Friday, January 9, 2015

Born for success in quantum many-body theory?

To succeed you need to be at the right place at the right time.

In my last post I discussed how in his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell presented some fascinating cases of how in certain fields those who were successful were all born within a few years of each other. For example, consider the list of 75 most wealthy people in history. 14 of them are Americans born between 1831-1840. The most successful computer entrepreneurs were born between 1953 and 1956.

So I thought I would do a little "experiment" to see if anything like this happened in theoretical physics. In the twenty years after World War Two, a revolution in quantum many-body theory occurred. People applied new methods of quantum field theory to problems in solid state physics and nuclear physics. In principle any scientist between the ages of 25 and 65 could have been involved in that revolution. But, were they?

Without thinking too much I wrote down the first twelve names that came to mind.  The list is below. Then I looked up their dates of birth. Here are the results.

P.W. Anderson; December 13, 1923
Walter Kohn, March 9, 1923
Jun Kondo; February 6, 1930
A. Abrikosov; June 25, 1928
Lev Gorkov; June 14, 1929
J. Luttinger; December 2, 1923
David Pines; June 8, 1924
Keith Brueckner; March 19, 1924
Gerald Brown; July 22, 1926
Freeman Dyson; December 15, 1923
J.R. Schrieffer; May 31, 1931
John Hubbard; October 27, 1931

Pretty amazing to me!

Does this show anything? It is hard to know.
The 1923 crowd were old enough that they had just finished their Ph.D by 1950 when the quantum field theory methods were developed by Feynman and Schwinger, and Dyson did his synthesis. Most were just old enough to have missed combat action (and the associated trauma or death!) in WWII. But, they were young enough to be ambitious and open to new ideas. They were young enough to be not too tied down by teaching or administration so they could finish their 10,000 hours.

Given the surprising results I thought of another revolution: dynamical mean-field theory. Here are some key players and their birth dates.

Walter Metzner; July 21, 1961
Dieter Vollhardt; September 8, 1951
Antoine Georges; ?, 1961
Gabi Kotliar: February 26, 1957
Mark Jarrell; September 19, 1960

I could not find birth dates for Andy Millis or Vlad Dobrosavljević, but based on undergraduate degree I estimated they were both around 1960.

Is it all random?
Is there anything to learn from this?

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! Now I can feel better for not inventing anything worthwhile in my life - I was just born at the wrong time. :)