Running over the same old ground?

Last week I was in CERN for various meetings. Rather unexpectedly, these included one with Roger Waters in which I totally failed to say “Welcome to the Machine” at the right moment.

cern and the jura, from a plane

There’s physics in them thar hills…

The main business was CERN’s Scientific Policy Committee, followed  by Council, and the first meeting of the “European Strategy Group” for particle physics which I mentioned here. As I describe in that article, much attention focusses on whether there is a case for a new big collider, and if so which one?

The LHC has transformed our view of particle physics, partly by discovering the Higgs boson and measuring its properties – especially its mass – and partly by what it has not observed. There were predictions that other new particles would show up at the same time as the Higgs, especially those predicted in an extension of the Standard Model of particle physics called “supersymmetry”. These expectations were not met, and that has led to a few different reactions amongst theorists.

Some appear to have confused the failure of theoretical predictions with a failure of the experiment. The most prominent example is probably Sabine Hossenfelder, whose initial nuanced critique of some aspects of particle theory seems to have degenerated into disillusionment with the whole idea of collider experiments. In this way of thinking, exploring and measuring new territory in physics is not enough without guarantees (as opposed to possibilities) of “finding new symmetries or solving the riddle of dark matter” (but see note added below) . We’d all like those things, but there are, as ever in real-life experiments, no such guarantees.

Others recognise that the LHC has changed the game, and are hungry for more data to stimulate new and hopefully better ideas. An example would be Nima-Arkani Hamed who, interviewed in CERN Courier, says:

Nobody who is making the case for future colliders is invoking, as a driving motivation, supersymmetry, extra dimensions or any of the other ideas that have been developed over the past 40 years for physics beyond the Standard Model.

This is because those ideas have been dealt blow after blow by LHC data. While in some cases impossible to technically rule out altogether, many of them are, as he says “either dead or on life support”. Even the underlying concepts behind the theories, such as the idea of naturalness, are under pressure. The fact that data can have this impact is a credit to good theory, by the way. A theory which endures whatever our experiments say is … suspect?

Which brings me to the third, and most bizarre reaction. A minority of theorists simply carry on as if nothing has happened. For them, supersymmetric particles are just around the next corner, as they were in 1990 (before LEP, HERA and the Tevatron Run II), in 2015 (before the LHC made its latest jump in energy) and for essentially every incremental step forward in beam energy or intensity along the way. The leader of this band is undoubtedly Gordon Kane, who has recently done it again in Physics Today.

I don’t really know what the motivation for this behaviour is, or how self-aware or sincere is the serial prediction/adjustment cycle. It even extends to silently revising books, as amusingly documented by Peter Woit here. Woit also dissects Kane’s most recent effort here, and I’ll leave it at that¹.

It is not hard to see why behaviour like Kane’s causes anger and scepticism, especially if you overestimate its importance and influence, or indeed the importance of theoretical instructions in general.

For what it’s worth, ever-imminent supersymmetry has played very little part in my own motivation.  Supersymmetry is an interesting idea deserving of respect, and the various versions of it have provided some handy case studies – a testing ground for experimental design and analysis. I’ve written papers on supersymmetry, including part of my doctoral thesis. But it was never a prime motivation. My attitude to it pre-LHC is described here, in case you worry I may be letting myself off lightly in the glow of hindsight.

The prime motivation for me, and many experimentalists (probably most theorists too), was always to extend the frontier of our knowledge of how nature behaves. Extending to higher energies also means looking at higher resolution, at smaller distance scales, deeper into the heart of matter and the forces that bind it. To me at least, this seems an especially interesting direction of travel.

Perhaps we experimentalists have deferred too much to theoretical arguments in the past. (And it must be said, the Higgs one was a very good one.) It is always nice to hear about things to look out for on your travels. But if we want to continue our exploration with significant new projects we need to make it clearer than we have before that the experiments don’t exist to chase down pet theories, interesting though those may be. Nor do they exist for the technology, training and other ancillary benefits they provide, although those are necessary to make them sustainable and economically beneficial. They exist to explore. The discussion needs to centre on the value of the knowledge they uncover.

¹Except to say that I find it strange that Kane implies in his article that the first electron-positron and proton-antiproton colliders were at SLAC (California) and Fermilab (Illinois) respectively, when in fact they were, as far as I can tell, in Frascati (Italy), and CERN, Geneva. The CERN one was quite famous and won a prize.

Note added:

My interpretation of Hossenfelder’s writing. She says she has never demanded guarantees, nor called the LHC a failure. I’m happy to assume she hasn’t put those statements down in so many words. However, on the first point, in my view the cumulative effect of her writing raises the bar of required expectation for a new collider to the level of “guarantee” for all practical purposes. On the second: at one point for example she writes of almost apologising to her bus driver for the fact that the LHC “… didn’t” [and] “…probably won’t” find anything new, which certainly paints a picture of perceived failure in my mind. Maybe she didn’t mean any of that and it was just unfortunate phrasing. However the “way of thinking” that I refer to is not uncommon, even amongst experimentalists.

I now wait with interest to see whether Gordon Kane also disagrees with my understanding of his words.

About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics prof, works on LHC, writes (books, Cosmic Shambles and elsewhere). Citizen of England, UK, Europe & Nowhere, apparently.
This entry was posted in Particle Physics, Physics, Science, Science Policy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Running over the same old ground?

  1. John McAndrew says:

    This isn’t a spam advert, but have a look at the documentary Behind The Curve which gives a pretty good idea of what motivates people to hold onto models of the world, despite mounting evidence that contradicts it:

    “Flat Earthers, a term synonymous with conspiracy theorists who wear tinfoil hats. Meet real Flat Earthers, a small but growing contingent of people who firmly believe in a conspiracy to suppress the truth that the Earth is flat. One of the most prominent Flat Earthers is Mark Sargent who, in the midst of the upcoming Solar Eclipse, proudly speaks at the first Flat Earther conference.”

    We’re all swayed by our biases to a degree, regardless of our level of education and competence.

  2. Supernaut says:

    Came here by way of Woit’s blog; thanks for the summary.
    ” …these included one with Roger Waters in which I totally failed to say “Welcome to the Machine” at the right moment….” That’d been awesome had you said it to him…but it is at the top of the blog post so that’s allright.

  3. Pingback: This Month’s Hype | Not Even Wrong

  4. Sal's Blog says:

    Jon, thank you for the particle physics supersymmetry update in the wake of the LHC data. In the movie Particle Fever, Nima and Kaplan make the case that we were at a physics crossroads – one leading to supersymmetry being proven, the other being the end of physics. I haven’t found anything written or said regarding this ‘end of physics’ possibility – where this universe is one of many and by chance has the properties that allow matter to clump, etc.. Do they now believe this is where we are in our quest to understand the true nature of the universe? As an engineer and Silicon Valley entrepreneur (now retired and with time to follow this quest of paramount importance) – I’d like to know what these brilliant minds have to say on the topic. Thanks again – you are the first person I’ve run across reporting on this. -Sal

    • As far as I remember the film the “end of physics” was a dramatised way of talking about the idea that “naturalness” may no longer be a good guide to new physics. That is, nature may be fine-tuned in weird ways and you can appeal to some kind of multiverse idea in which every universe, even weird ones, exists. There are plenty of problems with that idea, but even if it were true it wouldn’t mean the end, even of theoretical particle physics, never mind physics in general. I think what is happening is that some of the old guides to good theories (naturalness etc) are in trouble – something Nima acknowledges.

  5. Peter Morgan says:

    Is there scope for a replacement for ATLAS or CMS, or an additional large detector, instead of a new loop? Given the costs, is the quest for higher precision investigations at smaller length scales best served by upgrades to ATLAS and CMS and by higher energies? Can the beams be engineered to pass through a significantly smaller interaction point, so that the detector can be at sub-millimeter distances or even microns from the interaction points?

    • The detectors are being upgraded, and we could in principle add more. But the beam energy is the key, and the bending magnets just can’t make the beams go round the ring at any higher energies. So you need better magnets, and more gentle curve (ie bigger ring) or both. Or a linear collider, which brings different issues…

      • Peter Morgan says:

        I fear this will just repeat my first comment, but I think I meant to ask what if anything would be gained if we could, say, make the bunches a hundred times more narrow at the detector and the closest parts of the detector a hundred times closer to the interaction point, without changing the size of the ring? If that much improvement is just not possible, because with the methods we have we can’t compress the beam more than we do already, or if the improvement we can achieve would make no difference to what we could measure, then OK. This second time around, I wonder whether we could make the bunches much narrower if we made them significantly longer.
        If a larger ring is the only way we can currently imagine to improve our probe of the Physics significantly, if beam energy is really the *only* key we have, then *if* we can’t have a larger ring I’m sure there will be wailing in the streets just as there was after the SSC decision, but I’m also sure that after a pause we won’t give up, so what would we imagine? I can guess at engineering the geometry of the bunches and of the detectors relative to the bunches differently, because that’s the only geometry I can see available, if the loop and the magnets both have to stay the same, but I presume you can make a better guess.

    • If we make the bunches narrower etc, this increases the luminosity and hence the number of collisions, reduces the statistical uncertainty, and allows you some effective small increase in energy because of the proton structure (see for a bit more on that). Getting the detectors closer can improve things like the resolution on the particle production vertex, meaning you can better identify for example b-quarks which decay after travelling a few microns. All this is good, but none of it gives you access to energies above the maximum set by the energy of the beams, and it is that energy that sets the resolution with which we actually probe the physics (and also sets the maximum mass of any new particle we might produce). There is R&D on novel accelerator tech and better magnets so it’s not just about longer tunnels. But they always help… I would guess some of that R&D will help us out in the end. See for example plasma wakefield stuff:

Comments are closed.