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March 18, 2005

Liveblogging From SidneyFest

Sidney Coleman is my hero.

That statement requires a little bit of an explanation, as Sidney was my PhD thesis advisor. Truth be told, his direct influence on my thesis was negligible. Midway through my graduate career, string theory swept through high energy physics. As a sensible young man, I dropped everything I’d been doing and rode the wave. Sidney was not interested in string theory; he wasn’t even particularly interested in supersymmetry. I doubt he even read my thesis, though he did sit patiently through my numerous Family Meeting talks and occasionally asked penetrating questions.

But his indirect influence was profound. No one thought more clearly about quantum field theory. And no one has ever lectured or written more lucidly about the subject. If you haven’t read his Erice Lectures, you don’t know the heights that scientific writing can attain.

I’d like to hope that some little bit of his insight into physics and clarity of thinking rubbed off. One of the greatest compliments I ever received was, in a offhand way, a tribute to Sidney. When I first gave a seminar at Princeton, David Gross came up to me after my talk and asked, “Who was your advisor at Harvard?” “Sidney Coleman.” I replied. “Ah,” he said, “I could tell.”

At age 68, Sidney is far from well, ravaged by a Parkinson’s-like disease. So a two-day conference has been organized in his honour. The speakers are about as illustrious a bunch as you are likely to find (6 of 9 have Nobel prizes and the others — Paul Steinhardt, Erick Weinberg and Edward Witten are not exactly slouches).

I’m returning to Austin early tomorrow morning. But, at least, I can catch the first day’s proceedings.

David Gross gave a slightly modified version of his “Future of Physics” talk. Such talks are always more of a Rorschach test about the current state of physics, than they are about the future.

Frank Wilczek talked about a little the discovery of asymptotic freedom, the rise of QCD and Sidney’s role in the subject.

Paul Steinhardt gave a beautiful talk, in which Sidney’s paper on the Fate of the False Vacuum lead to a radical rethinking in cosmology. Guth and others (not least, Steinhardt himself) were lead to think about the vacuum, not as some sterile background for matter and gravitation, but as something that plays an important dynamical role in the evolution of the universe. Eventually, Paul’s talk rolled around to the cyclic universe. Umh…

The afternoon was rounded out by some reminiscences by Gell-Mann (Sidney’s advisor) and Glashow.

The banquet was a blast, filled with entertaining reminiscences of Sidney. Erroll Morris thanked Sidney for his tutorials on physics during the making of A Brief History of Time, and for screening the rough-cuts of every one of Morris’s films since them. Ken Lane told the story of Sidney walking in late to a seminar of Steve Weinberg’s. Steve had just been asked a question and responded, “Hmm. I don’t know the answer to that.” Sidney burst into the room and said, “I know the answer. What’s the question?”

And, typical Sidney, he did.

Posted by distler at March 18, 2005 1:57 PM

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4 Comments & 2 Trackbacks

Re: Liveblogging From SidneyFest

My thesis advisor sat in on one of Sidney Coleman’s QFT classes when he was a postdoc. One of my prized possesions is a copy of the lecture notes for that class. Between that and a dog-eared copy of Aspects of Symmetry, I’ve learned a lot of QFT from him.

It’s sad to hear that he’s not well.

Posted by: Matthew on March 18, 2005 2:32 PM | Permalink | Reply to this
Read the post Sidneyfest
Weblog: Preposterous Universe
Excerpt: Sidney Coleman is one of my heroes, too. So you should go read Jacques Distler's liveblogging of the mini-conference being held in Sidney's honor.
Tracked: March 18, 2005 3:41 PM

Re: Liveblogging From SidneyFest

I’m a long time admirer, from afar. Actually, this goes back to when I was really young and impressionable. A few really famous physicists came to the Jerusalem winter school, and were interviewed by the Israeli news (which was more high-brow back then).

First was Hawking, claiming that Physics will be over by the end of that decade (that was the eighties) and all the mysteries of the universe will be revealed to us (I think he was referring to N=8 SUGRA).

When Coleman was asked about this (and I am paraphrasing after all these years), he claimed this statement brings him great relief, since El-Al has lost his suitcase, and its whereabouts were a great mystery, and he had not been sure they would find it by the end of the decade…

So, it was love at first sight.

Posted by: Moshe Rozali on March 18, 2005 7:38 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Liveblogging From SidneyFest

Nice book indeed! My first individual paper was a resummation of instantons, and it was rejected because the referee told that he was not able to see the origin “of formula (1) in the paper”. Which, it happened, was directly taken from “Aspects of Symmetry”!. I was so furious about the referee that I retired from the publication fight for a good bunch of years(and after some time I found that my result, after all, was not new).

Hmm a different thing. From your declarations here, I am adding you to the tree of descendents of Max Born. I am wrong, feel free to correct the wiki

Posted by: Alejandro Rivero on March 19, 2005 9:30 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Liveblogging From SidneyFest

Luboš Motl has pictures and abstracts of talks here:
… Sidneyfest …

Posted by: Sidneyfest on March 19, 2005 9:41 PM | Permalink | Reply to this
Read the post Coleman Conference
Weblog: Not Even Wrong
Excerpt: I spent the last two days up in Cambridge, mainly attending the conference in honor of Sidney Coleman. Sadly, Coleman is in poor health, suffering from Parkinson's disease, and was unfortunately unable to attend the talks in his honor. They...
Tracked: March 20, 2005 12:20 PM

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