Tuesday, December 15, 2015


I recently gave a talk titled "Goals, Models, Frameworks and the Scientific Method" at a leading Indian institution. This was based on my Current Science article with the same title, which you are welcome to read here. In the article and talk, I attempted to de-confuse the word "theory" into three distinct words: goal, model and framework. Then I explained that "string theory", my field of research, should be thought of as a framework rather than a model.

After the talk, I met the former Director of this Institute over tea and he pointed out that there had been many books and articles that were very critical of string theory. I told him that my talk and article were partly a response to these. He smiled pleasantly and replied "Anyway, I take some pleasure in the discomfiture of string theorists". I'll confess that his comment left me a little discomfited at that moment. But as things turned over in my head, I realised it was a nice illustration of my favourite German word, "Schadenfreude", which translates as "pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others" (actually I have other favourite German words, like "Weltschmerz" and "Bremsstrahlung", not to mention "Schweinhund", but we'll leave these for another day.)

Wikipedia tells us that this pleasure is particularly acute when the unfortunate person is seen to have deserved their misfortune. And I suppose we all indulge in a bit of Schadenfreude, myself included. It can be quite harmless and enjoyable. For example, today the nation is enjoying the spectacle of Congress workers managing to burn themselves while attempting to burn an effigy of the Prime Minister. This is such fun! But when the desire to see one's rivals suffer takes root in organisations, communities or countries, and outstrips the desire for everyone to succeed together, then there is something to worry about.

Here is an interesting example from academia. The Superconducting Supercollider planned in Texas some decades ago would certainly have found the Higgs particle (and perhaps others) much before the LHC, had it been completed. The project was aborted in 1993 when the US Congress refused to fund it, following Congressional hearings in which - in particular - the project was opposed by physicists in disciplines other than high-energy physics. In this Scientific American article, David Appell writes:

When the SSC was finally canceled, the late Rustum Roy, professor of materials sciences at The Pennsylvania State University, expressed his joy to the New York Times. “This comeuppance for high-energy physics was long overdue.” Roy said.

And here is what Steven Weinberg, in this article for the New York Review of Books, says about the same event:

I took little pleasure from the observation that none of the funds saved by canceling the SSC went to other areas of science.

Even though Weinberg comes off looking much better, one can't help suspecting there was Schadenfreude on both sides. But no scientist seems to have gained from the cancellation -- and scientific progress lost a number of years.

On this subject I have a small personal tale to tell. In the mid 1990's I was visiting the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton and had the chance to dine with the legendary Freeman Dyson (he's still going strong at the age of 92, but at the time of this story he was a mere lad of 72 years!). Dyson was boasting about having successfully opposed the SSC. "Colliding tables and chairs! You can't possibly make any sense out of it" he declaimed at dinner. His point was that hadron colliders inherently produce a huge mess of particles and it would be impossible to spot the new one, if any. So he believed a proton-proton collider at those energies simply could not uncover the Higgs. Unfortunately for Dyson, the LHC is precisely such a hadron collider and it has worked spectacularly well. So I'll confess to some Schadenfreude about Prof. Dyson's incorrect prediction.

As for the discomfiture of string theorists, if that brings a ray of light into anyone's humdrum lives, we really shouldn't grudge them.

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