Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Unexpected evidence of a new particle at LHC (nature.com)
310 points by jonbaer on Mar 9, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 102 comments



So just to be clear, this particle is not predicted by the standard model? I'm no physicist, but that seems like a huge deal.


Yes, the Standard Model would be completely oblivious to this particle. If this turns out to be a new particle, this would be the first concrete detection of physics beyond the Standard Model.

EDIT: Fair point below by @InclinedPlain. Neutrino oscilations were the first signal, but that does not motivate a radical extension like this evidence might.

Needless to say, most particle physicists are excited -- but we need to hold our horses -- this does not have a sufficient p-value to warrant the status of a confirmed detection -- such statistical fluctuations come and go once in a while.

Also, recent "inside" news seems to indicate that there might not be any new updates till later in the summer (rather than what the last paragraph indicates).


Not exactly true. The detection of neutrino oscillations was concrete evidence of physics beyond the Standard Model. Though the consensus has been that only slight modifications of the Standard Model are needed to allow for such oscillations (and neutrino masses).


Oh good! A particle physicist. I was looking for the current p-value in the article, but couldn't find it. Do you know what it is currently compared to what is required (something like 1E-6 or 1E-9)??


CMS observes the peak with a global significance of 1.2σ http://cds.cern.ch/record/2114808

ATLAS observes the peak with a global significance of 2σ http://cds.cern.ch/record/2114853

5σ is the gold standard for a discovery


Is it true that 2σ holds some significance? I imagine if it was common to get erroneous 2σ or 3σ readings this wouldn't have made the news in the way that it did.

Just trying to determine if this is closer to "this is probably something but we will need to confirm" or "something weird happened but it's probably nothing"


Let's put it this way: the LHC has on the order 2000 results so far, assuming the null hypothesis, you expect about 100 >2σ deviations and about 5 that are >3σ.

The combined significance from ATLAS and CMS will be higher, but it's quite an involved process to get all the systematics right and get approval from both collaborations.


Although in "real" terms 2σ is still pretty significant - but not firm enough to go "yes, absolutely" - but if they've got 2σ it's unlikely to be just noise, albeit still perfectly possible. IIRC 2σ is about a 1/20 chance of being erroneous. 1σ is almost meaningless - 2/5 chance of being erroneous.


The significance of 2σ really depends on the context. If we are looking for something at a particular place in the energy spectrum and we see a 2σ detection in the right place . . . well, that is tantalizing but not convincing. However, in this case, we are looking for unexpected signals across a whole range of energies. By sheer random chance, there will be a number of 2σ peaks that are meaningless noise. It gets a little more interesting if we see weak detections in two different experiments because the combined likelihood of two experiments having random peaks at the same place is considerably smaller. However, 1.2σ is nothing but noise, so I would say nothing to see here . . . at least, not yet.


The look-elsewhere effect is already taken into account. This is what is meant by "global".


Hmm . . . you did write that; I missed that. That brings the result up to tantalizing, but not convincing.


1/20? So if 20 tests were performed at the facility, we'd expect at least one of these to appear spuriously? Presumably there have been 20 tests performed there?


This failure mode is correct and very real. It's actually one of the reasons why we're starting to see significant pushback against p-values. https://xkcd.com/882/


This is a helpful table for converting sigma levels to percents and fractions (although those you listed are pretty good rules of thumb):

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/68–95–99.7_rule#Table_of_num...


I think a better question is: given the total number of events that have occurred at the LHC, what is the probability that we would detect at least one anomalous event like this?


> The fact that two separate detectors spotted it at almost exactly the same energies gives some hope, but anomalous signals such as this often show up in experiments only to later vanish back into the noisy background.

Yes, it would be, if it's not background noise.


Yes, that would not be something that the SM predicts. It needs more verification, two teams out of thousands coming up with similar results on just one occasion hardly means anything, so we'll have to wait and see.


While the sentiment that is needs more verification is accurate, there are not thousands of teams in this context. ATLAS and CMS are the 2 general purpose detectors at the Large Hadron Collider - they are the only teams/detectors in the world that can detect this signal, significant or not.


The standard model currently has 17 particles[1]. This number has grown over time, most recently when the Higgs boson was added a few years ago. The standard model makes no claim as to how many particles there can be, what their masses should be, what spin they should have, and so on. Those are unsolved questions outside of the scope of the standard model. Instead, it uses the particles we know about to make predictions about how they behave.

A new particle doesn't necessarily violate the standard model in the same way that discovering a new element wouldn't necessarily violate the periodic table. It could just expand the types of predictions that it is capable of making. It is also possible that a new particle could have properties that do violate constraints predicted by the standard model, but I don't know it well enough to know whether this particular particle does so.

[1] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/00/Standard...


> the Higgs boson was added a few years ago

No, it was there from the beginning.

> The standard model makes no claim as to how many particles there can be

Nope, it does. That's kind of the whole point of it.

> what their masses should be

True, these are free parameters (except the massless bosons)

> what spin they should have

It does. Fundamental fermions have to be spin-1/2, gauge bosons spin-1 and the Higgs spin-0.

> A new particle doesn't necessarily violate the standard model in the same way that discovering a new element wouldn't necessarily violate the periodic table.

Depends if you mean a new fundamental particle or a new hadron. Discovering a new hadron is akin to adding a new element to the periodic table. Discovering a new fundamental particle means the Standard Model has to be extended or otherwise rewritten.


Okay, you're right.

I was thinking of the Standard Model as more of a moving target that incorporates everything we know about the fundamental particles and their forces. I thought the model started with a smaller number of particles [photon, electron, neutrino, muon neutrino, up quark, down quark, strange quark, gluon] and was expanded over time [higgs in 64, w/z bosons in 68, charm in 70, top/bottom in 73]. After further investigation it looks like no one actually called it the "Standard Model" until all of the 17 particles known today were included, so technically there have been no new particles added to the "Standard Model"

I think considering the Standard Model a moving target is still reasonable since if a new fundamental particle were to be discovered tomorrow, we would very likely just add it to the Standard Model and still call the new version the "Standard Model". However, I also realize now that treating it in this way is probably not appropriate given the context of mojoe's original question. I would edit my original comment to retract what I've said, but it seems I took too long to recognize my mistake and it will be forever immortalized in hacker news history :(


> I think considering the Standard Model a moving target is still reasonable

IMO no. The standard model isn't just a table full of particles, it's much more. One core part is is the description of how these particles behave, and the lagrangian. These could change much more drastically if a new particle turned up. This is because the particles in the standard model are intimately tied with underlying representation groups, which can't accomodate another particle. It's possible folks would still call it the "Standard Model", but I suspect such a drastic change would get a new name.


> If it turns out to be true, the chart linked below showing the 17 known elementary particles would be expanded to show an 18th.

no, actually the standard model would fundamentally break down. The math does not allow for such a heavy particle. No charts could save it.


That's not really the case. The standard model would need to be extended, sure (as the 750 GeV particle isn't predicted by the current SM). But there's no fundamental reason this can't be done; in fact in the weeks following this announcement by ATLAS/CMS, there were literally hundreds of theory models posted to the arXiv, claiming to extend the SM to account for the (potential) new resonance.


But the fact that there were hundreds of theory models posted means that there is no "standard model" for this new particle at the moment (if it is a real particle).


How would it fundamentally break down? Admittedly I don't know enough to know how a particle with these particular properties would affect it, I was just trying to make the point that a new particle doesn't necessarily break the standard model. I'll try to edit my post for more accuracy.


(It's been a while since I took this class, the following might well be wrong or grossly inaccurate)

The particles of the standard model are assumed to correspond to the irreducible representations (irrep) of the groups associated to the symmetries of the strong, weak and electromagnetic interactions. These groups are SU(3) (strong) and SU(2)×U(1) electroweak. The currently known particles correspond to the first few irreps of these groups, with the dimensionality of the irrep nicely matching the number of “similar” particles, see e.g. [1]. This means that, if the above assumptions hold, finding a single new particle requires there to be yet another irrep[2] which would imply that there are even more new particles corresponding to the other dimensions of this irrep.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_Model_%28mathematical...

[2] If this is even possible, I’m not quite sure, but SUSY does something similar I guess.


No, the Higgs boson was detected a few years ago, but was named and predicted in the 1960s. As far as I know, there's no more room in the Standard Model for additional particles.


If we find new particles and also come up with a theory that extends the SM to describe them, that new theory _becomes_ the standard model. It's a moving target that basically represents the best picture we have to account for everything we've seen so far. There are already a few things already known to be wrong with the standard model, for instance we don't have a clear mechanism for the neutrino masses and you could argue that it's missing a dark matter candidate (assuming DM can be described by particle physics to begin with). The exciting thing about this (potential) 750GeV resonance is that it would indicate new physics that isn't already known to be missing from our picture of the SM.


> If we find new particles and also come up with a theory that extends the SM to describe them, that new theory _becomes_ the standard model.

I don't know enough history to know if this was the case in the 1970s or 80s, but I strongly suspect it wouldn't play out this way now. The existing "standard model" has been so stable for so long (30 years or more) that it is now treated as a very specific thing. When theorists talk about possible expanded systems with additional particles, they tend to give them names: the "MSSM" is the "Minimal Supersymmetric Standard Model", for example, and if that proved to be an accurate description of our universe I think it would carry the MSSM label forever. I expect that even decades from now when we (hopefully) have a well-established broader model in place, the term "standard model" will still refer to the same low-energy sector of that theory that it does today.


The standard model is not a complete model of all elementary particles. It is a model of all known elementary particles.

There are reasonable outstanding predictions for:

- More Higgs bosons

- A Graviton

- Another 17 super symmetrical pairs to the existing 17 known particles.

- One or more dark matter particles

We don't know which (if any) of those will end up coming true, but they could all add new particles to the standard model. It is also entirely reasonable that new particles outside of the ones I listed could be added and incorporated into the model.


Everything you list there is called physics beyond the Standard Model. It does not predict any of those.


I didn't mean to imply the standard model was the thing predicting them. Only that scientists have predicted them and if they were to be discovered, the standard model would likely be extended to include them.


I'm greatly oversimplifying:

Suppose you have a series of 10 pairs of number coming from the universe, lets call them particles. After crunching the numbers you discover they fit perfectly in a linear function y=mx+b. Yep, two constants, one parameter and you can explain all those particles. Obviously, more particles could exist if they fit your curve, and you in fact discover, in time, 15 more of them!

Wow the model works, it predicted a bunch of awesome stuff. You and your peers name it "Standard Model" since it's so good. It's still just a name though.

Now suppose one more particle comes up and it doesn't fit the line at all. Sure you could "extend" the model by converting it to a Laplace polynomial with 24 more coefficient just to accomodate that new particle, but you can't honnestly say it's the same model anymore.


So does the procedure usually "invent particles" where the theory does not include everything to fill the gap, and we look if there in fact is this kind of particle afterwards?

And now we found a particle but we didn't know there was a gap to fill?


I believe that is normally the case, but this wouldn't be the first time a particle was discovered before being predicted.

The muon was discovered before an accurate prediction for it was made. There were some known gaps that people tried to fill with particles related to muons, but no one quite predicted that there was a particle identical to an electron but with a larger mass.

The tau neutrino was discovered without any prior reason to believe it existed. We knew of neutrinos and they seemed to fill the only related gaps we had. It wasn't until the tau neutrino was experimentally detected that we even realized there was a gap for it.


> The tau neutrino was discovered without any prior reason to believe it existed. We knew of neutrinos and they seemed to fill the only related gaps we had. It wasn't until the tau neutrino was experimentally detected that we even realized there was a gap for it.

The tau neutrino was discovered in 2000. The discovery of the tau lepton 25 years prior heavily implied the existence of an associated neutrino.


Last time there was an "unexpected reading", we spent 3 months being excited about faster-than-light particles until someone found the error. Let's not get too excited just yet.


I don't know about this one, but I don't think many scientists believed in faster-than-light particles, at the time it felt to me like only the media did.


My recollection was even the scientists who discovered it were basically saying "this is an odd result, can anybody reproduce or figure out where we went wrong before we get excited"?


I'll take three months of excitement, damn the consequences.


The pursuit of discovering something new and interesting that could potentially change your entire understanding of the universe, is what makes science so utterly satisfying. It's like being re-born. Everything you once knew was completely wrong and you have to re-learn everything.


> Everything you once knew was completely wrong and you have to re-learn everything.

It's really cool in practice but the way you phrased it makes it sound dreadful :)


That made me laugh. I like your attitude.


Can anyone tell me if there are any practical applications for this, or it is 'just' a further understanding of the world around us (albeit an important one)?


Sorry to be so petty but it seems very anti-intellectual to downvote such a carefully posed question.

It's on topic, the answer would be interesting, and it's stimulated good responses.


Thanks for saying that. People must have misunderstood my question. I was genuinely interested to know what kind of practical applications these kind of particle discoveries give us.


I don't think people misunderstood your question. Whether you intended it that way or not, asking if a scientific discovery has a practical application is a loaded question that gets asked every time something is discovered in physics. Sometimes it is used to undermine the money being poured into scientific research, other times just to belittle the discovery.

The reality is that these discoveries are important in themselves for furthering science. The applications come at a later point when the engineers need something with these new cool properties.


When someone explicitly goes out of their way to disclaim the sort of problems you describe, it makes no sense to criticize them for it anyway. The question itself is totally reasonable, and if it's often misused, well, they were clearly aware of that and intentionally avoided it.


It's typical HN moderation: downvote anything that disagrees with (or even appears to disagree with) the popular orthodoxy.


No, nobody can tell you.

When people go around talking about "new physics", translate it into "we know absolutely nothing about this (isn't that great?)", practical applications included.


What bout some of these older particle discoveries from the 60's, have we found practical applications for those, or is it still too soon?


The discoveries in the 20's that were "'just' a further understanding of the world around us" are what give us computers now. Not something someone could have predicted back then. Give it time.

Most of these particles are short lived and pretty useless in themselves. However, their discovery led to a theory around them, and that theory might be useful for things like quantum computation. Or not. Hard to predict.


Would you settle for from the 1950s? Neutrinos were first proven to exist then (though they were theorized from the 1930s). Those have been used to "look inside" the ruined Fukushima reactor.


Sometimes the process is more important than the result. For instance, the reason we have a World Wide Web is because hundreds of people working at CERN on projects like the LHC needed a better way to organize and share documentation. Even if the LHC's results lead directly to a fusion reactor or a warp drive, it will still be debatable whether that's more important -- or more economically valuable -- than what their researchers have already given us.


None that I know of, but IANAP. There may be some uses on nuclear engineering, I wouldn't know of those.


It is about thirty to fifty years too early to expect any practical applications from this.


The coolest thing we can do with the last unexpected particle, the muon, is this:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muon-catalyzed_fusion

It's not in the "Mr. Fusion" stage, of course, but pretty neat nonetheless.


Very exciting then, fifty years and we could be unlocking some serious building blocks :) It's a blink of an eye when you look at the speed of scientific progress over 2000 years !


Assuming it is actually true and not some kind of sensor anomaly.


If it's a graviton/gravitino then it could lead to things like mass drives way down the road - but until we know what it is, it's way to early to even be considering practical applications. Oh, and if it is a gravity mediating particle then we may also be able to solve that pesky dark matter question.


Particle acceleration as a technology has some applications/ From the top of my head: Synchrotron radiation is used for material testing, in semiconductor fabrication its is used to implant ions, there are applications to cancer treatment. The technology that gets developed to actually carry out the experiment helps to train generations of high tech workers (think radiation hardened semiconductor circuits for example, specifically in the detectors) and develop advanced fabrication methods (needed to build the superconducting magnets for example). From a policy perspective, the fact that it also advances the borders of human understanding is just a nice side effect.


"[...] before the experiment shut down for its winter recess."

Can anyone shine a light on why the particle accellerator needs recess?


Geneva needs power for the winter.

(not joking)

http://home.cern/about/engineering/powering-cern

"At peak consumption, usually from May to mid-December, CERN uses about 200 megawatts of power, which is about a third of the amount of energy used to feed the nearby city of Geneva in Switzerland."


Well, not quite. They don't shutdown in the first place because of the power usage, but they choose the timing for the shutdown when it is most economical. Regular maintenance is unavoidable.


Regular maintenance work (maybe just sweeping dust off everything or fixing minor leaks etc.) might require complete shutdowns, as the magnetic fields and temperatures around the accelerator might be dangerous. Further, scientists often move to their job for just a few months/years and hence have most of their family far away. Christmas/New Year is a traditional time to go home and spend some time with them, especially since most other institutions (schools, unis etc.) also shut down around then. Combining the two might lead to a somewhat extended “winter recess”.


> Regular maintenance work (maybe just sweeping dust off everything or fixing minor leaks etc.) might require complete shutdowns, as the magnetic fields and temperatures around the accelerator might be dangerous.

Confirmed by http://phys.org/news/2016-01-winter-therapy.html.

Also makes sense to have your annual shutdown when electricity prices are likely to be high: I'd guess that heating has a higher impact on these than air conditioning in Switzerland.


Current generation particle accelerators aren't commodity machines. They're custom hot rods, operating at the limits of stability in a high radiation environment. I never understood why people are surprised that they have to be rebooted from time to time. (And the reboot process is a doozy. It takes about a month to get everything properly tuned.)

The shutdown is in winter because CERN's budget is limited, and electricity is cheaper in the summer.


Skiing countries in Europe make sure there's a good period of holidays factored in for skiing holidays


ELI5: Presumably this was a result of the LHC's power upgrade to 13 TeV. If so, should they now be able to repeatedly get these results again and again?


Yes, the energy needed was reachable because of the upgrade. And yes, they should be able to repeatedly get there.


> Presumably this was a result of the LHC's power upgrade to 13 TeV

Eh... despite what the other guy is saying, you can't really say this for sure. These bumps appear in a region that was accessible during Run 1 at 7 and 8 TeV.

See figure 3: http://arxiv.org/abs/1504.05511

If it is something real, and not just a statistical fluctuation (that's a big if), then it would have to be e.g. some decay product of a much heavier particle to account for why it wasn't seen during Run 1.

> If so, should they now be able to repeatedly get these results again and again?

Again, depends if it's a real effect or a fluctuation.


About time! I can see how scientists were excited when the LHC confirmed existing theories, but the thing was kinda expensive, so it would be nice to get some new physics out if it instead of just a "yup we were right".


This is one case of ambulance chasing: http://arxiv.org/abs/1603.01204

EDIT: I just noticed that this is also linked in the article.


"An unexpected data signal that could change everything has particle physicists salivating."

I know I'm like an old man screaming into the wilderness, but I can't be the only one that's profoundly sad that even nature.com has to resort to this sort of horrible clickbait formulation for a headline.

Notwithstanding my aesthetic dislike of it, the thing about these headlines that makes me really upset is the fact that they aren't actually telling the truth.

Not to be pedantic, but they have not observed any particle physicists with an unusual amount of saliva, presumably. There is no anecdotal or visual evidence of people drooling, nothing.

It seems to me this is like the most horrible way to start off an article in a publication that is about the scientific method for gods sakes, where precision and accuracy is sort of the whole point.

Would it really be so hard to have a headline like "Shocking and unexpected evidence of a new particle" or something similar that actually says or at least approximates what the news is?


I got to the second sentence before getting frustrated with the integrity of an article by Nature:

"They have tried to recreate dark matter, reveal extra dimensions of and collapse matter into microscopic black holes."

The missing word was slightly irksome. I find the claim that anyone has intentionally tried to create microscopic black holes bombastic.

CERN's own site:

"According to the well-established properties of gravity, described by Einstein’s relativity, it is impossible for microscopic black holes to be produced at the LHC. There are, however, some speculative theories that predict the production of such particles at the LHC. All these theories predict that these particles would disintegrate immediately. Black holes, therefore, would have no time to start accreting matter and to cause macroscopic effects." - http://press.web.cern.ch/backgrounders/safety-lhc

They have certainly looked into it for safety sake but if CERN's intent was to create microscopic black holes, I suspect it would be a very different machine.


> They have certainly looked into it for safety sake

Actually, when I worked at CERN there was never much fuss about such risks. The tunnel is just 100 m under, but I've yet to hear from someone worried about his house being sucked in.


They aren't worried because they looked into it. You could argue that "comparing max theoretical energy to that of cosmic rays" doesn't constitute "looking into it" but that's splitting hairs.


There is no missing word. "Reveal extra dimensions of" -> "microscopic black holes".


Ah ha! I appreciate you pointing this out. I read the sentence at least ten times trying to make sense of it and still failed to make that connection.

It still leaves me wondering what experiment at the LHC has attempted to reveal extra dimensions of, and collapse matter into a black hole. I have not been able to find any LHC experiments with this set as a goal, but I would love to be shown otherwise.


>Not to be pedantic, but they have not observed any particle physicists with an unusual amount of saliva, presumably. There is no anecdotal or visual evidence of people drooling, nothing.

So journalists shouldn't even use figures of speech? That will make for much more dull language. I really think you're picking nits here. It's obvious the article means that scientists are excited by this new data, not that they are literally salivating.


I think it was pretty obvious nobody was "salivating",etc. but that rather it is a way of saying how excited they are about studying this new phenomenom. They are just metaphors, I see nothing wrong with that. They are used all the time and are an important part of any language.


I mean, you have to admit that this 'use of metaphor' for exaggeration is being used at a startling rate. And you have to admit that clickbait being used by respected magazines and journals is a bit frightening.


It's a fad. They are trendy right now, and they work because they are new, but in 5 years that style will stop attracting people, and "clickbait headlines" will be another entry on the "10 things you remember about the '10s" lists.


It seems like a fad now, but it has been trendy and in use for a very long time. Read anything by David Ogilvy to understand the origins of the current environment we're in. http://blog.bradleygauthier.com/david-ogilvy-headline-copywr...


If they had used your suggested headline ("Shocking and unexpected evidence of a new particle"), it would be equally fair to criticize them for not saying how much current people were "shocked" with. It is, after all, a science publication. The bit about "physicists salivating" is no more or less likely to get me to click than to know that they were "shocked".


One of the reasons this kind of language bothers me is that it's both clickbait and a part of the general project of drumming up excitement about the sciences for the usual reasons.

And while I suppose this drumming up of support is a net good for the sciences, at least from the standpoint of future and practicing physicists, it is fairly unrelated to the significance of these kinds of discoveries. This kind of news has more in common with a breakthrough in advanced mathematics that gets far less "salivating"-type coverage than anything in physics ever will.

In other words, while this news might cause some interesting talk around the water cooler about the exciting new way the universe might be operating, it's only because folks' imaginations have been stoked in a way that I think has to be admitted is a little bit disingenuous. Headlines like this contribute to that.


Ok, we've used your title suggestion above. Except you really shouldn't resort to linkbait words like "shocking". :)


> even nature.com

Sadly, Nature has been doing this for years in their articles. Nature articles (not papers) are "popular science for scientists", and as such often use hyperbole and sensationalism and fail to communicate the actual core science. It's sad that the most-sought out journal does this :|


I don't come to the comments on HN to read about people whining that journalistic headlines are too sensational. Of course they are. Ice is pretty damn cold too. Accept it and move on.


The Trisolarians are coming!


Sophon lockdown begins?


Finishing Dark Forest made me really wish I could speak and read fluent mandarin, so that I wouldn't have to wait another 4 months for the final volume! They pushed the publication date back again...


Oh that's sad to hear. It's one of the best sci-fi series I've ever read no doubt.


I had some serious problems with the Three Body Problem, which annoyed me enough to put a pause on reading the next novel. I loved all the interpersonal stuff - I haven't liked a character as much as I like Big Shi in a long time - but the tech and science of it seemed implausible to me.

It's hard to go into details without being spoilerific, but: the problem is hard to solve, but you can still make very useful short-term predictions; the technology they have access to is being insanely under-utilized given their goals; and I don't believe the actions of the scientists given how they use that technology - I would expect the reaction to be the exact opposite of what ends up happening.

I left a review on GoodReads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1553897979


I liked this essay on plot holes (and more generally good writing) despite the all caps and rather long winded style: http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2012/10/30/film-crit-hulk-smash-...

Personally, I found the strength of TBP and DF to be the depth that Liu achieves with his plots at the highest level, and it's important to take a step back and not judge him as pure hard SF (as it seems to have been sold to you, based on your review) but as a writer of literature using SF as his medium (as might have Heinlein, PKD, or Asimov who is his clear and direct inspiration).

The science "plot holes", the suspension of disbelief were I think fair play as a base to deploy his explanation of the Fermi paradox (which is to an extent the point of the whole series). Like psychohistory in Asimov's Foundation or Batman's seeming invincibility in Nolan and Ledger's masterpiece, it helps plot development and the greater ideas about human nature, politics, information operations and so on that are put forward by the book.

The analyses of human nature, particularly of bureaucracies and destruction via inaction (to quote Admiral Rickover, "the person who disclaims responsibility is correct: by taking this way out he is truly not responsible; he is irresponsible").

What makes a good book/movie/narrative work of art? To me it is increasingly about the plot and, to quote FCH, about how long the work can make you think about it after you're done reading it. It's clearly working since it's been weeks since I've read the books and I still couldn't resist making the quip despite the increasing amount of karma it is costing me for being off-topic.

Compared to another famous recent Hugo winner, Rainbows End, I thought Liu's work was much more enjoyable, because it was technically unpolished but had a great, interesting, innovative plot (and I'm sure half of the polish went missing in translation), whilst the latter was technically impeccable if now a little dated, but had little in the way of plot; the plot was almost a frame in which Vinge was developing his ideas about wearable tech and information operations' logical conclusion. It's like Esterhase mysteriously putting on a bad Hungarian accent in Smiley's People when he was the epitome of the try-too-hard British arriviste in TTSP - you can forgive them the glitch since the core of the writing is so exceptional and both Esterhases were fabulous characters with great depth.

Liu's ability to toy with the reader and take unconventional paths is rather rare in today's crop of writers. I would draw a parallel there with many of Charlie Stross' books; the polish is not always there, but he keeps reinventing himself and (at least for me) each foray into a new genre or avenue of thought is a success (and a source of great movies and books to explore).

As a side note, I thought it was one of the few successful depictions of a truly alien culture (what you call near-Strong-AI?) in SF today (and no, I didn't think Vinge's FOTD's Hugo winning hive-dogs were truly alien: put human heads instead, set it in medieval "Ireland-Spain", and you get Game of Thrones, down to an epic fire battle before the walls of King's Landing).

As a second side note, isn't it fun to draw parallels between TBP and the real world? How do you, today, as the PLA, deal with the fact the NSA can hear and read everything except your thoughts when planning defense strategy? Suddenly the sophons don't seem so alien... I don't like tin foil hats, so I didn't try too hard to put myself in the Chinese position, but it was definitely an interesting line of thought.


Yeah, the human nature aspects were what I really loved about it. Liu could have left out most of the interstellar scifi, and told a story just as good.

I'm not sure if I buy the alien-culture, though. The Trisolarians seemed just as human as ... humans, especially given their introduction in the titular video game, and the Sophons barely seem to have a culture at all.

(I also agree about the Tines; I really love them as a species, but I hated the sequel, because I don't really care about basically pre-tech societies enough to read long fiction about them - same problem I had with Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, and the reason I haven't read any of the ASoIF novels.


> I'm not sure if I buy the alien-culture, though. The Trisolarians seemed just as human as ... humans, especially given their introduction in the titular video game, and the Sophons barely seem to have a culture at all.

Did you really think so? I can't remember where DF started, so I'm going to have to be careful with spoilers but in my view, the "game characters" were either humans (professor Ye if I remember well), or weak AI game characters programmed by the Trisolarians in an attempt to map their propaganda to humans. The game itself is an information operation: it is designed to cultivate a resistance within humanity and disinform humans psychologically in order to gain yet another edge over them militarily.

However Trisolarians themselves are a "superior civilisation" which is both helped and hindered by a particular feature of theirs which we don't have (related to the Tines, actually) and which becomes the core plot point enabling most of DF to play out (like the Wall Facer project). Sophons are just sophisticated communication devices, there to send back information to Trisolarians so they can better understand, hinder and later destroy Earth; they are not themselves strong AI (and therefore not a civilisation).

Thus what makes it interesting is the game theoretic aspect of it, and especially the treatment of information flow. Trisolarians know everything except the thoughts of humans (and, initially, they also lack the information that humans are capable of private thought).

It is not what they say (which is purposely adapted to look human) but how they react to learning bits of information that makes them a fully fleshed out alien culture (such as learning abstract concepts like deception, then figuring out the game theory of deception and altering their conversation onto the ETO accordingly).

The human fifth column goes from being a convenient tool of further aggression, to a core path to avoiding the one realistic chance humans have against the invasion. The ability of the Trisolarians to create a high quality "virtual machine of human minds" within their civilisation capable of such manipulation makes them a convincing "higher civilisation" (which is what will make the third book interesting, I bet, especially after the closure brought by DF).


Ah, ok, I haven't read DF yet. I think what you've given me here is a bit of a spoiler, but enough to make me actually want to read it.

Is the English translation that's out right now good enough? I've heard very mixed reviews about it - does it make sense to wait for a possible new translation, or should I just dive in?

Also, I thought that the Sophons were an AI, and that their actions on Earth were largely self-controlled - not driven by Trisolarians remotely.


I think the rules for the sophons are not entirely clear, because he set them up as a plot device for a few of the things he needed (FTL, no more science, omniscience of the enemy) in order to create the special conditions that force humanity to defend itself by creative thinking and this is also why I didn't spend too long cross-referencing their viability. Nevertheless I vaguely remember them being some kind of giant PCB when unfolded in 2D with a fairly high level of abstraction and autonomy without being strong AI (and therefore a new civilisation). It's a given in the plot anyway that you don't want to create a higher civilisation, because of the DF... well, I'm not going to spoil it, but the Trisolarians have very good reason not to create real intelligence capable of resetting its goals.

The translation is as good as it's going to get. The main issue is that Liu is from the PRC and spent most of his life there. It took me years in Asia to slowly realise how differently the Chinese think from Westerners (hell, Westerners themselves think very differently just across borders - compare the worldview of a Brit to that of a Nordic or a Frenchman). If you compare Strugatsky and Asimov, you also get this huge cultural difference that is untranslatable because of the large amount of metadata bagage that Russians would already have coming into Strugatsky's work after growing up in Russia.

The book is "very Chinese", if that makes sense, which I think is what confuses people (and to me is a feature). A quick intro to what that means might be watching a few episodes of If You Are The One (非诚勿扰), a slightly crazy dating show that since the second season has had a government censor added to the panel to moderate the gold diggers; an Australian TV channel has started subtitling a bunch of episodes, although I unfortunately could never find the infamous season 1 ("I'd rather cry at the back of a BMW than smile on a bicycle"). You both get a sample of PRC normal citizen thinking and a taste of how the government is setting the tone culturally.


I'd love to get an annotated translation that dives deeper into the characters' motivations. The translation I had was full of footnotes, but mostly explaining historical and cultural allusions. But I think the book would probably be three times longer, and would raise more questions than it would answer.

Thanks for taking the time to have a nice, long conversation with me about this!


And again this evening! New publication date for Death's End in English: October 2016... it better be very, very good.




Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: