Next, something slightly less important: money. The Simons Foundation in recent years has been having a huge (positive, if you ask me…) effect on research in mathematics and physics. Their 2018 financial report is available here. Note that not only are they spending \$300 million/year or so funding research, but at the same time they’re making even more (\$400 million or so) on their investments (presumably RenTech funds). So, they’re running a huge profit (OK, they’re a non-profit…), as well as taking in each year \$220 million in new contributions.
Various particle physics-related news:
- The people promoting the FCC-ee proposal have put out FCC-ee: Your Questions Answered, which I think does a good job of making the physics case for this as the most promising energy-frontier path forward. I don’t want to start up again the same general discussion that went on here and elsewhere, but I do wonder about one specific aspect of this proposal (money) and would be interested to hear from anyone well informed about it.
The FCC-ee FAQ document lists the cost (in Swiss francs or dollars, worth exactly the same today) as 11.6 billion (7.6 billion for tunnel/infrastructure, 4 billion for machine/injectors). The timeline has construction starting a couple years after the HL-LHC start (2026) and going on in parallel with HL-LHC operation over a decade or so. This means that CERN will have to come up with nearly 1.2 billion/year for FCC-ee construction, roughly the size of the current CERN budget. I have no idea what fraction of the current budget could be redirected to new collider construction, while still running the lab (and the HL-LHC). It is hard to see how this can work, without a source of new money, and I have no idea what prospects are for getting a large budget increase from the member states. Non-member states might be willing to contribute, but at least in the case of US, any budget commitments for future spending are probably not worth the paper they might be printed on.
Then again, Jim Simons has a net worth of 21.5 billion, and maybe he’ll just buy the thing for us…
- Stacy McGaugh has an interesting blog post about the sociology of physics and astronomy. His description of his experience with physicists at Princeton sounds all too accurate (if he’d been there a couple years earlier, I would have been one of the arrogant, hard-to-take young particle theorists he had to put up with).
McGaugh’s specialty is dark matter and he has some comments about that. If you want some more discouragement about prospects for detecting dark matter, today you have your choice of Sabine Hossenfelder, Matt Buckley, or Will Kinney. I don’t want to start a discussion of everyone’s favorite ideas about dark matter, but wouldn’t mind hearing from an expert whether my suspicion is well-founded that some relatively simple right-handed neutrino model might both solve the problem and be essentially impossible to test.
- Lattice 2019 is going on this week. Slides here, streaming video here.
- Strings 2019 talk titles are starting to appear here. I’ll be very curious to hear what Arkani-Hamed has to say. His talk title is “Prospects for contact of string theory with experiments (vision talk)” and while he’s known for giving very long talks, I don’t see at all how this one could not be extremely short.
On a more personal front, yesterday I did a recording for a podcast from my office, with the exciting feature of an unannounced fire drill happening towards the end. Presumably this will get edited out, and I’ll post something here when the result is available.
Next week I’ll be heading out for a two week trip to Chile, with one goal to see the total solar eclipse there on July 2. Will start out up in the Atacama desert.
Update: John Horgan has an interview with Peter Shor. I very much agree with Shor’s take on the problems of HEP theory:
High-energy physicists are now trying to produce new physics without either experiment or proof to guide them, and I don’t believe that they have adequate tools in their toolbox to let them navigate this territory.
My impression, although I may be wrong about this, is that in the past, one way that physicists made advances is by coming up with all kinds of totally crazy ideas, and keeping only the ones that agreed with experiment. Now, in high energy physics, they’re still coming up with all kinds of totally crazy ideas, but they can no longer compare them with experiments, so which of their ideas get accepted depends on some complicated sociological process, which results in theories of physics that may not bear any resemblance to the real world. This complicated sociological process certainly takes beauty into account, but I don’t think that’s what is fundamentally leading physicists astray. I think a more important problem is this sociological process leads high-energy physicists to collectively accept ideas prematurely, when there is still very little evidence in favor of them. Then the peer review process leads the funding agencies to mainly fund people who believe in these ideas when there is no guarantee that it is correct, and any alternatives to these ideas are for the most part neglected.
Update: I think John Preskill and Urs Schreiber miss the point in their response here to Peter Shor. Shor is not calling for an end to research on quantum gravity or saying it can’t be done without experimental input. The problem he’s pointing to is a “sociological process” and so potentially fixable. This problem, “collectively accept[ing] ideas prematurely”, not realizing the difference between a solid foundation you can build on, and a speculative framework that may be seriously flawed is one that those exposed to the sociological culture of the math community are much more aware of. Absent experimental checks, mathematicians understand the need to pay close attention to what is solid (there’s a “proof”), and what isn’t.