Sunday, November 11, 2018

New veins of science can't be found by a decree

Edwin has pointed out that a terrifying anti-science article was published in The Japan Times yesterday:
Scientists spend too much time on the old.
The author, the Bloomberg opinion columnist named Noah Smith (later I noticed that the rant was first published by Bloomberg), starts by attacking Ethan Siegel's text that had supported a new particle collider. Smith argues that because too many scientists are employed in science projects that extend the previous knowledge which leads to diminishing returns, all the projects extending the old science should be defunded and the money should be distributed to completely new small projects that have far-reaching practical consequences.

What a pile of toxic garbage!



Let's discuss the content of Smith's diatribe in some detail:
In a recent Forbes article, astronomer and writer Ethan Siegel called for a big new particle collider. His reasoning was unusual. Typically, particle colliders are created to test theories [...] But particle physics is running out of theories to test. [...] But fortunately governments seem unlikely to shell out the tens of billions of dollars required, based on nothing more than blind hope that interesting things will appear.
First of all, Smith says that it's "unusual" to say that the new collider should search for deviations from the Standard Model even if we don't know which ones we should expect. But there is nothing unusual about it at all and by his anxiety, Smith only shows that he doesn't have the slightest clue what science is.

The falsification of existing theories is how science makes progress – pretty much the only way how experimenters contribute to progress in science. This statement boils down to the fact that science can never prove theories to be completely right – after all, with the exception of the truly final theory, theories of physics are never quite right.



Instead, what an experiment can do reliably enough is to show that a theory is wrong. When the deviations from the old theoretical predictions are large enough so that we can calculate that it is extremely unlikely for such large deviations to occur by chance, we may claim with certainty that something that goes beyond the old theory has been found.

This is how the Higgs boson was found, too. The deviation of the measured data from the truncated Standard model prediction that assumed that "no Higgs boson exists" grew to 5 sigma at which point the Higgs boson discovery was officially announced.

The only true dichotomy boils down to the question whether the new theories and phenomena are first given some particular shape by theorists or by experimenters. The history of physics is full of both examples. Sometimes theorists have reasons to become sufficiently certain that a new phenomenon should exist because of theoretical reasons, and that phenomenon is later found by an experiment. Sometimes an experiment sees a new and surprising phenomenon and theorists only develop a good theory that explains the phenomenon later.

Theorists are surely not running out of theories to test. There are thousands of models – often resulting from very deep and highly motivated theories such as string theory or at least the grand unification – with tens of thousands of predictions and all of them may be tested. The recent frequency of discoveries just makes it sure that we shouldn't expect a new phenomenon that goes beyond the Standard Model to be discovered every other day. This is how Nature works.



In this lovely video promoting a location for the ILC project (another one has won), I think that the English subtitles were only added recently. The girl is a bored positron waiting for an electron.

Smith says that the expectation that new interesting things may be seen by a new collider is a "blind hope". But it is not a hope, let alone a blind one. It is a genuine possibility. It is a fact of physics that we don't know whether the Standard Model works around the collision energy of \(100\TeV\). It either does or it does not. Indeed, because new physics is more interesting, physicists may "hope" that this is the answer that the collider will give. But the collider will give us some nontrivial information in either case.

Because the "new physics" answer is more interesting, one may say that the construction of the colliders is partially a bet, a lottery ticket, too. But most of progress just couldn't have emerged without experimenting, betting, taking a risk. If you want to avoid all risks, if you insist on certainty, you will have to rely on the welfare (or, if you are deciding how to invest your money, you need to rely on cash holdings or saving accounts with very low interest rates). You are a coward. You are not an important person for the world and you shouldn't get away with attempts to pretend that you are one.

Also, Smith says that governments are "unlikely to shell out the tens of billions". That's rubbish. Just like in the past, governments are very likely to reserve these funds because those are negligible amounts of money relatively to the overall budgets – and at least the symbolic implications of these modest expenses are far-reaching. When America was building the space research, a great fraction of the GDP was being spent on it – the fraction went up to 5% in a peak year. Compared to that, the price of a big collider is negligible. All governments have some people who know enough to be sure that rants by anti-science activists similar to Smith are worth nothing. Smith lives in a social bubble where his delusions are probably widespread but all the people in that bubble are largely disconnected from the most important things in the world and the society.

Japan is just deciding about the ILC in Japan.
Particle physicists have referred to this seeming dead end as a nightmare scenario. But it illustrates a deep problem with modern science. Too often, scientists expect to do bigger, more expensive versions of the research that worked before. Instead, what society often needs is for researchers to strike out in entirely new directions.
The non-discovery of new physics at the LHC has been described by disappointing phrases because people prefer when the experiments stimulate their own thinking and curiosity – and that of other physicists. Of course scientists prefer to do things where the chance for a discovery of something really new is higher. However, in fundamental physics, building a collider with a higher energy is the best known way to do it. You may be ignorant about this fact, Mr Smith, but it's just because you are an idiot, not because of some hypothetical flaw of high energy physics which is called high energy physics for a good reason. It's called in this way because increasing the energy is largely equivalent to making progress: higher energy is equivalent to shorter distance scales where we increasingly understand what is going on with an improving resolution.

If it were possible and easy to "strike out in entirely new directions", scientists would do it for obvious reasons – it would surely be great for the career of the author who finds a new direction. But qualitatively new discoveries are rare and cannot be ordered by a decree. We don't know in what exact directions "something new and interesting is hiding" which is why people must sort of investigate all promising enough directions. And looking in all the similar directions of "various new phenomena that may be seen at even higher energies" is simply the most promising strategy in particle physics according to what we know.

Equally importantly, extending the research strategies "that have worked before" isn't a sin. It's really how science always works. Scientific discoveries are never quite disconnected from the previous ones. Isaac Newton has found quite a revolutionary new direction – the quantitative basis for physics as we know it. He's still known for the proposition
If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
Newton was partly joking – he wanted to mock some smaller and competing minds, namely Gottfried Leibniz and especially Robert Hooke who was short – but he was (and everyone was) aware of the fact that the new discoveries don't take place in the vacuum. Newton still had to build on the mathematics that was developed before him. When showing that the laws of gravity worked, he found Kepler's laws of planetary motion to be a very helpful summary of what his theory should imply, and so on.

Every new scientific advance is a "twist" in some previous ideas. It just cannot be otherwise. All the people who are claiming to make groundbreaking discoveries that are totally disconnected from the science of the recent century or so are full-blown crackpots.
During the past few decades, a disturbing trend has emerged in many scientific fields: The number of researchers required to generate new discoveries has steadily risen.
Yup. In some cases, the numbers may be reduced but in others, they cannot. For example, and this example is still rather typical for modern theoretical physics, M-theory was still largely found by one person, Edward Witten. It's unquestionable that most of the theoretical physicists have contributed much less science than Witten, even much less "science output per dollar". On the other hand, it's obvious that Witten has only discovered a small minority of the physics breakthroughs. If the number of theoretical physicists were one or comparable to one, the progress would be almost non-existent.

Experimental particle physics requires many more people for a single paper – like the 3,000 members of the ATLAS Collaboration (and extra 3,000 in CMS). But there are rather good reasons for that. ATLAS and CMS don't really differ from a company that produces something. For example, the legendary soft drink maker Kofola Czechoslovakia also has close to 3,000 employees. In Kofola, ATLAS, as well as CMS, the people do different kinds of work and if there's an obvious way to fire some of them while keeping all the vital processes going, it's being done.

You may compare Kofola, ATLAS, and CMS and decide which of them is doing a better job for the society. People in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia drink lots of Kofola products. People across the world are inspired to think about the collisions at the Large Hadron Collider. From a global perspective, Kofola, ATLAS, and CMS are negligible groups of employees. Each of them employs less than one-half of one millionth of the world population.

Think about the millions of people in the world who are employed in tax authorities although most of them could be fired and the tax collection could be done much more effectively with relatively modest improvements. Why does Mr Smith attack the teams working for the most important particle accelerator and not the tax officials? Because he is actually not motivated by any efficiency. He is driven by his hatred towards science.
In the 1800s, a Catholic monk named Gregor Mendel was able to discover some of the most fundamental concepts of genetic inheritance by growing pea plants.
Mendel was partly lucky – like many others. But his work cannot be extracted from the context. Mendel was one employee in the abbey in Brno, University of Olomouc, and perhaps other institutions in Czechia whose existence was at least partly justified by the efforts to deepen the human knowledge (or by efforts to breed better plants for economic reasons). At any rate, fundamental discoveries such as Newton's or Mendel's were waiting – they were the low-hanging fruits.

Indeed, one faces diminishing returns after the greatest discoveries are made, and this is true in every line of research and other activities. But this is a neutral and obvious fact, not something that can be rationally used against the whole fields. It's really a tautology – returns are diminishing after the greatest discoveries, otherwise they wouldn't be greatest. ;-) Particle physics didn't become meaningless after some event – any event, let's say the theoretical discovery of quantum field theory or the experimental discovery of W and Z bosons – just like genetics didn't become meaningless after Mendel discovered his fundamental laws. On the contrary, these important events were the beginnings when things actually started to be fun.

Smith complains that biotech companies have grown into multi-billion enterprises while Mendel was just playing in his modest garden. Why are billions spent for particle physics or genetics? Because they can. The mankind produces almost $100 trillion in GDP every year. Of course some fraction of it simply has to be genetics and particle physics because they're important, relatively speaking. It is ludicrous to compare the spending for human genome projects or the new colliders with Mendel's garden because no one actually has the choice of funding either Mendel's research or the International Particle Collider. These are not true competitors of one another because they're separated by 150 years! People across the epochs can't compete for funds. On top of that, the world GDP was smaller than today by orders of magnitude 150 years ago.

Instead, we must compare whether we pay more money for a collider and less money e.g. for soldiers in Afghanistan (the campaign has cost over $1 trillion; or anything else, I don't want this text to be focused on interventionism) or vice versa. These are actually competing options. Of course particle physics and genetics deserve tens of billions every decade, to say the least. Ten billion dollars is just 0.01% of the world GDP, an incredibly tiny fraction. Even if there were almost no results, studying science is a part of what makes us human. Nations that don't do such things are human to a lesser degree and animals to a higher degree and they can be more legitimately treated as animals by others – e.g. eradicated. For this reason, paying something for science (even pure science) also follows from the survival instincts.
The universe of scientific fields isn’t fixed. Today, artificial intelligence is an enormously promising and rapidly progressing area, but back in 1956...
Here we see one thing that might support instead. But I don't think that most people who work on artificial intelligence should be called scientists. They're really engineers – or even further from science. Their goal isn't to describe how Nature works. Their task is to invent and build new things that can do certain new things but that exploit the known pieces that work according to known laws.
To keep rapid progress going, it makes sense to look for new veins of scientific discovery. Of course, there’s a limit to how fast that process can be forced...
The main problem isn't "how fast that process can be forced". The main problem with Smith's diatribe is that the discovery itself cannot be forced or pre-programmed; and that the search for some things and according to some strategy shouldn't be forced by the laymen such as Mr Smith at all because such an enforced behavior reduces the freedom of the scientists which slows down progress. And the rate of progress is whatever it is. There aren't any trivial ways to make it much faster and claims to the contrary are a pure wishful thinking. No one should be allowed to harass other people just because the world disagrees with his wishful thinking.
...it wasn’t until computers became sufficiently powerful, and data sets sufficiently big, that AI really took off.
The real point is that it just cannot be clear to everybody (or anybody!) from the beginning which research strategy or direction is likely to become interesting. But the scientists themselves are still more likely to make the right guess about the hot directions of future research than some ignorant laymen similar to Mr Smith who are obsessed with "forcing things" on everyone else.
But the way that scientists now are trained and hired seems to discourage them from striking off in bold new directions.
Mr Smith could clearly crawl into Mr Sm*lin's rectum and vice versa, to make it more obvious that allowing scum like that is a vicious circle.

What is actually discouraging scientists from striking off in bold new directions are anti-science rants such as this one by Mr Smith that clearly try to restrict what science can do (and maybe even think). If you think that you can make some groundbreaking discovery in a new direction, why don't you just do it yourself? Or together with thousands of similar inkspillers who are writing similar cr*p? And if you can't, why don't you exploit your rare opportunity to shut up? You don't have the slightest clue about science and the right way to do it and your influence over these matters is bound to be harmful.
This means that as projects like the Hadron Collider require ever-more particle physicists, ...
It is called the Large Hadron Collider, not just Hadron Collider, you Little Noam Smith aßhole.
With climate change a looming crisis, the need to discover sustainable energy technology...
Here we go. Only scientifically illiterate imbeciles like you believe that "climate change is a looming crisis". (I have already written several blog posts about dirty scumbags who would like to add physics funds to the climate hysteria.)

Just the would-be "research" into climate change has devoured over $100 billion – like ten Large Hadron Colliders – and the scientific fruits of this spending are non-existent. The only actual consequence of this "research" is that millions of stupid laymen such as Mr Smith have been fooled into believing that we face a problem with the climate. It wasn't really research, it has been a propaganda industry.

The money that has been wasted for the insane climate change hysteria is an excellent example of the crazy activities and funding that societies degenerate into if they start to be influenced by arrogant yet absolutely ignorant people similar to Mr Smith. That wasting (and the funds wasted for the actual policies are much higher, surely trillions) is an excellent example showing how harmful the politicization of science is.

The $10 billion Large Hadron Collider has still measured the mass of the Higgs boson – the only elementary spinless particle we know – as \(125\GeV\). The theoretically allowed interval was between \(50\GeV\) and \(800\GeV\) or so. What is a similar number that we have learned from the $100 billion climate change research in the recent 30 years?
So what science needs isn’t an even bigger particle collider; it needs something that scientists haven’t thought of yet.
The best way is to pick the most brilliant, motivated, and hard-working people as the scientists, allow them to do research as they see fit, and add extra funds to those that have made some significant achievements and who display an increased apparent likelihood of new breakthroughs or at least valuable advances to come – while making sure that aggressive yet stupid filth such as Mr Noah Smith doesn't intimidate them in any way.



Off-topic: It looks good for the Czech girls in the finals of the Fed Cup against the U.S. – 2-to-0 after Saturday matches. Both teams are without their top stars. On the Czech side, Plíšková is injured while Kvitová is ill. Incidentally, I noticed that the U.S. players and coach are super-excited whenever some Czechs play the most popular Czech fans' melody in any sports – which just happens to be When the Saints Go Marching In. ;-)

Sunday starts with the match of the "Russian" players from both teams – Kenin and Siniaková. Update: Siniaková looked much more playful and confident all the time but it ended up to be an incredibly tied and dramatic 4-hour match. But Siniaková became a new Czech heroine and my homeland has increased the number of Fed Cups from 10 to 11 – from superstring theory to M-theory.

As the video above suggests, Kvitová would be no good because she has lost to a Swiss retired painter (her fan) Mr Hubert Schmidt. You may see that she understands her occupation even as a theorist – she could rate him properly (if someone plays like that, he has to be famous, she correctly reasoned) and after the handshake, she was also able to identify the real name. ;-) The height and voice helped, too, she admitted. A touching prank.

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