The Big Bang Theory and the Death of SUSY

If you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory, perhaps you’ve seen the latest episode, The Retraction Reaction. If not, you might be interested in the following transcript (taken from here). The show has always done a good job of getting the science right, for an interview with their physics consultant David Saltzberg, see here.

The episode begins with a Science Friday interview of physicist Leonard Hofstadter by Ira Flatow:

FLATOW: So, it has been five years since the discovery of the Higgs boson– what’s the next big thing gonna be?

LEONARD: Wow, that’s hard to say. There’s so much going on. We’ve been collecting tons of data that could revolutionize the way we understand the universe. For instance, there’s a particle called a squark, which could prove supersymmetry.

FLATOW: That is interesting. Have you found it?

LEONARD: What, the squark?

FLATOW: Yes.

LEONARD: No, no. Wouldn’t that be exciting? But we’re also looking for the selectron, the gluino and the neutralino.

FLATOW: Well, and have you found that?

LEONARD: No. Another fun sidenote– I went to high school with a girl named Theresa Gluino, but it didn’t cost $2 billion to find her. She was smoking behind the gym. (laughs)

FLATOW: So, what have you found?

LEONARD: Uh, nothing, actually. We’ve got the best equipment and the best minds all working on it. Although, some days I’m, like, ugh we’ve spent so much money. Why haven’t we found anything? What are we doing?

After a segment in which neuroscientist Amy explains that she doesn’t tell physicist boyfriend Sheldon about her new lab equipment since

AMY: We’ve been getting so much more funding than physics, he’s been a little sensitive.

another scene features Leonard called into the office of a university administrator:

LEONARD: I have to say I’m a little nervous.

Ms. DAVIS: You should be.

LEONARD: Look, I know I screwed up, but it was only one interview.
How much damage could it have caused?

Ms. DAVIS: Would you like for me to read you the e-mails from donors asking why are they giving us money if physics is a dead end?

LEONARD: I didn’t say it was a dead end. I just said that I was worried it might be.

Ms. DAVIS: So if I just said I was worried you might not have a job next week, how would you feel?

LEONARD: Light-headed, and glad you asked me to sit down. Okay, just tell me what I can do.

Ms. DAVIS: I’m gonna need you to make a statement saying that you misspoke, and that you’re confident the physics community is close to a major breakthrough.

LEONARD: You want me to lie.

Ms. DAVIS: Look, Dr. Hofstadter, I’m counting on you. I think that you are the smartest physicist at this university.

LEONARD: Really?

Ms. DAVIS: See? Lies. They’re not that hard.

Leonard then has this exchange with Penny:

PENNY: Hey, come on, look, you said a few dumb things on the radio– what is the worst that could happen?

LEONARD: I may get fired.

PENNY: Okay, well, even if you did, you could find another job.

LEONARD: Yeah, who wouldn’t want to hire the physicist who publicly said physics is dead? Well, I wouldn’t put that under “special skills”. I can fix it, I just need to write a retraction I don’t believe in– basically sell out to keep my job.

PENNY: Great, I’ll leave you to it.

He then goes to talk to string theorist Sheldon Cooper:

LEONARD: Sheldon, it’s me.

SHELDON: What?

LEONARD: Look, I know you’re mad, but I have to write a statement that says the physics community is close to a breakthrough, and since you actually believe that, I could really use your help.

SHELDON: Sorry, I can’t.

LEONARD: Come on, don’t be like that.

SHELDON: What? Look. (sighs) Not all science pans out. You know, we’ve been hoping supersymmetry was true for decades, and finally, we built the Large Hadron Collider, which is supposed to prove it by finding these new particles, and it-it hasn’t. And maybe supersymmetry, our last big idea, is simply wrong.

LEONARD: Well, that sounds awful. Now I get why everyone hates me.

Penny later comes in:

PENNY: So you guys are upset because the collider thing disproved your theories?

LEONARD: It’s worse than that. It hasn’t found anything in years, so we don’t know if we’re right, we don’t know if we’re wrong. We don’t know where to go next…

PENNY: Come on. You guys are physicists. Okay? You’re always gonna be physicists. And sure, sometimes, the physics is hard, but isn’t that what makes it boring?

The episode ends with a visit to the grave of Richard Feynman, and a reference to Feynman’s story about how he got himself out of a slump in his work when he was at Cornell:

WOLOWITZ: He did so much. And here we are, stuck and letting him down. You know, Feynman used to say he didn’t do physics for the glory or the awards, but just for the fun of it. He was right. Physics is only dead when we stop being excited about it.

All in all, a pretty accurate portrayal of the situation in high energy physics theory, with a reasonable take on what to do about it.

Update: A correspondent points me to a rather Leonard Hofstadter-ish interview with Steven Weinberg back in 2011, where he says:

It may be that they’ll only discover the Higgs boson and nothing else, and we’ll be left looking at our toes and wondering what we’re going to do next. There may be nothing really new that can be reached with the LHC,

I have fears… If all they discover is a Higgs boson with roughly the properties that the theory predicts and nothing else, I don’t know where the field is going to go.

When asked a rather Ira Flatow-ish question: “Wouldn’t you say to a young person that now would be a very exciting time to go into physics?” his answer is

Whether or not it would be a good career move depends on what they are going to discover.

If all they discover is the Higgs boson and it has the properties we expect, then No, I would say that the theorists are going to be very glum.

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35 Responses to The Big Bang Theory and the Death of SUSY

  1. Michael John Sarnowski says:

    Hilarious. Very funny story.

  2. Casey Leedom says:

    And for once, I truly wish Word less supported “like”s. Yeah, I know, it only works on the discredited social media circuit, but still …

    Casey

  3. A says:

    Altought Michelson-Morely were unhappy, but not finding what theorists expected has been a more revolutionary breakthrough than finding it

  4. Enrico says:

    A: I agree, not finding what theorists expected is a breakthrough. The next logical step is that theorists stop working on theories proven wrong. Does it make sense to work on aether after you know the results of the Michelson-Morely experiment?

  5. MikeS says:

    The Michelson-Morely experiment had the great advantage of demonstrating a clear negative result.
    The LHC seems to have brought us to the edge of a desert with no way of knowing what wonders may lie beyond the horizon, or if it’s just desert all the way.

  6. Antimetrics Anonymous says:

    Peter
    Do you think metrics madness has caused this problem in physics ? . For example here is sample of the madness below.
    Einstein has h-index 108 66 in this google scholar index.
    from this web site https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=qc6CJjYAAAAJ
    Feynman has h-index 61 46 from the web site below.
    https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=B7vSqZsAAAAJ
    Do high energy physicists, want to prop up their indexes to get grants, promotion and in the process cut a sorry figure like Leonard H ?

  7. Peter Woit says:

    AA,
    There are lots of ways the incentives in academia are problematic and I don’t want to start a general discussion of them here. I don’t think the h-index thing is the biggest problem. The TV show gets right what the biggest problem for HEP is: lack of new experiment hints pointing a way forward coupled with refusal to acknowledge failure of dominant research programs (SUSY and string theory). I think it accurately portrays the current situation: people are aware of the problem, but don’t want to admit failure publicly, fearing the implications of this for the field and for their careers.

  8. Jim Douglas says:

    “And sure, sometimes, the physics is hard, but isn’t that what makes it boring?”
    That absurdly funny question so profoundy captures the attitude of the public towards mathematics, science and engineering. I’ve often felt this explains much of why superstrings / supersymmetry / Multiverse research still gets funding: the names, particularly “super” makes those subjects so sexy sounding in a field that is perceived as bone dry. Quantum Field Theory and especially Standard Model are so dull sounding. It was a careless catastrophy naming the world’s most stunning theory the dreary “Standard Model”. We need sexier names for genuinely scinetific theories. SuperDirac theory might do the trick for the SM. Germanely, “Big Bang” as a theory name is spot on, it’s a fantastic name. Fred Hoyle is a hero. By wonderfully irony, he boosted the theory by giving it a fantastic name. The LHC is a ridiculously name. The Superconducting Super Collider was so much more fun! These things matter if you want funding and coverage in the media. Unless you’re the SSC of course.

  9. Chris Kennedy says:

    Peter Woit (of Columbia University) has been trying to tell us the truth about SUSY for quite some time. Now Big Bang Theory (aired by Columbia Broadcasting System) has used humor to inject the same reality. Could there be a Columbia connection???

  10. zzz says:

    and Columbus day is next monday…

  11. Simon says:

    This is a common, but very particle physics-centric view of physics – it makes no difference to the vast majority of physics if SUSY is right or wrong (I’m an astrophysicist and finding (or not) the Higgs made zero difference to my research). Most of physics is advancing and discovering very nicely thank you very much… and ready and waiting to get its hands on all that juicy funding as particle physics hits a dead end…

  12. Anonymous says:

    Physics will never die, only physicists will. Historically we didn’t have major breakthrough coming left and right. Instead, it is more like the case that it takes generations of physicists to explore extensive before one is shown up.

    A side note, while people are talking about unexpected hints from experimental sides, it might be worthy to note that almost all direct searches for BSM at LHC is based on and optimized on a particular model, which is very likely not correct by itself. Also it has this saying that no new physics can be discovered without a model at hadron collider, giving the enormous production rate of SM processes. It might not be a coincidence between this saying and this fact of experimental results.

  13. CIP says:

    Meanwhile, the real Caltech physics faculty collected two more Nobels (or two parts of a three way split). Maybe they could go on the show.

  14. JJ says:

    It’s a shame there no mathematicians in The Big Bang Theory. They get the gist and types of interaction between hep, engineers, cosmologists, biologists, etc. It would be interesting to see their take on mathematicians.

  15. I think that was a good episode. They found a way to reflect the truth and make it funny. From my point of view, there was also bitter-sweetness to it, because they missed a chance to make it even better. I will echo Simon’s comment and point out that they could have done a better job of distinguishing between Physics and Beyond-Standard-Model-Fundamental-Particle-Physics. What I think would have killed multiple birds with one stone is if, at the end, the despondent protagonists ran into one of their colleagues who when prompted easily rattled off a whole string of current non-speculative research topics that are both highly successful and show great potential for future development. It’s not like there’s a lack of those, at least when looking beyond Beyond-Standard-Model-Fundamental-Particle-Physics.

  16. tulpoeid says:

    Gold.

    PS: @Simon, unfortunately academia seems to gather several types with the perspective of “the Higgs made zero difference to my research”. I.e. researchers who don’t care about monumental discoveries related to the deepest foundations of humankind’s scientific worldview and I’m pompous on purpose, as long as their lab is unaffected.
    Even though you beg to differ, this is not much different than caring for a failed theory only because it allows one to publish.

  17. Anonyrat says:

    Glad you noticed this episode of Big Bang Theory. When I watched the broadcast, I immediately thought of Not Even Wrong.

  18. There is a deep confusion here, on the part of the as-portrayed academic authorities, between process and results. Results can invalidate theories — that’s the process. Results cannot invalidate the process. Protecting the theories from the process invalidates the process. To an outsider it looks like the theories, or the results, are the exciting things. No: it is the process that makes the theories, or the results, exciting.

    The bad reasoning runs somewhat thus: pure science eventually led to nuclear weapons; nuclear weapons won the last war; the Next Big Thing will either win the next war, or, if there doesn’t just happen to be a war on right then, it may make a metric muckton of money. But if it isn’t even going to do that, then screw it sideways.

    Someone once disparaged my discipline, in a public forum, by sneering at the mythical phenomenon of things being “analyzed to death”. I retorted that everything he possessed and used had been analyzed to life.

  19. Jerome Moore says:

    Simon,

    I’m still waiting on the “juicy funding” to come to my field since the cancellation of the SSC. The size of the pie isn’t fixed, and there are positive-valued coupling constants for funding between fields of research at the macroscale.

    What research directions there are and should be for given fields are fantastic questions that people like Peter are asking. Undermining entire fields, however, is done at our collective peril.

  20. Bernhard says:

    Peter,

    About SUSY, but not really to do with the BBT…. Have you had a look at what’s written on Wikipedia lately on it’s current status? Pretty interesting and advocates SUSY is alive an well, just waiting for a new e+e- collider (I’ll copy/paste all since it might change):

    “The LHC result seemed problematic for the minimal supersymmetric model, as the value of 125 GeV is relatively large for the model and can only be achieved with large radiative loop corrections from top squarks, which many theorists had considered to be “unnatural” (see naturalness and fine tuning).[43]

    This “naturalness” crisis turned out to be premature[11] in that one set of naturalness calculations were performed in multi-parameter effective theories which didn’t allow for intrinsic cancellations which must occur in a more fundamental theory.[citation needed] Other calculations, indicating the need for light top squarks, neglected terms in the renormalization group equations that could lead to radiatively-driven naturalness[12] (wherein radiative corrections drive certain SUSY breaking terms from unnatural high scale values to natural values at the weak scale). It is now understood that top squarks can range up to 3 TeV and gluinos up to 5 TeV with little cost to naturalness so that LHC searches have only begun to explore the natural SUSY parameter space. On the other hand, it is also understood that higgsinos, the superpartners of Higgs bosons, are required to lie between 100-300 GeV, the closer to 100 GeV the better. Such light higgsinos are difficult, though perhaps not impossible, to see at LHC. However, they would easily be seen at an e+e- collider operating at energies above higgsino pair production threshold (such as the International Linear Collider, or ILC, proposed for construction in Japan).”

  21. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Bernhard,
    That’s pathetic. Interesting to note that Wikipedia knows the Higgsino mass (they say the pair production threshold is at 500-600 GeV.

  22. N. Bhonka says:

    I think the physics community must realize that it is no longer the era before 1950’s. The ‘physics’ of that era has been taken over mostly by computer science and some fields in engineering. The best students after high school like go to in these fields. And, partly because these fields are more lucrative also. Without sounding rude, in general, it is the bottom rung of the ‘scientific pool’ that makes its place in physics and mathematics these days. No wonder one sees the same toeing the line, little new ideas in physics.

    Besides the possible exception of Peter Woit, and a handful others, you can talk to any physicist and the uniformity (read lack of new thought) of opinions expressed is astounding and quite unnerving. It seems like few, new and fresh ideas.

  23. Alain Blondel says:

    Even “particle physics” is much larger than SUSY and the LHC. BSM physics has actually been found and was rewarded the Nobel prize in 2015: neutrinos have mass.

    The reason this is interesting is that some big observation-based questions to particle physics are as follows:
    — the fact that the Universe is made of matter and not of anti-matter
    — the existence of dark matter which cannot be one of the established Standard Model particles
    — the fact that neutrinos have mass that is so much smaller that the other fermion particles.

    All three can possibly be solved simultaneously by giving each neutrino family (e, mu, tau) two distinct mass terms,
    — a ‘Dirac mass term’ just like the other particles, which connects a left spinning particle to a right spinning one.
    — a ‘Majorana mass term’ which connects a left spinning neutrinos to the right spinning anti-neutrino. Such a term transforming particle into antiparticle cannot exist for charged particles because of the charge conservation; it can be present for neutrinos which have no charge.

    The result of this is the existence of three heavy right handed neutrinos which happen to be nearly sterile…(they would interact million or more times less than the usual neutrinos) ah! they could be dark matter and generate the matter asymmetry (or not). Now there is something very neat in this: we need right handed neutrinos to complete the picture from the very moment that neutrinos have a mass. (there are more complicated scenarios to play their role but minimal is always more attractive)

    So far this type of research has been dubbed ‘exotic’ in the LHC collaborations, I think because it was not in the initial research plan, but maybe also because that discovery of massive neutrinos is beyond the usual Supersymmetric BSM, and also because the so-far standard “next step in particle physics”, the linear collider, can do little about it.

    However this ‘neutrinos are just missing energy ‘ attitude is in the process of changing at the LHC and in planning future experiments and colliders; the search for right-handed neutrinos is becoming a subject of focus.

    Of course this is so far only a possible ‘natural’ solution of the neutrino questions, but any statement that no physics beyond the standard model has been found is just a sign of ignorance.

    NB: Super-symmetry can also answer these questions, at the cost of being very considerably non-economical — and getting us in trouble in a nearly infinite number of ways, too.

  24. “The show has always done a good job of getting the science right”. Does it?
    I spotted two very basic errors
    (i) “there’s a particle called a squark, which could prove supersymmetry”
    There is a world of difference between “give support for ” and “prove”. This is very basic stuff I would expect the program advisors and PW to know.
    (ii) the general theme of the piece is that because certain particles have not turned up, SUSY must be dead. A great many science journalists , and PW, have been flogging making this statement for years now. It should be obvious that it is an overstatement. All we can say is that certain models have been ruled out.
    That’s 2 basic misunderstandings of how science is done, in one passage…

  25. srp says:

    The only problem with the BBT episode is that they previously established (and told countless jokes based on the fact that) Leonard is not a HEP theorist but some sort of tabletop experimentalist (I think condensed matter or atomic physics) who uses lasers in his work. So Leonard should have been as cheerful as many of the non-HEP commenters above.

  26. Peter Woit says:

    Alain Blondel,
    I’ve been guilty sometimes of the shorthand of referring to the current situation as “nothing beyond the Standard Model”, partly because the neutrino mass situation is complicated and can be accommodated by relatively straightforward extension of the SM. So given only a few words to work with, “we have seen BSM physics” seems about as misleading to non-experts as “we have not seen BSM physics”. I agree though that this issue of understanding right-handed neutrino fields and the neutrino sector in general is the most promising area where something is going on that we don’t understand well. I’m very interested to hear of the possibility of looking for something new in this sector at colliders. What specifically did you have in mind, and can you give any references?

  27. Anon says:

    Hi Peter,

    There is no “straightforward” or an accepted minimal (or a standard) way of accommodating the neutrino mass in the Standard Model Lagrangian — it can be written as a
    i) Dirac neutrino by adding right handed neutrinos, or
    ii) Majorana neutrino with Type 1 seesaw term by adding right handed neutrinos or
    iii) Majorana neutrino with Type 2 seesaw term by not adding a right handed neutrinos but instead adding a Higgs triplet field that couple to the existing left-handed neutrinos.

    Therefore the standard practice seems to be not to do any of the above — thereby not putting the neutrino term in SM Lagrangian – but instead to state the PMNS matrix and neutrino mass squared differences as an addendum.

    Which leaves the SM in the same or even in a worse boat than say the minimal left-right symmetric model, where there is a standard accepted Lagrangian that includes (in fact it predicts) the right handed neutrino. So in the standard LR model you would write down the Lagrangian, and not put the PMNS matrix in the addendum.

    The issue with colliders for something new in neutrino physics is that the canonical seesaw scale (M_R or mass of right handed neutrino) is 10^14 GeV. That is the scale we get with order 1 Yukawa couplings (h ~ 1) from observed small neutrino masses (m_nu) and weak scale (v). M_R = h^2 v^2/m_nu

    This scale is short of the GUT scale and Planck scale, and appears to be the seesaw scale for new physics. One may have to look for non-collider experiments for more info on the neutrinos.

    Of course if h is smaller than 10^-5 for all the 3 generations of neutrinos, then the neutrino physics maybe at the colliders. But that maybe wishful thinking.

  28. Anon says:

    We should also remember that the Standard Model had actually predicted that the left-handed neutrino would be massless. This was a prediction it made for the mass of a known particle. And this is unlike the discovery of additional generations that were unknown particles.

  29. Peter Woit says:

    Anon,

    Thanks for the comment. To clarify what I had in mind, I think of just adding right-handed neutrinos and Dirac mass terms as a “straightforward” extension of the Standard Model, one that it is a bit misleading to describe as “BSM”. The possibility of Majorana mass terms makes the whole subject much more interesting, and such mass terms and a seesaw mechanism would deserve to be called a “BSM” phenomenon. But, as far as I know, we currently have no evidence for this latter possibility.

  30. Anon says:

    Hi Peter,

    I dont think adding right-handed neutrinos and only Dirac mass terms is “straightforward” 🙂 — in fact it may be taking you on the path nature did not pick.

    This is because once you add the right-handed neutrino the most general SM Lagrangian will have Majorana masses for the right-handed neutrino. So you are setting the Majorana masses to zero by imposing a B-L symmetry which is ad hoc. In the original SM without right handed neutrinos B-L symmetry has an anamoly.

    Another issue is that if neutrino is a Dirac particle then it can have an electric charge that is fractional and very small — its electric charge becomes a parameter that we have to determine by experiments and is not necessarily zero. In the std model the electric charge is quantized only if the neutrino also has a Majorana mass term. Only if the electric charge is quantized, do we know from theory that the electric charge of neutrino is zero.

    Of course the experimental bound on neutrino’s electric charge is very very small. But the electric charge of the neutrino is an additional parameter of the std model with Dirac neutrinos.

  31. John says:

    In the show it was mentioned how Leonard had to redeem himself about saying SUSY might not be found. Well Forbes did something just like that with an article by Ethan Siegel titled: “The Multiverse is Inevitable, And We’re Living In It”. He goes on to write: “the Multiverse is a theoretical prediction that comes out of the laws of physics as they’re best understood today. It’s perhaps even an inevitable consequence of those laws: if you have an inflationary Universe governed by quantum physics, this is something you’re pretty much destined to wind up with.”

  32. Peter Woit says:

    John,
    At least Siegel doesn’t repeat the usual dangerous pseudoscience about the multiverse showing that physical constants are environmental. In his explanation our “best theory” predicts lots more universes with the same physics as our own, something we can’t ever check so is metaphysics rather than science. That’s accurate enough, although calling a single field inflaton model with no understanding of the potential or of how it couples to matter a “best theory” is pretty misleading, in that it’s more of a toy model than a theory.

    All: a correspondent pointed me to an interview with Weinberg very much like the one on the TV show, I added some material to the posting about that.

  33. Curious Wavefunction says:

    The episode was funny and real, but I was disappointed that it played into the belief that particle physics is the only physics worth doing and that if it’s at a dead end, physics as a whole must be at a dead end. I think this is exactly the criticism that people like Chad Orzel have had. There’s plenty of excitement in other areas of physics like condensed matter and biophysics which somehow is never discussed in these discussions pertaining to the “death of physics”.

  34. Pingback: 50 Years of Electroweak Unification | Not Even Wrong

  35. Mark Roulo says:

    This post reminds me of a (possibly fictional) exchange that Charlie Munger (Warren Buffet’s long time business partner) reported between Charlie’s old business partner, Ed Hoskins, and a fishing guide up in Minnesota:

    “Are any muskies caught in this lake?” asked Hoskins
    “More muskies are caught in this lake than in any other lake in Minesota. This lake is famous for muskies.”
    “How long have you been fishing here?”
    “Nineteen years.”
    “How many muskies have you caught?”
    “None”

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