The Problem of Parameters

The Problem of Parameters Image source: University of Cambridge -

Parameter’s a bad word in the world of physics for good reason. Parameters are fudge. Good physicists see more parameters as bad. Smolin says: “Has physics reached an impasse, and what can we do about it? One source of the crisis is that many … theories have many freely adjustable parameters. As a result, some theories make no predictions at all.” He goes on to say that: “The most popular theories, such as supersymmetry, have many more free parameters―the simplest supersymmetric extension of the Standard Model has 105 additional parameters. This means that the theory is unlikely to be tested in upcoming experiments.” Some of the “upcoming experiments” will employ the LHC, whose main reason for existence is to test these theories. If even it can’t see if they work, what then is scientific truth?

Smolin’s not the only one concerned that physics may have lost its compass. Many worry that the new shut-up-and-calculate-the-next-parameter approach is losing touch with physics’ roots. Are its disciples undercutting the foundations of the science revolution?

John von Neumann’s said to have said that he could fit an elephant with four parameters and wiggle its trunk if he could use five. It’s as though fifty years of labor in the fields of physics have produced an unwanted harvest: more parameters, not less. Few parameters is what is needed, all agree. How can one get to there from here?