Sunday, May 15, 2016

Life at 750 GeV - Breakthrough Physics or Another Spurious Signal?

Back at base bugs in the software
flash the message "something's out there"
There is an unusual level of hype around the 2016 run of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Europe. You're seeing explainers in the mainstream press, deep dives in the technical press, and there have been no less than 350 academic papers written in the last year. Physicists are cautiously breathless, science reporters are forgetting their objectivity, and mainstream journalists are just struggling with the terminology and basic science. Meanwhile, all the cranks are out - from the 'Multiverse' to 'String Theory' to unconserved momentum propulsion systems, the "New Physics" is a new age set of magicks where physical laws are just suggestions and 'Quantum' means something less scientific and more spiritual, all while people are asking physics to offer some kind of meaning to the universe. It's really exciting to see the world getting interested in high energy physics and the coming breakthroughs, but at the same time people have always had a strong tendency to conflate the edge of science with their Woo, and the result is very often incoherent.

Whether this hint of something new and unpredicted turns out to be real or not, it has been invigorating to see the world recognize the amazing discoveries that have been made in the last 50 years of particle physics. We now understand so much about the universe, how it works and what it is, and even better, we know a tremendous amount of things that we still don't know.

So what's all the excitement about?

Last year the Large Hadron Collider restarted after a couple years of shutdown for large scale upgrades. When it restarted, it did so for the first time at it's rated energy - 2 beams of protons at very close to the speed of light - each beam with an energy of 6.5 TeV - colliding head on to produce collisions with a combined energy of 13+ TeV. Last year's run was carefully managed, so the amount of data that was collected - while massive on any real-world scale - was far below the full 'luminosity' speced into the collider.

When that data was analyzed, scientists saw something...odd. There was an excess in photon-photon pairs produced at mass of 750 GeV. (Wait - mass? I though electron volts were energy? Yes - remember E=mc² - energy and mass are the same thing, and can be expressed using either set of terms.) Now, the problem was that there were not a lot of data, and the statistical confidence that the so-called 'diphoton excess' was anything but noise was about 3σ (3 sigma). At that level, it would be ignored as background noise, but what makes this data interesting is the same diphoton excess was detected at the same mass by TWO DIFFERENT EXPERIMENTS. (In collider terms, that's like "The telephone calls are coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE!!) Both ATLAS and CMS experiments saw the same data (or noise). THAT'S exciting, even at 3σ.

High energy particle physics, for all it's 'peering into the universe' majesty, is ultimately just a very large exercise in statistics. Some collisions produce particles from the energy released - most don't. Make a LOT of collisions and count the results. There will be anomalous data, noisy data and just plain bad data. But just keep counting and measuring, and eventually you'll notice something that happens more often than it 'should'. If it happens enough - what statisticians call six sigma - then scientists will consider it a real phenomenon and start trying to figure out what's causing it.

Why the excitement?

The standard model was completely described in the 1970s. Since then, particle physics has been a process of confirming its accuracy. That is, detecting the various elementary particles it predicted. And with the confirmation of the Higgs boson, we are now at a point where - at least according to the Standard Model - we know what matter is, how it gets its properties and how it interacts. Of course, we also know there's other stuff out there - dark matter, dark energy - that probably requires an extension/addition to the Standard Model. And of course, we still don't have a complete theory of gravity - the Standard Model includes force carriers for all the other known forces, but if gravity is going to be considered a force like the strong force, and the electroweak interaction, it's going to need a boson to mediate it.

What could it be?

Heavier Higgs?
Physicists were surprised to discover the Higgs boson at the low, low mass of 125Gev. Everything they predicted about the only scalar boson in the standard model would indicate a much more massive particle. The interesting thing is that there is nothing in the model that precludes the existence of multiple Higgs - if this signal is real, the most likely scenario is that it is a more massive Higgs particle.

One fairly popular theory in the 'new physics' community is Super Symmetry or SuSy. The theory postulates that every particle in the standard model has a more massive version - a Super Particle if you will. At the energies the LHC is running at today, some of these SuSy particles may show up, indicating a much expanded standard model is necessary.

Dark Matter?
A quarter of the matter in the universe can not be detected by any means humans have developed. This dark matter doesn't interact with normal, baryonic matter, even though it provides a huge gravitational force distributed about the universe, and seems to be responsible for the large scale structures we observe, including galaxies and clusters of galaxies. If we find a particle that we never even suspected might exist, it would be hard not to consider the possibility that we are observing dark matter for the first time.

What scientists hope for the most is that it will be something utterly unexpected, new and shocking, a launchpad for the breakthrough in physics that will guide us through the next series of discoveries. Back in the 1950s, a similar observation - known as the Tau-Theta puzzle - led to the discoveries around symmetry breaking, electroweak unification and ultimately Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD).


In the end, however, the great likelihood is that by the end of summer we will have much more data, and the anomalous signal will have vanished into the background noise. Despite what everyone hopes it might be, the overwhelming odds are that it is routine experimental noise, and we will go back to working on the problems and questions we started out with.

But for now? For now we can dream, and think about where it might take us!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Art of the Possible

Possible does not include Unicorns and Ponies
In the latter half of the 19th century, Otto von Bismarck, perhaps the greatest statesman of his era, famously advised “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”. This has served as both an inspiration and a warning to politicians, activists and demagogues down through the ages. His point was clear - political leaders can only govern by accomplishment - any goal that is out of reach is not in the realm of politics - at least until circumstances place it into the realm of "the possible".  The opposite side of that coin is that leaders who consistently promise or demand the impossible quickly lose credibility and support as their promised policies never seem to actually materialize. The tea party has had to confront this reality in their headlong rush to repeal 'Obamacare'. Despite all their legislative and extra-constitutional manipulations, with a Democratic President in the White House that policy goal was never possible.

Which brings us, once again, the the 2016 Bernie Sanders phenomenon. Now a lot of my distaste for the Sanders campaign is not really Bernie at all, but rather the foul, obnoxious idiocy of many of his supporters. Their refusal to even consider that there might be one single tiny thing wrong with Saint Sanders, along with their willingness to immediately brand anyone who even asks legitimate questions as corrupt tools and closet right wing authoritarians characterizes the same kind of mindless ideological purity as we've been seeing out of the tea party right for ten years.

“Politics is the art of the possible, 

the attainable — the art of the next best”

Probably the most frustrating part of trying to have a rational conversation about Democratic presidential politics in 2016 is the immediate spittle flecked accusation that you are supporting the status quo, and if you'd just support CHANGE we could have all the stuff dreams are made of, from government paid healthcare to free college to the return of good manufacturing jobs to the US. If you're skeptical of these claims of unlimited political possibilities there for the taking, well, you must be benefiting from the status quo in some way or another, and are therefore a corrupt tool of the establishment.

Of course, this is deeply irrational. The status quo is the status quo - it exists for a reason, and that reason is a deeply entrenched political equilibrium. It IS true that if there was a pent-up demand in America for a systemic shift to a Democratic-Socialist political economy, then it would be possible to make that shift. But if that was the case, it would be happening. Instead, Sanders received millions of fewer votes than his more traditional primary opponent - the promised 'revolution' never materialized.

In the end, the facts are simple and obvious, and cannot be obfuscated by name-calling and temper tantrums. America is not a particularly 'liberal' electorate. If you passionately believe in the Sanders message, you are far from a majority in the US - you represent the left wing of the more liberal of the two major political parties. You don't want to hear it, but your views are 'extreme' in the context of American politics, and are entirely offset by a large, extreme far right constituency. The House of Representatives is structured at the level of the congressional district, of which there are many more low-population rural examples than diverse, cosmopolitan urban types, which results in generational Republican majority of that legislative body. Republicans control 31 of 50 statehouses.

These are not problems that can be wished away. This is the political reality in America today. It's interesting that for all the accusations of dishonesty against Clinton, she very clearly ran a more honest campaign than Sanders did. While Sanders was promising a revolution that would sweep away a hundred years of conservative governance and replace it with a far-left Denmark style high-tax/high service system, she was telling the truth about what could be accomplished against an unprecedented, even insane level of political obstruction from the Republicans.

There's nothing wrong with aspirational goals. But if that's all you have, you end up with nothing. It's better to recognize the limitations and obstructions one would confront as a leader, and do the hard work necessary to make change where change is possible. Anything else is irresponsible governance.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Musings on the Evolution of the Left in the Post Bernie Era

Damn you people with your facts and your math
One thing this political cycle has done for me is to crystallize a few thoughts I've been considering around politics in general, and progressive politics in particular. First is the realization that, driven primarily by the internet and social media, progressive/liberal political activists have become infected with the same group-think/motivated reasoning/ideological purity demands that we've seen on the right, especially since the beginning of the tea party movement. Over time, they've moved away from the liberal tradition of thoughtful analysis, allowing the numbers and the models to drive policy solutions, to a point very much like the Republican belief system where the preferred policies are chosen upfront, and then defended with whatever derp-laden 'evidence' and justification they can come up with. This leads to the very aggressive push-back against anyone who asks straightforward questions about the math, or the implementation strategy, or the limits of constitutional authority. When you think about it, if their policies can't stand up under the basic scrutiny of a sympathetic liberal audience, how do they expect to make them into viable public policy they can sell to the nation as a whole?

A very good example of this is the Sanders mantra 'break up the TBTF banks'. Now, virtually all liberals would agree that this is a worthwhile policy goal. But we also point out, that as federal FinReg policy, it's probably not the most effective, and should perhaps be considered as a secondary option in an array of regulatory actions. Breaking up the banks does nothing to deal with the biggest problem, so-called 'shadow banking', and provides some incentives for banks to merely spin off a number of entities that can all grow right up to the designated TBTF threshold. Most economists think hard limits on leverage - significantly greater capital requirements - and a small tax/fee on certain kinds of high speed electronic transactions would protect the economy in a more robust manner, and make for a regulatory system much more difficult for the 'masters of the universe' to game out. But if you make that case, Sanders supporters will just accuse you of being corrupt pro-bankster.

Another trend that seems to keep growing is a kind of an 'ideological purity' conservative analog within the American Political Left. That is, the rise of a significant bloc of liberal activists who reject the slow pace and hard work of everyday real-world politics and demand complete ideological purity around a set of fairly radical policies. The obvious fact that many of these high-cost/high-tax government services and strong anti-capitalist government intervention in the private sector are not only unpopular politically, but actively opposed by a larger and more powerful opposition doesn't seem to matter. They have no answer to address the political realities standing between them and their goals, but they also don't seem to feel they need one. Just as the Tea Party bloc chafes in increasing frustration in the face of their inability to overcome basic constitutional limitations like a Presidential veto, this liberal-hating liberal bloc demands the implementation of the policies THEY prefer in the face of a huge, generational Republican hold on the House of Representatives, a broadly conservative federal judiciary and widespread conservative state-level governance. Again, ask them how they would overcome those roadblocks, the answer is "the people will rise up and sweep them away".

Perhaps this presumption that there is, somewhere, hiding in the nooks and crannies of the American electorate, a huge pent up demand for far left public policies is the greatest delusion of this political bloc. They told us people, particularly young people, would rise up and sweep Bernie Sanders into the White House, but at this point he's received millions of fewer votes than the more traditional Democrat Hillary Clinton, and young people continue to vote in very small numbers - as they always have.

At the end of the day, politics is about thoughtful, incremental change - revolutions are very rare, and they require some kind of triggering factor. Wealthy, safe, comfortable societies are typically not driven to radical political change. I am personally predisposed to technocratic solutions, where the process is as important as the goal. If you choose a tremendously ambitious goal and don't have a realistic, detailed plan for achieving it, you not only will fail, but you will open up the opportunity for the opposition to exploit your failure. Public policy is made by working together with the various factions and stakeholders, compromising to get to incremental progress. A scorched earth refusal to negotiate policy solutions in good faith is a certain path to retaining the status quo.