In defense of particle physics experiments

As a theorist, I may have misled some people into thinking that I don’t care much for experimental work. In particle physics, there tend to be a clear separation between theorists and experimentalists, with the phenomenologists sitting in between. Other fields in physics don’t have such sharp separations. However, most physicists lean toward one of the two.

Physics is a science. As such, it follows the scientific method. That implies that both theory and experiment are important. In fact, they are absolutely essential!

There are people that advocate, not only the suspension of experimental work in particle physics, but even that the methodology in particle physics be changed. What methodology in particle physics needs to be changed? Hopefully not anything related to the scientific method! To maintain the scientific method in particle physics, people need to keep on doing particle physics experiments.

CMS detector at LHC

There was a time when I also thought that the extreme expense in doing particle physics experiments was not justified by the results obtained from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). However, as somebody explained, the results of the LHC are not so insignificant. If you think about it, the “lack of results” is a fallout of the bad theories that the theorists came up with. So by stopping the experimental work due to the “lack of results,” you would be punishing the experimentalists for the bad work of the theorists. More importantly, the experimentalists are just doing precisely what they should be doing in support of the scientific method: ruling out the nonsense theories that the theorists came up with. I think they’ve done more than just that. Hopefully, the theorists will do better in future, so that the experimentalists can have more positive results in future.

I should also mention the experimental work that is currently being done on neutrinos. It is a part of particle physics that we still do not understand well. These results may open the door for significant improvements in our theoretical understanding of particle physics.

So, please keep on doing experimental work in particle physics. If there is an methodological changes needed in particle physics, then that is limited to the way theorists are doing their work.

To be civilized

What does it mean to be civilized? And why is it important?

One would think that people generally understand the idea of civilized behavior. However the day-to-day interaction with people in general shows that this is not the case. At least, if they understand it, they do not follow it. Perhaps the lack of civility is something that has developed in recent times. Perhaps it has always been that way.


I have probably talked about it several times, but I will probably talk about it over and over again, because I think it is important. So, let me explain what it is and why I think it is important.

The notion of civilized behavior is something that emerged in the early evolution of cultures. It was (and still is) a requirement for people to live together. People need to get along with one another in such circumstances. The idea is that if everybody accommodates each other then each person will experience a positive environment. On the other hand, if you treat everybody around you like an enemy, then you end up having lots of enemies. People with lots of enemies tend to have very difficult lives.

The idea of civilized behavior has far-reaching consequences. When people work together, they achieve much more then what an individual can achieve. Therefore, when we see the great works of people from the past then we see the evidence of civilized behavior. In fact, these achievements are so closely associated with civilized behavior that it is often recognized as civilization itself. In a TV series called “Civilisation” Kenneth Clark said that while it may be difficult to define civilization, it can easily be recognized in the artifacts left behind by a culture. While the collection of artifacts of a civilized society gives evidence of the level of civilization of their culture, it does not in my view represent civilization itself. Fundamentally, civilization is the way people behave toward one another within the culture.

Why is it important? It is one thing to say that civilized behavior can lead to cooperation among people and therefore lead to great works of art. But how cares about great works of art? It that what it is about? No. That is only an indication of civilization, a symptom. Of more importance are those things that are not primarily done for the sake of fame and glory. One such mundane product of cooperation among people is the establishment of infrastructure. In ancient cities, one can find evidence of water distribution systems, markets, schools, etc. all of which required some form of cooperation. These cultures also need to develop some form government and legal systems, together with all the other cultural structures necessary for the organizational aspects of a large number of people living together.

Well, today these cultural structures are all in place in all the nations of the world. If these structures are evidence of civilization, then clearly there is nothing to be worried about. Why should we then be concerned about the civilized behavior of people? The problem lies with the complacency. It seems to be taken for granted. While most countries seem to be able to maintain their level of civilization to an adequate level so that basic infrastructure can be maintained, there are countries where the level of civilization has deteriorated to such an extent that the infrastructure is starting to deteriorate. Many of these cases are so-called “developing” countries. However, even in developed countries signs of the deterioration of the level of civilization is starting to emerge. These signs include the rising level of crime and violence among the citizens of such countries. These manifestations of uncivilized behavior can be traced back to the fundamental notions of how people should behave toward one another. If left unaddressed, this rising uncivilized behavior will eventually lead to the fall the civilization.

A post mortem for string theory

So string theory is dead. But why? What went wrong causing its demise? Or more importantly, why did it not succeed?

We don’t remember those theories that did not succeed. Perhaps we remember those that were around for a long time before they were shown to be wrong, like Newton’s corpuscular theory of light or Ptolemy’s epicycles. Some theories that unsuccessfully tried to explain things that we still don’t understand are also still remembered, like the different models for grand unification. But all those different models that people proposed for the electro-weak theory are gone. We only remember the successful one which is now part of the standard model.

Feynman said at some point that he does not like to read the literature on theories that could not explain something successfully, because it may mislead him. However, I think we can learn something generic about how to approach challenges in our fundamental understanding by looking at the the unsuccessful attempts. It is important not to be deceived by the seductive ideas of such failed attempts, but to scrutinize it for its flaws and learn from that.

Previously, I have emphasized the importance of a guiding principle for our endeavors to understand the fundamental aspects of our universe. I believe that one of the reasons why sting theory failed is because it has a flawed guiding principle. It is based on the idea that, instead of particles, the universe is made up of strings. Since strings are extended objects with a certain scale (the Planck scale), they provide a natural cut-off, removing those pesky infinities.

The problem is, when you invent something to replace something else, it begs the question that there is something to be replaced. In other words, did we need particles in the first place? The answer is no. Quantum field theory, which is the formalism in terms of which the successful standard model is formulated does not impose the existence of particles. It merely requires localized interactions.

But what about the justification for extended objects based on getting rid of the infinities? I’ve written about these infinities before and explained that they are to be expected in any realistic formulation of fundamental physics and that some contrivance to get rid of them does not make sense.

So, the demise of a theory based on a flawed guiding principle is not surprising. What we learn from this post mortem is that it is important to be very careful when we impose guiding principles. Although such principles are not scientifically testable, the notions on which we base such principles should be.

In memoriam: string theory

Somebody once explained that when a theory is shown to be wrong, its proponents will keep on believing in it. It is only when they pass away that the younger generation can move on.

None of this applies to string theory. To be shown to be wrong there must be something to present. The mathematical construct that is currently associated with string theory is not in any form that can be subjected to any scientific testing.

What was shown to be wrong is supersymmetry, which is a prerequisite for the currently favored version of string theory – super string theory. (The non-supersymmetric version of string theory fell into disfavor decades ago.) The Large Hadron Collider did not see the expected particles predicted by supersymmetry. Well, to be honest, there is a small change that it will see something in the third run which has just started, but I get the feeling that people are not exactly holding their breath. I’m willing to say supersymmetry is dead and therefore so is super string theory.

Another reason why things are different with string theory is because the proponents found a way to extend the postmortem activity in string theory beyond their own careers. They get a younger generation of physicists addicted to it, so that this new generation of string theorist would go on working in it and popularizing it. What a horrible thing to do!

Why would the current string theorists mislead a younger generation of physicists to work on a failed idea? Legacy! Most of these current string theorists have spent their entire careers working on this topic. Some of them got very famous for it. Now they want to ensure that they are remembered for something that worked and not for something that failed. So it all comes down to vanity, which I’ve written about before.

String theory was already around when I was still a student several decades ago. I could have decided to pursue it as a field of study at that point. What would I have had to show for it now? Nothing! No accomplishments! A wasted career!

There was a time when you couldn’t get a position in a physics department unless you were a string theorist. As a result, there is a vast population of string theorists sitting in faculty positions. It is no wonder that they still maintain such a strong influence in physics even though the theory they work on is dead.

Those quirky fermions

All of the matter in the universe is made of fermions. They are for this reason one of the most abundant things in the universe. Fermions have been the topic of investigation for a long time. We have learned much about them. However, what we do know about them is encapsulated in the formalisms with which we deal with them in our theories. Does that mean we understand them?

Let’s think about the way we treat fermions in our theories. Basically, we represent them in terms of creation and annihilation operators, which are used to formulate the interactions in which they take part. These operators are distinguished from those for bosons by the anti-commutation relations that they obey.

To the uninitiated, all this must sound like a bunch of gobbledygook. What are the physical manifestations of all these operators? There are none! These operators are just mathematical entities in the formalism for our theories. Although these theories are quite successful, it does not reveal the physical machinery at work on the inside. Or does it?

Although a creation operator does not by itself represent any physical process, it distinguishes different scenarios with different arrangements of fermions. Starting with a given scenario, I can apply a fermion creation operator to introduce a new scenario which contains one additional fermion. Then I can apply the operator again, provided that I am not trying to add another fermion with the same degrees of freedom, it will produce another new scenario.

Here is the strange thing. If I change the order in which I added the two additional fermions, I get a scenario that is different from the one with the previous order. I can contrast this to the situation with bosons. Provided that I don’t try to add bosons with the same degrees of freedom, the order in which I add them doesn’t matter. What it tells us is that bosons with different degrees of freedom don’t effect each other. (We need to be careful about the concepts of time-like or space-like separations, but for the sake of this argument, we’ll assume all bosons or fermions are space-like separated.)

The fact that the order in which we place fermions in our scenario (even when they are space-like separated) makes a difference tells us something physical about fermions. They must be global entities. The entire universe seems to “know” about the existence of each and every fermion in it.

How can that be possible? I can think of one way: topological defects. This is not a new idea. It pops up quite often in various fields of physics.

Topological defect

Why would a topological defect explain the apparent global nature of fermions? It is because all kinds of topological defects can be identified with the aid of an integral that computes the winding number of the topological defect. This type of integral is evaluated over a (hyper)surface that encloses the topological defect. In other words, the field values far away from the defect are included in the integral and not the field value at the defect. Therefore, knowledge about the defect in encoded in the entire field. It therefore suggest that fermions can behave as global entities if they topological defect. This is just a hypothesis. It needs more careful investigation.