A few months back I saw a call for papers for a volume on “Establishing the philosophy of supersymmetry”. For a while I was thinking of writing something, since the general topic of supersymmetry is a complex and interesting one, about which there is a lot to say. Recently though it became clear to me that I should be writing up other more important things I’ve been working on. Also, taking a look back at the dozen or so pages I wrote about this 20 years or so ago for the book Not Even Wrong, there’s very little I would change (and I’ve written far too much since 2004 about this on the blog). What follows though are a few thoughts about what “supersymmetry” looks like now, maybe of interest to philosophers and others, maybe not…
First the good: “symmetry” is an absolutely central concept in quantum theory, in the mathematical form of Lie algebras and their representations. Most generally, “supersymmetry” means extending this to super Lie algebras and their representations, and there are wonderful examples of this structure. A central one for representation theory involves thinking of the Dirac operator as a supercharge: by extending a Lie algebra to a super Lie algebra, Casimirs have square roots, bringing in a whole new level of structure to familiar problems. In physics this is the phenomenon of Hamiltonians having square roots when you add fermionic variables, providing a “square root” of infinitesimal time translation.
Going from just a time dimension to more space-time dimensions, one finds supersymmetric quantum field theories with truly remarkable properties of deep mathematical significance. Example include 2d supersymmetric sigma models and mirror symmetry, 4d N=2 super Yang-Mills and four manifold invariants, 4d N=4 super Yang-Mills and geometric Langlands.
But then there’s the bad and the ugly: attempts to extend the Standard Model to a larger supersymmetric model. From the perspective of 2023, the story of this is one of increasingly pathological science. In 1971 Golfand and Likhtman first published an extension of the Poincaré Lie algebra to a super Lie algebra. This was pretty much ignored until the end of 1973 when Wess and Zumino rediscovered this from a different point of view and it became a hot topic among theorists. Very quickly it became clear what the problem was: the new generators one was adding took all known particle states to particle states with quantum numbers not corresponding to anything known. In other words, this supersymmetry acts trivially on known physics, telling you nothing new. It became commonplace to advertise supersymmetry as relating particles with different spin, without mentioning that no pairs of known particles were related this way. In all cases, a known particle was getting related to an unknown particle. Worse, for unbroken supersymmetry the unknown particle was of the same mass as the known one, something that doesn’t happen so the idea is falsified. One can try and save it by looking for a dynamical mechanism for spontaneous supersymmetry breaking and using this to push superpartners up to unobservable masses, but this typically makes an already pretty ugly theory far more so.
The seriousness of this problem was clear by the mid-late 1970s, when I was a student. The one hope was that maybe some extended supergravity theory with lots of extra degrees of freedom would dynamically break supersymmetry at a high scale, leaving the Standard Model as the low energy part of the spectrum. There wasn’t any convincing way to make this work, and it became clear that one couldn’t get chiral interactions like those of the electroweak theory this way. 1984 saw the advent of a different high scale model supposed to do this (superstring theory), but that’s another story.
Looking back from our present perspective, it’s very hard to understand why anyone saw supersymmetric extensions of the SM as plausible physics models that would be vindicated by observations at colliders. For example, Gross and Witten in 1996 published an article in the Wall Street Journal explaining that “There is a high probability that supersymmetry, if it plays the role physicists suspect, will be confirmed in the next decade.” Ten years later, when the Tevatron and LEP had seen nothing, the same argument was being made for the LHC. After over a decade of conclusive negative results from the LHC, one continues to hear prominent theorists assuring us that this is still the best idea out there and large conferences devoted to the topic. Long ago this became pathological science. In the call for papers, the issue is framed as:
recent debates on the prospects of low energy supersymmetry in light of its non-discovery at the LHC raise interesting epistemological questions.
From what I can see, the questions raised are not of an epistemological nature, but perhaps the philosophers will find a way to sort this out.
Update: I happened to come across today this 2021 interview of Daniel Freedman by David Zierler. Zierler repeatedly asks Freedman why he has faith in SUSY despite the long history of no evidence. Near the end, Freedman gives this very defensive explanation:
What I hear in your remarks is an adherence to supersymmetry despite its immediate experimental prospects. Is that a belief or is it something more?
It’s a belief which stems from confidence in the powerful symmetry which underlies the subject. Some human beings indulge in beliefs which have no basis whatsoever. Some of those beliefs are destroying our society at the moment. My belief in a credible and interesting physical theory isn’t going to hurt anybody.