Category Archives: Physics

Physics is Broken!!!

Last Thursday, an experiment reported that the magnetic properties of the muon, the electron’s middleweight cousin, are a tiny bit different from what particle physics equations say they should be. All around the world, the headlines screamed: PHYSICS IS BROKEN!!! And indeed, it’s been pretty shocking to physicists everywhere. For instance, my equations are working erratically; many of the calculations I tried this weekend came out upside-down or backwards. Even worse, my stove froze my coffee instead of heating it, I just barely prevented my car from floating out of my garage into the trees, and my desk clock broke and spilled time all over the floor. What a mess!

Broken, eh? When we say a coffee machine or a computer is broken, it means it doesn’t work. It’s unavailable until it’s fixed. When a glass is broken, it’s shattered into pieces. We need a new one. I know it’s cute to say that so-and-so’s video “broke the internet.” But aren’t we going a little too far now? Nothing’s broken about physics; it works just as well today as it did a month ago.

More reasonable headlines have suggested that “the laws of physics have been broken”. That’s better; I know what it means to break a law. (Though the metaphor is imperfect, since if I were to break a state law, I’d be punished, whereas if an object were to break a fundamental law of physics, that law would have to be revised!) But as is true in the legal system, not all physics laws, and not all violations of law, are equally significant.

What’s a physics law, anyway? Crudely, physics is a strategy for making predictions about the behavior of physical objects, based on a set of equations and a conceptual framework for using those equations. Sometimes we refer to the equations as laws; sometimes parts of the conceptual framework are referred to that way.

But that story has layers. Physics has an underlying conceptual foundation, which includes the pillar of quantum physics and its view of reality, and the pillar of Einstein’s relativity and its view of space and time. (There are other pillars too, such as those of statistical mechanics, but let me not complicate the story now.) That foundation supports many research areas of physics. Within particle physics itself, these two pillars are combined into a more detailed framework, with concepts and equations that go by the name of “quantum effective field theory” (“QEFT”). But QEFT is still very general; this framework can describe an enormous number of possible universes, most with completely different particles and forces from the ones we have in our own universe. We can start making predictions for real-world experiments only when we put the electron, the muon, the photon, and all the other familiar particles and forces into our equations, building up a specific example of a QEFT known as “The Standard Model of particle physics.”

All along the way there are equations and rules that you might call “laws.” They too come in layers. The Standard Model itself, as a specific QEFT, has few high-level laws: there are no principles telling us why quarks exist, why there is one type of photon rather than two, or why the weak nuclear force is so weak. The few laws it does have are mostly low-level, true of our universe but not essential to it.

I’m bringing attention to these layers because an experiment might cause a problem for one layer but not another. I think you could only fairly suggest that “physics is broken” if data were putting a foundational pillar of the entire field into question. And to say “the laws of physics have been violated”, emphasis on the word “the“, is a bit melodramatic if the only thing that’s been violated is a low-level, dispensable law.

Has physics, as a whole, ever broken? You could argue that Newton’s 17th century foundation, which underpinned the next two centuries of physics, broke at the turn of the 20th century. Just after 1900, Newton-style equations had to be replaced by equations of a substantially different type; the ways physicists used the equations changed, and the concepts, the language, and even the goals of physics changed. For instance, in Newtonian physics, you can predict the outcome of any experiment, at least in principle; in post-Newtonian quantum physics, you often can only predict the probability for one or another outcome, even in principle. And in Newtonian physics we all agree what time it is; in Einsteinian physics, different observers experience time differently and there is no universal clock that we all agree on. These were immense changes in the foundation of the field.

Conversely, you could also argue that physics didn’t break; it was just remodeled and expanded. No one who’d been studying steam engines or wind erosion or electrical circuit diagrams had to throw out their books and start again from scratch. In fact this “broken” Newtonian physics is still taught in physics classes, and many physicists and engineers never use anything else. If you’re studying the physics of weather, or building a bridge, Newtonian physics is just fine. The fact that Newton-style equations are an incomplete description of the world — that there are phenomena they can’t describe properly — doesn’t invalidate them when they’re applied within their wheelhouse.

No matter which argument you prefer, it’s hard to see how to justify the phrase “physics is broken” without a profound revolution that overthrows foundational concepts. It’s rare for a serious threat to foundations to arise suddenly, because few experiments can single-handedly put fundamental principles at risk. [The infamous case of the “faster-than-light neutrinos” provides an exception. Had that experiment been correct, it would have invalidated Einstein’s relativity principles. But few of us were surprised when a glaring error turned up.]

In the Standard Model, the electron, muon and tau particles (known as the “charged leptons”) are all identical except for their masses. (More fundamentally, they have different interactions with the Higgs field, from which their rest masses arise.) This almost-identity is sometimes stated as a “principle of lepton universality.” Oh, wow, a principle — a law! But here’s the thing. Some principles are enormously important; the principles of Einsteinian relativity determine how cause and effect work in our universe, and you can’t drop them without running into big paradoxes. Other principles are weak, and could easily be discarded without making a mess of any other part of physics. The principle of lepton universality is one of these. In fact, if you extend the Standard Model by adding new particles to its equations, it can be difficult to avoid ruining this fragile principle. [In a sense, the Higgs field has already violated the principle, but we don’t hold that against it.]

All the fuss is about a new experimental result which confirms an older one and slightly disagrees with the latest theoretical predictions, which are made using the Standard Model’s equations. What could be the cause of the discrepancy? One possibility is that it arises from a previously unknown difference between muons and electrons — from a violation of the principle of lepton universality. For those who live and breathe particle physics, breaking lepton universality would be a big deal; there’d be lots of adventure in trying to figure out which of the many possible extensions of the Standard Model could actually explain what broke this law. That’s why the scientists involved sound so excited.

But the failure of lepton universality wouldn’t come as a huge surprise. From certain points of view, the surprise is that the principle has survived this long! Since this low-level law is easily violated, its demise may not lead us to a profound new understanding of the world. It’s way too early for headlines that argue that what’s at stake is the existence of “forms of matter and energy vital to the nature and evolution of the cosmos.” No one can say how much is at stake; it might be a lot, or just a little.

In particular, there’s absolutely no evidence that physics is broken, or even that particle physics is broken. The pillars of physics and QEFT are not (yet) threatened. Even to say that “the Standard Model might be broken” seems a bit melodramatic to me. Does adding a new wing to a house require “breaking” the house? Typically you can still live in the place while it’s being extended. The Standard Model’s many successes suggest that it might survive largely intact as a recognizable part of a larger, more complete set of equations.

In any case, right now it’s still too early to say anything so loudly. The apparent discrepancy may not survive the heavy scrutiny it is coming under. There’s plenty of controversy about the theoretical prediction for muon magnetism; the required calculation is extraordinarily complex, elaborate and difficult.

So, from my perspective, the headlines of the past week are way over the top. The idea that a single measurement of the muon’s magnetism could “shake physics to its core“, as claimed in another headline I happened upon, is amusing at best. Physics, and its older subdisciplines, have over time become very difficult to break, or even shake. That’s the way it should be, when science is working properly. And that’s why we can safely base the modern global economy on scientific knowledge; it’s unlikely that a single surprise could instantly invalidate large chunks of its foundation.

Some readers may view the extreme, click-baiting headlines as harmless. Maybe I’m overly concerned about them. But don’t they implicitly suggest that one day we will suddenly find physics “upended”, and in need of a complete top-to-bottom overhaul? To imply physics can “break” so easily makes a mockery of science’s strengths, and obscures the process by which scientific knowledge is obtained. And how can it be good to claim “physics is broken” and “the laws of physics have been broken” over and over and over again, in stories that almost never merit that level of hype and eventually turn out to have been much ado about nada? The constant manufacturing of scientific crisis cannot possibly be lost on readers, who I suspect are becoming increasingly jaded. At some point readers may become as skeptical of science journalism, and the science it describes, as they are of advertising; it’s all lies, so caveat emptor. That’s not where we want our society to be. As we are seeing in spades during the current pandemic, there can be serious consequences when “TRUST IN SCIENCE IS BROKEN!!!

A final footnote: Ironically, the Standard Model itself poses one of the biggest threats to the framework of QEFT. The discovery of the Higgs boson and nothing else (so far) at the Large Hadron Collider poses a conceptual challenge — the “naturalness” problem. There’s no sharp paradox, which is why I can’t promise you that the framework of QEFT will someday break if it isn’t resolved. But the breakdown of lepton universality might someday help solve the naturalness problem, by requiring a more “natural” extension of the Standard Model, and thus might actually save QEFT instead of “breaking” it.

Did BICEP2 Detect Gravitational Waves Directly or Indirectly?

A few weeks ago there was (justified) hullabaloo following the release of results from the BICEP2 experiment, which (if correct as an experiment, and if correctly interpreted) may indicate the detection of gravitational waves that were generated at an extremely early stage in the universe (or at least in its current phase)… during a (still hypothetical but increasingly plausible) stage known as cosmic inflation.  (Here’s my description of the history of the early universe as we currently understand it, and my cautionary tale on which parts of the history are well understood (and why) and which parts are not.)

During that wild day or two following the announcement, a number of scientists stated that this was “the first direct observation of gravitational waves”.  Others, including me, emphasized that this was an “indirect observation of gravitational waves.”  I’m sure many readers noticed this discrepancy.  Who was right?

No one was wrong, not on this point anyway.  It was a matter of perspective. Since I think some readers would be interested to understand this point, here’s the story, and you can make your own judgment. Continue reading

The Amazing Feat of Quantum Tunneling

Our quantum world has many odd and counter-intuitive features.  One of these is “tunneling” — the ability of objects to pass through walls, escape from traps, and slip under mountains into the next valley.   We don’t encounter this effect in daily life; objects we’re used to are so incredibly unlikely to tunnel from one place to another that we will never hear of one doing the apparently impossible.   But in the atomic and subatomic realms, even in various types of modern technology, tunneling is an essential and commonplace feature of the quantum reality in which we live.

I’ve written a short article about this phenomenon, which you can read here, emphasizing the central role that tunneling plays in the world’s most powerful microscopes.  It should be suitable for anyone who has read a little about atoms.

This article lays the groundwork for a discussion of how tunneling could someday, in the distant future, end the universe as we know it.  It also prepares the way for a more advanced post about how a single physics theory (i.e., a set of equations designed to describe some aspect of nature) may have multiple `vacua’ (i.e. multiple solutions that each represent different ways that the universe could be configured — what empty space could be like, and what types of fields, forces and particles could be found in the universe — over long periods of time.)  If that’s confusing, stay tuned for a few days; I’ll soon explain it.

Dog Brains and Fishing Line: 2 Fun Articles

Nothing about quantum physics today, but … wait, everything is made using quantum physics…

Could you imagine getting a dog to sit absolutely still, while fully awake and listening to voices, for as much as 8 minutes? Researchers trained dogs to do it, then put them in an MRI [Magnetic Resonance Imaging] machine to obtain remarkable studies of how dogs’ brains react to human voices and other emotional forms of human expression. [MRI is all about magnetic fields, protons, spin, and resonance; particle physics!! more on that another time, perhaps.]   The authors claim this is the first study of its type to compare human brains to those of a non-primate species. Here’s something from the scientific article’s abstract:

We presented dogs and humans with the same set of vocal and non-vocal stimuli to search for functionally analogous voice-sensitive cortical regions. We demonstrate that voice areas exist in dogs and that they show a similar pattern to anterior temporal voice areas in humans. Our findings also reveal that sensitivity to vocal emotional valence cues engages similarly located non-primary auditory regions in dogs and humans… 

So it seems, as dog owners have long suspected, that we’re not just imagining that our best friends are aware of our moods; they really are similar to us in some important ways.

Here’s a BBC article:

Once you’re done with that, would you like to build up your muscles?  No exercise needed, just call the University of Texas at Dallas.  They’ve found that “ordinary fishing line and sewing thread can be cheaply converted to powerful artificial muscles.  The new muscles can lift 100 times more weight and generate 100 times higher mechanical power than a human muscle of the same length and weight… The muscles are powered thermally by temperature changes, which can be produced electrically, by the absorption of light or by the chemical reaction of fuels.”  [Quantum Physics = cool!!] The quotation above is from an interesting press release from the university, reporting the research which was just published in the journal Science.  I recommend the press release because it mentions several interesting possible applications, including robotics technology  and clothing that adjusts to temperature.  Here’s also a nice article by Anna Kuchment (who’s on Twitter here):

Though evolution left us with many wonderful abilities, it does seem that, year by year, humans are becoming less and less practically useful.   But at least our dogs will comfort us in our obsolescence.


Happy (Chilly) New Year

Welcome 2014! And quite a start to the year, with a cold snap that rivals anything we’ve seen in two decades. I don’t remember cold like this since the horrid winter of 1994, when the Northeastern U.S. saw snowstorms and extreme cold that alternated back and forth for weeks. Of course, when I was a child in the 1970s, such chills happened a lot more often; I remember a number of New England mornings where I awoke to a thermometer reading of -20ºFahrenheit (-29ºCelsius) [244 Kelvin].

The scariest negative temperature numbers that one hears about from the media are associated with the “wind chill”, which is a number that is supposed to measure how cold the air “feels” to your skin.  But “wind chill” is a rather subjective and controversial measure — there’s no unique way to define it, since you’ll feel differently depending on how much exposed skin you have, on your body weight, on your age and conditioning, etc.  By contrast, the temperature measured by a thermometer is defined independent of how humans feel, and experts agree on what it is and means. Oh sure, people use different scales to measure it: Fahrenheit (F), Centigrade or Celsius (C), and Kelvin (K).  But the differences are no more than the distinction between meters and feet, or between kilograms and pounds; it’s straightforward, if a bit annoying, to convert from one to the other.

So everyone agrees the temperature is and feels extremely cold, But is it, from the point of nature, really that much colder than usual? To say it another way: it was 84ºF (29ºC) in southern Florida yesterday.  How much warmer is that than the -40ºF (-40ºC) that was registered in the cold Minnesota morning?

Well, you might first think: wow, it’s a difference of 124ºF (69ºC), which sounds like a huge difference.  But is it really so huge? Continue reading

Quantum Field Theory, String Theory, and Predictions (Part 6)

For More Advanced Non-Experts

[This is part 6 of a series, which begins here.]

I’ve explained in earlier posts how we can calculate many things in the quantum field theory that is known as the “Standard Model” of particle physics, itself an amalgam of three, simpler quantum field theories.

When forces are “weak”, in the technical sense, calculations can generally be done by a method of successive approximation (called “perturbation theory”).  When forces are very “strong”, however, this method doesn’t work. Specifically, for processes involving the strong nuclear force, in which the distances involved are larger than a proton and the energies smaller than the mass-energy of a proton, some other method is needed.  (See Figure 1 of Part 5.)

One class of methods involves directly simulating, using a computer, the behavior of the quantum field theory equations for the strong nuclear force. More precisely, we simulate in a simplified version of the real world, the imaginary world shown in Figure 1 below, where

  • the weak nuclear force and the electromagnetic force are turned off,
  • the electron, muon, tau, neutrinos, W, Z and Higgs particles are ignored
  • the three heavier types of quarks are also ignored

(See Figure 4 of Part 4 for more details.)  This makes the calculations a lot simpler.  And their results allow us, for instance, to understand why quarks and anti-quarks and gluons form the more complex particles called hadrons, of which protons and neutrons are just a couple of examples. Unfortunately, computer simulations still are nowhere near powerful enough for the calculation of some of the most interesting processes in nature… and won’t be for a long time.

Fig 1:

Fig 1: The idealized, imaginary world whose quantum field theory is used to make computer simulations of the real-world strong-nuclear force.

Another method I mentioned involves the use of an effective quantum field theory which describes the “objects” that the original theory produces at low energy. But that only works if you know what those objects are; in the real world [and the similar imaginary world of Figure 1] we know from experiment that those objects are pions and other low-mass hadrons, but generally we don’t know what they are.

This brings us to today’s story.  Our success with the Standard Model might give you the impression that we basically understand quantum field theory and how to make predictions using it, with a few exceptions. But this would be far, far from the truth. As far as we can tell, much (if not most) of quantum field theory remains deeply mysterious. Continue reading

A Celebration of Two Careers

This week I’m at Stanford University, where I went to graduate school, attending a conference celebrating the illustrious careers of two great physicists, Renata Kallosh and Steve Shenker.


Kallosh is one of the world’s experts on black holes, supersymmetry,  cosmic inflation (that period, still conjectural but gaining acceptance, during which the universe is suspected to have expanded at an unbelievable rapid rate), and “quantization” (i.e., on how to define quantum field theories and quantum gravity theories so that they actually make mathematical sense — which is not easy to do correctly). Much of her work concerns supersymmetry and its application to quantum gravity and to superstring theory. Her technical expertise and her inventiveness are legendary, as is her friendly enthusiasm. I’ve known her since I was a graduate student; she was one of a number of famous scientists from the former Soviet Union who came to the United States around 1988-1989.  Aside from just interacting with her within Stanford’s small community of theoretical physics students, postdocs and faculty, I also attended two courses that she taught on advanced topics, one on supersymmetry and one on quantization.

Shenker is famous for a number of papers that significantly changed our understanding of quantum field theory, quantum gravity and string theory. His fame derives in part from his ability to extract deep insights about physics from just a few mathematical clues — often ones that only he recognizes as being clues in the first place. Shenker was a faculty member at Rutgers when I was a postdoctoral researcher there in the mid-90s. (He later moved to Stanford.)  I cannot count the profound lessons that I learned during those years from him (and the other Rutgers faculty), both at our daily group lunch, and in the lounge where several of the faculty and other postdocs would regularly gather in the mornings. And I was even fortunate enough to write a paper (on black holes and their entropy) together with him and another then-postdoc, Dan Kabat. Aside from his down-to-earth no-nonsense style, and his strong support of young people and their ideas, one thing I remember well about Shenker is that it was perilous to say anything interesting to him while walking back from lunch on a bitterly cold day. He would stop and think… and the rest of us would freeze.

In the wider world of the public, and especially the blogosphere, Kallosh and Shenker would probably be labelled as “string theorists.” Such terminology would be somewhat crude, for it would fail to capture the range and depth of their careers. Appropriately, the talks at the conference so far have ranged widely, including general attempts to make some sense of quantum gravity,  discussion of the information-loss problem of black holes (the so-called “firewall” problem), unexpected subtleties in how quantum field theory works (yes, we are still learning!), new ways of thinking about the physics of electrical conductors and insulators, and advances in our understanding of cosmic inflation. And there were even a couple of talks on string theory.  (That said, the long shadow of string theory, and its direct and indirect influence on many other subfields, can be palpably felt at this conference.  More on that subject another day.)

Since I’ve been so busy with Large Hadron Collider physics in recent years, and haven’t been following these subfields closely, it’s been a very educational conference for me.  I’ll describe some of the talks later in the week.

SEARCH day 1

The first day of the SEARCH workshop was focused on current and future measurements of the new Higgs particle discovered in 2012. A lot of the issues I’ve written about before (for instance here and here) and most of the updates were rather technical, so I won’t cover them today. But I thought it useful to take a look at what was said by Raman Sundrum and separately by Nima Arkani-Hamed, whom you’ve heard about many times (for instance, here and here), on the subject of the hierarchy problem and “naturalness”.

First, let me remind you of the issue. The hierarchy problem can be phrased in many ways. Here’s one. Here’s another: for a Standard Model Higgs (the simplest possible type of Higgs particle) to show up, without any other new particles or forces at the Large Hadron Collider, is … well, let’s say it’s completely shocking, with a caveat. Why?

  • Because every spin-zero particle (or particle-like object) that has ever been observed, in particle physics and in similar contexts within solids and fluids, has been accompanied by new phenomena at an energy scale comparable to the scalar’s mass-energy (E=mc2 energy).
  • And although we cannot calculate the mass of the Higgs particle using the Standard Model (the equations we use to predict the behavior of the known particles and forces) — the Higgs particle’s mass is something we put in to the equations, which is why we didn’t know, before the LHC, what it would be — there are many speculative theories that go beyond the Standard Model where the Higgs particle’s mass can be computed, or at least estimated. And in all of these cases, the Higgs particle is accompanied by other particles and forces that show up at scales comparable to the Higgs particle’s mass-energy.

This fact — that spin-zero particles like the Higgs are accompanied by other particles and forces at a similar energy range — isn’t a mystery. Particle physicists (and others who use quantum field theory, the type of math used in the Standard Model) understand why this should be true, and have for several decades. The jargon is that it is “natural” (not meaning “from nature”, but rather meaning “generically true”) for spin-zero particles to have other particles and forces around at comparable energy scales. (I’ll explain the argument another time.)

So to discover the Higgs particle at a mass-energy of 125 GeV, and no other new particles or phenomena below, say, 1000-2000 GeV or so, would fly in the face of what we’ve seen again and again in physics, both in past data and in calculations within speculative theories. In this sense, finding nothing except a Standard Model Higgs at the LHC would be shocking. (I say “would be” rather than “is” because the LHC is still young, and no overarching conclusions can yet be drawn from its current data.)

But — here’s the caveat — how bad is this shock? After all, somewhat surprising things do happen in nature all the time. Only astonishingly, spectacularly surprising things are very rare. Yes, it would be a very big shock if new particles and forces associated with the Higgs have a mass-energy a trillion trillion times higher than that of the Higgs. But what if they’re just a few times higher than would be natural, let’s say at 10,000 GeV — which would be out of reach of the LHC? Maybe that is a small enough shock that we shouldn’t pay it much attention.  Unfortunately, this is a judgment call; there’s no sharp answer to this question.

Raman Sundrum and his three options.

Raman Sundrum and his three options.

As Sundrum put it, there are (crudely) three logically distinct possibilities for what lies ahead:

  • No shock: The hierarchy problem is resolved naturally; the associated new particles will soon be seen at the LHC.
  • Mild shock: The hierarchy problem is resolved in a roughly natural way; most of the associated new particles will be a bit beyond the reach of the LHC, but perhaps one or more will be lightweight enough to be discovered during the lifetime of the LHC.
  • Severe shock: The hierarchy problem is not resolved naturally; any associated particles may lie far out of reach, though of course other particles (associated, say, with dark matter) might still show up at the LHC.

Arkani-Hamed made a similar distinction, but addressed the third case in more detail, breaking it up into two sub-cases.

  • The solution to the hierarchy problem is that it results from a bias (= selection effect = a form of the “anthropic principle”) ; the universe is huge, complex and diverse, with particles and forces that differ from place to place [sometimes called a “multiverse”], and most of that universe is inhospitable to life of any sort; the reason we live in an unusual part of that universe, with a lightweight unaccompanied scalar particle, is because this happens to be the only place (or one of very few places) that life could have evolved. A key test of this argument is to show that if the particles and forces of nature were much different from what we find them in our part of the universe, then our environment would become completely inhospitable — perhaps there would be no atoms, or no stars. It is controversial whether this test has been passed; good arguments can be made on both sides.
  • The solution to the hierarchy problem involves a completely novel mechanism.   Easy to say — but got any ideas?  Arkani-Hamed gave us two examples of mechanisms which he had studied that he couldn’t make work — but perhaps someone else can do better.  One is based on trying to apply notions related to self-organized criticality, but he was never able to make much progress.  Another is based on an idea of Ed Witten’s that perhaps our world is best understood as one that
    1. has two dimensions of space (not the obvious three)
    2. is supersymmetric (which seems impossible, but in three dimensions supersymmetry and gravity together imply that particles and their superpartner particles need not have equal masses)
    3. has extremely strong forces

    All of this seems completely contradictory with what we observe in our world. But! One of the important conceptual lessons from string theory [this is yet another example of something important that would not have been learned if people hadn’t actually been studying string theory] is that when forces become very strong, making the physics extremely complicated to describe, it is possible that a better description of that world becomes available — and that in some special cases, this better description has one additional dimension of space and weaker forces. In short, Witten’s idea is that our way of understanding our world, with three spatial dimensions, no apparent superymmetry and no extremely strong forces, might actually be simply an alternative and simpler description of a supersymmetric world with only two spatial dimensions with an extremely strong force. Arkani-Hamed, trying to apply this to the hierarchy problem, noticed this idea makes a prediction, but he showed that the prediction is false in the Standard Model, and it seems impossible to add any collection of particles that would make it true.

    Nima Arkani-Hamed, waving his hands.

    A well-dressed Nima Arkani-Hamed, waving his hands.