Transcending the impasse, part V

Beauty as a guiding principle

Proceeding with the series on Transcending the impasse in fundamental physics, I like to address some of the issues that has been proposed as reasons for the current impasse. One such issue is the methods by which theorists come up with their theories in fundamental physics. Sabine Hossenfelder, for example, feels strongly that one should not use beauty in the mathematics as a guide to what could be a potential theoretical explanation for fundamental phenomena.

What am I talking about? Perhaps the idea that beauty can have anything to do with fundamental physics sounds ridiculous anyway. Well, beauty, as they say lies in the eyes of the beholder. To a theoretical physicist, the notion of beauty may refer to a different experience than to an artist or a lover. Potential salient aspects of the concept of beauty that would be relevant for all those that experience beauty may include things like symmetry, balance, consistency, etc.

However, it is not my intention here to philosophize about beauty and what it is. The fact of the matter is that physicist do sometimes use their notion of beauty to guide them in how they construct their theories, or in what they consider to be the correct theory. One example that springs to mind is the relativistic equation of the electron of Paul Dirac. It is said that Dirac was guided in its derivation by the beauty in the mathematics.

Paul Dirac, who apparently used beauty as a guide to derive the relativistic electron equation

The issue of whether one should use beauty, or for that matter anything else, as a guide in the construction of fundamental theories reveals a deeper issue at stake here. First, we need to identify a difference between fundamental theoretical physics and other fields of physics. I hasten to add that this is not to be interpreted as a distinction between what is inferior and what is superior.

Other fields of physics usually have some underlying scientifically established physical theory in terms of which investigations are (or can be) done. For example, in classical optics, the fundamental theory is electromagnetism. If all else fails, one can always start with electromagnetism and derive the theoretical description of a phenomena rigorously from Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism. If the phenomenon includes quantum effects, one may need to fall back on quantum electrodynamics (QED) for this purpose.

In fundamental physics, one does not have this commodity. In most cases one can be lucky to have some experimental results to work with. Sometimes, the only guide is a nagging feeling that the current theories are not adequate. This is the case with quantum gravity. There are some conceptual arguments why general relativity cannot explain everything, but there are no experimental observations showing that something is missing.

How does one approach such a problem? One needs some form of inspiration. Different people tend to use different forms of inspiration. Some use the beauty in mathematics as their inspiration. Perhaps too many theorists have done that and ended up with unsuccessful theories. Hence, the reaction against it.

The point is, we need to remember what it takes to arrive at a scientifically established physical theory. Regardless of what method or form of inspiration or guiding principle one uses, the resulting theory can only become a scientific theory once it has survived experimental testing. In other words, the theory must be able to make predictions that can then be compared with actually observations and then be shown to agree with such observations.

So, in the end, whatever method theorists use to produce their theories is of no consequence, as long as it can succeed as a scientific theory. To put restrictions on the guiding principles, be it beauty or whatever else, makes no sense. Instead, one should allow the diversity of perspectives and freedom in thought to come up with potential theoretical explanations, and leave it to the rigors of the scientific method to sort out the successful theoretical descriptions from those that are to be discarded.

I do not believe that the use of beauty as a guiding principle is responsible for the current impasse in fundamental physics. That dubious honor belongs to a much more inimical phenomenon. But that is a topic for another day.

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Naturalness

One of the main objectives for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was to solve the problem of naturalness. More precisely, the standard model contains a scalar field, the Higgs field, that does not have a mechanism to stabilize its mass. Radiative corrections are expected to cause the mass to grow all the way to the cut-off scale, which is assumed to be the Planck scale. If the Higgs boson has a finite mass far below the Planck scale (as was found to be the case), then it seems that there must exist some severe fine tuning giving cancellations among the different orders of the radiative corrections. Such a situation is considered to be unnatural. Hence, the concept of naturalness.

It was believed, with a measure of certainty, that the LHC would give answers to the problem of naturalness, telling us how nature maintains the mass of the Higgs far below the cut-off scale. (I also held to such a conviction, as I recently discovered reading some old comments I made on my blog.)

Now, after the LHC has completed its second run, it seems that the notion that it would provide answers for the naturalness problem is confronted with some disappointment (to put it mildly). What are we to conclude from this? There are those saying that the lack of naturalness in the standard model is not a problem. It is just the way it is. It is stated that the requirement for naturalness is an unjustified appeal to beauty.

No, no, no, it has nothing to do with beauty. At best, beauty is just a guide that people sometimes use to select the best option among a plethora of options. It falls in the same category as Occam’s razor.

On the other hand, naturalness is associated more with the understanding of scale physics. The way scales govern the laws of nature is more than just an appeal to beauty. It provides us with a means to guess what the dominant behavior of a phenomenon would be like, even when we don’t have an understanding of the exact details. As a result, when we see a mechanism that deviates from our understanding of scale physics, it gives a strong hint that there are some underlying mechanisms that we have not yet uncovered.

For example, in the standard model, the masses of the elementary particles range over several orders of magnitude. We cannot predict these mass values. They are dimension parameters that we have to measure. There is no fundamental scale parameter close to the masses that can give any indication of where they come from. Our understanding of scale physics tells us that there must be some mechanism that gives rise to these masses. To say that these masses are produced by the Yukawa couplings to the Higgs field does not provide the required understanding. It replaces one mystery with another. Why would such Yukawa couplings vary over several orders of magnitude? Where did they come from?

So the naturalness problem, which is part of a bigger mystery related to the mass scales in the standard model, still remains. The LHC does not seem to be able to give us any hints to solve this mystery. Perhaps another larger collider will.