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.

7 thoughts on “In defense of particle physics experiments

  1. A few notices yet:
    * The S. A.’ blogpost that I had linked expresses no issues with the stuff described there (I wrote it confusingly). He writes about it as an intellectual curiosity. It is me who as an issue with that stuff when it is taken as science.
    * Regarding my example on “early disputations about entanglement“, it actually follows your rule: “scientific theory is one that has already passed some experimental tests“. That for the strange consequences of QM were discussed when they already had experimental support for QM.
    * When some theorists work as it is highlighted at another blogpost, by P. W. here, it resembles that closet Martian searching or worse. We are not omniscient, thus we do guessing, but a shameless way is terrible.

  2. So the question then is what does one mean by the term “scientific.” I my view that should be reserved to knowledge that has already passed an experimental test. But I understand that some hypotheses may be falsifiable but still not reasonable. In other words, any reasonable person can see that such hypotheses cannot pass any experimental test. However, I don’t think the ideas that physicists recently proposed fall in this category. Otherwise, no physics experimentalist would even have bothered. So, the situation remains the same. I do not condone any subjective judgement that would decide which theories are to be regarded as acceptable based on anything other than experimental observations. Anyway, I read the blog post and see if there is a better explanation of the situation.

  3. It is hard to guess how much we (dis)agree. I’d like to stress that falsifiability is a subtle thing. A hypothesis that my closet contains a Martian is falsifiable, but not scientific. Contrary to that, the early disputations about entanglement did not show a way for falsifications, yet they were scientific (at least from my point of view).

    For an example of what I consider a bad science, see the stuff described at a blogpost by S. A.

  4. It seems to me that we agree about how we feel about this even if we use different ways to express it. For instance, I do agree that that not all faculty members at physics departments produce theories that can lead to scientific knowledge. Another way to say this is to say that their theories are not always Popper falsifiable. In my view, a scientific theory is one that has already passed some experimental tests. However, it only makes sense to work on theories that has the potential to become scientific theories.

    What I am not sure of is whether a post mortem of the failed theories will produce any idea for the way forward. According to Feynman, such an approach may only serve to mislead.

  5. Thank you for your reply. It seems that we argue about different stuff, leading to a severe misunderstanding. I’ll try to describe it a different way if it would help at least to agree on what to disagree. That is not the case yet.

    First, a lot of models are ignored; some of them for not being considered scientific models at first. And that is not anything about those models being crazy or not. It is more about sociology of Academia.
    Second, the argument (made by S.H. as far as I understand it) is that without any reflection on why all the models of last decades went wrong, the newly produced models are not a part of science. I guess that it is related to your thoughts on guiding principles that have been followed.
    Third, I guess that you consider any model produced by a person employed as a physicist to be a scientific model. I disagree on that (and this is my own opinion, having no knowledge on S.H.’s opinions on it). I consider some (many?) theorists as abusing status quo by piling worthless papers.

    Besides all that, we apparently agree on a necessity of experimental feedback. And I would add that e.g. the history of studying parity symmetry vs. weak interactions, namely the difficulty to convince experimentalists to check it then, tells us that we should urge them to check even (especially?) ideas that seem crazy.

  6. It would be contrary to the scientific process to ignore certain theoretical models based on some subjective decisions. As crazy as some these predictions were, one of them could have turned out to be correct. Moreover, if the rejection of theoretical work is based on anything other than experimental results, it opens the door for abuses. There is no easy shortcut to this process. Best is for some theorists to do the hard work of formulating proper theoretical models.

  7. Hi, I’ve read the opinions of S.H. as asking experimentalists to ignore the current theoretical models the same way as models of astrology are ignored. It is apt to discuss whether the current models are on the level of astrology (with math put into it), but all the “it’s their work” replies miss the point.

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