Thursday, March 21, 2013

Food for the mind: the Fundamental Physics Prize ceremony

This is as close to a live blog as I've ever got: the Fundamental Physics Prize ceremony took place this evening at the International Conference Centre in Geneva, ending about 15 minutes ago with Morgan Freeman wishing us a good night. [Note: I wrote these words last night but was too sleepy, and hungry, to complete the blog...]

When I realised I would be able to attend this ceremony by astutely timing a CERN visit (which had a different motivation), the first thing that struck me was the glamour. I would wear my tuxedo, sip champagne, consume caviar and smoked salmon and mingle with colleagues and friends. In the end some of this came true, but not all. Details at the end.

For those who don't know, this prize is Russian billionaire Yuri Milner's way of "glamourising" physics. As Morgan Freeman, the charismatic anchor for the event, put it: every profession has its way of publicly recognising those who reach "the apex of their sphere": actors, business people, politicians... Scientists should receive the same type of acclaim.

Having said this he frowned, pretending to be listening on his earphones and announced: "I've just been told a sphere does not have an apex".  His wit and humour was backed by a good deal of homework. Early in the evening he told us that European politics was a mirror of physics: the anti-immigrant policy was the "exclusion principle", the fiscal policy was the "uncertainty principle" etc.

After a brief piano recital by Denis Fursaev, the nine original winners of the FPP were called on stage: Arkani-Hamed, Linde, Guth, Kontsevich, Maldacena, Seiberg, Witten, Kitaev and Sen. Ashoke seemed to be relaxed and quite enjoying himself. I took a video of Morgan Freeman announcing Ashoke's prize:

My colleague and friend Rohini Godbole and I applauded vigorously for Ashoke. Among other things, we were all in Stony Brook together during the late 1970's. (We also attended the ceremony as his guests.)

Linde made a short and fairly humorous speech on behalf of the nine laureates. Then it was time for Stephen Hawking, who showed up looking a little older than I last remember him (not surprising since 12 years have elapsed...). Here's a picture of him at the cocktail party preceding the event, in attractive company:

The Special Prize was personally given to him by Yuri Milner. Actually Milner gave it to Lucy Hawking, Stephen's daughter. In fact, like many people when they first meet SWH, Milner nervously avoided Hawking himself and ran off the stage at the first opportunity. Hawking gave a nice little speech about his scientific contributions, which are of course very impressive.

I may be mixing up the order of things, but at some point there was a brief speech by the designer - Olafur Eliasson - of the "trophy", a wiry metallic sphere the size of a football that looks like this:

For me, the most moving part of the ceremony was what followed: seven experimental physicists, all associated with CERN and the LHC: Lyn Evans, Michel Della Negra, Tejinder Virdee, Guido Tonelli, Peter Jenni, Joe Incandela and Fabiola Gianotti, came up on stage to receive a Special Prize. Unlike the original gang of nine, who didn't get to address us (other than Linde), these people all gave short acknowledgement speeches. All referred to the collective nature of the LHC, the decades of hard work, the globalised nature of the research, the people who could not be here but had made important contributions, and most of all the student and postdocs. A very beautiful tribute to what is surely among the greatest achievements in the history of science. Fabiola's talk was particularly personal and touching, she is a really great communicator. And far and away the best dressed:

This was followed by the appearance of an unimpressive human being on the screen ("live from New York") called Charlie Rose. I knew the name only vaguely but it soon became clear I hadn't missed anything. In that simpering manner of American TV hosts, he asked a question to each of the seven awardees on stage. The questions were banal and his face while receiving the answers was expressively vacuous. Here's a sample: "I've been, uh, hearing words today like "gravity" and "dark matter", so could you tell us, uh, where all this is heading?". To another person he asked "What were the challenges?" An avoidable part of the event, and a waste of time.

After this Denis Fursaev reappeared and played four piano pieces. He really is a very fine and expressive pianist and I would like to hear more of him in the future. I didn't recognise the first two pieces, but they sounded vaguely romantic and Russian or East European. The third was Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" and the fourth, a Duke Ellington medley in which "Take the A train" and "Caravan" were briefly recognisable.

Then it was time to move on to the New Horizons in Physics prizes: these were for young physicists who had made a significant impact on the field. The prize went to Niklas Beisert, Davide Gaiotto and Zohar Komargodski, of whom I met the last two at the cocktail party before the event and completely forgot to congratulate them. All these awards are richly deserved. The prize to Beisert was announced by Ashoke Sen, this was the only time we got to hear his voice.

Next came the Frontiers of Physics prize - awarded to Joe Polchinski, Alexander Polyakov and a jazz trio called the Topological Insulators (Kane, Molenkamp and Zhang). Polyakov looked bemused but thanked his wife for putting up with his research, which he described as a "form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder". He has long been a hero of mine: his contributions in Quantum Field Theory are nothing short of stunning (strings, instantons, monopoles, confinement... and the roots of AdS/CFT) and all this except the last one happened when he was working in difficult circumstances in the Soviet Union. In those days he would sometimes visit Scandinavian countries (because the Soviet authorities allowed that) and everyone would flock there to hear him, as I once did in 1988. In those days he also once had to give a seminar on the French side of CERN since he didn't have a Swiss visa!

We were told that one of these three people (counting the Insulators as one person) would be the winner of the next FPP, to be announced at the end of the ceremony. I was rooting for Polyakov. True, I had just sat through a seminar by him at CERN earlier in the day that was simultaneously incomprehensible and controversial - but so what. I've never really followed anything he's said, but his written work - particularly from the early days - is brilliant.

After this came the most boring part of the event - after Charlie Rose - namely, an appearance by an "English classical crossover soprano" called Sarah Brightman. The stage was turned into a glittering, pulsating mess and she walked on flapping her hands vaguely in slow-motion like a little bird trying in vain to fly. After an operatic piece that featured "la luna" multiple times (pictures of the moon were projected for those who had missed the point), she lost all pretence of good taste and sang three songs at earsplitting volume. One of them had a vaguely Arabic-disco sound. The lady sitting on my left had her fingers in her ears. The fourth song, "Con te partiro/Time to say goodbye", had been a hit for her and Andrea Bocelli in 1996. I knew the song well, since in 1997 I spent three months in Amsterdam with a transistor radio tuned to a station that, apparently, owned only this record and played it all day long. It was the least intolerable of her performances, particularly as she had promised to say goodbye after it. But she did not keep her promise, discovering an "urgent request" from someone she could not name that led to yet another song from her.

By now it was nearing 11 and most of us were starving. The only remaining event was the announcement of the single winner from among the three Frontiers awardees. Alan Guth came on stage and was handed an envelope containing the winner's name, Oscar style. Morgan Freeman requested him to "collapse the wave function" by opening it. Guth gamely responded that not every physicist believes in the collapse of the wave function. Some, like himself, prefer the idea of branching into parallel universes. He assured us that in one of those universes the people whose names were not in that envelope would be winners. (Sure, and in one of them Charlie Rose would be a winner too!!). For the first time that evening I held my breath. When the name of Alexander Polyakov was read out I shouted "YES!" much to the surprise of people sitting around me. I'm second to none in my admiration of Polchinski and also the Topological Insulators, but Polyakov rocks.

Now I have to review the pre-event cocktail party. I was hoping for glamour and champagne and it was there in abundance. I got to dress up:

and chatted with Sumathi Rao, Ashoke Sen, Ed Witten, Chiara Nappi and several others. In fact in terms of meeting the winners, the whole week has been great: I've already attended talks at CERN by Arkani-Hamed, Witten and Polyakov, and lunched with Joe Incandela and with Nati Seiberg and Juan Maldacena.

But back to the cocktail party: the only food of any quality was food for the mind. The snacks were terrible: bruschetta on cheap bread, mediocre cheese and olives... and leathery kababs on skewers. As the evening wore on, Rohini and I (and I suppose everyone else) became more and more hungry. But by the time we were out of there it was 11:30 PM and there isn't any food to be had in Geneva at that time. I don't know what Rohini did (she was staying at the CERN hostel) but I went back to my hotel room and this was my dinner:

I suppose going to bed hungry provided a sort of spiritual conclusion to the whole evening...

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Armed and dangerous

A huge Indian oil tanker is traveling past Italy. On board it has several naval guards from Kerala, two of whom are keeping guard on deck with automatic rifles in their hands. Just off the coast they spot a tiny Italian boat and quite naturally assume it's filled with pirates. In fact it's a couple of pescatori looking for something to grill with lemon and garlic. The Keralites proceed to shoot dead these two Italian fishermen. Later, they say it was a "mistake". The Indian government and populace rallies round them, saying anyone could have made the same mistake, and that the Italians are taking it all too personally. What happened was an "unfortunate incident which everyone regrets. Our marines never wanted this to happen, but unfortunately it took place". That should be the end of that, no? Apparently not. The Italians arrest the Malayali naval guards and absurdly insist on trying them in their own courts.

Cut to South Africa. Fashion model Reeva Steenkamp is visited regularly at her home by her suitor, athlete Oscar Pistorius. Reeva lives in a gated community and keeps a gun (or several) under her bed. Pistorius often stays over at her place and shares her bed. On one such night, she awakens and hears a noise in the bathroom. Assuming this to be a burglar, she walks over and fires several shots through a locked door. Turns out it was just Pistorius who had got up to take a leak, and now the poor guy is history. Oops, she says, I'm so sorry, it was just a mistake. She never wanted this to happen, but unfortunately etc.

For those who live on a different planet, the above two summaries are role-reversed versions of true stories. In one case Italian guards mistakenly shot Indian fishermen off the Kerala coast. In the other, athlete Pistorius mistakenly shot his girlfriend. I'm neither a lawyer nor a witness, so I can't comment on what really happened or how one has to proceed. But the fact that a defence like "they made a mistake"  appears to carry any credibility at all, is only because the killers - in both cases - were white males. Apparently this allows you to say "I'm heavily armed, I shoot when I feel like, and I apologise when I kill the wrong person. Get used to me, people".

I can't imagine what would have happened if the Pistorius story really happened in reverse, the way I described it above. "Dumb blonde shoots athlete boyfriend"? And how would the world react to unprovoked firing on fishermen in designer clothing by natives from the land of lungi? One can only wonder.

Yesterday the Italian killers (I call them this because they admit to having killed) have jumped bail despite a solemn assurance to the Indian Government by the Italian Ambassador that they would return to face trial. And recently the South African killer (again, he admits to being one) has been granted bail. We'll see whether he stands trial, scheduled for June. Whichever way the legalities turn out, it seems that even today all you need is the right race, the right gender and the right guns, and you can get away with murder -- or at least attract a lot of sympathy.