Friday, December 31, 2010

Science expected in 2011

Happy New Year 2011. Yes, it is a prime number. The probability that a number comparable to 2011 is a prime is 1/ln(2011) = 13%. So this coincidence proves global warming at a 87% confidence level. ;-)

The BBC has provided us with their perspective on science expectations for the year MMXI:
A science news preview of 2011
They chose five main topics:
  1. Hospitable planets
  2. Privatization of the cosmos
  3. The LHC: Higgs, SUSY
  4. Quantum computers
  5. Analyses of Mars & life
See also a similar preview of 2011 - with many more entries - in Nature and one more at Fox News.

Extraterrestrial life

Some people are searching for ever more Earth-like planets that could be hospitable for life. The year 2010 has seen some probably valid discoveries as well as bogus reports but it's obvious that as the people are seeing newer and newer planets, the most Earth-like ones among them are becoming more Earth-like than their predecessors. ;-)

This is, of course, a fun business. But do you really believe that in a foreseeable future, people will find a planet such that they will be confident that there's life on it? I personally find it extremely unlikely. While the anthropic people may think that our vacuum of string theory is optimized to possess as many observers as possible, the empirical data suggest it's not the case.

See Why I am an extraterrestrial life skeptic.

It seems more sensible to me to believe that the vacuum is such that it "barely" allows an intelligent living planet to be born somewhere in a Hubble-scale spacetime volume of the Universe. You could say that it would be wasteful for Nature to produce many more living planets.

Needless to say, neither of the viewpoints - "life is common and easy" and "life is rare and hard" - can be supported by any real experimental data.



Private companies in space

For certain purposes, the commercial sector - companies around Richard Branson and others - is doing an immensely good job to keep us in space or at least "above the bulk of the atmosphere". There's no reason not to privatize these enterprises especially if they can be made profitable. Consumers may jump a little bit above the atmosphere - for the first time in their life - for $200,000.

This strategy remains limited because truly ambitious - as well as purely scientific - projects in the Cosmos are very expensive and probably not profitable in any practical sense. So I guess that the most ambitious projects in the space research will have to be funded by governments - and big governments - in a foreseeable future. Let's hope that people won't lose the desire to become important away from our beloved planet.



The LHC

Of course, I would spend much more time with the LHC but this blog has covered this gadget in quite some detail so I will avoid talkative summaries and speculations here.

In 2010, both major detectors of the collider - the ATLAS and the CMS - have collected about 47 inverse picobarns per detector and recorded about 43 inverse picobarns (92%). The data have largely confirmed the Standard Model. Hints of new physics remained inconclusive, to say the least. In fact, the LHC has already improved lower bounds on masses of most types of exotic particles and objects in a way that the Tevatron has no chance to match even if it were running for another decade: in this sense, the further running of the Tevatron became scientifically pointless.

Various signs of huge extra dimensions, anomalous light black holes, preons, new quark generations, W' bosons, and so on were excluded from a TeV or so. Most importantly, very light regions of supersymmetry have been pretty concisely excluded, including strongly interacting superpartners up to around 300 GeV.

The expected very light Higgs boson will take years to be discovered by the LHC; it's really the only type of really interesting physics in which the Tevatron could remain more powerful than the LHC.

In 2011, the European collider will run at 7 TeV (as in 2010) or 8 TeV (a tiny upgrade) and at luminosities that match or surpass the record of 2010 (which appeared at the very end of the 2010 run). It will collect about 1-5 inverse femtobarns per detector and it hasn't been decided whether the previous plan to stop the LHC for the whole year 2012 will be obeyed or abandoned.

The chances that the LHC will have enough data to see the lightest Higgs boson in 2011 are about 20%; the chances to see SUSY at the LHC in 2011 (which includes the fact that SUSY is less certain than the Higgs boson) are about 30% because SUSY is more "visible" to the LHC than a light Higgs boson. (The fact that particle physicists' subjective SUSY odds beat those of the Higgs was also revealed to the listeners on Ira Flatow's show after this article was written.) The Tevatron can't see SUSY in 2011 but its chances to reveal the Higgs in all of its data, including the old ones, are also about 20% for 2011.

In 2010, the LHC has seen some interesting "low-energy" QCD effects including quenched jets and other signs of the quark-gluon plasma and some not fully understood anomalies.



Progress in quantum computing

Quantum computers are possible when it comes to the physical principles but they remain a huge engineering challenge. Still, the year 2010 has encountered some progress in the people's ability to manipulate quantum bits, make them entangled, and keep them coherent. Several basic strategies are being tried and improved.

Additional progress of this kind may be expected in 2011. But don't expect quantum computers to break the Internet codes anytime during the next year.

Mars rovers and friends

The Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed on Mars in 2004 and were expected to survive for 90 our days (which are very close to Martian days) only. But they're still alive and kicking; the original life expectancy has been surpassed by a factor of twenty. This is an example of gadgets that just work.

I don't know if you have the same experience. But many devices are expected to die when they get old. However, in some cases, it's exactly the other way around. If a gadget such as a laptop has managed to work for 9 years, chances are that it can continue for another 9 years. Do you agree? ;-)

Once again, much of the Martian research is focused on the search for life. It's sexy for the laymen except that it's damn clear that there's no kind of life that would really be sexy for the laymen. Even if they managed to find some life forms, they would be some bacteria that could be visually indistinguishable from those on the Earth. I personally consider even such a modest possibility extremely unlikely.

Again, I can't prove it in any sense. But I do believe that certain numbers that determine the chance for life to emerge and survive decrease essentially exponentially as you deviate from the optimum zone. And Mars is deviated when it comes to many parameters, indeed. The planet is geometrically comparable to the Earth but when you count its "price" in terms of potency for life, it is just tiny relatively to the Earth.

In fact, privatizing Mars wouldn't be a bad idea and I think that the price should be low enough for some rich people to buy big portions of Mars, to say the least. Even the abundance of gold etc. on Mars is arguably smaller than on the Earth - given its much lower density, it shouldn't be surprising. So the commercial uses of Mars will almost certainly remain limited.

Theoretical physics

Many people will be attracted to phenomenology if the LHC results begin to be nontrivial. However, I wish pure theory to escape from the mud into which it has fallen in recent years - crackpottery similar to "gravity as the entropic force" and similar absurd non-quantitative nonsense that violates many fundamental insights we have made about the fundamental forces.

For example, two days ago, two new papers by Arkani-Hamed I and II appeared on the arXiv. They offer a manifestly local and cyclic-symmetric rewriting of the loop contributions to N=4 SYM theory's scattering amplitudes in terms of a single integral - just like in perturbative string theory that merges many different Feynman diagrams of the field-theoretical limit into a single topology.

The integral goes over some higher-dimensional Grassmannian and the integrand itself depends on objects that have a geometric interpretation in terms of areas of polytopes in various twistor or projective spaces and similar objects. Why do such objects appear and what's the general prescription to write the integrand for any amplitude? Is it analogous to the expectation value of a product of vertex operators on a Riemann surface in string theory?

I wish many more people tried to study these interesting things instead of the cheap pseudoscientific rubbish that the media like to write about.

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