General · Media

The future of particle physics?

I’ve encountered some articles recently about the current state of particle physics. Concerns about its future. Whether new particle accelerators are needed (or even viable). An expensive rabbit hole. That research has become mired in wishful elegant mathematics. The absence of evidence being evidence of absence.

I didn’t record the first articles that I noticed on this topic. A footnote below [1], however, lists some examples of the negative sentiment.

In contrast, other articles (noted below) were optimistic about the situation.

• [Slate] Particle Physics Is Doing Just Fine: In science, lack of discovery can be just as instructive as discovery (January 31, 2019)

Recently, particle physics has become the target of a strange line of scientific criticism. … But the proposal that particle physicists are essentially setting money on fire comes with an insidious underlying message: that science is about the glory of discovery, rather than the joy of learning about the world. Finding out that there are no particles where we had hoped tells us about the distance between human imagination and the real world. It can operate as a motivation to expand our vision of what the real world is like at scales that are totally unintuitive. Not finding something is just as informative as finding something.

• [Forbes Senior Contributor Ethan Siegel] We Must Not Give Up On Answering The Biggest Scientific Questions Of All (February 5, 2019)

There’s an old saying in business that applies to science just as well: “Faster. Better. Cheaper. Pick two.” The world is moving faster than ever before. If we start pinching pennies and don’t invest in “better,” it’s tantamount to already having given up.

This morning, I noted that Chad Orzel weighed into the topic with an article summarizing the debate. He references some of the seminal posts.

• [Forbes Contributor Chad Orzel] The Thorny Question Of Whether To Build Another Particle Collider (February 5, 2019)

As I mentioned in that earlier post, though, this is a tricky topic to write about because it’s posing a genuinely difficult question about research priorities and resource allocation. As a result, while many of the arguments for and against are delivered with great passion and conviction, I don’t find any of them fully convincing. It’s just too easy to poke holes in most of the arguments being thrown around.

So, there’s a historical side to the topic — the struggle with prior “Big Science” projects. And a philosophical side — a debate about theory and scientific progress (which also has a long history).


• [Vox] The $22 billion gamble: why some physicists aren’t excited about building a bigger particle collider: Particle accelerators have taught us so much about physics that the new one might have nothing to find (January 22, 2019)

• [NBC News] Why some scientists say physics has gone off the rails: Has the love of “elegant” equations overtaken the desire to describe the real world? (June 2, 2018)

• [Sabine Hossenfelder] How the LHC may spell the end of particle physics (December 27, 2018)

• [Sabine Hossenfelder] Particle Physics now Belly Up (June 23, 2018)