Particle Physics Is Not In Crisis

For a low-rent version of the self-congratulatory program discussed here, Bad Boy of Science Sam Gregson has a new video up entitled Particle Physics Is Not In Crisis – but we can make improvements. Cliff Burgess plays the Strominger role, explaining that the idea that there’s any problem with what’s going on in particle theory is “a nothing-burger” and “a complete non-issue”. Asked to rank any such problem on a scale of 0-10, he gives the Strominger-esque “.0001”. Martin Bauer goes for “1”.

The take on the question is much the same as Sean Carroll’s four-hour plus explanation that there is no problem, but shorter. It’s similar to Carroll in that no one who thinks there is a problem was invited to participate, or even gets mentioned by name. There’s a repeated reference to mysterious “Twitter influencers”, which I find very confusing because just about the only particle theorists I see spending time on Twitter going on about the state of the field are Bauer and Burgess. They can’t mean me since I’ve so far resisted the temptation to enter Twitter discussions. The idea of trying to have a serious discussion of complex scientific issues in the Twitter format never made any sense to me, and (StringKing aside) I find it hard to think of any tweets by anyone that shed any light on serious issues in this area.

The more serious part of the program was the discussion among the two HEP experimentalists of the state of their field, which got a 5-6 on the crisis level scale. I wrote about the problem there five years ago, and very little has changed, other than that we’re five years closer to the date when there will no longer be an energy frontier machine running anywhere in the world. The underlying problem wasn’t really explained. CERN is working on it, but there is as of now no specific plan with specific budget numbers for what to build next. Maybe I misunderstood, but it seemed that Bauer and others were talking about how the field just needed to convince funding agencies to support budget numbers of order \$100 billion, which is a pipe dream.

Update: Latest podcast from Sean Carroll has nothing to do with the crisis in particle physics, but he starts off anyway with this:

You may have heard there is a crisis in physics. No, there’s not. I mean, there’s little tiny crises, but that’s the very standard procedure if you’re doing science at the cutting edge, is all sorts of puzzles that we don’t know the answer to.

“Little tiny crises” is I guess his version of the Cliff Burgess “.0001” and Andy Strominger “A+++”.

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30 Responses to Particle Physics Is Not In Crisis

  1. Gavin says:

    Just to emphasize, I am not and was not a string theorist (though I was an astrophysics postdoc).

    Are you really, really sure you want to claim StringKing “shed[s]… light on serious issues in this area”?

    I think his Twitter/X is obscene, toxic, and not serious. He represents a thread in physics academia that is at least as toxic to people in the field as the “groupthink” that can come from senior people. He’s obnoxious, highly judgmental of other peoples’ work without thinking he needs to provide an actual argument, and convinced of his own brilliance. This brand of junior physicist is quite common and (I speak from experience) responsible for driving many brilliant people away from the field. I strongly believe that in platforming this person, you are supporting a form of toxicity in academia at least as bad as the one you are fighting against (string theory groupthink, which I agree is also a problem).

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Gavin,
    That reference was tongue in cheek. The material on the “stringking” account is so obviously juvenile and idiotic that I still think it likely it’s a parody trying to make string theorists look bad. That you think he’s a common type among young string theorists doesn’t look good for them.

  3. Sabine says:

    I have an idea about the mysterious twitter influencers lol

    Those guys crack me up. Like is anyone surprised that particle physicists don’t want to admit particle physics has a problem, part of the problem being that they don’t want to admit they have a problem?

    They’re in for a rude awakening when funding bodies all over the world realize that particle physics eats up shitloads of money for very little in return and that they can use that money for better things.

  4. Bill says:

    They need grant mula and they obviously don’t want to do much to get it. So they just repeat over and over again the same calculations. Most of the academe is like this.

    > I have an idea about the mysterious twitter influencers lol

    Sabine, do you think you are an influencer? lol

  5. Mike says:

    Surely they are chiefly referring to Eric Weinstein? He’s not a Physicist or mathematician, but definitely a twitter influencer who spent a lot of time critiquing HEP on twitter.

  6. Alessandro Strumia says:

    Twitter discussions can be fast: Sam Gregson blocked me on Twitter for just answering “yes” to his question “is there a crisis?”. The problem is that institutional communications are similarly closed, up to the point that many serious physicists avoid getting involved in the unrealistic forced institutional optimism. Collider institutions seem to fear that, by openly discussing the problem, the system might collapse and the huge funds got by nuclear physics after 1945 might dry up. But in this way resources that still come are passively used to maintain the status quo. The hope was that LHC would have solved the problems by discovering big new physics, but who still hopes that? Who believes that LHC will really run until 2040? That 6000+ people are still needed to analyze LHC data?
    The field should recognise the problem and try addressing it by shifting current big resources and best experts to trying to develop an innovative muon collider. If this is not done, the risk is that in ≈10 years from now the resources will evaporate anyway and the field will quietly fade away. Already now, bright students understand there is a problem and often avoid joining the field, so the problem grows.

  7. Krzysztof says:

    There is some recent progress on the future collider front:
    “Construction is anticipated to begin around 2027-2028, pending government approval, with an estimated duration of 8 years. The commencement of experiments could potentially initiate in the mid-2030s.”
    https://inspirehep.net/literature/2740505

  8. Peter Woit says:

    Mike,
    Hard to know whose arguments they are critiquing, which seems to be an intentional tactic. There were some graphics in the background, one of which included a blog post of mine (but it was a blog post about something Sabine Hossenfelder had written….).
    https://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=11551

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Krzysztof,
    That’s the Chinese CEPC proposal, which has not been approved for funding and as far as I know doesn’t even have a site picked out. Similarly with the ILC proposal in Japan, it’s very unclear whether these things will ever get funded. The big problem is the cost, coupled with the fact that they won’t get to higher energies than the LHC.

  10. Thomas says:

    To be fair, Gligorov explains why it is hard to see how entering experimental particle physics as a graduate student is a good idea. The best you can hope for is to be a small, poorly paid, cog in a large machine with a very uncertain future.

  11. Peter Woit says:

    Thomas,
    I should make clear that my problem with this is with the theorists, not the experimentalists. The experimentalists are coming off great successes (discovering the Higgs, ruling out SUSY) and facing a crisis not their fault but due to basic physics, which makes getting to higher CM energies very difficult and very expensive. They may be trying to put the best possible face on the problem, but they acknowledge they have a problem.

    The theorists on the other hand are in a situation that is entirely their own fault, for decades pursuing failed ideas, while hyping these as great successes. Claiming that the situation now is A+++, .ooo1/10 of a crisis, or only a normal “very tiny” crisis is just absurd, and exactly the underlying source of the problem. If you refuse to acknowledge you have a problem, you’re not going to do anything to deal with it.

  12. clayton says:

    four hours is a lot of hours to say “nothing to see here”

  13. Peter Woit says:

    clayton,
    As Shakespeare put it:
    “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”
    Applies not just to four hours, but to “A+++” and “.ooo1”

  14. Mike says:

    A large chunk of the four hours was a really good overview of whats known and how, and what the problems are. The rest was an argument for why there is no crisis in HEP (which I found unconvincing). So worth listening to if you are a laymen …

  15. Krzysztof says:

    Peter,
    1. it is TDR, not just CDR -> CEPC design is more advanced than that of FCC
    2. in my opinion, politically/financially, the probability of CEPC approval >> P(FCC or ILC)
    so, it is a big news

  16. John Baez says:

    There’s definitely no problem with particle physics: that’s why more and more particle physicists are assuring us there’s no problem. 🙂

  17. Peter Shor says:

    Alessandro Strumia says

    Collider institutions seem to fear that, by openly discussing the problem, the system might collapse and the huge funds got by nuclear physics after 1945 might dry up.

    It seems to me that if anybody is expecting to get funds for building a larger collider after the LHC runs end, assuming the LHC hasn’t produced any hint of new physics at higher energies by then, they are completely delusional. (But then, a lot of high-energy physicists seem to be delusional.)

  18. Adam Treat says:

    The ones who are saying no problem are all tenured and very secure in their old positions and have no reason to acknowledge any problem. They are leaving the next generation of theorists in a terrible state, but what do they care? They’ve “made it” and admitting there is a problem admits their own failure. So we go…

  19. Diogenes says:

    There may or may not be anything sociologically “wrong” with particle physics but it is clearly destined to be less relevant and less important over time as the unknown portions become unknowable through experiment and have even less contact with human experience. That’s what is really going on.

  20. Peter Woit says:

    Diogenes,

    During the glory days of the subject 50s/60s/70s it had little contact with human experience, that’s not the problem. The subject (unavoidably) moving into a mode where it no longer had experiment to keep it honest, and not replacing that with something else has always been to me the core of the problem. In my book I tried to express this with a line from Bob Dylan

    “But to live outside the law, you must be honest”

    What I find upsetting about recent claims that all is well is that they’re taking lack of honesty about the situation to a new level.

  21. WTW says:

    Peter,
    I’m reminded of something that I first saw online, written at the top of the first page of a geology notebook:

    The X-Files Principle: If you truly believe in a hypothesis, all evidence will eventually prove it.

    I.e., the human mind’s ability for self-deception — to not just believe one’s own BS, but to be able to justify it to oneself and to others through (mis)interpretation of “evidence” — is inexhaustible. And while it is admittedly a circular argument, the evidence for this seems to be everywhere around us ;-).

    But in the specific case of theoretical HEP:
    When there is little objective “evidence” on which to base one’s “beliefs” in hypothetical constructs (aka “models”), and the mechanisms that do seem to bear fruit are themselves layered in poorly understood, almost semi-mystical “effective” theory, then a major determinant of what one believes is based on the characteristics of those who also hold the same beliefs.

    Since theoretical physicists, as a group, tend to make it a point to identify “the smartest person in the room”, that becomes a dominant factor, and one that exacerbates the above Principle. As everyone in a Physics department or research group knows, physicists are among the cleverest people on Earth. Unfortunately, “cleverness” is often mistaken for “insight” and even “wisdom” in one’s (and others’) search for adding to our knowledge. And ongoing confirmation bias among those groups of extremely cleverly intelligent people just exacerbates the above problem. Rather than the common (mis)conception (and self-justification) that our intelligence protects us from such bias, it can tend to reinforce and rationalize it. It becomes the equivalent of “doing God’s work” to be instrumental in aiding and moving such a group’s work forward, discovering ever more self-generated “evidence” of its worth as that work progresses, even when that effort is in the furtherance of a miasma.

    So that leads to several questions in relation to the situation in theoretical physics. E.g.,
    a) How much of this self-justification is due to self deception, with these people actually believing what they are saying, or
    b) How much is actual lying, in order to maintain status, gain funding, etc. etc. etc.

    I suspect it is a mixture of both, with a) being used to justify b). And I suspect that we all need to be reminded to heed the above geologist’s warning, even including those who believe that there are severe, perhaps terminal problems with the ways that theoretical HEP has been worked on and developed.

  22. Peter Woit says:

    WTW,
    This question has always bothered me. To put it simply, does Michio Kaku believe the nonsense he writes or is he lying? From looking at him and many other similar cases in other different areas, my guess is that he just sees truth as being irrelevant to what he his doing. He has an agenda, a job to do, and what’s relevant is furthering the agenda, doing the job. You don’t ask a criminal defense attorney “what’s the truth of the matter about the criminal act your client may have committed?”, that’s not something he or she thinks about.

    It is depressing though to see events like these recent ones where the physicists involved have clearly decided to join Kaku, deciding that defending their own interests or the perceived interests of their tribe is what their job is.

  23. George says:

    As Feynman said: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” Unfortunately, theoretical physicists are among the worst offenders, not only those that do string theory, but others that do any kind of theory with little regard to experimental data (for example, most of statistical physicists).

    Another issue is the sunk cost fallacy: string theorists have invested so much time in this theory, and bragged about solving the deepest problems in physics for decades, that backing down these claims must feel very frightening. That is why they all stick together, pat each other on the shoulders (grant and peer-review wise) and generally avoid any balanced discussion.

  24. Theorist1234 says:

    So let us say that we are String theory researchers with permanent jobs and many years in the field.

    What should we do?

    Try to come out with ideas within Swampland, Black Holes, AdS/CFT or Machine learning directions?

    Invent new directions?

    Quit String theory and pursue other dirctions in Particle Physics or Cosmology?

    Quit Particle Physics and go into other directions of Physics?

    Quit Physics and move to Economics or Finance?

    Somebody commented above “string theorists have invested so much time in this theory, and bragged about solving the deepest problems in physics for decades, that backing down these claims must feel very frightening”

    One can back down the claim, but what difference does it make?

  25. Peter Woit says:

    Theorist1234,
    If you have a permanent job in theoretical physics, you’re being paid to do the best possible research/teaching in that field. The one thing you shouldn’t be doing is continuing research activities in a failed research area. If there are other research directions in physics you find interesting and worthwhile, you should do those. If there aren’t, you probably should quit the job and do something else with your life.

  26. Theorist1234 says:

    In my opinion, Particle Physics overall is momentarily as failed area as String theory.
    With no clear experiments in the near future, it will be futile years. Cosmology data might save the day or might not.

    Meanwhile, we can try to cover some bits here and some bits there, hoping for the best.

    Or go into Finance, Machine Learning or Quantum Computing.

  27. Bernard l'Amateur says:

    Peter,
    I think it is unfair to ask these people to do something else. These are human beings after all. They have families and mortgages to pay, truth seeking comes second to these. They are working at highly competitive institutions. Asking them to do something else is like asking a mechanic to close their garage and go do a carpenter’s job where competition is already very high too. Doing anything else means for them closing down their business. They just can’t work on anything else, for they would have done it by now if they could. They cannot even quit their prestigious institutions to work in other low-profit institutions to be able to sincerely pursue their dream of unraveling the secretes of nature. The blame should entirely be put on the funding agencies that use public money and the millionaires who cannot use their brains and stop believing the BS these people try to sell them to keep their business open. This is simply the reality of the human society through history. People without brains have the money, people with brains have the talent to dupe the former to get their money. Real truth seekers don’t ask for millions of funding. Just recall how the great physicists of history turned down offers from prestigious institutions just because they know that they wouldn’t be able to properly pursue their dream at those institutions. But times have unfortunately changed, and people have to adapt to survive.

  28. Peter Woit says:

    Bernard l’Amateur,
    The problem isn’t funding agencies/rich people. They listen to what the most prominent and respected experts in the field tell them, don’t independently make their own decisions about what is most promising to fund.

    I think this is exactly why such experts are now going to the public and making ridiculous claims about how everything is A+++ and there is 0.0001% crisis. That things are not going well has become very obvious, not just to the public but also to their colleagues in neighboring fields. If this negative perception goes further, funding will be seriously threatened.

    While there are some theorists for whom doing something else would be a problem, this is rarely the case with leaders in this field. The senior faculty at the IAS, Princeton, Harvard, etc. etc. have tenure and are well paid. Their children are not going to starve if they lose grant funding because they admit things have not worked out and they need to do something else.

  29. SRP says:

    I still find it odd that the experimental particle physicists who want to probe the energy frontier haven’t united in their various committees around serious research and development, at realistic budgets, of advanced accelerator concepts that would obviate the need for giant accelerators at unrealistic budgets.

  30. Peter Woit says:

    SRP,
    It’s not that people in hep-ex wouldn’t love for there to be better accelerator technology that would solve their problem and haven’t been willing to support research in that area. The problem is basic physical limits:
    1. For proton rings, people have worked very hard at getting higher magnetic fields, with only marginal improvements, not the order of magnitude you would need to make a difference.
    2. For electron-positron rings, the synchrotron radiation losses go as E^4, no matter what you do.
    3. For linear accelerators, getting big increases in energy gradient in a stable high luminosity beam seems to be very difficult.
    4. Best prospect these days seems to be a muon ring, lots of people very interested, but short muon lifetime makes this very difficult.

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