Two hours ago, The Boston Globe released an article written by James Owen Weatherall, The Higgs boson ‘nightmare scenario’. It tries to sell the preposterous interpretation of the Higgs discovery as a sad event if not a possible sign of the end of the discipline.
There are lots of dishonest statements made in the text – for example, the hardcore crackpot Lee Smolin is described as "an expert on attempts to develop a unified theory of gravity and the Standard Model forces" (wow!) – but the main demagogy used to support the central message of the article is hiding in the last sentence.
We are faced with a struggle between the questions we want to answer and the limitations of our abilities—and at some point, perhaps soon, our limitations will win the day.Needless to say, the point of these clichés is to suggest that people should give up fundamental physics.
Each of us has some limitations. However, the problem with the sentence above is that we don't "share" these limitations. It is therefore a logical mistake (arguably a deliberate one) to clump the statements about people's individual limitations to a proposition about "us". There aren't any "us". Each person has different limitations. Most people hit the wall of their physics abilities sometimes during their basic school. James Owen Weatherall found his limits when he was an excessively bold undergraduate and he suddenly figured out that a primarily graduate string theory course that he dared to register for was well above his abilities. He was the worst student in it. Interestingly enough, the best student was another undergrad, Nathaniel Craig, the author of three dozens of amazing preprints as of this moment. Compare with Weatherall's 5 "papers" with no citations.
(To avoid annoying exchanges I experienced two years ago, let me say in advance that a commenter who would try to question my right – and I would say duty – to release this grade data will be instantly moved to the black list.)
The actual experts' knowledge and understanding about the fundamental laws of Nature already surpasses James Weatherall's knowledge and understanding by several floors and this gap is guaranteed to grow in the future, too. We may always find a person who is smarter, more creative, more hard-working, and/or more lucky than the previous physicists and who can make a new breakthrough (or lots of smaller advances). Individuals have limitations but the mankind doesn't have any. It's a hardcore populist demagogy for Mr Weatherall to suggest that his limitations are also limitations of the physicists. Many people surely love to hear – in between the lines or explicitly – that they have the same limitations as Edward Witten but it ain't so.
Meritocracy may work within the narrow high-energy community – Weatherall could surely get none of Nathaniel Craig's jobs in HEP – but it doesn't work in the broader academic environment so the guy who should honestly subscribe as the "shittiest of the shitty shits in the most relevant Harvard courses linked to the topic of this article" is subscribing as "an assistant professor of logic and philosophy of science in Irvine" and he is given all the available tools including pages in major Boston's newspapers to harm physics from the outside – being treated as Craig's true peer (and maybe with more influence over the general perception of physics). The selection in HEP becomes somewhat useless if the losers may get "symmetric" jobs of "philosophers of science" – something that the Academia apparently finds acceptable because dumb attacks directed against physics are probably treated as an equally legitimate scholarly discipline as physics itself.
The similarity between Weatherall's and Peter Woit's motivations to attack physics is stunning. Both of them found out that they sucked as scientists and they just couldn't become professional physicists so they are trying to hurt those who have the skills and passions – if not to "shut down" the whole discipline. They're scum.
The original article follows.
Confirmation of sensible theories is never sad
Originally posted on Friday, July 20th, 2012
The TRF unique visitor #8,000,000 arrived last night from the domain whitehouse.gov. Congratulations.Brian Greene, Stephen Wolfram, Martinus Veltman, and Sabine Hossenfelder were among the numerous folks who have expressed their frustration in the wake of the discovery of the Higgs boson.
She's been looking for the Higgs for many years and she's been the spokeswoman of the cult that was looking for him, too. Finally, she has found the man of her dreams.
We're closing the last door and it's so sad, we heard from Veltman and others.
It would have been much more cool if we observed something that didn't make any sense! It's a nightmare scenario. And so on. We have heard lots of similar propositions. I fundamentally disagree with all this stuff.
Instead, I agree with Gordon Kane and others who say – something that shouldn't really be controversial, I think – that as long as scientists think and feel as scientists, they are happy when they learn a new thing. And they only truly learn it once the clues really start to make sense, once the ideas start to converge, and when the doors start to close.
Most of a researcher's life may be spent in the state of confusion. But I don't think that it's an extraordinary privilege or an exciting adrenaline sport to be confused. When you ask a sufficiently abstract, ambitious, or detached question, you may easily get confused. There's nothing fantastic about the feeling of confusion. If you can't live without that feeling, it's easy to maneuver yourself into it. What's fantastic is when you discover something – or at least when you share the experience of someone else's (or collective) discovery. That's the rare feeling. That's the feeling that a scientist as I understand him dreams about.
The confirmation of a theory that makes sense is a canonical example of great news in science. The uncertainty decreases and we're learning new things. That's why we're doing science! I can't possibly understand how someone claiming to like science could be frustrated by such an event.
In particular, the Higgs mechanism makes a lot of sense. It's a no-nonsense solution to some obvious problems and it is, to a large extent, inevitable. The theorist or theorists who discovered the mechanism for the first time had to be excited. It just worked. It was exactly what was needed. I know the special feeling of discovering something important enough before others. Peter Higgs never doubted the existence of the Higgs boson. Even some physicists much less connected with the original discovery of the concept – including myself – have avoided all the doubts. There was no good reason to doubt.
Peter Higgs and others were "extra" excited to be the discoverers of these findings; others who learned about the mechanism later could have been and should have been pleased by the efficiency and consistency of the mechanism. It's a cool thing. It preserves all the vital features of the electroweak symmetry that are needed for health and consistency; and it eliminates the sterile parts of the symmetry that would force the Universe to be dull and lifeless. Much like many other mechanisms in physics, the Higgs mechanism is the Goldilocks solution to some problems. Physics is composed of dozens or hundreds of insights that are comparable to the Higgs mechanism. Who wasn't happy when he learned about the Higgs mechanism probably isn't happy about physics in general.
A priori, the explanation of the electroweak symmetry breaking and/or the masses of gauge bosons and fermions could have been more complicated or less complicated. However, no "less complicated" solution really exists. The laws of physics may be demanded to be as simple as possible (sometimes these demands are excessively naive and arrogant) but certainly not simpler than that. The actual laws could have been "more complicated" and/or "more contrived", too. Would it have been exciting? I wouldn't say so. It would be puzzling. It would be awkward. It would be painful.
The people mentioned at the beginning (and others) tend to say that it's much cooler when experiments find something that no theorist expected and no theorist is ready to explain. Well, I don't find such situations too cool; in fact, I think that the main class of people who find it cool are the people who have never discovered anything and who are happy to see that some/most discoverers seem to be losers, too. These folks don't really care about science much; they prefer their ego.
If some new observations really differ from everything that everyone is able to explain in a foreseeable future, people won't believe the observations, anyway. And even if it is acceptable enough so that people believe it, such observations will probably remain puzzling for quite some time. Confusion persists and Nature doesn't allow science to make progress – it doesn't allow science to reduce the level of confusion.
The positive cosmological constant observed in 1998 is an example of that. It was surely a surprising observation. We mostly believe it, it looks rather solid. We may include it to our phenomenological theories. After all, FRW sections of textbooks on general relativity have been sketching a positive cosmological constant as a possibility for decades. Still, the positive tiny value doesn't make much sense at a deeper level. We would be much more able to say interesting and deep things if the constant were zero or negative. The only known "complete" proposal how to understand the tiny yet positive value is the anthropic lack of principles and because it is so vague and ill-defined, it just isn't exciting. While I admit that "something like that" could be conceivably true, I would surely not admit that in the currently known forms, it's an intriguing or exciting theory. It's just a disappointing possibility – it's disappointing because if it is true, it will prevent us from making precise predictions for most currently unexplained quantities.
The Higgs mechanism and the Higgs boson are different. They make sense. If you master some maths and physics, those things will look inevitable to you. People were able to assure themselves about the existence of the spinless elementary particle decades before it was discovered. It's an exciting story. It's a story showing the power of the human mind and the intrinsic order in Nature. It's a story about the reunion of experiments and theories – moreover, with the correct moral, namely that theorists are still a little bit smarter and 48 years faster. ;-)
While I know (almost) for sure that the Standard Model isn't the whole story, I am really not quite certain on whether or not the LHC is capable of finding something new beyond the Standard Model. I don't really have a proof and if I don't have a proof, it really means that the answer can go both ways. The superpartner masses may be above 10 TeV. There's nothing "really wrong" about it. Nature may suffer from a less obsessive tuning-phobia than some of the phenomenologists. I have personally always considered 0.01 to be a number of order one if I had to decide. And I am no certified "upper bound". Nature may find numbers such as 0.001 OK, too.
The observation of nothing else beyond the Higgs boson and the Standard Model at the LHC is often called the nightmare scenario. Is it a nightmare? In what sense is it a nightmare?
If we became very certain that there is no new particle lighter than 10 TeV or so, and we are extremely, extremely far from that certainty today, intelligent laymen would know that it would probably be a waste of money to pay tens of billions of dollars for new colliders operating at similar energies. A not-so-subtle point that many physicists often like to overlook, however, is that these laymen would have a damn reasonable and well-informed point! Why should we build expensive facilities if we knew that they will find nothing new – i.e. if we knew in advance everything that these machines would measure? It's stupid, isn't it?
The construction of new colliders etc. may be correlated with the physicists' jobs and incomes in the future. But I just happen to consider some physicists corrupt if they start to evaluate the beauty or validity of some theories and scenarios according to the income that the scenarios may bring them. If you're dismissive about a theory just because this theory is inversely correlated with your income or fame, then you are simply abandoning the scientific integrity in favor of your personal egotist materialist interests. You're just being immoral.
Is that a controversial statement? I don't think so. However, this immorality has become so widespread in the institutionalized Big Science – which often operates in the same way and with the same goals as the Big Government in general – that many scientists aren't even ashamed of admitting that this is what determines their opinions.
While the Standard Model isn't a convincing theory of everything up to the Planck scale, it may be a good theory of all particles lighter than 200 GeV, if I have to pick a precise number. It just can. And it may be OK at somewhat higher energies, too. We don't really have solid evidence that something is wrong with such a theory of Nature. In fact, the minimal effective theory that only contains what it really needs is... minimal. It's efficient and thrifty. It's very attractive. I don't see anything wrong about this scenario. It actually makes a lot of sense. It is elegant. It is a no-nonsense answer to all questions about physics below 200 GeV. It is almost certainly not the complete answer to everything but for more modest tasks, it may be just perfect.
For this reason, I find it crazy to call it the "nightmare scenario" (in the interview with Brian Greene linked at the top, this phrase is attributed to Sean Carroll). Such a label is completely detached from the compactness and power of a rather solid, consistent, well-defined theory that is able to do everything it should be able to do. Using bombshell negative phrases such as "nightmare scenario" is nothing else than a symptom of the victory of corruption over the truth in the minds of the people who use this phrase.
It's conceivable that the LHC will find nothing new beyond the Higgs boson. If that's so, it's the truth we were going to learn. And we should draw rational lessons from this insight for future science plans, too. If we become sure that the direct brute-force production of new particles is no longer a plausible way to go forward, we must either give up or focus on other methods – such as good old top-down, theory-driven physics such as string theory.
I want to address one more possible objection. Some people may think that regardless of their incomes and jobs, it's more interesting for particle physics to be finding lots of new particles and phenomena. I disagree with this proposition, too. It's about "concept inflation", a process that is analogous to "monetary inflation" or "grade inflation".
If one discovers too many independent things, they must automatically become cheaper. In the 1960s, before the quarks were known to exist, people would discover dozens or hundreds of hadrons – strongly interacting particles. Was science 100 times more exciting because of that? I don't think so. You could actually see that people lost their interest about "yet another discovery of a new hadron". There exists a rather fixed "amount of interest and excitement" underlying all processes involving the strong force. We didn't really know what the amount was in advance but we knew that we couldn't change the amount by bureaucratic tricks.
Now, if you discover dozens of hadrons, you may guess that particle physics got 100 times more interesting. However, in this particular case, we can show that this interpretation would have been invalid. A few years later, it was shown that all these hadrons are just unremarkable bound states – composite objects analogous to nuclei, atoms, or molecules – composed of a small number of quarks. Because the hadrons aren't really fundamental or elementary, the amount of "legitimate excitement" carried by these particles simply cannot be proportional to the number of the hadron species. After all, the number of hadron species is probably infinite. Instead, it's the quarks that are elementary and their number is limited – although it's arguably larger than one would expected from a "truly fundamental theory", too.
My point is that if there are too many "similar particles" or too many "similar concepts", too much individual stuff to learn, then the science becomes analogous to botany and the high number itself is an indication that none of these objects is truly fundamental. Measuring the value of the discipline by the number of these partial insights would be short-sighted. Their overall value is constant and independent of the number of the "species".
If and when the LHC finds the first supersymmetric partners, perhaps stop squarks, it would be or it will be the greatest event in science in a century or so. However, this will also be a hint (and arguably much more than a hint) that supersymmetry is really true and the superpartners for every other particle type may ultimately be discovered by the colliders, too. But when the colliders are discovering the 8th superpartner, it will no longer be such an explosive event. The true revolution occurs at the point when one accumulates a sufficient amount of experimental evidence in favor of supersymmetry. Supersymmetry is the fundamental concept; the dozens of superpartner species are just detailed technical consequences of the profound principle.
To summarize, I believe that a scientist should really be excited when he finds the truth. And he demonstrably finds the truth once his theories and experiments really start to work and really start to agree with each other. The experimental confirmation of an elegant enough theory is a great moment in the history of science – these are the true moments when science is learning something, when science is making progress, and that's what scientists should want to achieve. And there's nothing wrong about thrifty theories that predict a limited number of new phenomena – or phenomena that are largely unobservable by doable experiments. In fact, these theories are rather attractive for their efficiency and compactness. The excitement stored in the deep and carefully "hidden" wisdom of Nature – which may be inaccessible to cheap enough experiments – is less visible than the excitement stored in fireworks or pornography; but scientists' sense of excitement should be deeper than the sense of general consumers of fireworks or pornography, too.
Scientists should never confuse the beauty and validity of a theory with their financial situation. These are totally different things. If someone confuses these two, he is really not acting as an honest scientist who is passionate about the truth.
And that's the memo.
This guy with a Michigan driving license probably committed the suicide attack against the bus with the Israeli tourists (including a prominent one) in Burgas, Bulgaria. Holy crap, I know this guy. It is a loop quantum gravitist; I just can't recall what his name was.