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.

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.

Adrift in theory space

It is downright depressing to think that after all the effort to understand the overlap between gravity and quantum physics there is still no scientific theory that explains the situation. For several decades a veritable crowd of physicists worked on this problem and the best they have are conjectures that cannot be tested experimentally. The manpower that has been spent on this topic must be phenomenal. How is it possible that they are not making progress?

I do understand that it is a difficult problem. However, the quantum properties of nature was also a difficult problem, and so was the particle zoo that led to quantum field theory. And what about gravity, which was effectively solved singled-handedly by just one person? There must be another reason why the current challenge is evidently so much more formidable, or why the efforts to address the challenge are not successful.

It could be that we really have reached the end of science as far as fundamental physics is concerned. For a long time it was argued that the effects of the overlap between gravity and quantum physics will only show at energy scales that are much higher than what a particle collider could achieve. As a result, there is a lack of experimental observations that can point the way. However, with the increase in understanding of quantum physics, which led to the notion of entanglement, it has become evident that it should be possible to consider experiments where mass is entangled, leading to scenarios where gravity comes in confrontation with quantum physics at energy levels easily achievable with current technology. We should see results of such experiments in the not-too-distant future.

Another reason for the lack of progress is of a more cultural nature. Physics as a cultural activity that has gone through some changes, which I believe may be responsible for the lack of progress. I have written before about the problem with vanity and do not want to discuss that again here. Instead, I want to discuss the effect of the current physics culture on progress in fundamental physics.

The study of fundamental physics differs from other fields in physics in that it does not have an underlying well-establish theory in terms of which one can formulate the current problem. In other fields of physics, you always have more fundamental physical theories in terms of which you can model the problem under investigation. So how does one approach problems in fundamental physics? You basically need to make a leap into theory space hoping that the theory you end up with successfully describes the problem that you are studying. But theory space is vast and the number of directions you can leap into is infinite. You need something to guide you.

In the past, this guidance often came in the form of experimental results. However, there are cases where progress in fundamental physics was made without the benefit of experimental results. An prominent example is Einstein’s theory of general relativity. How did he do it? He spent a long time think about the problem until he came up with some guiding principles. He realized that gravity and acceleration are interchangeable.

So, if you want to make progress in fundamental physics and you don’t have experimental results to guide you, then you need a guiding principle to show you which direction to take in theory space. What are the guiding principles of the current effort? For string theory, it is the notion that fundamental particles are strings rather than points. But why would that be the case? It seems to be a rather ad hoc choice for a guiding principle. One justification is the fact that it seems to avoid some of the infinities that often appear in theories of fundamental physics. However, these infinities are mathematical artifacts of such theories that are to be expected when the theory must describe an infinite number of degrees of freedom. Using some mathematical approach to avoid such infinities, we may end up with a theory that is finite, but such an approach only address the mathematical properties of the theory and has nothing to do with physical reality. So, it does not serve as a physical guiding principle. After all the effort that has been poured into string theory, without having achieved success, one should perhaps ponder whether the departing assumption is not where the problem lies.

The problem with such a large effort is the investment that is being made. Eventually the investment is just too large to abandon. A large number of very intelligent people have spent their entire careers on this topic. They have reached prominence in the broader field of physics and simply cannot afford to give it up now. As a result, they drag most of the effort in fundamental physics, including a large number of young physicists, along with them on this failed endeavor.

There are other theories, such as loop quantum gravity, that tries to find an description of fundamental physics. These theories, together with string theory, all have it in common that they rely heavily on highly sophisticated mathematics. In fact, the “progress” in these theories often takes on the form of mathematical theorems. It does not look like physics anymore. Instead of physical guiding principles, they are using sets of mathematical axioms as their guiding principle.

To make things worse, physicists working on these fundamental aspect are starting to contemplate deviating from the basics of the scientific method. They judge the validity of their theories on various criteria that have nothing to do with the scientific approach of testing predictions against experimental observations. Hence, the emergence of non-falsifiable notions such as the multiverse.

In view of these distortions that are currently plaguing the prevailing physics culture, I am not surprised at the lack of progress in fundamental physics. The remarkable understand in our physical world that humanity has gained has come through the healthy application of the scientific method. No alternative has made any comparable progress.

What I am proposing is that we go back to the basics. First and foremost, we need to establish the scientific method as the only approach to follow. And then, we need to discuss physical guiding principles that can show the way forward in our current effort to understand the interplay between gravity and quantum physics.

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Discreteness

Demystifying quantum mechanics V

Perhaps one of the most iconic “mysteries” of quantum mechanics is the particle-wave duality. Basically, it comes down to the fact that the interference effects one can observe implies that quantum entities behave like waves, but at the same time, these entities are observed as discrete lumps, which are interpreted as particles. Previously, I explained that one can relax the idea of localized lumps a bit to allow only the interactions, which are required for observations, to be localized. So instead of particles, we can think of these entities as partites that share all the properties of particles, accept that they are not localized lumps. So, they can behave like waves and thus give rise to all the wave phenomena that are observed. In this way, the mystery of the particle-wave duality is removed.

Now, it is important to understand that, just like particles, partites are discrete entities. The discreteness of these entities is an important aspect that plays a significant role in the phenomena that we observe in quantum physics. Richard Feynman even considered the idea that “all things are made of atoms” to be the single most important bit of scientific knowledge that we have.

Model of the atom

How then does it happen that some physicist would claim that quantum mechanics is not about discreteness? In her blog post, Hossenfelder goes on to make a number of statements that contradict much of our understanding of fundamental physics. For instance, she would claim that “quantizing a theory does not mean you make it discrete.”

Let’s just clarify. What does it mean to quantize a theory? It depends, whether we are talking about quantum mechanics or quantum field theory. In quantum mechanics, the processing of quantizing a theory implies that we replace observable quantities with operators for these quantities. These operators don’t always commute with each other, which then leads to the Heisenberg uncertainty relation. So the discreteness is not immediately apparent. On the other hand, in quantum field theory, the quantization process implies that fields are replaced by field operators. These field operators are expressed in terms of so-called ladder operators: creation and annihilation operators. What a ladder operator does is to change the excitation of a field in discrete lumps. Therefore, discreteness is clearly apparent in quantum field theory.

What Hossenfelder says, is that the Heisenberg uncertainty relationships is the key foundation for quantum mechanics. In one of her comments, she states: “The uncertainty principle is a quantum phenomenon. It is not a property of classical waves. If there’s no hbar in it, it’s not the uncertainty principle. People get confused by the fact that waves obey a property that looks similar to the uncertainty principle, but in this case it’s for the position and wave-number, not momentum. That’s not a quantum phenomenon. That’s just a mathematical identity.”

It seems that she forgot about Louise de Broglie’s equation, which relates the wave-number to the momentum. In a previous post, I have explained that the Heisenberg uncertain relationship is an inevitable consequence of the Planck and de Broglie equations, which relate the conjugate variables of the phase space with Fourier variables. It has nothing to do with classical physics. It is founded in the underlying mathematics associated with Fourier analysis. Let’s not allow us to be mislead by people that are more interested in sensationalism than knowledge and understanding.

The discreteness of partites allows the creation of superpositions of arbitrary combinations of such partites. The consequences for such scenarios include quantum interference that is observed in for instance the Hong-Ou-Mandel effect. It can also lead to quantum entanglement, which is an important property used in quantum information systems. The discreteness in quantum physics therefore allows it to go beyond what one can find in classical physics.

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Partiteness

Demystifying quantum mechanics IV

Yes I know, it is not a word, at least not yet. We tend to do that in physics sometimes. When one wants to introduce a new concept, one needs to give it a name. Often, that name would be a word that does not exist yet.

What does it mean? The word “partiteness” indicates the property of nature that it can be represented in terms of parties or partites. It is the intrinsic capability of a system to incorporate an arbitrary number of partites. In my previous post, I mentioned partites as a replacement for the notion of particles. The idea of partites is not new. People often consider quantum systems consisting of multiple partites.

What are these partites then? They represent an abstraction of the concept of a particle. Usually the concept is used rather vaguely, since it is not intended to carry more significance than what is necessary to describe the quantum system. I don’t think anybody has ever considered it to be a defining property that nature possesses at the fundamental level. However, I feel that we may need to consider the idea of partiteness more seriously.

Classical optics diffraction pattern

Let’s see if we can make the concept of a partite a little more precise. It is after all the key property that allows nature to transcend its classical nature. It is indeed an abstraction of the concept of a particle, retaining only those aspects of particles that we can confirm experimentally. Essentially, they can carry a full compliment of all the degrees of freedom associated with a certain type of particle. But, unlike particles, they are not dimensionless points traveling on world lines. In that sense, they are not localized. Usually, one can think of a single partite in the same way one would think of a single particle such as a photon, provided one does not think of it as a single point moving around in space. A single photon can have a wave function described by any complex function that satisfies the equations of motion. (See for instance the diffraction pattern in the figure above.) The same is true for a partite. As a result, a single partite behaves in the same way as a classical field. So, we can switch it around and say that a classical field represents just one partite.

The situation becomes more complicated with multiple partites. The wave function for such a system can become rather complex. It allows the possibility for quantum entanglement. We’ll postpone a better discussion of quantum entanglement for another time.

Multiple photons can behave in a coherent fashion so that they all essentially share the same state in terms of the degrees of freedom. All these photons can then be viewed collectively as just one partite. This situation is what a coherent classical optical field would represent. Once again we see that such a classical field behaves as just one partite.

The important difference between a particle and a partite is that the latter is not localized in the way a particle is localized. A partite is delocalized in a way that is described by its wave function. This wave function describes all the properties of the partite in terms of all the degrees of freedom associated with it, including the spatiotemporal degrees of freedom and the internal degrees of freedom such as spin.

The wave function must satisfy all the constraints imposed by the dynamics associated with the type of field. It includes interactions, either with itself (such as gluons in quantum chromodynamics) or with other types of fields (such as photons with charges particles).

All observations involve interactions of the field with whatever device is used for the observation. The notion of particles comes from the fact that these observations tend to be localized. However, on careful consideration, such a localization of an observation only tells us that the interactions are localized and not that the observed field must consist of localized particles. So, we will relax the idea that fields must be consisting of localized particle and only say that, for some reason that we perhaps don’t understand yet, the interaction among fields are localized. That leaves us free to consider the field as consisting of nonlocal partites (thus avoiding all sort of conceptual pitfalls such as the particle-wave duality).

Hopefully I have succeeded to convey the idea that I have in my mind of the concept of a partite. If not, please let me know. I would love to discuss it.

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