Tag Archives: grad school

Thoughts on Polchinski’s Memoir

I didn’t get a chance to meet Joseph Polchinski when I was visiting Santa Barbara last spring. At the time, I heard his health was a bit better, but he still wasn’t feeling well enough to come in to campus. Now that I’ve read his memoir, I almost feel like I have met him. There’s a sense of humor, a diffidence, and a passion for physics that shines through the pages.

The following are some scattered thoughts inspired by the memoir:


A friend of mine once complained to me that in her field grad students all brag about the colleges they went to. I mentioned that in my field your undergrad never comes up…unless it was Caltech. For some reason, everyone I’ve met who went to Caltech is full of stories about the place, and Polchinski is no exception. Speaking as someone who didn’t go there, it seems like Caltech has a profound effect on its students that other places don’t.


Polchinski mentions hearing stories about geniuses of the past, and how those stories helped temper some of his youthful arrogance. There’s an opposite effect that’s also valuable: hearing stories like Polchinski’s, his descriptions of struggling with anxiety and barely publishing and “not really accomplishing anything” till age 40, can be a major comfort to those of us who worry we’ve fallen behind in the academic race. That said, it’s important not to take these things too far: times have changed, you’re not Polchinski, and much like his door-stealing trick at Caltech getting a postdoc without any publications is something you shouldn’t try at home. Even Witten’s students need at least one.


Last week I was a bit puzzled by nueww’s comment, a quote from Polchinski’s memoir which distinguishes “math of the equations” from “math of the solutions”, attributing the former to physicists and the latter to mathematicians. Reading the context in the memoir and the phrase’s origin in a remark by Susskind cleared up a bit, but still left me uneasy. I only figured out why after Lubos Motl posted about it: it doesn’t match my experience of mathematicians at all!

If anything, I think physicists usually care more about the “solutions” than mathematicians do. In my field, often a mathematician will construct some handy basis of functions and then frustrate everyone by providing no examples of how to use them. In the wider math community I’ve met graph theorists who are happy to prove something is true for all graphs of size 10^{10^10} and larger, not worrying about the vast number of graphs where it fails because it’s just a finite number of special cases. And I don’t think this is just my experience: a common genre of jokes revolve around mathematicians proving a solution exists and then not bothering to do anything with it (for example, see the joke with the hotel fire here).

I do think there’s a meaningful sense in which mathematicians care about details that we’re happy to ignore, but “solutions” versus “equations” isn’t really the right axis. It’s something more like “rigor” versus “principles”. Mathematicians will often begin a talk by defining a series of maps between different spaces, carefully describing where they are and aren’t valid. A physicist might just write down a function. That sort of thing is dangerous in mathematics: there are always special, pathological cases that make careful definitions necessary. In physics, those cases rarely come up, and when they do there’s often a clear physical problem that brings them to the forefront. We have a pretty good sense of when we need rigor, and when we don’t we’re happy to lay things out without filling in the details, putting a higher priority on moving forward and figuring out the basic principles underlying reality.


Polchinski talks a fair bit about his role in the idea of the multiverse, from hearing about Weinberg’s anthropic argument to coming to terms with the string landscape. One thing his account makes clear is how horrifying the concept seemed at first: how the idea that the parameters of our universe might just be random could kill science and discourage experimentalists. This touches on something that I think gets lost in arguments about the multiverse: even the people most involved in promoting the multiverse in public aren’t happy about it.

It also sharpened my thinking about the multiverse a bit. I’ve talked before about how I don’t think the popularity of the multiverse is actually going to hurt theoretical physics as a field. Polchinski’s worries made me think about the experimental side of the equation: why do experiments if the world might just be random? I think I have a clearer answer to this now, but it’s a bit long, so I’ll save it for a future post.


One nice thing about these long-term accounts is you get to see how much people shift between fields over time. Polchinski didn’t start out working in string theory, and most of the big names in my field, like Lance Dixon and David Kosower, didn’t start out in scattering amplitudes. Academic careers are long, and however specialized we feel at any one time we can still get swept off in a new direction.


I’m grateful for this opportunity to “meet” Polchinski, if only through his writing. His is a window on the world of theoretical physics that is all too rare, and valuable as a result.


Where Grants Go on the Ground

I’ve seen several recent debates about grant funding, arguments about whether this or that scientist’s work is “useless” and shouldn’t get funded. Wading into the specifics is a bit more political than I want to get on this blog right now, and if you’re looking for a general defense of basic science there are plenty to choose from. I’d like to focus on a different part, one where I think the sort of people who want to de-fund “useless” research are wildly overoptimistic.

People who call out “useless” research act as if government science funding works in a simple, straightforward way: scientists say what they want to work on, the government chooses which projects it thinks are worth funding, and the scientists the government chooses get paid.

This may be a (rough) picture of how grants are assigned. For big experiments and grants with very specific purposes, it’s reasonably accurate. But for the bulk of grants distributed among individual scientists, it ignores what happens to the money on the ground, after the scientists get it.

The simple fact of the matter is that what a grant is “for” doesn’t have all that much influence on what it gets spent on. In most cases, scientists work on what they want to, and find ways to pay for it.

Sometimes, this means getting grants for applied work, doing some of that, but also fitting in more abstract theoretical projects during downtime. Sometimes this means sharing grant money, if someone has a promising grad student they can’t fund at the moment and needs the extra help. (When I first got research funding as a grad student, I had to talk to the particle physics group’s secretary, and I’m still not 100% sure why.) Sometimes this means being funded to look into something specific and finding a promising spinoff that takes you in an entirely different direction. Sometimes you can get quite far by telling a good story, like a mathematician I know who gets defense funding to study big abstract mathematical systems because some related systems happen to have practical uses.

Is this unethical? Some of it, maybe. But from what I’ve seen of grant applications, it’s understandable.

The problem is that if scientists are too loose with what they spend grant money on, grant agency asks tend to be far too specific. I’ve heard of grants that ask you to give a timeline, over the next five years, of each discovery you’re planning to make. That sort of thing just isn’t possible in science: we can lay out a rough direction to go, but we don’t know what we’ll find.

The end result is a bit like complaints about job interviews, where everyone is expected to say they love the company even though no-one actually does. It creates an environment where everyone has to twist the truth just to keep up with everyone else.

The other thing to keep in mind is that there really isn’t any practical way to enforce any of this. Sure, you can require receipts for equipment and the like, but once you’re paying for scientists’ time you don’t have a good way to monitor how they spend it. The best you can do is have experts around to evaluate the scientists’ output…but if those experts understand enough to do that, they’re going to be part of the scientific community, like grant committees usually already are. They’ll have the same expectations as the scientists, and give similar leeway.

So if you want to kill off some “useless” area of research, you can’t do it by picking and choosing who gets grants for what. There are advocates of more drastic actions of course, trying to kill whole agencies or fields, and that’s beyond the scope of this post. But if you want science funding to keep working the way it does, and just have strong opinions about what scientists should do with it, then calling out “useless” research doesn’t do very much: if the scientists in question think it’s useful, they’ll find a way to keep working on it. You’ve slowed them down, but you’ll still end up paying for research you don’t like.

Final note: The rule against political discussion in the comments is still in effect. For this post, that means no specific accusations of one field or another as being useless, or one politician/political party/ideology or another of being the problem here. Abstract discussions and discussions of how the grant system works should be fine.

PSI Winter School 2017

It’s that time of year again! Perimeter Scholars International, Perimeter’s Master’s program in theoretical physics, is holding its Winter School up in Ontario’s copious backwoods.


Ominous antlered snowmen included

Like last year, the students are spending mornings and evenings doing research supervised by PI grad students, postdocs, and faculty, and the afternoons on a variety of winter activities, including skiing and snowshoeing.

Last year, my group worked on the “POPE”, a proposal by Basso, Sever, and Vieira, and we ended up getting a paper out of it. This year, I’ve teamed up with Freddy Cachazo on a gravity-related project. We’ve got a group of enthusiastic students and are making decent progress, I’ll have more to say about it next week.

PSI Winter School

I’m at the Perimeter Scholars International Winter School this week. Perimeter Scholars International is Perimeter’s one-of-a-kind master’s program in theoretical physics, that jams the basics of theoretical physics into a one-year curriculum. We’ve got students from all over the world, including plenty of places that don’t get any snow at all. As such, it was decided that the students need to spend a week somewhere with even more snow than Waterloo: Musoka, Ontario.


A place that occasionally manages to be this photogenic

This isn’t really a break for them, though, which is where I come in. The students have been organized into groups, and each group is working on a project. My group’s project is related to the work of integrability master Pedro Vieira. He and his collaborators came up with a way to calculate scattering amplitudes in N=4 super Yang-Mills without the usual process of loop-by-loop approximations. However, this method comes at a price: a new approximation, this time to low energy. This approximation is step-by-step, like loops, but in a different direction. It’s called the Pentagon Operator Product Expansion, or POPE for short.


Approach the POPE, and receive a blessing

What we’re trying to do is go back and add up all of the step-by-step terms in the approximation, to see if we can match to the old expansion in loops. One of Pedro’s students recently managed to do this for the first approximation (“tree” diagrams), and the group here at the Winter School is trying to use her (still unpublished) work as a jumping-off point to get to the first loop. Time will tell whether we’ll succeed…but we’re making progress, and the students are learning a lot.

Using Effective Language

Physicists like to use silly names for things, but sometimes it’s best to just use an everyday word. It can trigger useful intuitions, and it makes remembering concepts easier. What gets confusing, though, is when the everyday word you use has a meaning that’s not quite the same as the colloquial one.

“Realism” is a pretty classic example, where Bell’s elegant use of the term in quantum mechanics doesn’t quite match its common usage, leading to inevitable confusion whenever it’s brought up. “Theory” is such a useful word that multiple branches of science use it…with different meanings! In both cases, the naive meaning of the word is the basis of how it gets used scientifically…just not the full story.

There are two things to be wary of here. First, those of us who communicate science must be sure to point out when a word we use doesn’t match its everyday meaning, to guide readers’ intuitions away from first impressions to understand how the term is used in our field. Second, as a reader, you need to be on the look-out for hidden technical terms, especially when you’re reading technical work.

I remember making a particularly silly mistake along these lines. It was early on in grad school, back when I knew almost nothing about quantum field theory. One of our classes was a seminar, structured so that each student would give a talk on some topic that could be understood by the whole group. Unfortunately, some grad students with deeper backgrounds in theoretical physics hadn’t quite gotten the memo.

It was a particular phrase that set me off: “This theory isn’t an effective theory”.

My immediate response was to raise my hand. “What’s wrong with it? What about this theory makes it ineffective?”

The presenter boggled for a moment before responding. “Well, it’s complete up to high energies…it has no ultraviolet divergences…”

“Then shouldn’t that make it even more effective?”

After a bit more of this back-and-forth, we finally cleared things up. As it turns out, “effective field theory” is a technical term! An “effective field theory” is only “effectively” true, describing physics at low energies but not at high energies. As you can see, the word “effective” here is definitely pulling its weight, helping to make the concept understandable…but if you don’t recognize it as a technical term and interpret it literally, you’re going to leave everyone confused!

Over time, I’ve gotten better at identifying when something is a technical term. It really is a skill you can learn: there are different tones people use when speaking, different cadences when writing, a sense of uneasiness that can clue you in to a word being used in something other than its literal sense. Without that skill, you end up worried about mathematicians’ motives for their evil schemes. With it, you’re one step closer to what may be the most important skill in science: the ability to recognize something you don’t know yet.

Who Plagiarizes an Acknowledgements Section?

I’ve got plagiarists on the brain.

Maybe it was running into this interesting discussion about a plagiarized application for the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Maybe it’s due to the talk Paul Ginsparg, founder of arXiv, gave this week about, among other things, detecting plagiarism.

Using arXiv’s repository of every paper someone in physics thought was worth posting, Ginsparg has been using statistical techniques to sift out cases of plagiarism. Probably the funniest cases involved people copying a chunk of their thesis acknowledgements section, as excerpted here. Compare:

“I cannot describe how indebted I am to my wonderful girlfriend, Amanda, whose love and encouragement will always motivate me to achieve all that I can. I could not have written this thesis without her support; in particular, my peculiar working hours and erratic behaviour towards the end could not have been easy to deal with!”

“I cannot describe how indebted I am to my wonderful wife, Renata, whose love and encouragement will always motivate me to achieve all that I can. I could not have written this thesis without her support; in particular, my peculiar working hours and erratic behaviour towards the end could not have been easy to deal with!”

Why would someone do this? Copying the scientific part of a thesis makes sense, in a twisted way: science is hard! But why would someone copy the fluff at the end, the easy part that’s supposed to be a genuine take on your emotions?

The thing is, the acknowledgements section of a thesis isn’t exactly genuine. It’s very formal: a required section of the thesis, with tacit expectations about what’s appropriate to include and what isn’t. It’s also the sort of thing you only write once in your life: while published papers also have acknowledgements sections, they’re typically much shorter, and have different conventions.

If you ever were forced to write thank-you notes as a kid, you know where I’m going with this.

It’s not that you don’t feel grateful, you do! But when you feel grateful, you express it by saying “thank you” and moving on. Writing a note about it isn’t very intuitive, it’s not a way you’re used to expressing gratitude, so the whole experience feels like you’re just following a template.

Literally in some cases.

That sort of situation: where it doesn’t matter how strongly you feel something, only whether you express it in the right way, is a breeding ground for plagiarism. Aunt Mildred isn’t going to care what you write in your thank-you note, and Amanda/Renata isn’t going to be moved by your acknowledgements section. It’s so easy to decide, in that kind of situation, that it’s better to just grab whatever appropriate text you can than to teach yourself a new style of writing.

In general, plagiarism happens because there’s a disconnect between incentives and what they’re meant to be for. In a world where very few beginning graduate students actually have a solid research plan, the NSF’s fellowship application feels like a demand for creative lying, not an honest way to judge scientific potential. In countries eager for highly-cited faculty but low on preexisting experts able to judge scientific merit, tenure becomes easier to get by faking a series of papers than by doing the actual work.

If we want to get rid of plagiarism, we need to make sure our incentives match our intent. We need a system in which people succeed when they do real work, get fellowships when they honestly have talent, and where we care about whether someone was grateful, not how they express it. If we can’t do that, then there will always be people trying to sneak through the cracks.

A Nobel for Blue LEDs, or, How Does That Count as Physics?

When I first heard about this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, I didn’t feel the need to post on it. The prize went to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura, whose discoveries enabled blue LEDs. It’s a more impressive accomplishment than it might seem: while red LEDs have been around since the 60’s and 70’s, blue LEDs were only developed in the 90’s, and only with both can highly efficient, LED-based white light sources be made. Still, I didn’t consider posting on it because it’s pretty much entirely outside my field.

Shiny, though.

It took a conversation with another PI postdoc to point out one way I can comment on the Nobel, and it started when we tried to figure out what type of physicists Akasaki, Amano, and Nakamura are. After tossing around terms like “device physicist” and “condensed matter”, someone wondered whether the development of blue LEDs wasn’t really a matter of engineering.

At that point I realized, I’ve talked about something like this before.

Physicists work on lots of different things, and many of them don’t seem to have much to do with physics. They study geometry and topology, biological molecules and the nature of evolution, income inequality and, yes, engineering.

On the surface, these don’t have much to do with physics. A friend of mine used to quip that condensed matter physicists seem to just “pick whatever they want to research”.

There is something that ties all of these topics together, though. They’re all things that physicists are good at.

Physics grad school gives you a wide variety of tools with which to understand the world. Thermodynamics gives you a way to understand large, complicated systems with statistics, while quantum field theory lets you understand everything with quantum properties, not just fundamental particles but materials as well. This batch of tools can be applied to “traditional” topics, but they’re equally applicable if you’re researching something else entirely, as long as it obeys the right kinds of rules.

In the end, the best definition of physics is the most useful one. Physicists should be people who can benefit from being part of physics organizations, from reading physics journals, and especially from training (and having been) physics grad students. The whole reason we have scientific disciplines in the first place is to make it easier for people with common interests to work together. That’s why Akasaki, Amano, and Nakamura aren’t “just” engineers, and why I and my fellow string theorists aren’t “just” mathematicians. We use our knowledge of physics to do our jobs, and that, more than anything else, makes us physicists.

Edit: It has been pointed out to me that there’s a bit more to this story than the main accounts have let on. Apparently another researcher named Herbert Paul Maruska was quite close to getting a blue LED up and running back in the early 1970’s, getting far enough to have a working prototype. There’s a whole fascinating story about the quest for a blue LED, related here. Maruska seems to be on friendly terms with Akasaki, Amano, and Nakamura, and doesn’t begrudge them their recognition.