Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The Multiworse Is Coming (backreaction.blogspot.com)
482 points by franzb on Mar 16, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 178 comments



There seems to be a bit of a misunderstanding about funding models and how CERN and, at least, the US differ. In the early 90s I was briefly on a small team to sell IBM Federal products to the nascent US supercollider project. (With a background in physics, I was referred to as their throwdown physicist.)

Then the supercollider was canceled, and later we called on CERN in Geneva to brief them on storage systems software and hardware, like hierarchical mass storage and linear tape robots. CERN had a nice mockup of the proposed LHC, where you climbed down a ladder into a fake tube, like what is bored underground. While we were down there, our hosts shared a shocking factoid with us. The US government canceled the proposed $12 billion supercollider project, and to exit all the contracts and fill in the holes that had already been dug was costing $650 million. CERN told us that for $650 million, they could build the LHC. I didn't verify their numbers, but their capital efficiency was stunning.

CERN is funded by all the European countries with a steady budget, and they are allowed to spend it however they wish. When CERN needs to build something big, they put some part of their steady funding into the bank, and it just sits their for however long it takes until they need it. By having steady, stable funding, they can make much more efficient use of their funds. As far as I can tell, there is little or no political heat about CERN's budget like "what have you done for us lately?"

The US, on the other hand, funds large projects out of special legislation in Congress, and everyone has to get their constituents a piece of the pie. This has some gross inefficiencies for large science projects. Appropriate hype is the motive force.


Appropriate hype is the motive force.

You are exactly right on this. I was a physics grad student (not particles) when the Supercollider was being pitched. We had a colloquium on it, and the presenter kept repeating the slogan "5 years, 5 billion dollars." Most of us were savvy enough to know that such a claim was pure bullshit. But hey, if you convince them to start it they would never cancel it, right? And if you needed more money they would have to give it to you, right?


They ended up requiring quite a bit more than 650 million USD to build the LHC. CERNs yearly budget is about a billion.


The LHC cost approximately $4.4 billion to build, according to Wikipedia.


Or the equivalent of 3 Space Shuttle launches.


That's really the best way to compare the costs, bravo. The numbers are: 135 lauches, 196 billions total cost, which gives an average Shuttle launch cost of 1.452 billions.


I get where you're all coming from, but the "average shuttle launch cost" as calculated in this thread is a misleading metric. It's not that close to the real price of launching a shuttle, but it sounds like it should be.

The marginal cost of one additional shuttle launch isn't the same as the per-launch average across the whole program; the first launch was incredibly expensive (presumably in the tens of billions), and subsequent launches were less expensive. NASA claims $450M per launch[1] at the end of the program.

[1]: https://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/about/information/shutt...


$450 million is equally misleading though, isn’t it?


Why is that?


Only the last launches were cheaper and the average was much obviously higher. And yet there were 135 launches, theoretically (and somewhat in practice) allowing improvements. There was only one LHC being built.


Apropos of nothing, I don't believe they filled in ALL the holes down there. When I briefly worked for Dart Container, purveyors of the classic styrene foam J Cup, I learned they had just opened a MASSIVE new warehouse down in Texas, built in part of the tunnel system meant to become the home of the SSC.

I got to see part of their warehousing up near Lansing, MI. Imagine a building the size of a jumbo jet hangar, packed to the rafters with NOTHING but boxes on boxes of J Cups. Now imagine another. I'm pretty sure the Lansing facility had at least two, and that still wasn't enough for the millions of cups they move each year.

We use a lot of cups.


That's an obscene amount of polystyrene. Ugh. OT but I wish the stuff were never used.


Why on earth does one need to store so many cups? What ever happened to Just In Time manufacturing and delivery?


It's worth considering the cultural context in which high-end physics operates, at least within the United States.

The U.S.'s greatest military victory--the last time we can cleanly call ourselves heroes--was World War II. The Nazis were an awful regime who did horrific things that no one can defend. And Japan directly attacked us. We had good reasons for fighting and we (with our allies) conclusively won.

And there is broad public sentiment that we won because of physics. High-end theoretical physics gave us futuristic tools like radio, radar, and of course the nuclear bomb. Lower-end physics gave us the tools for engineering the incredible machines we fought with, like airplanes, bombs, tanks, and ships.

So, in minds of U.S. citizens, and more importantly in the halls of U.S. government, discussions of high-end physics come with an implicit promise of military applications. Maybe we could figure out anti-gravity, people think, or ray guns, or teleportation, or force fields--if we only understood the particles and fields a bit better.

Physicists do not promise any of this, of course. But at least IMO it is a real phenomenon. I went to see Interstellar with someone who had worked in and with Congress for a long time. After we left, she said "do you think it's true that once we understand gravity, we'll be able to manage gravity and create antigravity?" I had to explain that just understanding a phenomenon does not grant magical powers over it.

But that has been the experience of the U.S. government! They gave money so physicists could better understand particles, and in return the scientists gave the government seemingly magical powers, like seeing in the dark (radar) and city-destroying explosions (nuclear fission and fusion).

So what happens when physics stops delivering military leaps forward? Or when the physics is superseded by another discipline that delivers military applications?

It looked like chemistry and biology might do that, but then the world managed to collectively decide that those should be illegal tools of war. But it seems totally obvious that the current top priority for military application is information technology.

So, I think the author is correct that particle physics faces a looming crisis, at least in funding and public confidence.


> So what happens when physics stops delivering military leaps forward? Or when the physics is superseded by another discipline that delivers military applications?

Particle physics winter, just like AI in the 80s [1]. (It's a weird coincidence/irony that this is happening just as AI is ascendent and delivering significant military applications.)

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AI_winter


This is exactly right, and it's not just particle physics. Space exploration has the same dynamic. We went to the moon not because we thought it was scientifically interesting but because we were afraid the Russians would get there first. It's no coincidence that we haven't been back in 40 years. NASA now exists primarily as a mechanism for funneling pork into key congressional districts. Any science that it does is secondary.


With US-China tensions on the rise, China's space program steadily progressing, and profits from asteroid mining on the horizon (with the associated national interests to secure and protect profits), space exploration is bound to profit again from this dynamic. It is indeed no coincidence that all the major space programs got interesting again all at the same time.


Another goal of particle and nuclear physics funding from the 60's through 90's was to produce a steady stream of highly qualified people to work at the defense labs (Los Alamos, Livermore, Lincoln Labs, etc). My colleagues would get prestigious fellowships to do research at these places, and eventually get sucked into the classified research area. Unfortunately, I don't think the best and brightest U.S. students are going into physics these days, so this rationale for research investment is no longer there.


> I don't think the best and brightest U.S. students are going into physics these days

Where do you think they are going to?


Neuroscience is a big one. I would posit that understanding the brain is the biggest scientific frontier of my generation.


Ad tech


physics PhD, then wall street HFT.


So still physics


In the USA, a lot of funding for R & D (e.g. engineering and science) comes from grants that are military grants (e.g. Army, Navy, Air Force, etc.). In the US, about half (54%) of federal funding (coming from the public Federal budget) is via "military" and the rest is from other federal agencies ("civilian").

Source: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/05/how-science-fares-us...

Is that an American thing?


Note: The above figures don't take classified funding into account. Because it's secret. Most of the classified funding is military, so the proportion of military funding is actually higher.


Yes, I think you'd be hard pressed to find a European country where half the national research budget comes through military research.


> The U.S.'s greatest military victory--the last time we can cleanly call ourselves heroes--was World War II. The Nazis were an awful regime who did horrific things that no one can defend. And Japan directly attacked us. We had good reasons for fighting and we (with our allies) conclusively won.

> And there is broad public sentiment that we won because of physics. High-end theoretical physics gave us futuristic tools like radio, radar, and of course the nuclear bomb. Lower-end physics gave us the tools for engineering the incredible machines we fought with, like airplanes, bombs, tanks, and ships.

> So, in minds of U.S. citizens, and more importantly in the halls of U.S. government, discussions of high-end physics come with an implicit promise of military applications. Maybe we could figure out anti-gravity, people think, or ray guns, or teleportation, or force fields--if we only understood the particles and fields a bit better.

What is your opinion on the counter-thesis that the reason rather was the Sputnik crisis?


Yes, money determines the direction of modern science. (This isn't 1900 any more!) And a huge chunk of the funding money (in America anyway) comes from the military. You're right on: if it (whatever it is) looks like it might have a military application, then it's much more likely to get military funding, which for some researchers, means it's more likely to get funding period.


One small quibble, physics only shortened the war in the Pacific, getting the Japanese to agree to an unconditional surrender without an invasion of the Japanese homeland and the concomitant estimated one million American casualties. The undamaged industrial might and natural resources available to the United States to continually contribute war fighting material to the frontlines help win the war in Europe and the Pacific theater more than anything else. The Pacific front was not the priority of the European front, we had a Germany first war plan even before the war started, the heavy dependence of Japan on imported natural resources made their defeat inevitable if America had the will to fight, especially after the first strike on Pearl Harbor did not work in the way the Japanese envisioned. It left America's carriers and most of the submarine fleet intact and did not crush America's morale.


Sources needed


Read a lot of military history books when I was a child. Now I can google some things for a refresher - you can trust them or not, mostly wikipedia.

There are many citations in the article about the US/UK strategy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Europe_first

The US oil embargo on the Japanese homeland had put them on their back foot before the war even started - and is often cited as a reason for the undelivered Japanese declaration of war prior to Pearl Harbor, and once we starting island hopping/pushing them off the Asian mainland they could only delay defeat and to make it as painful as possible for America to progress to discourage an invasion of Japan. Part of Germany's impetus for attacking on the Eastern front was the need for more fuel, the Allies had more in their homelands of the USA and the Soviet Union than was available to Germany.

The somewhat disputed Yamamoto quote says it best(the movie version probably is what sticks in people's minds): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consequences_of_the_attack_on_...

The Soviets suffered more casualties than anybody to stop the Germans on the Eastern front and tying them up there helped reduce the German troops available for their Middle East push and beach/support defenses in France and Italy and the Soviets were able to build much of their own military hardware even after the German invasion but they still got our help, mainly for transport of material. We helped almost all the Allies, but most support went to the UK and Soviet Union. Kruschev quotes Stalin here: "He stated bluntly that if the United States had not helped us, we would not have won the war. If we had had to fight Nazi Germany one on one, we could not have stood up against Germany's pressure, and we would have lost the war." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lend-Lease


Thank you for the well thought out response. I've read a handful of books on the atomic bomb so this interests me. Have a upvote for your time.


this is actually known in most of the world; that the US just cleanly won with raw superiority purely driven by what is good and right and no complex motives (including omitting the use of nukes to avoid having to do a proper invasion with their related losses and that they didn't want to join the party in europe, then were late to the party after things were already decided and THEN went home claiming they defeated the Nazis) is just the US-internal narrative. The other countries sadly didn't simply forget the political discussions that happened during the war period.


Why the allies won would be a good start


Ah thanks, a comment that makes sense to me (and doesn't require too much insight into the esoteric particle physics terms like 'Naturalness' :-P ). Agree, a break-through like the harnessing of nuclear energy was doesn't seem to be on the horizon (but who knows what we don't know?). And it might affect the perceived utility of physics by the military.

But i'm wondering if there isn't a more menacing threat looming for these advanced sciences. We could actually be hitting a hard wall in our understanding of nature. We are using instruments created for us in our dimension to probe worlds that might be much too small (or large) for us to make any serious sense of, at least for the next millennium (maybe). Maybe it's time we accept that we can't understand everything, only a little more at the time, maybe (probably) in infinity.

Meanwhile, there are a vast number of insights pertinent to the human scale waiting to be found.


> esoteric particle physics terms like 'Naturalness'

It just means "numbers involved in physics are short and simple". From wikipedia:

> In physics, naturalness is the property that the dimensionless ratios between free parameters or physical constants appearing in a physical theory should take values "of order 1" and that free parameters are not fine-tuned. That is, a natural theory would have parameter ratios with values like 2.34 rather than 234000 or 0.000234.

And the reason physicists tend to expect their theories to be natural is that in the history of physics uncovering new things, most things have been natural, to the point where significant amounts of knowledge has been derived based on the expectation of naturalness -- that is, when something could be natural or not, and we couldn't properly test it yet, we just assumed it was natural and went on to research other things. And then, possibly decades later, when it's finally possible to test the theory, the test just confirms that yes, it was natural.


At the end of the 19th century [...] it was generally accepted that all the important laws of physics had been discovered and that, henceforth, research would be concerned with clearing up minor problems and particularly with improvements of method and measurement.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_physics


>then the world managed to collectively decide that those should be illegal tools of war.

There is good reason to believe that biochem would only have hurt western interests if it was researched. Countries with nukes don't need weapons like this to wage war.


I think theoretical physics might be in need of a short dose of internal reflection and debate coupled with some side reading of contemporary philosophy, metaphysics, and philosophy of science. These sorts of debates around concepts like "naturalness" and "laws of nature" are philosophical bread and butter.

This isn't to say that modern philosophers aren't susceptible to alluring desert landscapes like "naturalness", but at least philosophers are trained to think about and critique these kinds of things. Physics needs to be capable of having this debating itself and recognise assumptions with wobbly metaphysical underpinnings.


This is so very important.

In particular, there's a long-accumulating need for a revision of the current dogma on the philosophy of science and its operationalization -- Popper falsificationism, peer review, publication-oriented research, freaking null hypothesis...

Most of our current science has happened before Popper and falsificationism, so there is nothing "essentially true" about the current M.O. of science. And heck, was it falsificationism that brought us vaccines, nuclear energy and computers? Because there's a replication crisis going on in many scientific fields, and particle physics doesn't fit the mold of falsificationism at all.

I'm not coming forward with a solution in an HN comment, but I think we need to stop equating science, the civilizational project, with this specific philosophy of science and social system for organizing science.


Could you elaborate on what you perceive as the problem with falsificationism? I'm familiar with the philosophical argument that Popper's demarcation of science is too narrow. What is less clear is that this argument over the definition of science currently has any influence on scientific practice. Are there some examples where scientists (or funding agencies) have adhered to "falsificationism" in a way that impeded progress? This is in contrast with the other issues you mentioned: peer review, publication-oriented research and abuse of the null hypothesis (by which I assume you mean p-hacking and its cousins), which I agree are very real problems in practice.


> Could you elaborate on what you perceive as the problem with falsificationism?

Operationally? You have to pick a null hypothesis. You have to carve reality in two, specify two possible universes and ask an experiment to tell you which universe where you're in.

Darwinism (the one in Darwin's works) isn't like this. Adhesion to falsificationism would have nipped that one in the bud.

Stuff like this is the way forward: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_holism


I always wonder where this naive falsificationism as a point of critique comes from. Certainly not from Popper, as he already argued for holism in the sense of Duhem and Quine from the beginning (Logik der Forschung was written in 1934!)...


From addressing the great many naive falsificationists that have heard of, or were taught, Popper’s basic idea without any of his elaborations and footnotes, let alone those by people like Quine, Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend, ... A little knowledge can be a dangerously misleading thing.


You have to understand what is known of the physics before you can philosophize usefully about the metaphysics, and that is what the physicists who are thinking about things like "naturalness" are doing. As Eliezer Yudkowsky pointed out, millennia of epistemology did not prepare us for quantum mechanics, and Bergson's intuitions about time did not prepare him for relativity.


> To justify substantial investments, I am told, an experiment needs a clear goal and at least a promise of breakthrough discoveries.

This is antithetical to science. If you're promising a breakthrough discovery, you're approaching the experiment with bias.

The fact that more new particles have not emerged at energy levels the LHC can produce is a discovery--if I'm understanding the blog post correctly[1], it's the beginnings of a disproof of naturalness in supersymmmetry. It's not as exciting as if they had discovered hundreds of new things to study, but it's equally important.

And that's exactly why I agree with the author: science is about finding what's true not about finding what's exciting. As a taxpayer, I think one of the most valuable things particle physics could do here is to educate people on that bias and lead by example. I get that they fear losing their funding to do science, but if you let that fear push you into pursuing exciting results over the truth, then you're not doing science anyway.

[1] I'm not a particle physicist--my post is about the social problem that physicists are facing, not about the physics.


"This is antithetical to science. If you're promising a breakthrough discovery, you're approaching the experiment with bias."

I think all experiments are began with some premonition of what to expect. For example Michaelson and Morley very much expected to measure the speed through which earth would pass through aether ... except they couldn't. An the results pushed physics toward theory of relativity.

I disagree that's it's an entirely bad process to bankroll experiments based on unproven promises. This is exactly how the Manhattan Project happened. The physicists promised that it was very likely they could create a very large explosion, but they did not know if it would bang or fizzle. So, the US government began a huge industrial scale operation to enrich uranium and to assemble the bomb. The first atomic bomb explosion was very much empirical science that was bankrolled by "unsound" promises.

In this sense going beyond LHC would be kinda ground breaking - big budget science with absolutely no clue on what to expect. It's how discoveries are made, yes, but I'm not sure if any large scale scientific project has been funded without at least some clue on what to expect.


> I think all experiments are began with some premonition of what to expect. For example Michaelson and Morley very much expected to measure the speed through which earth would pass through aether ... except they couldn't. An the results pushed physics toward theory of relativity.

> I disagree that's it's an entirely bad process to bankroll experiments based on unproven promises. This is exactly how the Manhattan Project happened. The physicists promised that it was very likely they could create a very large explosion, but they did not know if it would bang or fizzle. So, the US government began a huge industrial scale operation to enrich uranium and to assemble the bomb. The first atomic bomb explosion was very much empirical science that was bankrolled by "unsound" promises.

What you're describing is the "hypothesis" step in the scientific process. Properly done, a hypothesis isn't a promise--it's simply a statement of the possibility you're testing, without any commitment to the possibility being the reality or not.

A good hypothesis results in the same experiment as its negative: "There are more supersymmetric particles at higher energies" is the same hypothesis as "There are not more supersymmetric particles at higher energies" because you test both hypotheses in the same way. Contrast this with a promise: you can't promise something and its opposite.

> In this sense going beyond LHC would be kinda ground breaking - big budget science with absolutely no clue on what to expect. It's how discoveries are made, yes, but I'm not sure if any large scale scientific project has been funded without at least some clue on what to expect.

I don't think we have absolutely no clue what to expect--the article goes into some of the possibilities.


> A good hypothesis results in the same experiment as its negative: "There are more supersymmetric particles at higher energies" is the same hypothesis as "There are not more supersymmetric particles at higher energies" because you test both hypotheses in the same way.

Actually, no, they are not the same. You are excluding the middle, as it is necessary for an experiment to disprove the null hypothesis before any conclusion can be made. Just because you don't prove your hypothesis doesn't mean you prove its negation. Typically, an experiment will find no result at all.


The negative of we "will see X via some experiment." Is not "X does not exist," but rather, "we will not see X via some experiment."


Agreed--thanks for the correction.


I think you're splitting hairs now. Once you have a hypothesis, you can come up with a promise. IF there are (or are not) more supersymmetric particles at higher energies, THEN we can leverage X plus this to move towards possibly curing cancer [or whatever, I have no idea].

The word "promise" doesn't just mean that something will definitely happen, it has a secondary meaning of something being promising, having "the quality of potential excellence".

It's about articulating where this experiment slots into the context, articulating why it's interesting to look at this thing, and not the fifteen other things that won't be funded if your thing does.


I think you maybe can make that sort of conditional promise sometimes, but in context, that's not the kind of promise described in the article. It's specifically saying, "a promise of breakthrough discoveries" (this is the quote from the article). A scientist can't promise breakthrough discoveries. A lot of discoveries are just, "this thing we thought might happen didn't happen, I guess that's a dead end".


That's simply not true. Once you have a hypothesis, you do not come up with a promise. You come up with a test.

Promise and Promising do not have the same meaning.

promise = statement that something will happen

promising = showing signs of future success


You do both. You come up with a test, yes, and you come up with an idea of what it will mean if the test either confirms or rejects the hypothesis.

And no, promise can mean exactly what I said it can mean. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/promise

From the article:

> To justify substantial investments, I am told, an experiment needs a clear goal and at least a promise of breakthrough discoveries

That sentence is meaningless if "promise" means "A declaration or assurance that one will do something or that a particular thing will happen" -- the "at least" is totally redundant in that interpretation. If it means "the quality of potential excellence", then "at least" makes perfect sense.


If it was "promise" in the sense of "showing promise", then it's a mass noun and they wouldn't have said "a promise". That's like saying "a money" or "a knowledge".


> A good hypothesis results in the same experiment as its negative: "There are more supersymmetric particles at higher energies" is the same hypothesis as "There are not more supersymmetric particles at higher energies" because you test both hypotheses in the same way. Contrast this with a promise: you can't promise something and its opposite.

Again, use the word promise here with its other meaning and it makes perfect sense. Both framed questions have the promise of revealing something big. They are not a guarantee of a big result but there is the possibility of a big result.


> What you're describing is the "hypothesis" step in the scientific process. Properly done, a hypothesis isn't a promise--it's simply a statement of the possibility you're testing, without any commitment to the possibility being the reality or not.

Once there is money on the line, the concept of "without any commitment" goes out the window. You are committing money to testing that hypothesis and there is an opportunity cost for other more promising hypotheses you could instead test with that same money.

Saying, "I think the particle collider X will demonstrate the existence of the Higgs boson" (or whatever) is a simple hypothesis.

Saying, "I think you should give me $9 billion to build particle collider X that will demonstrate the existence of the Higgs boson" is a much different statement that requires more sophisticated analysis before smart action can be taken.


I think what really should be said is that we need governments to continue funding pure science - research that doesn't necessarily have immediate benefits, but rather expands our understanding and may provide building blocks for those breakthrough discoveries that clearly move us forward.

That's not to say that there isn't also a place for funding specific research that shows promise for solving specific problems or that would provide specific benefits - the Manhattan Project is certainly an example of this.


Yes, and the LHC cost about $13 billion. Was it worth it? Would another--probably more expensive--collider be worth a likely negative result? Is there a cheaper way to achieve most of the same goals? Are there more promising things to do with that research money?


Top comment suggests it's too early to say that the results from the LHC are entirely negative.

> At the end of 2018, the LHC will have recorded a mere 3% of the intended research program. That means that there is 30x more data to come. I think you'd need to see the results of all of the data before you say that the LHC was a bust. It may be. But your claim is hasty.


>"I disagree that's it's an entirely bad process to bankroll experiments based on unproven promises. This is exactly how the Manhattan Project happened. The physicists promised that it was very likely they could create a very large explosion, but they did not know if it would bang or fizzle."

The difference is that they predicted a large explosion before, now they predict a bump on a graph representing an event (actually events) that nobody otherwise notices ever happened...


> The first atomic bomb explosion was very much empirical science that was bankrolled by "unsound" promises.

War often forces you to take risks that would be imprudent under normal circumstances.


> This is antithetical to science. If you're promising a breakthrough discovery, you're approaching the experiment with bias.

You're mixing two uses of the word promise here.

One is like a guarantee. I promise to deliver a breakthrough.

Another is an expectation. There is the promise of a breakthrough.

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/promise

The statement here means simply that there could be a breakthrough discovery and that the chances are at least relatively high.


I'm not sure that matters: either use of the word is a form of bias.


It is absolutely not a form of bias in the experiments (it is of course technically a bias in which experiments are funded, but this does not affect the integrity of the results).

Promising a breakthrough means I must either be lucky or force my results towards something that sounds good. That is bias.

Having an experiment where there is promise of a breakthrough simply means my experiment could deliver something huge.

I could fling Fabergé eggs at a wall and it'd be expensive but exceptionally unlikely to reveal anything big. Testing the warmth of fires lit with Rembrandts would be similarly unenlightening but expensive. Firing particles at each other at energies we've never tested before with newly designed detectors has a chance of a breakthrough (however you choose to define a breakthrough). Picking the latter over the former because it can give a breakthrough does not mean the experiments done with it are biased.


The fact that more new particles have not emerged at energy levels the LHC can produce is a discovery--if I'm understanding the blog post correctly[1], it's the beginnings of a disproof of naturalness in supersymmmetry. It's not as exciting as if they had discovered hundreds of new things to study, but it's equally important.

The point is though, these criticisms (that LHC might find nothing) had been making the rounds since before the LHC was built, while many promoters claimed we would for sure find evidence of supersymmetry. So while LHC may not have been a mistake, the right response now would arguably be to reassess fundamental theories in light of the new evidence accumulated at the cost of billions of dollars - not to go back and tweak the same old theories to suggest that many more billions and years need to be spent to make really really sure we were wrong.

If late 1800s physicists had spent decades building ever more accurate devices for trying to prove the existence of the eether that held together the universe, perhaps some useful engineering or data analysis work would have come out of it, but it could also be a way for the field to go on an extremely expensive wild goose chase and stall out actual theoretical breakthroughs.


Well, alternate uses of the money is the whole problem.

How many mathematicians can you let loose on long-standing physical problems (qualitative dynamics of the large-N body problem, the freaking turbulence motion of fluids, etc.) -- at some level of "big bet" that frees them from staccato publication pressure -- with the money spent trying to find gluinos or some such ill-developed theoretical construct?


Let's say the total collider budget could fund 100K mathematicians for 10 years, working on whatever they thought was most important.

It's hard to imagine the output of that wouldn't be amazing.


It's actually pretty easy to imagine when you consider the problem of selecting which 100K mathematicians will receive this beneficence. The first few thousand would be straightforward, but they're presumably all the ones who have tenure and can already spend the next 10 years working on whatever they want.

After that, how do you separate the promising mathematicians from the lazy and the crackpots?

This is the same problem that a "Manhattan Project" to cure cancer or what have you always runs into: It's easy to see where to get value from the first dollar, but the 30 billionth dollar likely costs more than a dollar just to figure out how to productively spend it!

"Fortunately", experimental particle physics doesn't have this problem, since you can always use that next dollar to build a bigger collider.


With 100k grants to give, I think you'd want quite a few crackpots, and maybe even some lazy mathematicians. Those could be the types who come up with a game changing result.


100K mathematicians is a lot, but Wikipedia says there are 9267 people with Erdös number of 2, which is a huge mark of distinction: the median Erdös number in Fields medal laureates is 3.

I say, start a program with the Erdös-2 people and as it develops let these hire Erdös-3 folks.


this isn’t sustainable though, as people with smaller Erdös numbers will die out and larger ones will be too common.

so we should probably allow the smaller Erdös numbers to be inherited through primogeniture, to make sure we still have an identifiable class of good mathematicians to give money to.


And that's exactly why I agree with the author: science is about finding what's true not about finding what's exciting.

It's not like the choice about what to spend money on is between "true" and "exciting". The choice is between "true and exciting" and "true and not exciting". We have to use something to choose what to invest in, so why not choose based on how exciting the potential discoveries are?


Because there is a third category, 'exciting but not true', which is at high risk of distorting the decision making process and getting funding that is badly needed elsewhere (see, for example, Scott Kelley's DNA, anything to do with homeopathy, etc).


The article is about funding the Large Hadron Collider. If someone was to suggest spending that amount on researching homeopathy I don't think they'd get very far.


Because, historically, many important discoveries (I would guess the majority) came from things people thought weren't terribly important. Often things that most thought had no value at all.

I think of it like central planning vs free markets. It can sound good to plan things out and direct things towards the outcomes you want, but it's less efficient.


> Because, historically, many important discoveries (I would guess the majority) came from things people thought weren't terribly important. Often things that most thought had no value at all.

Or a massive case of "hmm, that's odd". Like Fleming noticing that bacteria were not growing near certain molds.


Well investing in the exciting thing is what the free market does so...?


It's the difference between central planning and a free market -- thinking your can plan out the overall system vs a more decentralised system -- that I'm focusing on with that analogy, and not making any other particular points about the relationship between science funding and business.


You could also choose to do experiments which teach you nothing at all, and I think that's the worry here.


Most people don't go into science in a completely calm, cool search for raw data. They go into it because they find it exciting and want to solve interesting things or discover "cool" things. Scientists aren't robots. The US went to the moon because it was an exciting challenge, it inspired generations of kids to become scientists. We could discover lots of meaningless facts about logic, but most people want to do something exciting, and the people who discover meaningless facts about logic do it because they think it is interesting and exciting to an extent. Spending money on something that could be exciting is better than paying bean counters to discover meaningless logical facts. Especial when the bean counters don't really find anything, either expected or unexpected.


> Most people don't go into science in a completely calm, cool search for raw data. They go into it because they find it exciting and want to solve interesting things or discover "cool" things.

This is true, but as a great philosopher said, you can't always get what you want. If you search for the truth, a lot of it won't be "cool". Some of it will be cool of course: but if you prioritize coolness over truth, it might prevent you from discovering anything at all. A cool lie isn't a discovery.


That reminded me of two quotes:

> If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.

-- C. S. Lewis

> A man may imagine things that are false, but he can only understand things that are true, for if the things be false, the apprehension of them is not understanding.

-- Isaac Newton


> This is antithetical to science. If you're promising a breakthrough discovery, you're approaching the experiment with bias.

That's not true. In fact it's probably the opposite of true!

You do experiments specifically because you have some a priori reason to think that this experiment will tell you something interesting. In fact, one of the major ways scientists are trying to deal with the replication crisis is pre-registering their methodologies and expectations of experiments.

Which isn't to say it's not a good idea to do fundamental research, but it's absolutely valid to try and consider where funding should go based on what we expect to get from experiments.

Of course, I think the current process is pretty bad, since it relies so much on theatrics, as the OP mentioned. But I agree with OP here, at least in what should happen - physicists shouldn't hype or over-promise what an experiment can deliver. I just wish we lived in a world which valued these kinds of fundamental results enough to agree to support them financially!


> You do experiments specifically because you have some a priori reason to think that this experiment will tell you something interesting.

There's a big difference between saying, "This experiment will tell me something interesting" and "This is the interesting thing that this experiment will tell me". The former is what you're describing, the latter is what I'm objecting to.


Then you are objecting to a strawman. "This experiment promises interesting results" is different from "I promise that this experiment will yield interesting results". As in, it's a completely different definition.

Hence the the inclusion of "at least" in the source quote, which wouldn't make sense alongside the other definition. See the dictionary links that have been posted multiple times.


Hm, I can see how the wording of the article is ambiguous.


I don't think that naturalness is something that can be disproved, but it is not necessarily the case that finding out the universe does not work in some particular way is just as useful as finding out that it does work some specific way. That is because there are so many more of the former.

The issue of the article is a resource allocation problem, and there is something unethical about bending scientific prognostications (these cannot be distinguished with the label 'hypotheses') to that end.

"Pursuing exciting results over the truth" doesn't come into it - no-one is accused of falsifying anything here (though it has happened elsewhere.) At worst, the truth will be delayed, though that might be the outcome of pouring resources into a bigger machine, rather than of not doing so.


If you look at the history of Bell Labs, the scientists were mostly given free reign of what to work on, with the idea that it would somehow benefit communications.

What did we get out of it? The transistor, the laser, cellular technology, solar cells, and tons of other things that nobody would have bothered to research -- without the simple curiosity of our scientists.


While I do agree that you should be able to do experiments for experiment's sake, and to just "see what happens" so to speak, projects like the LHC and the fusion reactor projects are all multi-billion projects; that's a lot of money to be spending on something where people don't know what to expect.

But yeah, experiments, especially nowadays, are to prove theories, not to push breakthroughs - in fact, given the higgs boson was already theorized, science could already use it. Not sure what the LHC added to that besides proving it exists.


> But yeah, experiments, especially nowadays, are to prove theories, not to push breakthroughs - in fact, given the higgs boson was already theorized, science could already use it. Not sure what the LHC added to that besides proving it exists.

Theory verification is a very important part of physics. For example lots of people who work in string theory write down lots of crazy theories of how physics looks beyond the standard model. Perhaps they are all wrong, but we currenly have nothing better. So we would really love to have any currently experimentally viable way with which we were able to check these theories. Thanks to LHC we could do this at least for the Higgs boson. Before this experiment the Higgs boson was also "just a crazy theory that was able to resolve a hole in the standard model".


Because building future science upon unverified discoveries is dangerous. Better to prove and measure the higs now rather than have some later and even more monumental experiment to discover a super-higs fail because the underlying theory was off by a few percentage points.


That proof of existence alone is what now holds up decades of work that was done by theorists based on the (then) assumption that the Higgs mechanism is real. The observation is a major puzzle piece in that picture. Without the experiment, all that theory would be worthless.


> While I do agree that you should be able to do experiments for experiment's sake, and to just "see what happens" so to speak, projects like the LHC and the fusion reactor projects are all multi-billion projects; that's a lot of money to be spending on something where people don't know what to expect.

On the contrary, not knowing what to expect is exactly why you should spend money on it. If you know what to expect, there's no reason to spend billions of dollars testing what you already know.


I think the author's argument is that we pretty much know what to expect--a negative result--and all the people arguing otherwise can't give good reasons beyond "I want my funding to continue".


It's also antithetical to scientific principle, though not to common practice, to look for your keys under the streetlight. If there's no good reason to believe that a new accelerator will produce breakthroughs, then there's no reason to fund it. There are plenty of areas of research where large investments of money would have a great chance of advancing science rather than just enabling a small group of scientists to continue doing the work they're accustomed to.


> The fact that more new particles have not emerged at energy levels the LHC can produce is a discovery

You want to find out the distance to the Moon. You build a 100 meters high tower, but you still cannot reach the Moon. So is building a 200 meters high tower now a good idea? Maybe if you build your tower a little higher, you could finally reach the Moon.

Or maybe you should go back to the drawing board and re-think your whole approach.


> This is antithetical to science. If you're promising a breakthrough discovery, you're approaching the experiment with bias.

No, but you have to have some sort of hypothesis to justify the experiment. You don't throw effort and money at the wall either, you make a guess about what you'll find, and use that to drive the decision as to what to investigate.

And new particles, at this point, don't qualify. The LHC was probably "worth it" for the Higgs result alone, but absent a new target (like the Higgs) that we really think will be there, no one sane would build another bigger collider at these budgets.


> This is antithetical to science. If you're promising a breakthrough discovery, you're approaching the experiment with bias.

Whether to build something expensive isn't a scientific question, it's a political one.

To take an example to the extreme, if it were just about science, science might decide to convert the entire mass of the Earth into a particle collider and kill us all in the process.


> Whether to build something expensive isn't a scientific question, it's a political one.

Well, if you're building something expensive with the intent to perform science, one would hope that the political answer to this would be informed by science.

> To take an example to the extreme, if it were just about science, science might decide to convert the entire mass of the Earth into a particle collider and kill us all in the process.

Relevant: http://cowbirdsinlove.com/46


> It’s a PR disaster that particle physics won’t be able to shake off easily.

I really don't see this. As a non-specialist, I assumed that the LHC was pottering along making useful if non-spectacular discoveries. The fact that naturalness is in doubt due to its data sounds exactly like the work it should be doing. Blame physics for not having a clutch of new particles ready for discovery, not physicists.


The problem as I understand it is that prior to natural-ness being in doubt, it was expected that the LHC would make discoveries in supersymmetry that would justify practically bigger (but hugely expensive) colliders. Without a new frontier of supersymmetrical particles to explore, that next collider doesn't offer much for anyone to get excited about, let alone the taxpayers who might be asked to pay for it.


In recent decades, the high-energy physicists haven't produced much. But the low-energy physicists have been getting many new results. The action today seems to be down near absolute zero. The stranger predictions of quantum mechanics, from quantum entanglement to slow light, have not only been directly verified, but are approaching commercial use.

“If you can't measure it, you can't improve it” (Lord Kelvin)


Please help me understand the logic of naturalness. Suppose we have one constant, alpha, approx= 1.425, and another (beta) approx=2.157 - such setup is deemed natural. And if the other constant is approx 2.157 times 10^40, it's not natural. and needs fine-tuning, right? The underlying assumption is that fine-tuning is not needed for a former setup, that is, if beta was about 0.5%, or 0.05% different from where it sits at 2.157, then we would be totally fine, Universe would look the same for all intents and purposes. I fail to see how this follows. Maybe the difference by 10^(-40) would make life impossible? how can we possibly know this?


It's not really about the values of constants but about where they appear and about their size.

So imagine we have some Physics setup were certain laws should hold. There is some magical formula called Lagrangian L = stuff. When you construct this L from scratch, you add everything you have. That is some e for the Electron field function, some phi for the Higgs, some m for its mass etc etc. At first this sounds like an insanely long and random equation. But because of all the constraints in your setup its 'only' one page long for the Standard Model case. Oh yes and then there are some stupid terms which must be really small to only _softly_ violate the constraints. E.g. CP-symmetry for strong interactions - violation of this symmetry hasn't been observed in nature "Strong CP problem". That's where fine-tuning has to happen at the moment...


Please confirm that my understanding is correct. You have a number of "stupid" terms in Lagrangian, whose cumulative effect must be small in order for the whole theory to make sense at all. This small cumulative effect can be achieved in 2 ways: 1) each term is small 2) terms more or less cancel out. When each term is small, we call it naturalness, otherwise it's fine-tuning. If this is correct, then... say you have N random varaibles, and you know that the sum is small. What is more likely: that each of N variables is small, or that the sum is small because it just happens to be small? :)


Fortunately there are not so many terms of this kind in the Standard Model case. :)

However terms don't really cancel each other out. (I'm sure you could construct a scenario where that happens but that doesn't generalize.) It's part of the construction manual if you will to have only independent constants and terms.


Am I to understand from this article that the LHC is over? That the global community of particle physicists can't come up with anything interesting to do with the world's most powerful particle collider? I do hope I'm misinterpreting the article, because that would be a huge disappointment.


You misunderstand, the particle physicists are having a blast discovering properties, they're just not finding any more particles. Finding particles is sexy, and sexy gets funding, so the risk is that they run out of funding with their run of the mill sciencing.

That's why they're postulating, maybe if we had a slightly larger collider we could find sexy super symmetry. The author thinks that is disingenuous because the argument that a slightly larger collider would find supersymmetry is speculation, not based on real science.

Anyway, even if there was a solid argument for there being supersymmetry just around the corner I don't think a larger collider would be funded, the LHC offered many many sexy things, so the stars aligned and it got funded, but would the stars align again for such a huge amount of funding, just for supersymmetry? I feel as a layman the idea of supersymmetry is not captivating enough. Not in the way the higgs boson was.

Anyway, there's so much applied physics research just waiting to be done right now, maybe it's time for theoretical physics to chew on it for a bit.


> the particle physicists are having a blast discovering properties

I'm glad to learn that I was mistaken! As a layman myself, this is really all I want from the LHC: for it to continue to be a useful piece of equipment for scientific experments. From the article, it sounded like the attitude was, "we didn't find anything sexy, so we're done here," which would be a huge waste.


For what it's worth, there are accelerators, colliders, and synchrotrons here in the US that were dwarfed by the LHC (and practically unheard of in popular culture) that are in use today.

They're still running experiments on the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Lab in New York, for example, even though it started operation 8 years before the LHC and runs at a fraction of the energy.


I always get excited when driving or flying over SLAC! Although I understand that the facility is now half laser interferometry.


> but would the stars align again for such a huge amount of funding, just for supersymmetry?

Maybe not.

What we really need is China to build a massive new supercollider as a national prestige project, to show their parity with the West. That might even spur some competitive spirit and get the West back into the game.


From the comments over there:

> At the end of 2018, the LHC will have recorded a mere 3% of the intended research program. That means that there is 30x more data to come. I think you'd need to see the results of all of the data before you say that the LHC was a bust. It may be. But your claim is hasty.


That's not the right conclusion. The LHC is expected to run for at least another decade, but it will not cast light on terra incognita forever. Since particle accelerators like the LHC (and its various proposed successors) can take a generation to build and calibrate, it's important to start thinking now about planning and funding future experiments.


No, this article is nonsense. Basically saying because nothing incredibly ground breaking has yet to come out of the LHC that it's a disappointment/failure.

Feels like saying SpaceX has failed because it hasn't put people on Mars yet.


It might be more accurate to say that SpaceX has to frame their ventures in terms of fantastical Mars colonies for PR purposes, while the reality is less sexy, but more necessary LEO work.


I'd be willing to bet that the overwhelming majority of SpaceX investors and employees understand how sexy partially-reusable and fully-reusable LEO rockets are.


Interesting article. In lieu of any qualification to verify the claims; the comment section seemed on superficial reading populated with experienced scientists that gave some support.

Another takeaway was the introduction (for me) to the concept of "naturalness", with which the author has some issues. It is however not possible to do away with it (if I'm not mistaken about its meaning), except in cases where the assumptions of naturalness turn out to be wrong, as it seems it was in this case.

It seems to me that some concept of "naturalness", is what we use to interpret empirical facts, without which we could not make sense of it at all. Examples of what I would consider "naturalness": that the past precedes the present, that large things contain smaller things (perhaps in infinity), ad that small things are contained in larger things (perhaps in infinity), etc.

Granted, our sense of naturalness could be completely wrong, and empirical data constantly challenge what we consider natural, which is how it should be.


Your understanding of what naturalness is seems odd. If you get rid of naturalness, you just have fine tuning. Fine tuning is not beautiful but it is not a logical disaster as you describe.


ok thanks, on further investigation I realize my interpretation of "naturalness" was a laymans uninitiated one:

"In physics, naturalness is the property that the dimensionless ratios between free parameters or physical constants appearing in a physical theory"[0]

I have no idea what that means atm

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naturalness_(physics)


I'll take a stab (I Am Not A Physicist (in fact I couldn't handle the math and moved to CS ;-) ). Parameters or constants in a theory generally have units (i.e. speeds, density, whatever). But lots of things (usually ratios) have no units because they all cancel out. Those are called "dimensionless". Pi is dimensionless, as is e.

What the naturalness property seems to be saying is that these dimensionless parameters (which you have to stick into the equations to make the math work out) should all be around the same order of magnitude and not require too much precision. If there is such a parameter that is super huge or super small (in relation to the others) or requires a lot of precision, it's an indication that the theory is incomplete. There should be an observable reason for that difference/precision.

If I've gotten that right, then I can see why people would be sceptical of naturalness. If naturalness was correct, I would actually be curious of why it was correct.


Moreover, "naturalness" is not mathematically well-defined even though many of its most passionate proponents claim that it is. This is one of the primary objections that Sabine has of "naturalness", not only might it be wrong, but when you plumb the motivations for it and actually try to make it mathematically well-defined, the motivations turn out to all disintegrate.


Incomplete quote: '...dimensionless ratios between free parameters or physical constants appearing in a physical theory should take values "of order 1" and that free parameters are not fine-tuned.'

It just means that theorists are suspicious of theories where the parameters have to be adjusted to high precision to match reality. That's reasonable grounds for suspicion, but it's not natural law.


"Like hair, trust is hard to split. And like hair, trust is easier to lose than to grow."

Worth reading just for this quote.


Maybe it’s time for a paradigm shift in particle physics as Thomas S Kuhn once predicted

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Structure_of_Scientific_Re...


Kuhn's model is not a prediction, it's a statement of fact how human accepted knowledge moves sometimes forward in huge paradigm shifts.

Everyone "knew" that the speed of light was constant, everyone "knew" earth had to be only couple of thousands of years old (e.g. Lord Kelvin was a firm believer in only a thousands of years based on his physically based estimates), atoms where quite a hard bargain to sell as anything as computational tools until you got some computations and Jean Perrin to do some experiments, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Baptiste_Perrin, continental plates where supposed to be solid fixations, until they weren't, etc.

It's nice of Kuhn to point this out. Maybe it's convenient for administrators or something to realize accepted facts tend to change - but it gives absolutely no clue on how exactly move science forward.

I don't really understand the huge uproar about Kuhn - his ideas should be "obvious" to anyone familiar with history of science. But maybe as professional management and pathological "professionalism" made it's headway in his time it was nice to point out that Gant chartable progress was not all there was to it.


"Just do it" actually sounds like a good reason. Tackling difficult engineering problems always creates spinoffs even if the core activity is fruitless.


But if we're going to be spending billions of euros on moonshots, the core activity doesn't need to be fruitless! There's plenty of unfunded marginal ideas that could change the world if successful. How about funding something like MIT's ARC fusion reactor?[1]

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ARC_fusion_reactor


It is a good reason, but it's a reason that's difficult to sell to people who make decisions about where to spend a few billion dollars.


Justify it with the benefits of previous activity.


Exactly the point: the previous activity's (LHC's) benefits have proven to be decidedly underwhelming.


Such as the one we're all using at the moment (WWW).


What are the benefits of the LHC again? I mean, the benefits of spending billions that all of us can notice in our daily lives?


The LHC was a project of unprecedented magnitude and complexity. During the planning stages, CERN devoted some resources to developing better ways for teams on LHC and other projects to communicate with each other and share documentation.

That is the reason why the address in your browser's URL line starts with "http(s):" followed by "www." It's not an exaggeration to say that the work of Tim Berners-Lee at CERN led directly to the creation of trillions of dollars of economic value.


That's great, but it doesn't answer the question.

The World Wide Web was eight years old when work on the LHC began. (I didn't need the history lesson, btw. I remember very well when that protocol was introduced.) Further, while I'm not trying to take away from Berners-Lee's invention of a new protocol for it, CERN did not invent the Internet. Lots of us were sending email and downloading files and chatting on IRC before http was created.

And it probably is, in fact, an exaggeration to say that http created trillions of dollars of economic value. The stuff that gets sold on Amazon and eBay and through Google ads mostly existed before the invention of http, and some of it may even have existed before the internet. Had http not been created, it is not hard to imagine a world where people still got their advertising through tv and magazines. And isn't that the main funding source for internet companies, and the main economic value that has been created -- advertising, I mean? I don't think it amounts to trillions of dollars yet.


That's great, but it doesn't answer the question.

Without a time machine, it's impossible to answer the question. As the old cliche goes, if they knew what they were doing, it wouldn't be called "research."

The World Wide Web was eight years old when work on the LHC began

As with any large-scale project, the planning and design processes began long before the first shovel hit the earth.

Lots of us were sending email and downloading files and chatting on IRC before http was created. ... And it probably is, in fact, an exaggeration to say that http created trillions of dollars of economic value.

Sure. Because Facebook and eBay and Google and Amazon and Wikipedia could have been built on IRC and Gopher.

CERN did not invent the Internet.

No one said they did. You might as well argue that CERN didn't invent fiber optics or copper wire. The Internet is not the WWW... but you knew that.

And isn't that the main funding source for internet companies, and the main economic value that has been created -- advertising, I mean?

The movement of information from one mind to another is not a zero-sum game. Reducing the economic value of the WWW to its present value as an advertising vehicle is misguided, if not downright fallacious, but you probably knew that as well.

We won't go into the irony of using machines built with ICs fabricated on nanometer-scale processes to argue about the potential future value of fundamental physics research.


Sure, spinoffs are nice, but they happen with all types of public access research. Why not create a project of a unprecedented magnitude and complexity that also creates very important results directly? It's like saying "spend vast amounts of resources on pursuing random goals, and eventually some of the resources, by accident, will create a ROI". Yes they will, but is it really the best way to do this? It's not like some version of hypertext wouldn't happen without CERN.

I'm not saying CERN wasn't useful. It was. And the budget wasn't that big. But this kind of logic is not very sound. If we have a lot of money and a series of concrete problems, we should spend the money to solve them.

Most of the money are to be spend directly on the problem, less to develop and build new tools to tackle the problem, and finally even less to discover new possible mechanisms that might or might not allow us to improve our tools in the future.

There's a lot of uncertainty in the future, and it's best not to bet a lot of money on it.


>Why not create a project of a unprecedented magnitude and complexity that also creates very important results directly?

This is not an option, if we had any project candidates like this they would have already been funded. Everything that is not already done by the private sector exists as a big step in to the unkown. (The private sector is very good at allocating resources to projects that give immediate results, but it will never do anything that can't.)


> that also creates very important results directly

Because that's not how science works


Need to justify it with governments/politicians who have to prioritize funds.


The author is missing a major point: politicians may still support enormous projects like the LHC for the same reason they would support any pork barrel project: it gives them influence and the ability to direct money to their friends/constituents.


I'm not a physicist, so I might sound like a moron stating this:

Isn't it possible that current theories in particle physics are just simply inaccurate models of the world? They're just hypothetical low-level explanations of observed high-level effects, and could have been empirically proved by the large colliders, which doesn't seem to have happened.

So maybe we don't need new experiments, but new models. A negative result is a result too.

On a related note, the assumption in quantum physics that particles have a probability distribution rather than an exact location has always bugged me. Why can't there be low-level mechanisms going on that are too quick/small to be measured (today)?


The models are almost certainly inaccurate, we just don't know how inaccurate. It's quite possible that we need new models (or ditch supersymmetry), but physicists become invested in their models and try everything to tweak them to match observations, until it just doesn't work anymore and we have a major breakthrough.

>On a related note, the assumption in quantum physics that particles have a probability distribution rather than an exact location has always bugged me. Why can't there be low-level mechanisms going on that are too quick/small to be measured (today)?

It bugged a lot of other people too (Einstein's famous "God does not play dice" comes from the same corner). Experiments so far are only consistent with a probability distribution, unless you permit signals to go back in time. Of course how you interpret the model is an entirely different problem (do things only happen once observed, are we in a multiverse and all possibilities happen in some universe, are we simulated and those effects are caused by optimisations (both not calculating things until needed, and inaccuracies akin to floating point errors), etc. the possibilites are endless)


There are a couple "interpretations" of QM in which there is no probability distribution.

One is the "Many Worlds" interpretation. (AKA, the Everett interpretation.) In this QM wave functions never collapse, and the only reason that we perceive there to be probability distributions is that the lack of collapse results in many different apparent worlds. Though in reality, there is really just one very big complicated world, but the difference parts of it stop effecting each other via a property called "decoherence".

Another deterministic interpretation is the Bohm interpretation, in which the particles are push around by a "pilot wave", which is the same wave function that never collapses in the Many Worlds interpretation. Since the "pilot waves" never collapse in the Bohm interpretation, one might wonder, then why you don't also end up with many worlds here too, but it is taken that the reality that we perceive is always determined by the particles that are being pushed around by the pilot waves.

One point of interest is that the Many Worlds interpretation and the Bohm interpretation are experimentally indistinguishable from each other.

Regarding the postulation of a multiverse, this is almost certainly true, if you ask me. It would seem to be the only way to explain the apparent "fine tuning" of the universe. Unless you believe that it was tuned by God, that is. But if that's the case, I have a few nits to pick with some of the choices that he or she made.


The problem is that we have a model that is incredibly accurate for all the things we can apply it to, but that has many conceptual loose ends and leaves some observations completely unexplained.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physics_beyond_the_Standard_...


> Why can't there be low-level mechanisms going on that are too quick/small to be measured (today)?

There are (non local, contextual) “hidden variables” theories that can “complete” QM and restore determinism. But there is nothing to detect, the predictions are identical to “standard” QM (at least in equilibrium).


I had no idea LHC was thought to provide more than Higgs' boson, and I don't think lots of people have any clue what it is.


> Remember next time we come asking for money.

Interesting point. Money drives research.

It took over 400 years from the discovery of gun powder to be applied to the use of projectiles. While it only took 40 years from the mass-energy equation to create an atomic bomb.


Next World Collider will be built in China.

They are about the only major country increasing government R&D funds.

The only exception would be if there is a breakthrough technology 100x more cost effective, i.e. you could build a 10x power LHC for a tenth of the cost. I see press releases of breakthroughs using lasers or EMF. But very unclear if they'd scale up to a petavolt.

Probably could build a pretty powerful accelerator using the world's electricity devoted to bitcoin mining :-)


> the conclusions based on naturalness were not predictions, but merely pleas for the laws of nature to be pretty

This is the main point.

She totally nailed it.


"Such a vacuum decay, however, wouldn’t take place until long after all stars have burned out and the universe has become inhospitable to life anyway. And seeing that most people don’t care what might happen to our planet in a hundred years, they probably won’t care much what might happen to our universe in 10100 billion years."


> and at least a promise of breakthrough discoveries

If we could promise a breakthrough discovery, we wouldn't need to build the machine.

The author seems almost heartbroken at the absence of life-altering findings. No new discoveries means we at least know what we're doing a little bit, right?


> This article seems almost heartbroken at the absence of life-altering findings.

That's not my takeaway. I think they were talking about how scientist shouldn't lie to get grants that probably won't achieve much.


That's (unfortunately) endearingly naïve.


Maybe. But it could also mean the Standard Model is some sort of dead end. There are a lot of observed phenomena it doesn't explain, and absent new discoveries there's not much consensus on where to go next.


I think the author meant "promise" in the sense of possibility. "He [or she] shows promise", rather than "I promise to pay."


I wonder why the post doesn't mention a pretty recent potential deviation from Standard Model [1][2]. It seems that LHC may deliver some new physics after all, it just needs more data to rule out statistical anomaly

[1]: https://youtu.be/edvdzh9Pggg?t=3124

[2]: https://home.cern/scientists/updates/2017/06/lhcb-flavour-an...



Perhaps whats going on is they have been measuring their own collective prior probability that these particles exist.

This is what would happen if you set your null model to be something that was false regardless of these particles existing. The way it works is more belief -> more effort put towards detection. It requires a certain amount of time and funding to cross the "discovery" threshold so this will only happen if there is enough prior belief.


I guess the detection of the Higgs boson is already a great thing! That was the missing part of the Standard Model. Now that theory is complete -- within its limits/Energy scale. Too bad that the many years before the LHC there was an ever increasing backlog of theory to be tested against experiment. Damn, Physics has so much in common with Software Development... ;-)


If just 3% of the data from the LHC has been analyzed so far, which means there is 97% more data to come in and be analyzed, and if the Higgs boson was discovered within these 3%, isn't it a bit quick to deem the experiment as failed already? Please note I most certainly have no idea about the subject at hand.


The boffins were looking for the Higgs Boson, makes a big difference.

Plenty of obscure and unintended findings came long after experiments have concluded. If history is anything to go by, LHC data will be useful far into the future.


Its not that i personaly votet for building the LHC. Its not that a higgs discovery changed my life.

I don't think that politics are influenced by this at all and building something like an even bigger LHC, ah come on every physicist would love something like that anyway.


The biggest problem with modern physics is that it's totally incomprehensible. People want to understand how the world works! The public would support physicists' work a lot more if they understood what was going on.


Even physicists would like to have simple explanations instead of all these mind-bending models that they have to work with. If anything, you have to blame nature for being so incomprehensible.


I was reminded of an Einstein quote I'd heard multiple times before. Apparently there is some debate over this, but it has been claimed he said that, apart from maths, all physical theories "ought to lend themselves to so simple a description 'that even a child could understand them.'

Other physicists have said similar; while still others, like Feynman, have said what sounds like the opposite.

Source: https://skeptics.stackexchange.com/a/22410


Physics research has got to focus on commercially viable fusion, that is the most urgent environmental and geopolitical problem facing the West if not the entire world.


The commercially viable part will be the most difficult; even if they manage to get more power out of fusion than they put in, and do so in a stable fashion (e.g. always on), even then a reactor will cost in the order of tens of billions to build, and much more to maintain. I'll believe we'll have fusion power within 30-50 years, I can't yet believe it'll be economically viable in that period. It'll have to compete with relatively straightforward means of generating power, like solar. I expect it to be cheaper to just clad every roof in a country with solar panels - and it'll generate more power - than build a fusion reactor.


There are good arguments that new superconductors massively lower the cost of fusion. Old projections on the back of ITER are probably too conservative now.


Isn't the cheap solar power already being developed as a solution? The prices go down, the processes are in place, there are no problems with legislation (like with nuclear power etc) - it looks like a perfect solution and the western world is rolling it out as we speak.


What if a discovery (or a side discovery in the engineering work on the experiment) on some totally unrelated field leads to a breakthrough for getting to commercially viable fusion? This is the problem with science. You are never 100% sure what you are going to get (if you did why do the experiment?)


What about serendipitous discoveries then? Research rarely leads to planned breakthroughs.


In experimental physics it does.

Two recent planned breakthroughs: Einstein's theory of general relativity predicted the existence of gravitational waves, and LIGO detected them in 2016. Bell predicted that entangled quantum particles would exhibit fundamentally nonlocal properties, and in 2015 the first "loophole-free" test demonstrating violation of local realism occurred.

These experiments were done with expectations of a result. That is not to say that they had foregone conclusions, just that there was some phenomenon that the scientists hoped to see, and confirmation one way or the other would be of interest to the community. Most experiments are like this -- of course scientists should keep their eyes open for unexpected discoveries, but in general pursuing expected results is more fruitful.


Well, I’m a member of the public and I will always support basic research funding.


Since we have limited amounts of money to distribute to all kinds of basic research, you have to ask whether the money needed for a bigger collider might be better spent on say, high temperature superconductors or astrophysics or whatever.


There’s a simpler argument in favor of high-powered facilities, but in geopolitics it is hypocritical, bestial and misanthropic: better physics facilities provide strength to intellectual backbone of your nuclear deterent, keeping it reliable, competant and accurate, so things really work if they need to.




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

Search: