Friday, November 3, 2017

The End of Physics?

Our story so far...
Point 1.) The Large Hadron Collider in Europe, with a budget of almost eight billion euros, is the most powerful particle accelerator/collider in the world. It was built to replace FermiLab's Tevatron, the previous most powerful collider. Best known for discovering the Top Quark in 1983, the Tevatron was improved over its twenty year lifespan, eventually reaching collision energies of 1.8TeV (trillion electron volts) by colliding protons and anti-protons at 9oo GeV each. But it was recognized quite early on that, based on our understanding of the Standard Model, much higher collision energies and luminosity (essentially, the number of collisions recorded over a given period of time) were going to be necessary. When the US government cancelled the SSC being built in Texas in 1993, CERN's proposal to build the LHC was adopted and funded. After some frustrating delays, the LHC began it's initial run in 2009, with the intention to ramp up to collision energies of 13 TeV in 2015. The goal was to find out what could be learned about the fundamental characteristics of matter at energies and densities similar to what was extant in the immediate aftermath of the big bang. Specifically, the Higgs Boson, Dark Matter and Supersymmetry were expected to be discovered or disproved, and at long last the Standard Model would be completed.

Point 2.) The Standard Model can be comfortably thought of as the most successful failed theory in the history of physics. Every single prediction it makes has been proven, and yet we KNOW it is brutally incomplete. If we accept that gravity is one of the fundamental forces (along with electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force), then we need to understand both how it is mediated and why it is so much weaker than the other forces. While the discovery of the Higgs Boson filled out the last box in the Standard Model, we are left with no operational theory of quantum gravity, and no clue as to what most of our universe is made of.

So now we're nearing the end of the 2017 data run at LHC. The joyful discovery of the Higgs is years behind us. And once again, despite some tantalizing events that turned out to be mere statistical anomalies, we come away with nothing. No Graviton. No dark matter. No Supersymmetric particles. No surprises, nothing that tells us anything beyond what we already know. And nothing to help us fill in the pieces we KNOW are missing. If gravity is a force, the gravitational field has to be mediated by a quantum force carrier. We KNOW that's how it works, but if we can't find that 'graviton', we can't understand gravity.

Meanwhile, outside the realm of CERN, physicists are just lost, stumbling around in the darkness. Without a ten billion dollar machine, they have no idea where to look for new discoveries. We've spent decades watching theoretical physicists indulge in the worst form of academic masturbation, creating dense, elegant mathematics that make no predictions and cannot be tested experimentally. Between string theory, inflationary cosmology and Supersymmetry, the larges portion of working physicists today aren't even doing science. They're working on unfalsifiable speculation that leads off in silly, pointless, untestable directions like the multiverse, or worse, that our entire universe is somehow just a digital simulation.

The way science is supposed to work is that the theorists postulate a theory, and the experimental scientists and engineers develop ways to test the predictions that the theory makes. If they start finding actual evidence that supports the theory, it gets plugged into the larger base of knowledge to make sure it fits in all the corners and doesn't fall apart at certain energies or conditions. Once enough evidence is gathered for the theory, it becomes accepted science. But that's just the beginning. Accepted science is boring. Now the theorists go back to work, trying to 'break' the theory - to find a reason why what we THINK we know is wrong. Because if we get something wrong, that means there's more to learn.

All of which brings us back to the Standard Model. We KNOW it's wrong - or at least incomplete. We know what it tells us, and we know there are things it's NOT telling us. And that's with a ten billion dollar mega-machine churning away at the problem. So whither physics? What happens if we learn nothing of consequence for years to come? How do you do fundamental research when the basic cost of knowledge is beyond your species willingness to pay the cost of 'basic science'? How do we get from where we are to the next discovery when we do not have the equipment to do the experiments? And, of course, what if we, as a species, decided to spend $25 or 30 billion on a new collider at much higher energies, and nothing changed?

I find it sad and frustrating to be living in such an amazing time, a time when we understand so much that no human ever understood before, and yet we seem to have no path forward. We're seeing breakthrough science in machine intelligence, computing power, data analytics and robotics, and that's both interesting and life changing. But we're stuck with the nagging thought that big science has picked all the low-hanging fruit and left us here, wondering what is just beyond the limits of our ability to discover it. And scientists keep going off in weirder and weirder directions because they don't have any way to do new science today.


  1. Some physicists believed this at the latter part of the 19th century as well--all the good science was done, we know the basic ideas of how everything works, and there was nothing left to do. Then along came a whole generation of geniuses that brought us up to right now.

    I think we err in believing that technology is going to solve the big whys and wherefores questions. I'm not sure how CERN is going to make string theory apparent--but I've noticed this kind of practical and experimental physics is still basically in the proofing phase of validating the thinkers of the twentieth century.

    This sort of discounts new discoveries and how we can think about them though. Take the idea that all particles can effectively work as tachyons, moving backwards in time. I think this informs our idea of time differently from assumptions about its supposed linear nature. We learn that gravitational waves are the footprint of violent cosmic events that have effected not just surrounding space, but altered time. We are beginning to see time differently, which I suspect will be an interesting frontier of eventually practical thought.

  2. This misses the key points.

    1.) The economic cost of high energy physics is now beyond the ability of most governments to afford. It's NOT an error to understand the necessity of technology in basic research. From colliders to detectors to nutrino experiments to space telescopes to supercomputers, the 'cheaper' discoveries have been made.

    2.) String theory is NOT science. It's theoretical mathematics that makes no testable predictions. It's already mostly discredited, with the words 'string theory' mostly standing in for various QFTs like Loop Quantum Gravity.

    3.) SRSLY? Tachyons???? Um, you DO understand the implications of General Relativity, right? At the speed of light, mass becomes infinite - as in it would take infinite energy to move said mass. There is a reason why with all of human observation we have NEVER observed a particle with mass moving FTL. It is simply not possible.

    4.) Time is an interesting area of theoretical research, but there are currently no ideas that can be tested experimentally. Like the multiverse, this sort of effort is pointless scientifically, because you can't actually do any, you know, SCIENCE around it...

  3. The way forward could be to test our assumptions. Michelson and Morley built an interferometer, not insignificantly cheap, but way less than the collider-- with which they proved that there was no etheric medium that should have supported light as a wave. Is there an equivalent assumption underlying either standard model or gravity waves?

  4. Gravitaional Waves are a direct prediction of General Relativity. It's only recently that technology has been able to develop an experiment of sufficient precision to detect them, but it's important to remember that the discoveries of LIGO, while important, are NOT shocking. We expected to find what we found, just like the Higgs.

    The missing pieces of the Standard Model are well known, but we have no good path forward in figuring out how to fill them in. Therein lies the problem.

    A couple of key questions that we don't really know how to answer:

    1.) Why is there matter? If equal amounts of matter and anti-matter were created in the big bang, the universe should be nothing but slowly cooling photons.

    2.) Large scale structure - why are there clusters of galaxies. If the big bang created the universe from a singularity, it should have been completely smooth without areas of higher density, but this clearly is not the case.

    3.) It's not entirely a physics problem (or maybe it is!), but I'd include abiogenesis in this area. You start with cosmic dust, create a solar system, and then BAM! you suddenly have life. What is the process where chemistry and science come together to create living creatures when there were previously none?

  5. Hi mikey, you remind me of the guy who knew more and more about less and less until he didn't know anything at all.

    I don't pretend to know anything about physics beyond physics that applies to the subjects that I follow. However, I remember years ago reading a book by Arthur Koestler called The Sleepwalkers. He demonstrated that most breakthrough science actually came from a psychological gestalt of some individual thinking about it. I mean there was Einstein wandering around delivering the mail and just knew that relativity was the way the universe operated. Anyway, Koestler pointed out a number of these individuals who were just walking along, singing a song, when bam! Eureka hit.

    Of course, you are posing a question that deals deeply with cosmology and not simply the epistemological fashion by which an individual comes up with knowledge. You are talking about an unfathomable universe with no method or instrumentation that allows us to know. You know, in French hermeticism one of the principles is in order to go from the unknown to the known there exists a basis to turn the unknown into the known.

    Your post is addressing the fact that we have no scientific vehicle cheap enough to even find out if there is a basis that allows us to go from the unknown to the known.

    One of the gripes in my area of the woods has to do with universals and particulars. The universals perspective suggests that as soon as you have fathomed a particular (say a quark or a tachyon or your neighbor's dog..) you have already moved from the universal to the particular and therefore you no longer fathom the universal.

    Anyway, it's a very interesting post, mikey, and I am not up to speed enough on physics to have a useful contribution.

    It's possible that even if we were able to come up with the money to fund research and even discovered more particulars, we would still be left with the vast unknown outside the little campfire of our knowledge.

  6. Well, I certainly respect your honesty FA - you clearly don't know much about physics. I'm going to help you - mind you, this isn't 'mansplaining', this is science 101.

    You describe theoretical physics as if it was something that 'just happened' to people. You mentioned Einstein. Go back and read his original paper on Special Relativity. He didn't 'just have a big idea'. He used some serious math to postulate a breakthrough idea - and yet it didn't mean anything. LOTS of people have big ideas (most of them incapable of presenting them in any formalized way), and they turn out to be completely wrong. It's not until the experimentalists are able to test the predictions of the theory that we can begin to use it in how we understand the world around us. It wasn't until the solar eclipse of 1919 that his gravitational theories began to be accepted, and most of the critical frame-dragging experiments came later.

    This is science 101. NO idea matters in science until it is tested. If it makes no testable predictions, if it is not falsifiable, it is NOT science. (Note - this is technically the problem with religious mythology - you say 'god did it', and you dust off your hands like you've done something of value).

    You almost got it right in your 4th para. A big part of what we're talking about in physics today, and that I address here, is that to get from where we are to some new physics will cost some unknown, massive investment in new resources - and even then, we might not get any new results.

    We HAVE theories. We have shit-tons of theories. We have no way to test them. You seem to think that we l lack new ideas - no, we lack the ability to do new science.

    Tell me though. Why would you call the universe 'unfathomable'. It's barely 200 years after steam engines and the things we know about the universe are mind-boggling. Its age, its structure, what conditions were like one one thousandth of a second after it was created - on and on and on. Science can figure this stuff out - but we're at a peculiar inflection point where new understanding seems out of reach.

    In your 5th para, you demonstrate that lack of scientific understanding again. This talk about 'universals' and 'particulars' is precisely the kind of woo scientists would never use. We are working physics in two ways: High energy/particle physics and quantum mechanics to understand the very small, and astrophysics to understand the very large. All use specific data (fundamental particles forces and mediators, fields and their propagation and observations in all parts of the spectrum) to build a picture of the universal writ large. If you can't see how it takes individual bricks to build a wall, I'm pretty sure it's because you don't want to, because you're clearly smart enough.

    Oh. And WHAT the hell is it with 'tachyons'??? Is this a thing in some weird corner of the internet, like an EMP attack or something? Look - the VERY first time we observe ANYTHING with a non-zero rest mass traveling faster than Vc, we'll have to tear up every bit of Einstein's work and most of what came after it.

    At this point, I think we can be pretty sure we're not going to see that...

  7. Here's the thing with the romance about FTL (or the "why the hell Tachyons" question) pretty much none of the sf we were raised on will work without it. It isn't just internet dumb people, either (although I am an admitted internet dumb person). I know tachyons are theoretical and FTL shouldn't work--except even smart people don't seem to always "know" that. So every now and again science writers are going to latch on to a CERN sensor anomaly that reads a tau neutrino as going FTL and get giddy. So "warp bubbles" stories, quantum entanglement communication theories, etc. Basically, without a solid idea of what is "new", people are trying to work out what is "incomplete" and coming up with answers that might, as the saying goes, look like zebras rather than horses. But I think there are actual scientists going the zebra route, too. The weirder theoretical stuff.

    I suspect a lot of people who like to think there must be some FTL potentiality read Nick Herbert while a little baked once upon a time. (Not saying this is me, not saying this is not me.) As an internet dumbass who just likes the idea we can do interstellar travel eventually despite our physical limitations, I think asking questions about FTL can maybe get us PFC (pretty freaking close). But if we know some part of understanding about the big picture is incomplete, I guess I'm thinking that people less dumbassed than me can come up with experimental models that explore something like the wave-like aspects of observed interactions (I guess like Schrodinger derived his equation from applied physics?)

    I guess I'm fascinated with the idea of abiogenesis as a physics conundrum because some of the most unsatisfying theoretical stuff I've ever read had to do with consciousness and whether it was compatible with what we know about physics. The biologic interactions related to early life forms might just be chemistry. I've never satisfied myself that my thought processes are not also chemistry, where I've accepted interaction with other symbol using biota as a form of "food" and am just carrying out a survival program impressed on my neurons through repetition.

    To not exactly defend FA's POV, I think he's on about the idea that it's "gonna be about steam-engines when it's steam-engine time", or that a field might just be uniquely ripe for a certain paradigm-shift because here's where we are. Like, how Newton and Leibniz seem to have invented calculus at the same time. So Einstein was a maths genius who not only had the grounds for the thought that struck him, but the ability to carry the work out. It was, in a way, bound to happen. Just like something in physics is probably bound to happen eventually beyond what we got right now, not because of what we know, but because of some extra bright handful of people who see what we don't.

  8. I agree with most of this, Vixen. I agree whole-heartedly that people really, REALLY want Star Trek to be real - or at least possible. That's one of the reasons I am such an unending hardass when it comes to explaining to them why it ain't, and why aliens, while they certainly exist in bountiful diversity, have never visited earth.

    If you have an advanced intelligent population, and you tell them you're going to totally impoverish them all to build huge starship with multiple redundant systems and onboard resources to operate correctly for, say, 40,000 years, and you're going to all this to launch a mission that none of your people will every benefit from, even slightly - well, you're going to have some pretty unhappy aliens.

    And if we assume that, in the history of the universe, it HAS been attempted ten thousand times or so, what are the chances that those vehicles aren't just dead, drifting hulks because nothing that complex can operate for 10 or 20 thousand years.

    To me, a fascinating exception (and a possibly great book) would be in a star cluster. A few hundred young stars, formed at the same time, some of which evolve different species of intelligent life on approximately the same timetable and eventually discover each other are out there. Now, with RF signals only taking a few years, and travel between planets only takes five or ten years, then you might have an interesting opportunity for inter-species relations. And the universe is so big that it has probably happened.

    Once again - Re: the original post - I think you kind of missed the point. We in no way lack ideas - we are facing a historical point where we lack the ability to test them. We have made all the discoveries at reasonable temperatures and densities. If we need to look for new breakthroughs at higher energies, we'd need to invest a lot more resources than humans are willing to invest in basic science. Thinking up wacky stuff is easy - that why we have string theory, the multiverse and 'tachyons'. But as Dawkins always said, I can claim there's a small golden teapot in orbit around earth. Without the ability to actually observe that teapot, it's just another wacky claim.