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These are the good times. A few years ago, I was at a dinner during a Solvay Conference – the triennial gathering to discuss enduring problems in physics and chemistry. Looking around, I asked a physicist I knew who he thought was the smartest person there. Almost without hesitation, he pointed to a dark-haired young man a few tables away.

I was a little surprised. There were at least three Nobel laureates in the room for starters, plus a number of highly respected scientists that I knew by sight. I didn't have a clue who the young, dark-haired man was. Now I do: the man was Juan Maldacena.

But in 100 years, will anyone write about Maldacena's life in physics? Almost certainly not, because he is now 46 and no cult of personality has yet grown up around him. What's more, his work is not easy to appreciate in terms non-physicists can understand. But the most crucial missing ingredient may be this: Maldacena doesn't seem that concerned with self-promotion. In other words, he doesn't have what set Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger apart.

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