Professor Ed Witten gave a series of talks in various departments at the University of Toronto this week. He is arguably the most famous physicist in the world. That is, he is the most well-known physicist amongst physicists, for I doubt that the general public (or even other scientists) know who he is (for instance, as far as I know, he’s never written a popular science book a la Hawking, Weinberg, etc.). Witten is the principal architect of String Theory, which many believe is our best shot at a formalism toward a Theory of Everything — describing all the fundamental forces in the universe using one theory. In other words, the long sought-after melding of the Theory of Relativity and quantum mechanics. The field of String Theory expanded rapidly following Witten’s pioneering work some 25 years ago, and today his papers are cited more than any other physicists’ in any other field — by a long shot.
One day, it would be nice to get some experimental verification of String Theory so that Witten can get his Nobel Prize (unless ST is wrong, in which case, never mind). His talk to the physics department centred on exactly this topic, i.e. what do we look for with the next generation of particle accelerators? He prepared this particular talk for a general physics audience so it was very non-technical. Anyhow, to summarize: Higgs particle, supersymmetric particles, Higgs particle, supersymmetric particles, what if we can’t find the Higgs OMG no let’s not even speak it. His talk was a bit dry (a lot of it was just him reading text from his slides) but he’s a patient, calming speaker with a sharp sense of humour.
Since Witten is a physics rock star, the room was packed. Talks by guys of his stature often attract people from other departments, and talks on sexy subjects such as particle physics also tend to bring in the freaks. These are non-physicists who have been to Chapters to read a few books on the subject and always blow their cover by asking esoteric questions that have nothing to do with what the speaker talked about. “OH YEAH, WHAT ABOUT NEGATIVE ENERGY, SMART GUY? WAS HAWKING RIGHT ABOUT BLACK HOLES?”
Most surprising thing I learned: apparently nobody believes in the existence of magnetic monopoles anymore.