Sunday, July 2, 2017

Outrageous Theory

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?


  1. I think your statements are too general.
    There are the projects (FWPs and I don't know how they work in "groups") of/including
    -Elbio Dagotto (google him..!)
    He'd be closest to cases you describe.

    Other theorists are
    -Malcolm Stocks
    -Randy Fishman
    -Satoshi Okamoto
    -Valentino Cooper

    Plenty of people forming a theory group at ORNL. All located in 4100. I'd encourage you to come and visit...
    Contact Jamie Morris (program manager, colocated with these people).

    1. Perhaps I gave the impression of a lack of a theory group at ORNL, which is certainly not the case. I know all these people above and they, and others on the campus are indeed brilliant. What I was trying to convey was the presence of a dedicated theory group at ILL, which would be roughly equivalent to the Neutron Sciences Directorate having a "Theory Division". Nowadays a more modern approach would be "Theory and Simulation". There is a "Data Analysis and Visualization" division but that's not the same thing.

    2. I see. I don't know if adding a layer of management to the theory side of things (by creating another division) is efficient - in the end scientists work together if it benefits them, not because some organizational structure is put in place.