Article for Il Manifesto

Around the time of the Higgs discovery announcement last month I was contacted by someone from the Italian left-wing newspaper Il Manifesto, who asked if I’d write something for them about the Higgs. I told them that it would be much better if they could get an experimentalist to write about that topic, since the discovery was really an experimental achievement. They managed to get Tommaso Dorigo to write that piece for them (see here), but I agreed to write something for them a bit later, about the significance of other results from the LHC. That piece appeared in the newspaper today in Italian translation, an English version follows here.

This was written last week, under the combined influence of watching some of the Strings 2012 talks and thinking about the possible impact of the new $3 million Fundamental Physics Prizes, which largely went to string theorists. For this venue, I was unable to resist channeling my inner leftist (normally the only newspaper that wants me to write for them is the Wall Street Journal…) and making Russian financier Yuri Milner to a large extent the bogeyman of the piece.

A very serious concern that I wanted to raise is that of the long-term danger that fundamental physics faces in the combination of string theory ideology and the possible “nightmare scenario” of the LHC finding nothing that disagrees with the Standard Model. For decades now the theoretical side of the subject has been dominated by one specific set of not very compelling ideas: 10d superstrings at the Planck scale, with a SUSY GUT at slightly lower scale, and low-energy SUSY explaining the supposed “hierarchy problem” created by the vast difference between those scales and the scale of electroweak symmetry breaking (of order 100 GeV). The force most likely to challenge the hegemony of this ideology has always been the LHC, which was supposed to see superpartners responsible for stabilizing the electroweak scale. Watching the speakers at Strings 2012 made clear that the failure of this experimental prediction would not cause them to give up on this ideology, but instead to redouble efforts to prop it up at all costs.

The fundamental problem is the deeply entrenched nature of string theory ideology in the power centers of the academy and among the most talented theorists. Milner’s choice to provide out-scale rewards to such talented people is not the main problem, although he provided a convenient target for me in the piece. If we really do end up with the “nightmare scenario” of experiment not coming to rescue, it’s now all too clear where we end up: the textbooks of string theory and supersymmetry have already been written, and that will be codified as humanity’s best understanding of fundamental physical reality for the indefinite future.

Maybe some new theoretical ideas will somehow bloom, but otherwise our best hope to get out of this will be the efforts and innovations of talented experimentalists, likely requiring expensive equipment. It will be a challenge to continue to find public resources to fund this. Maybe if the trends of recent decades continue, it will be up to the financiers to decide whether humanity continues down the experimental path. Luckily, a lot of them seem to be interested in physics.

The article follows, you might want to skip it if you’re a regular blog reader here, since you won’t hear anything new and it’s a bit of a rant…

Last month came an announcement from Geneva that physicists of my generation had been anxiously awaiting since our student days nearly
forty years ago. Experimentalist Tommaso Dorigo wrote in this newspaper about the great achievement of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and his 6000 or so colleagues, who came together to produce and make the first measurements of a new fundamental element of nature: the Higgs particle.

For theorists like myself, this was a bittersweet victory for our subject. The Higgs particle showed up more or less exactly in the manner predicted by the so-called Standard Model, a wildly successful fundamental quantum theory developed between 1967 and 1973. This theory had passed critical tests time and time again, but until last month the trickiest part of the theory had not been tested by direct observation. Perhaps we were missing something important, and the real world would slap us in the face with results contradicting the theory, and giving us clues about how to find a better one. Instead, we saw the equations of our textbooks dramatically confirmed. We now await a long process of detailed investigation of this new phenomenon, a process which will keep Tommaso and his colleagues busy for many years to come.

The Higgs discovery emerged as a single sudden announcement, but over the last two years an equally important discovery has slowly come into focus, one small piece of data from the LHC at a time. Unlike the case of the Higgs, this discovery has been a vigorous slap in the face to the theoretical particle physics community, telling us in no uncertain terms that we’ve been wasting most of our time for the past thirty years. For these three decades, the subject has been dominated by research into an elaborate speculative scenario which has been investigated in exhaustive detail.

This scenario goes under the name of “superstring theory”, referring to a set of ideas that form not exactly a well-defined theory, but rather a conjecture that a theory with certain properties should exist. This theory would unify the Standard Model with Einstein’s theory of gravity known as General Relativity, embedding both in a complicated structure involving six extra dimensions of space. The possibility that these new dimensions would put in an appearance at the LHC has often been used to impress the public with flashy claims about the dramatic things that CERN’s new machine could find, things that sounded like (and were) science-fiction. Whatever they told the public, few physicists were expecting such dimensions to be observable in the data, since the conventional speculative scenario put their size at far too small a value to be seen at the LHC. No one has been surprised at all by the failure of any sign of extra dimensions to show up at CERN, despite a careful search for any possible evidence.

The “super” in “superstring” though is a different story. This indicates a crucial property of the conjectural unifying theory: each fundamental particle should come paired with another one of very specific properties, the particle’s “superpartner”. The electron should be paired with a new particle named the “selectron”, each quark with a “squark”, etc. Over the years an increasingly rigid ideology explaining the supposedly wondrous properties of this “supersymmetry” which would dramatically improve upon the Standard Model. That supersymmetry provided none of the powerful explanations of past observations we have come to expect from new symmetry principles was an inconvenient issue best ignored. As each new generation of accelerators came to life at CERN and at Fermilab in the United States, superpartners were looked for, but never found.

Supersymmetry entered the textbooks anyway and has now been taught to generations of graduate students. Always part of the story being told was the claim that superpartners should have masses roughly similar to the mass of the Higgs particle. When the Higgs was found, the superpartners had to be there too. Consistency of the Standard Model demanded that the Higgs could not be too massive, so long before the LHC was turned on, it was a sure thing that if the Higgs particle was there the LHC would find it. That part of the story worked out perfectly, but it has been accompanied by a huge embarrassment: no sign of any superpartners at all. Not only were they supposed to be not too much heavier than the Higgs, but many of them were supposed to be much produced much more copiously, and thus be much easier to see. By now the LHC experiments have shown that such expected particles are absent, unless they are made inaccessible by pushing their masses up to more than an order of magnitude higher than that of the Higgs, a value far beyond what had been advertised as reasonable.

The implications of this attack on theorists by the reality principle are just beginning to sink in. The big yearly conference of superstring theorists was held this past week in Munich, with different speakers taking different approaches to dealing with the problem. One speaker advocated not doing anything until next year, hoping against hope that newer data would give better results. Others took the attitude that it had been clear for quite a while that superstring theory wasn’t going to show signs of existence at the LHC, so best to just work on finding other uses for it. In the conference final “Outlook and Vision” talk, the illustrious speaker announced that all was well, and didn’t mention the LHC results at all. The ostrich-like tactic of burying one’s head in the sand seems to be on the agenda for now, but this will become increasingly difficult to maintain as time goes on and more and more conclusive negative experimental results arrive.

As a physicist, one problem with having an experiment tell you that your ideas are wrong is that it means you are ineligible for a Nobel Prize. Your hopes for a right to a part share in $1.2 million have been dashed, and, no matter how famous and well-paid an academic star you may be, you will have to content yourself with living on your salary, supplemented perhaps by smaller, less well-known consolation prizes.

Around the time of the end of the superstring theory conference though, dramatic news came from billionaire Russian financier Yuri Milner. Known for building the most expensive house in the United States, he decided to help support physics by depositing $3 million dollars per person in the bank accounts of 8 prominent physicists and one mathematician, rewarding 6 of them for their work in superstring theory. He has modeled himself after Alfred Nobel, announcing a new foundation that will give out Fundamental Physics Prizes each year. Unlike the Nobel, these prizes can go to work for which there is no experimental evidence. What he’s looking for are “transformative advances” like superstring theory, which have gotten the seal of approval of popularity among high-status academics. Even if experiment shows the ideas to be wrong, as in the case of the latest data about supersymmetry, that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the recipients should reflect the conventional wisdom in the academy. The choice of who to give the Prizes to included giving them to every single professor of particle physics at the world’s most prestigious academic institution, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. The question of competition with the Nobel prize was dealt with by setting the value of the prize far above that of the Nobel, at a level significantly higher than any other academic prize in the world.

The slap in the face by experimental data and its threat to impose the reality principle on the most powerful figures in the world of theoretical physics has thus been met by a riposte from another powerful force. This is another reality, that of entrenched academic interests, funded by the billions of dollars available to financiers who want to impose their will upon the world, or at least the small part of it that will write the textbooks of the future. Which of these forces will carry the day? Will the budget cuts imposed on physics research in Italy and elsewhere cripple the ability of the LHC experiments to continue to reveal the structure of nature, leaving our future fundamental science in the hands of powerful interests who will decide which version of reality they like best?

In the longer term, the physics community now faces difficult choices. Any machine more powerful than the LHC will be expensive and require multiple decades to design, finance, build and operate. The temptation will be there to again promise discovery of exotic new dimensions and supersymmetries in order to convince governments to provide funding. Instead of such empty promises, physicists should just make the case that humanity deserves the chance to continue the experimental investigation of the fundamentals of physical reality. The alternative is all too clear: the lack of public money to fund experimental investigation will put those with private money in charge of deciding what our scientific reality will be.

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29 Responses to Article for Il Manifesto

  1. s. Vik says:

    The FPP is not a price, it’s just a research grant. So what is the problem.

    I still think the scientific method will eventually tease out the correct theories.

    Maybe Gross and co will wrestle that “maximally super symmetric N=4 Yang-Mill with infinite color, split the susy, …..” to the ground and dual it up with the QED sooner than later so we won’t have to hear about it forever, ………..

    In his lectures it sound like it should be 1-2 years.

  2. Tammie Lee Sandoval says:

    Dear Dr. Woit

    Please, don’t worry.
    You and Dr. Smolin have succeeded, much more than you imagine.
    Everyone knows the score.

    Physicists are not car dealers. Not their nature.
    And they wont be, even for 100 times Milner’s money.

    You go into physics to show how smart you are.
    And you wont get there with a wild goose chase.
    So the young guys will ditch string theory.
    The old will soldier on, thanking God for tenure.

  3. Bernhard says:

    “Maybe some new theoretical ideas will somehow bloom, but otherwise our best hope to get out of this will be the efforts and innovations of talented experimentalists, likely requiring expensive equipment.”

    I think a theoretical bloom of ideas is urgently needed.

    It might be that the next successful model beyond the Standard Model will really be just some conservative extension using model building rules for renormalizable gauge theories. This kind of work should continue because experiments still need guidance to what to look for, even knowing that in the end only ONE model can be correct. This is a key aspect because ultimately it affects trigger design (as the SUSY history shows).

    However, if the next model of nature is not as simple as extending the SM gauge sector to some SU(whatever) group then this is likely a deeper theoretical problem in QFT we oversaw and when we do see it, we really might get a good idea to what to look for next. This is the theoretical bloom we need.

    An experimental breakthrough would also be very welcome, specially if the technology to get TeV collisions could be made much much cheaper. This is what I believe many young accelerator and detector designers should pursue, if this field is to survive as science and not as string theory religion.

  4. Peter Woit says:

    s. Vik,

    The Fundamental Physics Prize is a prize, not a research grant (you may be thinking of the Simons Investigator 100K/year awards, which are research grants). The intent of the FPP is to reward appropriately the most successful people in the field, not to support their research. Of course they can do whatever they want with the prize money, including using it to support research, theirs or someone else’s.

  5. Bob Jones says:

    “Maybe Gross and co will wrestle that ‘maximally super symmetric N=4 Yang-Mill with infinite color, split the susy, …..’ to the ground and dual it up with the QED sooner than later so we won’t have to hear about it forever, ………..”

    Have you even tried to understand what you’re talking about? What you meant to say is that there may be a string theory dual to QCD, not that N=4 SYM is dual to QED. Doing computations in QED is already well understood. Needless to say, split supersymmetry has absolutely nothing to do with any of this…

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Bob Jones,

    I had assumed that s. Vik was joking, making fun of string theory hype, not intending to make sense (the “1-2 years” seemed a sure giveaway that it was a joke). Of course, in this business these days, it’s not always clear what’s a joke and what isn’t. Some people for instance seem to think super split supersymmetry is not a joke.

  7. David Nataf says:

    Is there not a tremendous amount of data from cosmology that requires extensions to the standard model? What about the existence of gravity?

    From far away, it seems that implicitly requiring new physics to come from terrestrial particle accelerators is poor philosophy. It’s very possible I’m missing some important information here, but the history of science teaches us the particle accelerator is merely one method to learn about nature.

    If you want even more requirements for new physics then there is already, the LHC is only one possibility. There are also amazing pendulum experiments, Fermi telescope, dark matter scattering experiments like XENON100 and DAMA, Planck mission, air showers of 10^6 TeV cosmic rays, and in the future possibly LISA. There are obviously more that I’ve never heard of.

    Today, a fascinating nuclear physics paper that is anthropically-relevant was posted:
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1208.1328

  8. Peter Woit says:

    Bob Jones,

    Just deleted the last from “s. Vik”. You were right and I was wrong.

    David Nataf,

    Of course there are other possibilities than the LHC or other energy frontier machines, but it’s not clear that any are very promising ways to see something that violates the SM. Dark matter has always been the most likely thing that might show up, but so far nothing, and no reason to believe a new generation of experiments will change things. As for an expensive spacecraft experiment like LISA, funding is also a big problem (and, even if you ever build such a thing, it seems likely gravitational wave observations would tell you about astrophysics, not more fundamental physics). Basically, it’s not impossible that any one such experiment will turn up something and they’re worth pursuing, but the probability of success in each case looks low (unlike the LHC, where we pretty much knew it would find either the Higgs or something more interesting).

  9. MathPhys says:

    Standing in a supermarket queue this morning, I saw a picture of Jennifer Aniston (an actress, for those of you with better things to think about) on the cover of a local tabloid, so it occurred to me to check how much money she makes.

    It turns out that she makes between 3 and 8 million dollars per film, she can make at least one film per year (that’s a Milner prize, minimally, once a year), and that during the final two seasons of ‘Friends’ (a TV sitcom, for those of you who only watch Nima’s lectures) she was paid 1 million 4 per episode, so that’s once a week for many weeks a year (and a Milner prize once every 3 weeks of work).

    So ——-, putting things in context, I now do believe that Witten and co richly deserve their Milner prizes.

  10. Bob Jones says:

    From the Fundamental Physics Prize website:

    “Two categories of prizes will be awarded for past achievements in the field of fundamental physics, with the aim of providing the recipients with more freedom and opportunity to pursue even greater future accomplishments. The Fundamental Physics Prize recognizes transformative advances in the field, while the New Horizons in Physics Prizes are targeted at promising junior researchers.”

  11. Peter Woit says:

    MathPhys,

    Yes, but the problem with the analogy is, what if these large rewards went to actors for making bad movies? Where would we be then?

    Hmm, no need to answer that, I guess…

  12. srp says:

    Yes, but Jennifer A. is preternaturally, world-class adorable. Not too many physicists could make that claim with a straight face. And she once triggered a revolution in hair salons all over the world as women demanded copies of her ‘do. Even Brian Greene doesn’t have people copying his hair.

  13. MathPhys says:

    Peter and srp

    On the one hand, I definitely don’t find Nima adorable (yikes), but on the other hand, I find him much more entertaining than any TV sitcom that I can think of, and what he talks about is just as real.

    Go, Nima. If Jennifer A makes a Milner a year, you definitely deserve a Milner once in a lifetime.

  14. Z says:

    It’s very important to note that telescopes such as Fermi, IceCube, Planck and JWST are _telescopes_ and not experiments like accelerators. Direct detection is something very different than observational evidence wrt the philosophy of science.

  15. Manifesto says:

    Be careful. This journal had a good tradition but was abandoned years ago by moderate left, degenerating into an extreme-left journal, full of debts and of nonsensical propaganda of communism and radical feminism.

    Probably nowadays your blog has more readers than the Manifesto.

  16. chris bolger says:

    I do not understand your overly emotional rants on superstrings and on who funds physics. With the increasing lack of support by governments, the only way physics research will proceed is by private funding. Granted, it is not ideal, but any support is better than none. Milner should be applauded for this. The issues you bring up are valid, but will probably work themselves out by reasonable people over time who work on the details of giving out the prize. In other words, don’t bight the hand that feeds you. This usually results in job loss, unless you have tenure.

  17. Peter Woit says:

    chris,

    While I don’t have tenure, luckily I’m in a position to be able to bite various hands that feed me and others, when I think they need some biting. So far, I think this has worked out fine.

  18. next LHC-SUSY announcement says:

    There have been recent press release on Higgs, but I’m not aware of one for SUSY in 2012. I infer we’re talking about the 2011 null results for SUSY or something else? When will 2012-LHC SUSY or BSM results be announced, even if negative?

  19. Peter Woit says:

    next LHC-SUSY announcement,

    CMS has already announced SUSY results using 2012 data, see

    https://twiki.cern.ch/twiki/bin/view/CMSPublic/PhysicsResultsSUS#Recent_Preliminary_Results_with

    ATLAS I believe will announce some next week at SUSY 2012 in Beijing, see for instance

    https://twitter.com/marktibbetts/status/228834932754116608

    There are many, many, many possible ways to look for SUSY signals, the situation is not like the Higgs where one was looking for something very specific, so there was one “result” which told the story. In the case of SUSY, hopes that a positive result may appear are mostly based on the fact that new and different sorts of analyses are being reported, or ones with a lot more data than was used in earlier analyses based on a fraction of the data available. Going from the 7 TeV of 2011 data to 8 TeV of 2012 data is not likely to change much, since these aren’t phenomena with sharp thresholds.

  20. Q.I. says:

    >Chris Bolger wrote: “the only way physics research will proceed is by private funding.”

    While, there are some practical areas within physics that might qualify for some private funding, however, after reading the comments on this blog for some time, Woit’s and Smolin’s books, and a few other sources, I get an impression that physics is turning more into an insular field. And, that is not good news to qualify for already shrinking sources of private funding available these days. Few engineering and computer science students take any, if any, physics courses at all in their graduate studies, which I think is a sad state of affairs. I can understand that many areas within HEP may not be of interest to engineering and computer science students, However, as somebody who is not a physicist, I just can’t bring myself to not notice a deep desire by the physics community to be seen as mathematicians. Which is a further disconnect from the reality of the technological areas, because if people in other disciplines can directly refer to math books and papers for their needs, then why consult a physicist’s approach on mathematics. Especially, when the notation and technical writing used by physicists are not as consistent and good as the math community.

    I could be wrong, but the way I see things is that physics should try to bridge the gap between several technological areas while offering its own perspective on the fundamental challenges. However, I’m not sure if that is the current direction.

  21. Peter Woit says:

    Q.I.,

    “a deep desire by the physics community to be seen as mathematicians”.

    I don’t see this at all, other than among a very small part of the theoretical physics community that has ended up pursuing some topics that end up using a lot of mathematics. One could easily get a very wrong impression from this blog, where I write about topics in physics that correspond to my interests, which have a lot to do with mathematics. Most physicists even I meet have limited interest in mathematics, and no desire to be seen as mathematicians.

  22. next LHC-SUSY announcement says:

    thanks

  23. Tue Sorensen says:

    Like some of the other posters, I don’t think you need worry about string theory and supersymmetry becoming orthodoxy despite the lack of experimental evidence. I am confident that there will be new theories forthcoming which will dramatically revise the Standard Model, and consequently lead to quite new avenues of experimental investigation. We still need to find out what gravity is, what dark matter is, why the expansion of the universe accelerates, etc. There will be answers to these questions which in hindsight will seem obvious, but the current SM does not include those answers. It will have to be revised into a form that does. People will keep working on that until they get some good results. I don’t see how things could happen any differently – even if it might take quite some time.

  24. Fred Freedman says:

    Interesting discussion regarding private funding of research. One might almost imagine a deliberate policy by conservative circles to reduce educational funding thus permitting private funding to fill the gap.

    The problem with private funding is, of course, that he who pays the piper calls the tune. At least universities and granting agencies provide a system of oversight for granting. With private donors it’s one person’s decision.

    Recently here in Canada we have seen more of this business of megadonations by rich patrons funding new research institutes. These donors don’t have to spell out explicitly what research is to be done. By funding centres to enquire into specific issues they direct the nature of research.

    So while on the surface Milner’s money seems positive as an infusion into a hungry system, as Peter has said, it perverts research by directing academics in a certain direction either by allowing them the luxury to hire grad students, buy equipment or by encouraging others to enter a field so as to be eligible for the money.

    We have recently come to the point where this ideological approach to academic funding has become so acceptable that comments like Chris Bolger’s are commonplace.

  25. Tmark48 says:

    @ MathPhys : Don’t ever go looking at how much money professional football (soccer for you guys in the US) players make. You’d get a heart attack.

  26. ex says:

    @ Manifesto:

    Be careful. This journal had a good tradition but was abandoned years ago by moderate left, degenerating into an extreme-left journal, full of debts and of nonsensical propaganda of communism and radical feminism.

    Be careful, it was the opposite. It was Manifesto that was created to abandon the moderate left parties, because of their support to Soviet invasion of Prague (to reestablish the order after the happy period of self-liberation known as Prague spring).

    It has a declared strong left partisanship, but it is still one of the most free newspapers in Italy – a miracle, after the Berlusconi period and in this era of Market propaganda, “single thought”, and suppression of critical voices. Take care.

  27. MathPhys says:

    Tmark48,

    The world is mad.

  28. JDM says:

    Peter,

    Like others here, my instincts run contrary to yours, although for somewhat different reasons. I do find your thoughts in the influence of that scale of private money on the field interesting and, to a degree, compelling; however, I anticipate things developing in a different direction.

    You’re absolutely right that money at that scale could underwrite a generation of students, postdocs, and textbooks, and so keep an otherwise floundering branch of the discipline around past its use-by date. But I’d say that one generation amounts to the half-life of this effect.

    The problem, I think, comes from taking at face value Milner’s conceit that’s he’s emulating Nobel. The Nobel Prize got to the place it currently occupies because of robust, widespread support across the scientific community. That is, it grew on the power of prestige. Sure, the money was a part of that, but not the most critical. If you look at the first few decades Nobel awards in physics, for example, you get a whose who of early 20th century physics. Moreover, that list would still be a whose who of that era if the Prize had never existed. The Nobel earned its prestige by awarding, retrospectively, the most worthy accomplishments, as judged by a broad selection of scientists.

    A chunk of money, however large, can’t do the same thing on its own. It won’t be able to develop truly widespread communal support in the absence of rich theory-experiment dialogue. Milner is engaged in a much narrower enterprise. The work he’s supporting can’t be sustained indefinitely from the top down. A viable field provides support and opportunity for the workaday folk, not just the leading lights. A lucrative private prize, however, large, will not be enough to lure new students into a research area that otherwise offers few prospects. Perhaps the wave of textbooks you envision will get one generation’s worth of use, but faculty who see that these books offer the vast majority of their students little of concrete value will move away from them, or the vestiges of once-promising research programs will be excised from later editions. Once this begins to happen, Milner—assuming that he continues to award his prize on the basis of his peculiar definition of “fundamental”—will look progressively less like Nobel, and more like Templeton.

    Joe

  29. DrDave says:

    I think if you care about the money and the physics, get together a petition, or call this Yuri guy up, and say, hey, fund some experiments. I would at least FB him 🙂
    In many branches of Academia, there are departments that are divided between theoretical and practical (perhaps plastic is the term, strangely enough, as in the plastic arts). And here I think a petition to department deans to create more real chairs for experimental physicists is in order. Your point about the extravagant cost is well taken, but a few ounces of sheer genius can do a lot. It may be that there are no real bargains left, such as Cavendish’s torsion bar or double-slit electron diffraction, but it may also be that we need to look harder.

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