Science Seen Time One author Colin Gillespie helps you understand the physics of your world.
What’s Wrong with Physics (and What Might Be Right)?
In recent posts I have suggested that the physics ox is in the ditch and this is bad for the economy and for all of us. That physics is mired in difficulties is no secret. American physicist and economist Lee Smolin says:
A growing number of theoretical physicists … see the present situation as a crisis that requires us to re-examine the assumptions behind our so-far unsuccessful theories.
That was eight years ago. Since then it has only gotten worse. A CRISIS IN PHYSICS? screams a recent cover of Scientific American. Yet many physicists―people we rely on to address it―don’t think (or say) it is a problem.
What’s going on? Let’s take a larger look. Sixty years ago six physicists (including the eponymous Peter Higgs) think of a new particle. Thirty years ago gangs of physicists start work on the Large Hadron Collider, hoping they can find it. Twenty years ago physicist Leon Lederman dubs it the God Particle; this misnomer sticks. In 2012 thousands of physicists swarm the French-Swiss border and attest to traces of a particle. It is a 10-billion-dollar blip within a blizzard of computer data; that’s it in the graph. They all cheer and call it Higgs, and thus the H in H→γγ, the particle decay they think they’re measuring. Then some say it’s as expected, so it’s boring. (Can their 7000-ton detector, ATLAS, shrug?) They have plans for bigger budgets for a new Collider with bigger detectors to find bigger particles. Is this the shape of fundamental physics as we head into the 2020s stretch?
Well, not quite. Italian physicist Fabiola Gianotti heads the ATLAS team. Almost unnoticed amid the Higgs hype she says, with admirable candor, ‘The dream is to find an ultimate theory that explains everything—we are far from that.’ Indeed the big payoff from the LHC is what it was expected to detect but so far didn’t: evidence of supersymmetry. American physicists Joseph Lykken and Maria Spiropulu say:
Supersymmetry is an amazingly beautiful solution to the deep troubles that have been nagging at physicists for more than four decades. … In short [it tells us]: Why does the universe look the way it does? … Results from the first run of the LHC have ruled out almost all the best-studied versions of supersymmetry. The negative results are beginning to produce if not a full-blown crisis in particle physics, then at least a widespread panic.
Crises? Troubles? Panic? Seems to me that what we need is new cheap fundamental physics rather than new pricy particle Colliders. Greek-Canadian BlackBerry businessman Mike Lazaridis has given almost $200 million (chump-change in Collider world) to the Perimeter Institute, or PI, a fundamental-physics hothouse in Waterloo, Ontario, saying, ‘We need a new discovery.’ He surely doesn’t mean a blip called Higgs. Maybe he has something simpler in his sights, like answering that great Greek question: Is there a smallest subatomic particle; is there a truly indivisible atomos?
And here we come across a hopeful new twist in fundamental physics (or, in the original text, two twists): An Australian postdoctoral student at PI, Sundance Bilson-Thompson, stumbles on an answer. Yes, Virginia, there is an atomos! Vindication for the ancient Greeks and stunning science news, or so you’d think.
What happens next? Several scientific papers. No hype; no media release. Lazaridis doesn’t notice. Bilson-Thompson finds a job back home in Adelaide and sets off southwest on a bicycle.
I kid you not.
Lee Smolin (2006), “A Crisis in Fundamental Physics”, Annals N.Y. Acad. Sci., Jan/Feb ; http://u00003.masterssystems.com/UG0955PS/18/06/Selected_Files/Smolin/A_Crisis_in_Fundamental_Physics.htm
Fabiola Gianotti, reported by Shelly Palmer (2012), “The Higgs Boson: What We Can Learn”, Huff Post Science, The Blog, New York: The Huffington Post, July 13, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shelly-palmer/higgs-boson_b_1659232.html
Joseph Lykken & Maria Spiropulu (2014), “Supersymmetry and the Crisis in Physics”, Scientific American, May, p. 23; http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/supersymmetry-and-the-crisis-in-physics/
Mike Lazaridis (2009), The Public Policy Forum, April 2, speech at a testimonial dinner, http://www.perimeterinstitute.ca/news/address-mike-lazaridis-pi-board-chair-public-policy-forum
Sundance Bilson-Thompson, “A topological model of composite preons”, http://arxiv.org/pdf/hep-ph/0503213v2.pdf
Sundance Bilson-Thompson & Yana Gorskaya (2009), blog “Where the Bloody Hell Are We?”, November 11, http://meanderingmarsupials.blogspot.ca/2009/09/good-question.html
Colin Gillespie (2013), Time One: Discover How the Universe Began, New York: RosettaBooks, p. 357, http://www.rosettabooks.com/book/time-one/; “Twist n Shout”, http://www.timeone.ca/chapters/twist-n-shout.pdf
Augusta Genealogical Society, Inc., http://augustagensociety.org/ox.htm
M. Della Negra et al (2012), Science, vol. 336, p. 1560, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/338/6114/1560/F4.expansion.html
Yana Gorskaya (2009), blog “Where the Bloody Hell Are We?”, November 11, http://meanderingmarsupials.blogspot.ca/2009/11/chasey-with-casey.html