Preposterous Universe

Monday, January 03, 2005

To answer a question I had some time back (although probably not just because of that), the text of David Politzer's Nobel Lecture is now up on his web page. The provocative title is "The Dilemma of Attribution," but the lecture itself isn't by any means outrageous. It's a look at the history of the ideas of QCD and asymptotic freedom from Politzer's personal perspective, with a strong emphasis on giving credit to absolutely everyone. It's an important task, as the actual history is inevitably messy, and there is an irresistible temptation to clean them up in the retelling.
As teachers of the next generation of scientists, we always seek to compress and simplify all the developments that have come before. We want to bring our students as quickly as possible to the frontier of current understanding. From this perspective, the actual history, which involves many variants and many missteps, is only a hindrance. And the neat, linear progress, as outlined by the sequence of gleaming gems recognized by Nobel prizes, is a useful fiction. But a fiction it is. The truth is often far more complicated. Of course, there are the oft-told priority disputes, bickering over who is responsible for some particular idea. But those questions are not only often unresolvable, they are often rather meaningless. Genuinely independent discovery is not only possible, it occurs all the time. Sometimes a yet harder problem in the prize selection process is to identify what is the essential or most important idea in some particular, broader context. So it's not just a question of who did it, i.e., who is responsible for the work, but what ``it" is. I.e., what is the significant ``it" that should stand as a symbol for a particularly important advance.
Politzer explains vividly the diverse contributions that went into the discovery of asymptotic freedom. But he also believes, I think correctly, that the final result from him and Gross and Wilczek really was the event that deserved the Prize, even if it was "just getting a minus sign right" (the strong force grows weaker at short distances rather than stronger), and indeed a sign that some other people already had calculated. Putting it into the right context, and appreciating its fundamental significance, created the moment in which people finally understood that QCD was the correct theory of the strong interactions.

Update: Another line worth quoting --
I must say that I do regard theoretical physics as a fundamentally parasitic profession, living off the labors of the real physicists.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

Preposterous Home
Atom Site Feed (xml)
RSS Feed
Technorati Profile
Bloglines Citations
Blogroll Me

About Last Night
Alas, a Blog
The American Sector
Asymmetrical Information
Big Brass Blog
Bitch, Ph.D.
Body and Soul
Brad DeLong
Chris C Mooney
Collision Detection
Creek Running North
Crescat Sententia
Crooked Timber
Daily Kos
Daniel Drezner
Deepen the Mystery
Dispatches from the Culture Wars
Dynamics of Cats
Electron Blue
Ezra Klein
The Fulcrum
Girls Are Pretty
Jacques Distler
James Wolcott
John and Belle
Julie Saltman
Lawyers, Guns and Money
Leiter Reports
The Loom
Matt McIrvin
Matthew Yglesias
Michael Bérubé
Michael Nielsen
Mixing Memory
Mr. Sun
Not Even Wrong
Obsidian Wings
Orange Quark
Paige's Page
Panda's Thumb
Playing School, Irreverently
Political Animal
The Poor Man
Quantum Diaries
Quark Soup
Real Climate
Roger Ailes
Rox Populi
Shakespeare's Sister
Simple Stories
Sisyphus Shrugged
Smijer & Buck
TPM Cafe
Uncertain Principles
Volokh Conspiracy

Powered by Blogger
Comments by Haloscan
RSS Feed by 2RSS.com

February 2004
March 2004
April 2004
May 2004
June 2004
July 2004
August 2004
September 2004
October 2004
November 2004
December 2004
January 2005
February 2005
March 2005
April 2005
May 2005
June 2005
July 2005