Investigating the Nature of Matter, Energy, Space and Time

On Thursday on Capitol Hill, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the Committee on Science and Technology will hold a hearing with the title Investigating the Nature of Matter, Energy, Space and Time. Witnesses will be Hugh Montgomery of the Jefferson Lab, Lisa Randall of Harvard, Pier Oddone of Fermilab and Dennis Kovar from DOE. A webcast of the hearing should be available.

To brief the subcommittee, someone put together the hearing charter available here. It does a reasonably good job of explaining at a popular level what particle and nuclear physicists are working on and what problems they are trying to solve. Unfortunately the part of the document on particle physics is marred by some stale string theory hype, with the subcommittee told that:

Unification was Einstein’s great, unrealized dream, and recent advances in a branch of physics known as string theory give hope of achieving it. Most versions of string theory require at least seven extra dimensions of space beyond the three we are used to. The most advanced particle accelerators may find evidence for extra dimensions, requiring a completely new model for thinking about the structure of space and time…

Understanding the very early formation of the universe will require a breakthrough in physics, which string theory may provide.

Selling the US investment in machines like the Tevatron and the LHC as being about extra dimensions seems to me to be a mistake. Very few physicists believe it likely that this is what the LHC is going to find, and the failure to find promised extra dimensions at the LHC will not be helpful in a few years when the US particle physics community is trying to convince Congress to fund a next-generation accelerator.

The charter doesn’t explain what the LHC is really good for and why physicists are so excited about it: finally the energy-scale of electroweak symmetry breaking is being reached, with the promise of finding out what sort of physics is behind this phenomenon and responsible for mass. There’s no need for string theory hype to justify the interest and importance of this sort of very fundamental research, bringing in failed highly speculative ideas is likely to actually be counter-productive. The case for the current and planned US particle physics program is a very strong one, I hope the witnesses are able to make it clearly and forcefully to the subcommittee.

Update: The hearing is going on now, with a break for a vote. The webcast is here. The first question from Representative Vern Ehlers, a physicist, was for Lisa Randall, and he asked if there is any experimental proof or corroboration of string theory. Instead of answering the question with a straightforward “No”, and explaining that string theory makes no predictions, Randall did what she could to obfuscate the issue. She answered by going on about how, while string theory was speculative, it has led to ideas testable at accessible energies: supersymmetry and large extra dimensions. I suspect her answer left Ehlers and others still confused about the issue he was asking about. Avoiding public acknowledgment of the failure of string theory unification seems to extend even to Congressional testimony….

Update: There’s a press release here.

Update: The video webcast of the hearing is now available from the hearing web-page.

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12 Responses to Investigating the Nature of Matter, Energy, Space and Time

  1. Adam Helfer says:

    While (I agree) the charter is generally a good one, and really as good as one can expect for something like this, as long as we’re caviling:

    The charter repeatedly identifies questions about “the nature of matter, energy, space and time” with particle physics. What happened to relativity?

    It’s hard to see how particle physics tells us more about the nature of space and time than relativity (since particle physics requires relativity for its formulation); and while one can argue that somehow quantum-field-theoretic Hamiltonians tell us truly deep things about energy, it’s not clear that these should be regarded as more important than understanding energy in general relativity….

    Of course this view in the charter is no very serious matter. It would have been nice to see something a bit more balanced, though — presumably the document was drawn up by staffers in consultation with physicists, who could have demonstrated a broader perspective.

  2. I worry about the chances for selling fundamental physics to Congress when a large fraction of it seems to be stuck somewhere in the dark ages. It’s hard to pitch the quest for knowledge to those who are clinging to ignorance with both hands and teeth.

    The traditional gimmicks – national security and nation prestige – look a little shopworn by now, not to say slightly dishonest. The only notion that looks solid to me is the claim that the frontier of science is also the frontier of technology. The backwoods crazies might not understand that but their corporate sponsors might.

  3. Greg Sivco says:

    Interesting choice of witnesses. Lisa Randall’s testimony may be key, as she is first, from Harvard, which is highly respected in the halls of Congress, and second, an attractive blond, which definitely interests Congressmen.

    Anyone know her current stand on String Theory? I’m sure she still wants Supersymmetry and the Higgs boson to be proven, but besides that she’s always struck me as strangely yet diplomatically 50/50 on Strings (before it was fashionable to be so), accepting just enough of it to support hers and Sundrum’s 5D Gravity brane theory. I got that impression from reading her book Warped Passages and her 56-min. Charlie Rose interview, which I must review as its been almost a year since I watched it. Here it is again, for reference:

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-45154219728824809&sourceid=searchfeed%20#

    Finally, I hope at least one of them mentions the (mild but significant) brain drain from America to Europe since the SSC’s cancellation as well as the USA’s obsession with Strings. Fingers crossed.

    Also, i hope at least

  4. Bee says:

    “In your experience, how important is it in obtaining funding that your project or research area is well covered in the media?”

    Very important/somewhat important: 23.5%

    Results of a survey conducted by UCSB survey center in April 2009 among active researchers in physics in North America. The final number of respondents amounted to 1816, which corresponds to response rate of 14.42%.

  5. Marcus says:

    That is a telling 23%. Makes one think. Is there an online source for that survey report? Or some online article that refers to the finding?

    The question sounds as if it could have two different interpretations.
    How important is media coverage to funding *of your field collectively as a whole?*

    versus

    How important is media coverage to obtaining funding *for your own individual project?*

    I wonder if there are tax-base (national or regional) differences in the role played by media in science funding.

    I don’t feel like judging anybody on this score, approvingly or dis. To the extent the perception is real it places a burden of responsibility on the press. Relying on the honesty and integrity of the press does not work consistently in politics. One wonders…

    Is life better in Sweden?

  6. Gphillip says:

    I just watched a program on the American TV cable “Science” channel titled “Parallel Universe”. It turned out to be a one hour propaganda film about how string theory has already solved all the questions of Physics. While I object to calling this mess a “theory”, as it really seems to be more of a hypothesis, I’m really more concerned that with propaganda like this, another generation of great physics minds will be sucked down the black hole of the “theory” that explains anything, real or not. I’ve never seen a PR campaign like this in science. It’s astounding.

    Lisa Randall is just being diplomatic and I understand that. Speaking ill of string theory in public is professional suicide in most circles. But to propagate this unproved hypothesis to the public and even to the halls of Congress as the only path to a theory of everything is to bind physics to a theory that may never lead to the advancements that physics promises.

    I feel like I’m living in the Dark Ages and anyone who claims that string theory isn’t, and probably can’t be proven (or disproven), must be burned at the stake as quickly as possible. In time, this will all pass and other ideas will be considered and tested. I just feel sad for all the young minds destined to be wasted chasing this Holy Grail.

  7. Peter Woit says:

    Gphillip,

    By now there are quite a few of these sci-fi shows hyping string theory in rotation on the various science TV channels. The one you mention is due to the BBC, and from 2002. My impression is that by now most string theorists find these to be an embarrassment, but not enough of one to do anything about trying to get them off the air. One of them may be a source for whoever put together tomorrow’s hearing charter…

  8. sh says:

    Shouldn’t they have used a different ordering of what to investigate at least?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MEST_%28Scientology%29

  9. J. Reay says:

    Frankly, any argument that will precipitate funding from Congress for basic science is a welcome effort. Kudos to those who fight for basic research dollars!

  10. Bee says:

    Hi Marcus,

    No, life isn’t better in Sweden, but at least it’s life.

    Unfortunately, the survey results presently aren’t available anywhere . I’m sitting on piles of data with the best intention to bring them into a useful format. So stay tuned, more details are to follow. Best,

    B.

  11. Perhaps the Congressman should have asked Randall to name one specific experiement that bears on the validity of string theory, and explain how it does.

  12. Shantanu says:

    Peter or others, Is the video available? I tried to view the webcase, but could not.
    Also Peter, what do you think of the fact (in the last year ) that experiements with wrong results such as DAMA are getting more citations than most collider/accelerator phsyics experiments? Is there really such a dearth of data in experimental HEP.

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