Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Firing 90% HEP folks would mean new scientific dark ages

Backreaction, currently the most influential forum of haters of physics in the world, has reacted to the newly completed design plans for the next future collider at CERN, the FCC. You may find the article with the not very friendly but very populist title Particle physicists want money for bigger collider through a search engine.

In that article, we learn that even the lowest estimate €9 billion is too much money and it's not worth spending. Such appraisals obviously depend on one's priorities but a person who finds €9 billion as way too much is clearly an anti-science savage. It's just a small fraction of the capitalization of Tesla, a car company making just some 200,000 cars a year (0.3% of the global annual production of 70 million cars a year) and still waiting for its first annual profit. Or 1/20 of Apple's cash reserves.

Alternatively, the cost of $10 billion is what tattoo parlors earn in three years or the porn industry in one month. The Pentagon spends it in five days and so do the U.S. welfare projects.

What would you think about the global population that isn't willing to pay this much money for the most fundamental scientific experiment once a decade or two?

The first thing I find shockingly crazy in Hossenfelder's rant is her talk about "them, the evil particle physicists". Isn't she a particle physicist herself, with the most cited articles of the type "the minimal length in QFT or quantum gravity" or "phenomenology of quantum gravity"? Well, that's a good question – and a subtle one.

If you count particle physics crackpots as practitioners of particle physics, she is a particle physicist, and if you don't, then she is not a particle physicist. Talking about the minimal length in the theoretical frameworks that we use to describe the fundamental laws of Nature – and talking about phenomenology of the theories associated with the shortest distances we consider in science – is theoretical particle physics and the only reason you could find to say that it is not particle physics is that all her papers are rubbish.

But things get even more extreme in the discussion under her main rant. Commenter Frederic Dreyer sort of disagrees with the defunding and she responds:
Dreyer: "...most of the particle physics community would disagree with this statement..."

Hossenfelder: No shit. Look, we are currently paying for a lot of particle physicists. If we got rid of 90% of those we'd still have more than enough to pass on knowledge to the next generation. [...]
The chutzpah of this crackpot is just incredible. Not only she doesn't admit that she is still being paid for pretending to be a particle physicist of a sort (which should hopefully end in a few months). She claims that "we are paying". How did you become an important member or even a spokeswoman of that "we", Ms Hossenfelder? How much have you paid to those evil particle physicists, Ms Hossenfelder?

OK, she proposes to fire 90% of particle physicists, practitioners in the most fundamental discipline in pure science. Nice. Let's imagine some hardcore politicians get the power and start the process.

First, there will be questions such as: Who is fired? And who stays? Who is the lucky 10%? One is supposed to keep the best folks. But how does the system determine that? On top of that, many people have some faculty positions so they're also teaching. Isn't it obvious that the universities will still need these instructors? Some of them teach not just particle physics but also more general subjects. Won't the universities be forced to simply reclassify these people as pure instructors?

Now, how could this be helpful? Is an instructor who doesn't do any scientific research a better one? I don't think so. Teaching is clearly a derivative occupation while the research is the real story that the students are really being trained for. Research is what actually gives the authority to the people. Similarly, things simply don't get better if you force a competent physicist to only teach Classical Mechanics instead of Classical Mechanics and Anomalies in Quantum Field Theory. If the system prevented the capable people from teaching stuff like QFT, the correct explanation would clearly be that QFT has been labeled a heresy. QFT takes time and brains to be learned and younger folks want to learn it – so what could be the justification of such a ban other than the medieval laws against a heresy?

Great. I think it's obvious that she would answer that the instructors of courses related to particle physics would be mostly eradicated and she would find some better replacements wherever needed – whose advantage is that they can only teach Classical Mechanics. Let me warn you: Hossenfelder's procedure can't be called "decimation of particle physics". Decimation means that 10% of soldiers are shot dead and 90% soldiers survive. She wants to do it in the other way around! ;-)

OK, how will physics look after the anti-decimation wet dream of hers?

It's clear that most research groups that have some particle physics will be shut down entirely. Why? You can't really reduce the numbers by 90% uniformly because the individual places would have too few people who are doing these things. The rare leftovers would be getting stuck all the time, would be incapable of attracting students, there couldn't be meaningful seminars there because the number of people would be too low, and so on.

The anti-decimation would therefore be closer to the shutdown of 90% of research groups while some 10% would survive almost in the present numbers. Countries like Czechia (1/700 of the world population but 1/300 of some GDP-like importance) would have no condensation core for particle physics – people in such medium-size nations just couldn't think about meeting several people speaking the same language who understand at least the graduate textbook stuff.

How many people would stay? Alessandro Strumia has used a database with 40,000 authors of particle physics papers. It seems reasonable to me to hypothesize that the actual number of actively paid professionals is lower at every point, perhaps 20,000. Who is exactly counted is a fuzzy problem for many reasons. Hossenfelder's plan is to reduce those to 2,000. Two fudging thousand people on a planet with over 7 billion people. One would need over 3.5 million people to expect one particle physicist in that group. Just tomorrow, just Tesla will fire more, namely 3,000 employees.

Someone might think that 2,000 is still a lot of people for particle physics. But only someone who doesn't really understand what kind of stuff and subdisciplines exist in particle physics – someone whose resolution is absolutely hopeless and who just doesn't see the structures inside – could think that 2,000 would be enough for the field to continue in a comparably meaningful sense. Why would there be a problem? You know, a complete layman may imagine that a good physicist was Einstein, which was 1 man, and it's about the right number.

A smarter layman could recall that it was once said that general relativity was only understood by 12 physicists in the world, so maybe 12 is enough as the number of particle physicists, too, although the purpose of the number has always been to impress the listeners by its low value.

Let's not be overly ludicrous and let's ask: How would the papers written by that anti-decimated HEP community look like? We will assume that the same anti-decimation would apply to string theory and quantum gravity as well. Whether they would be counted as particle physics just couldn't be important. They're too close in spirit. I guess that the anti-decimators would prefer the reduction to be even harsher than 90% in those fields. It's helpful to pick an example of a influential paper from the recent decade so that it defines a whole subdiscipline.

I somewhat randomly pick the "entanglement is geometry/wormhole" minirevolution. The Maldacena-Susskind paper on the ER-EPR correspondence is being cited by approximately 10 other papers a month – the rate is very close to constant between 2013 and 2018. After Hossenfelder's anti-decimation, it seems obvious to me that this number would drop roughly by 90%, too. You could hope that it's a research direction of a higher quality so it would be more likely to survive. But it just couldn't work in this way.

Well, let's see: I find 90% of papers "not very important" but the selection just couldn't possibly be such that this subset would greatly overlap with the disappeared research. Research projects of all kinds would suffer comparably. Some papers are more intriguing to all readers – or all smart readers – partly because they're very good papers; and partly because the reader's (or my) interests don't reach all kinds of research. But the quality cannot be uniform so aside from very good papers, there always exist papers that are not very good. You can't change the fact that the distribution always has a width.

For these reasons, we are talking about the world where one paper is written each month that has something to do with ER=EPR – despite the fact that it's one of the most important new topics. There are roughly 12 such papers in a year. They have 12 or so authors – papers usually have more than 1 author but some authors will be repeated. It's the same 12 apostles that "understood GR" in the witticism whose purpose was to claim that the understanding of GR is extremely rare on Planet Earth. You would basically get to this point with topics like ER=EPR.

With such anti-decimated numbers, lots of the things would be below the critical mass. The feedback to the people's papers would be too scarce and slow. Conferences on any topics finer than e.g. string theory would become impossible to organize. Even the string conference would be visited by some 50 people only. Those could be close to a random 10% subset of the current participants. How are you supposed to preserve any cohesion in such a group if the number of mutually distinguishable research subdirections is probably higher than 50?

You cannot. The anti-decimation would mean to kill most of the subdisciplines as well – when the population of a species gets under some critical mass, it's likely to go extinct soon. The mankind would stop doing these things. The smartest kids who would be born in 2020 and who would have access to the libraries in 2035 (Hossenfelder generously suggested that she doesn't plan to burn the libraries so far) would be shocked what kind of incredible things the people could have done as recently as 2018 or so, before things started to collapse in 2019 or so. ;-) The old material would become as impenetrable to the future people as some ancient Greek if not Babylonian texts to the modern world – because once the world loses the controllable network of teachers, students, tests, and peer review, all the knowledge will become at most amateurish. We may hope we're not missing anything important that was included in the ancient texts – but they clearly would.

In another sentence, Hossenfelder proposes to put particle physics on the back burner for 20 years. Particle physics is a living organism, like yogurt. Have you ever tried to put yogurt on the back burner for 20 years?

Even if we neglect the topics that would disappear completely, the rate of the progress in particle physics would slow down roughly by 90%, too. On one hand, the decrease could be less brutal because one would optimistically fire the "worse" people in average. But the survivors would have a worse intellectual infrastructure of the colleagues so even their personal rate of progress would probably slow down. If we have several findings at the level of the Higgs boson and ER=EPR per decade, we would have several advances like that per century – or per lifetime, if you wish. Why would someone who has pretended to be a theoretical physicist for 15 years want such a change to the society? Why can't the world pay the 0.01% of the annual global GDP – once in a decade or two (so the expenses are really 0.001% of the global GDP over this longer period) – to build a new cutting-edge collider? And a similar amount to the non-collider related expenses powering the field?

Do any independent people with a brain really think that saving of 0.001% of the global GDP justifies the global eradication of the most fundamental scientific discipline? What is driving hateful lunatics like Ms Hossenfelder? Does she want to stop with particle physics or is it just a beginning of the plan to eradicate all human activities where she realizes her inadequacy? After particle physics is banned in this way, why would the mankind keep condensed matter physics? Astrophysics? Nuclear and molecular physics? Aren't those just some inferior versions of something that has been found useless as well? And then quantum mechanics, isn't it a theory without applications (because those have been banned)? Isn't really algebra, calculus, or all of mathematics a useless anachronism? Physics in general? Schools? Writing and reading?

Simeon and others, don't you realize that by your endorsement of the feminist craze and fascist petitions such as one by the dickhead D.H., you are helping to make people like Hossenfelder incredibly politically strong because lots of people similar to you (and maybe including you) are afraid of criticizing such crackpots of a privileged sex? What's wrong with so many of you? Hossenfelder's plan to reduce particle physics by 90% or suspend it for 20 years is what your celebrated "diversity" means in the real world. If you are pushing people to do something that they naturally hate, they will dream about destroying it.

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