists. Naively, you’d think it wouldn’t matter to us if a new collider gets built.

The trouble is, physics is interconnected. We may not all make predictions about the world, but the purpose of the tools we build and concepts we explore is to eventually make contact. On grant applications, we talk about that future, one that leads not just to understanding the mathematics and models we use but to understanding reality. And for a long while, a major theme in those grant applications has been collider physics.

Different sub-fields are vulnerable to this in different ways. Surprisingly, the people who directly make predictions for the LHC might have it easiest. Many of them can pivot, and make predictions for cosmological observations and cheaper dark matter detection experiments. Quite a few are already doing so.

It’s harder for my field, for amplitudeology. We try to push the calculation techniques of theoretical physics to greater and greater precision…but without colliders, there are fewer experiments that can match that precision. Cosmological observations and dark matter detection won’t need four-loop calculations.

If there isn’t a next big collider, our field won’t dry up overnight. Our work is disconnected enough, at a far enough remove from reality, that it takes time for that sort of change to be reflected in our funding. Optimistically, this gives people enough time to change gears and alter their focus to the less collider-dependent parts of the field. Pessimistically, it means people would be working on a zombie field, shambling around in a field that is already dead but can’t admit it.


Well I had to use some Halloween imagery

My hope is that this won’t happen. Even if the new colliders don’t get approved and collider physics goes dormant, I’d like to think my colleagues are adaptable enough to stay useful as the world’s demands change. But I’m young in this field, I haven’t seen it face these kinds of challenges before. And so, I worry.