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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Monster minds

There's a story in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, about the first seminar Feynman gives at Princeton. He's just a graduate student, working on a formulation of electromagnetism in terms of advanced and retarded potentials with his advisor Wheeler:

...So it was to be my first technical talk, and Wheeler made arrangements with Eugene Wigner to put it on the regular seminar schedule.

A day or two before the talk I saw Wigner in the hall. "Feynman," he said, "I think that work you're doing with Wheeler is very interesting, so I've invited Russell to the seminar." Henry Norris Russell, the famous, great astronomer of the day, was coming to the lecture!

Wigner went on. "I think Professor von Neumann would also be interested." Johnny von Neumann was the greatest mathematician around. "And Professor Pauli is visiting from Switzerland, it so happens, so I've invited Professor Pauli to come" - Pauli was a very famous physicist- and by that time, I'm turning yellow. Finally, Wigner said, "Professor Einstein only rarely comes to our weekly seminars, but your work is so interesting that I've invited him specially, so he's coming too."

By this time I must have turned green... Then came the time for the talk and here are these monster minds in front of me waiting!

Last Friday Sean Carroll emailed me to ask if I'd give a short blackboard talk at an informal cosmology meeting they have on Monday morning at Caltech. My real talk was in the afternoon, so I said, sure, no problem. I thought I'd mainly be talking to grad students and postdocs, so I didn't prepare anything. My plan was to give some background on entropy, information, black holes, etc. so that they could better follow the afternoon talk.

To my surprise, rather than a bunch of grad students I found monster minds arrayed around the big oak table in 469 Lauritsen: Carroll, Kamionkowski, Wise, Preskill, Politzer (Nobel laureate), Ooguri and Stanley Deser! No need for elementary background. I was kind of nervous at first, but we ended up having a lively discussion that lasted over 90 minutes -- I pretty much covered my whole talk using the blackboard, and ended up giving it again using slides later in the day. We had a funny moment when I first started discussing the ADM energy of the monsters. I looked over at Deser (the "D" in ADM) and smiled; he smiled back and nodded slightly :-) Having Stanley in the audience helped a lot because the entropy packing I described depends on using negative gravitational binding energy to nearly cancel the energy of the constituent matter. He was quite familiar with these constructions and helped convince the audience that I wasn't nuts.

Ten years ago I wrote a paper (unpublished) showing how to obtain a zero energy configuration in GR out of massive constituents. Particle theorists I discussed it with all thought I was crazy, but the referee was a very erudite relativist, who pointed out that a similar result (using different constructions) had been obtained by ADM, Novikov and Zeldovich, and others long ago. (So my result wasn't really new, but at least it wasn't wrong...) I had suspected Deser of being the referee but he said it wasn't him. He thought it might have been Wald... :-)

I had a wonderful visit, clouded only by the news (received by email on my cellphone while chatting with Sean) that Sidney Coleman had passed away on Sunday.

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