Category Archives: The Scientific Process

What’s all this fuss about having alternatives?

I don’t know what all the fuss is about “alternative facts.” Why, we scientists use them all the time!

For example, because of my political views, I teach physics students that gravity pulls down. That’s why the students I teach, when they go on to be engineers, put wheels on the bottom corners of cars, so that the cars don’t scrape on the ground. But in some countries, the physicists teach them that gravity pulls whichever way the country’s leaders instruct it to. That’s why their engineers build flying carpets as transports for their country’s troops. It’s a much more effective way to bring an army into battle, if your politics allows it.  We ought to consider it here.

Another example: in my physics class I claim that energy is “conserved” (in the physics sense) — it is never created out of nothing, nor is it ever destroyed. In our daily lives, energy is taken in with food, converted into special biochemicals for storage, and then used to keep us warm, maintain the pumping of our hearts, allow us to think, walk, breathe — everything we do. Those are my facts. But in some countries, the facts and laws are different, and energy can be created from nothing. The citizens of those countries never need to eat; it is a wonderful thing to be freed from this requirement. It’s great for their military, too, to not have to supply food for troops, or fuel for tanks and airplanes and ships. Our only protection against invasion from these countries is that if they crossed our borders they’d suddenly need fuel tanks.

Facts are what you make them; it’s entirely up to you. You need a good, well-thought-out system of facts, of course; otherwise they won’t produce the answers that you want. But just first figure out what you want to be true, and then go out and find the facts that make it true. That’s the way science has always been done, and the best scientists all insist upon this strategy.  As a simple illustration, compare the photos below.  Which picture has more people in it?   Obviously, the answer depends on what facts you’ve chosen to use.   [Picture copyright Reuters]  If you can’t understand that, you’re not ready to be a serious scientist!

A third example: when I teach physics to students, I instill in them the notion that quantum mechanics controls the atomic world, and underlies the transistors in every computer and every cell phone. But the uncertainty principle that arises in quantum mechanics just isn’t acceptable in some countries, so they don’t factualize it. They don’t use seditious and immoral computer chips there; instead they use proper vacuum tubes. One curious result is that their computers are the size of buildings. The CDC advises you not to travel to these countries, and certainly not to take electronics with you. Not only might your cell phone explode when it gets there, you yourself might too, since your own molecules are held together with quantum mechanical glue. At least you should bring a good-sized bottle of our local facts with you on your travels, and take a good handful before bedtime.

Hearing all the naive cries that facts aren’t for the choosing, I became curious about what our schools are teaching young people. So I asked a friend’s son, a bright young kid in fourth grade, what he’d been learning about alternatives and science. Do you know what he answered?!  I was shocked. “Alternative facts?”, he said. “You mean lies?” Sheesh. Kids these days… What are we teaching them? It’s a good thing we’ll soon have a new secretary of education.

How Evidence for Cosmic Inflation Was Reduced to Dust

Many of you will have read in the last week that unfortunately (though to no one’s surprise after seeing the data from the Planck satellite in the last few months) the BICEP2 experiment’s claim of a discovery of gravitational waves from cosmic inflation has blown away in the interstellar wind. [For my previous posts on BICEP2, including a great deal of background information, click here.] The BICEP2 scientists and the Planck satellite scientists have worked together to come to this conclusion, and written a joint paper on the subject.  Their conclusion is that the potentially exciting effect that BICEP2 observed (“B-mode polarization of the cosmic microwave background on large scales”; these terms are explained here) was due, completely or in large part, to polarized dust in our galaxy (the Milky Way). The story of how they came to this conclusion is interesting, and my goal today is to explain it to non-experts.  Click here to read more.

Final Days of Busy Visit to CERN

I’m a few days behind (thanks to an NSF grant proposal that had to be finished last week) but I wanted to write a bit more about my visit to CERN, which concluded Nov. 21st in a whirlwind of activity. I was working full tilt on timely issues related to Run 2 of the Large Hadron Collider [LHC], currently scheduled to start early next May.   (You may recall the LHC has been shut down for repairs and upgrades since the end of 2012.)

A certain fraction of my time for the last decade has been taken up by concerns about the LHC experiments’ ability to observe new long-lived particles, specifically ones that aren’t affected by the electromagnetic or strong nuclear forces. (Long-lived particles that are affected by those forces are easier to search for, and are much more constrained by the LHC experiments.  More about them some other time.)

This subject is important to me because it is a classic example of how the trigger systems at LHC experiments could fail us — whereby a spectacular signal of a new phenomena could be discarded and lost in the very process of taking and storing the data! If no one thinks carefully about the challenges of finding long-lived particles in advance of running the LHC, we can end up losing a huge opportunity, unnecessarily. Fortunately some of us are thinking about it, but we are small in number. It is an uphill battle for those experimenters within ATLAS and CMS [the two general purpose experiments at the LHC] who are working hard to make sure they have the required triggers available. I can’t tell you how many times people within the experiments — even at the Naturalness conference I wrote about recently — have told me “such efforts are hopeless”… despite the fact that their own experiments have actually shown, already in public and in some cases published measurements (including this, this, this, this, this, and this), that it is not. Conversely, many completely practical searches for long-lived particles have not been carried out, often because there was no trigger strategy able to capture them, or because, despite the events having been recorded, no one at ATLAS or CMS has had time or energy to actually search through their data for this signal.

Now what is meant by “long-lived particles”? Continue reading

BICEP2’s Cosmic Polarization: Published, Reduced in Strength

I’m busy dealing with the challenges of being in a quantum superposition, but you’ve probably heard: BICEP2’s paper is now published, with some of its implicit and explicit claims watered down after external and internal review. The bottom line is as I discussed a few weeks ago when I described the criticism of the interpretation of their work (see also here).

  • There is relatively little doubt (but it still requires confirmation by another experiment!) that BICEP2 has observed interesting polarization of the cosmic microwave background (specifically: B-mode polarization that is not from gravitational lensing of E-mode polarization; see here for more about what BICEP2 measured)
  • But no one, including BICEP2, can say for sure whether it is due to ancient gravitational waves from cosmic inflation, or to polarized dust in the galaxy, or to a mix of the two; and the BICEP2 folks are explicitly less certain about this, in the current version of their paper, than in their original implicit and explicit statements.

And we won’t know whether it’s all just dust until there’s more data, which should start to show up in coming months, from BICEP2 itself, from Planck, and from other sources. However, be warned: the measurements of the very faint dust that might be present in BICEP2’s region of the sky are extremely difficult, and the new data might not be immediately convincing. To come to a consensus might take a few years rather than a few months.  Be patient; the process of science, being self-correcting, will eventually get it straight, but not if you rush it.

Sorry I haven’t time to say more right now.

The BICEP2 Dust-Up Continues

The controversy continues to develop over the interpretation of the results from BICEP2, the experiment that detected “B-mode” polarization in the sky, and was hailed as potential evidence of gravitational waves from the early universe, presumably generated during cosmic inflation. [Here’s some background info about the measurement].

Two papers this week (here and here) gave more detailed voice to the opinion that the BICEP2 team may have systematically underestimated the possible impact of polarized dust on their measurement.  These papers raise (but cannot settle) the question as to whether the B-mode polarization seen by BICEP2 might be entirely due to this dust — dust which is found throughout our galaxy, but is rather tenuous in the direction of the sky in which BICEP2 was looking.

I’m not going to drag my readers into the mud of the current discussion, both because it’s very technical and because it’s rather vague and highly speculative. Even the authors of the two papers admit they leave the situation completely unsettled.  But to summarize, the main purpose and effect of these papers seems to be this:

Continue reading

Dark Matter Debates

Last week I attended the Eighth Harvard-Smithsonian Conference on Theoretical Astrophysics, entitled “Debates on the Nature of Dark Matter”, which brought together leading figures in astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology and particle physics. Although there wasn’t much that was particularly new, it was a very useful conference for taking stock of where we are. I thought I’d bring you a few selected highlights that particularly caught my eye. Continue reading

Will BICEP2 Lose Some of Its Muscle?

A scientific controversy has been brewing concerning the results of BICEP2, the experiment that measured polarized microwaves coming from a patch of the sky, and whose measurement has been widely interpreted as a discovery of gravitational waves, probably from cosmic inflation. (Here’s my post about the discovery, here’s some background so you can understand it more easily. Here are some of my articles about the early universe.)  On the day of the announcement, some elements of the media hailed it as a great discovery without reminding readers of something very important: it’s provisional!

From the very beginning of the BICEP2 story, I’ve been reminding you (here and here) that it is very common for claims of great scientific discoveries to disappear after further scrutiny, and that a declaration of victory by the scientific community comes much more slowly and deliberately than it often does in the press. Every scientist knows that while science, as a collective process viewed over time, very rarely makes mistakes, individual experiments and experimenters are often wrong.  (To its credit, the New York Times article contained some cautionary statements in its prose, and also quoted scientists making cautionary statements.  Other media outlets forgot.)

Doing forefront science is extremely difficult, because it requires near-perfection. A single unfortunate mistake in a very complex experiment can create an effect that appears similar to what the experimenters were looking for, but is a fake. Scientists are all well-aware of this; we’ve all seen examples, some of which took years to diagnose. And so, as with any claim of a big discovery, you should view the BICEP2 result as provisional, until checked thoroughly by outside experts, and until confirmed by other experiments.

What could go wrong with BICEP2?  On purely logical grounds, the BICEP2 result, interpreted as evidence for cosmic inflation, could be problematic if any one of the following four things is true:

1) The experiment itself has a technical problem, and the polarized microwaves they observe actually don’t exist.

2) The polarized microwaves are real, but they aren’t coming from ancient gravitational waves; they are instead coming from dust (very small grains of material) that is distributed around the galaxy between the stars, and that can radiate polarized microwaves.

3) The polarization really is coming from the cosmic microwave background (the leftover glow from the Big Bang), but it is not coming from gravitational waves; instead it comes from some other unknown source.

4) The polarization is really coming from gravitational waves, but these waves are not due to cosmic inflation but to some other source in the early universe.

The current controversy concerns point 2. Continue reading

What if the Large Hadron Collider Finds Nothing Else?

In my last post, I expressed the view that a particle accelerator with proton-proton collisions of (roughly) 100 TeV of energy, significantly more powerful than the currently operational Large Hadron Collider [LHC] that helped scientists discover the Higgs particle, is an obvious and important next steps in our process of learning about the elementary workings of nature. And I described how we don’t yet know whether it will be an exploratory machine or a machine with a clear scientific target; it will depend on what the LHC does or does not discover over the coming few years.

What will it mean, for the 100 TeV collider project and more generally, if the LHC, having made possible the discovery of the Higgs particle, provides us with no more clues?  Specifically, over the next few years, hundreds of tests of the Standard Model (the equations that govern the known particles and forces) will be carried out in measurements made by the ATLAS, CMS and LHCb experiments at the LHC. Suppose that, as it has so far, the Standard Model passes every test that the experiments carry out? In particular, suppose the Higgs particle discovered in 2012 appears, after a few more years of intensive study, to be, as far the LHC can reveal, a Standard Model Higgs — the simplest possible type of Higgs particle?

Before we go any further, let’s keep in mind that we already know that the Standard Model isn’t all there is to nature. The Standard Model does not provide a consistent theory of gravity, nor does it explain neutrino masses, dark matter or “dark energy” (also known as the cosmological constant). Moreover, many of its features are just things we have to accept without explanation, such as the strengths of the forces, the existence of “three generations” (i.e., that there are two heavier cousins of the electron, two for the up quark and two for the down quark), the values of the masses of the various particles, etc. However, even though the Standard Model has its limitations, it is possible that everything that can actually be measured at the LHC — which cannot measure neutrino masses or directly observe dark matter or dark energy — will be well-described by the Standard Model. What if this is the case?

Michelson and Morley, and What They Discovered

In science, giving strong evidence that something isn’t there can be as important as discovering something that is there — and it’s often harder to do, because you have to thoroughly exclude all possibilities. [It’s very hard to show that your lost keys are nowhere in the house — you have to convince yourself that you looked everywhere.] A famous example is the case of Albert Michelson, in his two experiments (one in 1881, a second with Edward Morley in 1887) trying to detect the “ether wind”.

Light had been shown to be a wave in the 1800s; and like all waves known at the time, it was assumed to be a wave in something material, just as sound waves are waves in air, and ocean waves are waves in water. This material was termed the “luminiferous ether”. As we can detect our motion through air or through water in various ways, it seemed that it should be possible to detect our motion through the ether, specifically by looking for the possibility that light traveling in different directions travels at slightly different speeds.  This is what Michelson and Morley were trying to do: detect the movement of the Earth through the luminiferous ether.

Both of Michelson’s measurements failed to detect any ether wind, and did so expertly and convincingly. And for the convincing method that he invented — an experimental device called an interferometer, which had many other uses too — Michelson won the Nobel Prize in 1907. Meanwhile the failure to detect the ether drove both FitzGerald and Lorentz to consider radical new ideas about how matter might be deformed as it moves through the ether. Although these ideas weren’t right, they were important steps that Einstein was able to re-purpose, even more radically, in his 1905 equations of special relativity.

In Michelson’s case, the failure to discover the ether was itself a discovery, recognized only in retrospect: a discovery that the ether did not exist. (Or, if you’d like to say that it does exist, which some people do, then what was discovered is that the ether is utterly unlike any normal material substance in which waves are observed; no matter how fast or in what direction you are moving relative to me, both of us are at rest relative to the ether.) So one must not be too quick to assume that a lack of discovery is actually a step backwards; it may actually be a huge step forward.

Epicycles or a Revolution?

There were various attempts to make sense of Michelson and Morley’s experiment.   Some interpretations involved  tweaks of the notion of the ether.  Tweaks of this type, in which some original idea (here, the ether) is retained, but adjusted somehow to explain the data, are often referred to as “epicycles” by scientists.   (This is analogous to the way an epicycle was used by Ptolemy to explain the complex motions of the planets in the sky, in order to retain an earth-centered universe; the sun-centered solar system requires no such epicycles.) A tweak of this sort could have been the right direction to explain Michelson and Morley’s data, but as it turned out, it was not. Instead, the non-detection of the ether wind required something more dramatic — for it turned out that waves of light, though at first glance very similar to other types of waves, were in fact extraordinarily different. There simply was no ether wind for Michelson and Morley to detect.

If the LHC discovers nothing beyond the Standard Model, we will face what I see as a similar mystery.  As I explained here, the Standard Model, with no other particles added to it, is a consistent but extraordinarily “unnatural” (i.e. extremely non-generic) example of a quantum field theory.  This is a big deal. Just as nineteenth-century physicists deeply understood both the theory of waves and many specific examples of waves in nature  and had excellent reasons to expect a detectable ether, twenty-first century physicists understand quantum field theory and naturalness both from the theoretical point of view and from many examples in nature, and have very good reasons to expect particle physics to be described by a natural theory.  (Our examples come both from condensed matter physics [e.g. metals, magnets, fluids, etc.] and from particle physics [e.g. the physics of hadrons].) Extremely unnatural systems — that is, physical systems described by quantum field theories that are highly non-generic — simply have not previously turned up in nature… which is just as we would expect from our theoretical understanding.

[Experts: As I emphasized in my Santa Barbara talk last week, appealing to anthropic arguments about the hierarchy between gravity and the other forces does not allow you to escape from the naturalness problem.]

So what might it mean if an unnatural quantum field theory describes all of the measurements at the LHC? It may mean that our understanding of particle physics requires an epicyclic change — a tweak.  The implications of a tweak would potentially be minor. A tweak might only require us to keep doing what we’re doing, exploring in the same direction but a little further, working a little harder — i.e. to keep colliding protons together, but go up in collision energy a bit more, from the LHC to the 100 TeV collider. For instance, perhaps the Standard Model is supplemented by additional particles that, rather than having masses that put them within reach of the LHC, as would inevitably be the case in a natural extension of the Standard Model (here’s an example), are just a little bit heavier than expected. In this case the world would be somewhat unnatural, but not too much, perhaps through some relatively minor accident of nature; and a 100 TeV collider would have enough energy per collision to discover and reveal the nature of these particles.

Or perhaps a tweak is entirely the wrong idea, and instead our understanding is fundamentally amiss. Perhaps another Einstein will be needed to radically reshape the way we think about what we know.  A dramatic rethink is both more exciting and more disturbing. It was an intellectual challenge for 19th century physicists to imagine, from the result of the Michelson-Morley experiment, that key clues to its explanation would be found in seeking violations of Newton’s equations for how energy and momentum depend on velocity. (The first experiments on this issue were carried out in 1901, but definitive experiments took another 15 years.) It was an even greater challenge to envision that the already-known unexplained shift in the orbit of Mercury would also be related to the Michelson-Morley (non)-discovery, as Einstein, in trying to adjust Newton’s gravity to make it consistent with the theory of special relativity, showed in 1913.

My point is that the experiments that were needed to properly interpret Michelson-Morley’s result

  • did not involve trying to detect motion through the ether,
  • did not involve building even more powerful and accurate interferometers,
  • and were not immediately obvious to the practitioners in 1888.

This should give us pause. We might, if we continue as we are, be heading in the wrong direction.

Difficult as it is to do, we have to take seriously the possibility that if (and remember this is still a very big “if”) the LHC finds only what is predicted by the Standard Model, the reason may involve a significant reorganization of our knowledge, perhaps even as great as relativity’s re-making of our concepts of space and time. Were that the case, it is possible that higher-energy colliders would tell us nothing, and give us no clues at all. An exploratory 100 TeV collider is not guaranteed to reveal secrets of nature, any more than a better version of Michelson-Morley’s interferometer would have been guaranteed to do so. It may be that a completely different direction of exploration, including directions that currently would seem silly or pointless, will be necessary.

This is not to say that a 100 TeV collider isn’t needed!  It might be that all we need is a tweak of our current understanding, and then such a machine is exactly what we need, and will be the only way to resolve the current mysteries.  Or it might be that the 100 TeV machine is just what we need to learn something revolutionary.  But we also need to be looking for other lines of investigation, perhaps ones that today would sound unrelated to particle physics, or even unrelated to any known fundamental question about nature.

Let me provide one example from recent history — one which did not lead to a discovery, but still illustrates that this is not all about 19th century history.

An Example

One of the great contributions to science of Nima Arkani-Hamed, Savas Dimopoulos and Gia Dvali was to observe (in a 1998 paper I’ll refer to as ADD, after the authors’ initials) that no one had ever excluded the possibility that we, and all the particles from which we’re made, can move around freely in three spatial dimensions, but are stuck (as it were) as though to the corner edge of a thin rod — a rod as much as one millimeter wide, into which only gravitational fields (but not, for example, electric fields or magnetic fields) may penetrate.  Moreover, they emphasized that the presence of these extra dimensions might explain why gravity is so much weaker than the other known forces.

Fig. 1: ADD's paper pointed out that no experiment as of 1998 could yet rule out the possibility that our familiar three dimensional world is a corner of a five-dimensional world, where the two extra dimensions are finite but perhaps as large as a millimeter.

Fig. 1: ADD’s paper pointed out that no experiment as of 1998 could yet rule out the possibility that our familiar three-dimensional world is a corner of a five-dimensional world, where the two extra dimensions are finite but perhaps as large as a millimeter.

Given the incredible number of experiments over the past two centuries that have probed distances vastly smaller than a millimeter, the claim that there could exist millimeter-sized unknown dimensions was amazing, and came as a tremendous shock — certainly to me. At first, I simply didn’t believe that the ADD paper could be right.  But it was.

One of the most important immediate effects of the ADD paper was to generate a strong motivation for a new class of experiments that could be done, rather inexpensively, on the top of a table. If the world were as they imagined it might be, then Newton’s (and Einstein’s) law for gravity, which states that the force between two stationary objects depends on the distance r between them as 1/r², would increase faster than this at distances shorter than the width of the rod in Figure 1.  This is illustrated in Figure 2.

Fig. 2: If the world were as sketched in Figure 1, then Newton/Einstein's law of gravity would be violated at distances shorter than the width of the rod in Figure 1.  The blue line shows Newton/Einstein's prediction; the red line shows what a universe like that in Figure 1 would predict instead.  Experiments done in the last few years agree with the blue curve down to a small fraction of a millimeter.

Fig. 2: If the world were as sketched in Figure 1, then Newton/Einstein’s law of gravity would be violated at distances shorter than the width of the rod in Figure 1. The blue line shows Newton/Einstein’s prediction; the red line shows what a universe like that in Figure 1 would predict instead. Experiments done in the last few years agree with the blue curve down to a small fraction of a millimeter.

These experiments are not easy — gravity is very, very weak compared to electrical forces, and lots of electrical effects can show up at very short distances and have to be cleverly avoided. But some of the best experimentalists in the world figured out how to do it (see here and here). After the experiments were done, Newton/Einstein’s law was verified down to a few hundredths of a millimeter.  If we live on the corner of a rod, as in Figure 1, it’s much, much smaller than a millimeter in width.

But it could have been true. And if it had, it might not have been discovered by a huge particle accelerator. It might have been discovered in these small inexpensive experiments that could have been performed years earlier. The experiments weren’t carried out earlier mainly because no one had pointed out quite how important they could be.

Ok Fine; What Other Experiments Should We Do?

So what are the non-obvious experiments we should be doing now or in the near future?  Well, if I had a really good suggestion for a new class of experiments, I would tell you — or rather, I would write about it in a scientific paper. (Actually, I do know of an important class of measurements, and I have written a scientific paper about them; but these are measurements to be done at the LHC, and don’t involve a entirely new experiment.)  Although I’m thinking about these things, I do not yet have any good ideas.  Until I do, or someone else does, this is all just talk — and talk does not impress physicists.

Indeed, you might object that my remarks in this post have been almost without content, and possibly without merit.  I agree with that objection.

Still, I have some reasons for making these points. In part, I want to highlight, for a wide audience, the possible historic importance of what might now be happening in particle physics. And I especially want to draw the attention of young people. There have been experts in my field who have written that non-discoveries at the LHC constitute a “nightmare scenario” for particle physics… that there might be nothing for particle physicists to do for a long time. But I want to point out that on the contrary, not only may it not be a nightmare, it might actually represent an extraordinary opportunity. Not discovering the ether opened people’s minds, and eventually opened the door for Einstein to walk through. And if the LHC shows us that particle physics is not described by a natural quantum field theory, it may, similarly, open the door for a young person to show us that our understanding of quantum field theory and naturalness, while as intelligent and sensible and precise as the 19th century understanding of waves, does not apply unaltered to particle physics, and must be significantly revised.

Of course the LHC is still a young machine, and it may still permit additional major discoveries, rendering everything I’ve said here moot. But young people entering the field, or soon to enter it, should not assume that the experts necessarily understand where the field’s future lies. Like FitzGerald and Lorentz, even the most brilliant and creative among us might be suffering from our own hard-won and well-established assumptions, and we might soon need the vision of a brilliant young genius — perhaps a theorist with a clever set of equations, or perhaps an experimentalist with a clever new question and a clever measurement to answer it — to set us straight, and put us onto the right path.