I’ve encountered some articles recently about the current state of particle physics. Or, more broadly, “the direction of theoretical 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 , 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)
“At this point an enigma presents itself which in all ages has agitated inquiring minds. How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?” —Albert Einstein, in Geometry and Experience (1921).
On the relationship between mathematics and physics and the current state of affairs, see also: The Universe Speaks in Numbers: How Modern Maths Reveals Nature’s Deepest Secrets by science communicator Graham Farmelo (May 2019).
Since the 1970s … experiments at the world’s most powerful atom-smashers have offered few new clues. So some of the world’s leading physicists have looked to a different source of insight: modern mathematics. These physicists are sometimes accused of doing ‘fairy-tale physics’, unrelated to the real world. But in The Universe Speaks in Numbers, award-winning science writer and biographer Farmelo argues that the physics they are doing is based squarely on the well-established principles of quantum theory and relativity, and part of a tradition dating back to Isaac Newton.
The worry — expressed by a number of theorists and writers over several decades — is that theoretical physics has become a monoculture too focused on a small clutch of concepts and approaches. Those include string theory, overstated predictions of new discoveries, over-reliance on mathematical elegance as a guide and a general drift into what physicist and writer [science communicator] Jim Baggott, in Farewell to Reality (2013), called “fairytale physics” [multiverse, superstring theory, and supersymmetry*], divorced from its empirical base. Notable critiques have come from theoretical physicists including Peter Woit, Lee Smolin and, more recently, Sabine Hossenfelder … . Science writer Graham Farmelo clearly intends The Universe Speaks in Numbers as a riposte.
These [historical advances in physics] are brilliant successes of the mathematical approach, and Farmelo leads us through them adeptly, with a mixture of contemporary accounts and scientific insight. He also casts a sceptical eye on the stories the players tell about themselves — and here the tensions start to be felt.
During what Farmelo calls “the long divorce” between mathematics and theoretical physics from the 1930s to the 1970s, …* Wiki: [Baggott stated:] “When you start asking ‘Do we live in a hologram?’ Then you are crossing into metaphysics, and you are heading down the path of allowing all kinds of things that have no evidence to back it up, like creationism.” … He [Baggott] feels that empirical data provides an anchor for these people to “return to reality” and that science without evidence is “most dangerous.” … Science writer Philip Ball, in a review of Farewell in The Guardian, stated that Baggott was right “although his target is as much the way this science is marketed as what it contains.”