Sunday, July 2, 2017
I arrived to start a PhD at the Institut Laue Langevin in Grenoble in September 1982 a day late (having missed the boat and been 'repatriated' back to England with just my passport and 2 pounds). I soon found the ILL to be organized into 'Colleges' of which 'College 1' was Theory. It was lead by a brilliant chap called Philippe Nozieres and seemed to be full of theoretical physicists.
I didn't have much to do with them, but there were quite a few grumblings about the theory college over the years; about them not talking much to experimentalists, being aloof, superfluous etc. ORNL doesn't have one.
But just before I was at ILL, from 1977-1981, Duncan Haldane was there for a postdoc. He did work on quantum-mechanical spin systems that was so outrageous that nobody believed it and it was impossible to publish in a journal, residing just as an ILL preprint. This work was later found by neutron experiments to be correct, and was critical to Haldane winning the 2016 Physics Nobel Prize. If you want more details, Tim Ziman (who I had a wonderful hike in Alaska with) wrote about it here and the ILL wrote about it here.
I don't think the way the national labs, and science in general, are organized particularly fosters the kind of research Haldane did at ILL. But a theory group could be a good idea, and perhaps DOE might like to consider setting one up at ORNL, after all?