Tag Archives: Science&Society

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.

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.

Polar Vortex, Climate Change, Red Herring?

Wow, it was unusually cold last week. In a small fraction of the globe. For a couple of days. And what does that cold snap, that big wiggle in the Polar Vortex that carries high-atmospheric winds around the North Pole, imply about “climate change”, also known as “global warming”, also known as “global weirding”?

The answer is very simple. Nothing.

If you heard anyone suggest otherwise — whether they said that the extreme cold implies that there is no global warming going on, or they said that the extreme cold implies that global warming is happening — you should seriously question anything that person says when it comes to climate change. Because that person does not respect (or perhaps even understand) the difference between anecdote and evidence; between weather and climate; between a large fluctuation and a small but long-term trend. Or between media hoopla and science.

In the interest of an imperfect analogy: Let me ask you this. Are you generally happier, or less happy, than you were five years ago? Answer this as best you can.

Now let me ask you another question. Did you, within the last month, have a really, really bad day, or a really, really good one?

Does the answer to the second question have much to do with the answer to the first one?

Barring an exceptional recent disaster in your personal or professional life, the fact that, say, last Thursday your car broke down, you locked yourself out of your house, your dog vomited on the carpet and you got caught in the rain without your umbrella does not have anything to do with whether you are a happier person than you were five years ago. Being a happier person has more to do with whether you have a better job, a happier family, a better sense of self-esteem, and things like that. And even if you love your job, you know there are going to be really bad days in the office sometimes. That’s just the way it goes. We all know that.

It’s the same with daily and monthly and yearly fluctuations in the stock market compared to the slow but fairly steady century-long growth of the U.S. economy (both curves corrected for inflation.)

So why, when there’s a big fluctuation in the daily, monthly or even seasonal weather, do people jump up and down about what the implications are for the long-term trends in climate? Continue reading

More Scientist-Hostages Uncovered

Just in case you weren’t convinced by yesterday’s post that the shutdown, following on a sequester and a recession, is doing some real damage to this nation’s scientists, science, and future, here is another link for you.

Jonathan Lilly is a oceanographer, a senior research scientist at NorthWest Research Associates in Redmond, Washington, and I can vouch that he is a first-rate scientist and an excellent blogger.  He writes in an article entitled

Stories from the front: oceanographers navigate the government shutdown

about a wide range of damaging problems affecting this field of study.  What’s nice about this post, compared to my own general one from yesterday, is that he has a lot of specific detail.

Here are some other links, demonstrating the breadth and depth of the impact:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/10/10/230750627/shutdown-imperils-costly-lab-mice-years-of-research

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/10/what-does-a-federal-shutdown-mean-for-conservation-and-ag-science/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/eliseackerman/2013/10/07/the-shutdown-versus-science-national-observatory-latest-victim-of-washington-politics/

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/10/government-shutdown-affects-biomedical-research/

Help! I’m a Hostage! (D – 7)

Maybe you think this shutdown isn’t all that bad?  Perhaps you’re not talking to scientists, or thinking about their role in society. The effects of the government shutdown continue to ripple outward.  Scientific research doesn’t cope well with shutdowns.

http://www.ibtimes.com/us-government-shutdown-antarctic-research-program-5-other-shuttered-science-programs-1419918

In many fields, the research has to be maintained continuously; if you shut it down, even for a short period, all your work is wasted.   Continue reading

Science and the Common Good: A College Visit

Yesterday I gave a public talk at Ursinus College, a liberal arts college in aptly named Collegeville, Pennsylvania. [For those outside the U.S.; a `college’ in the U.S. is a university whose students are all undergraduates, mainly 18-22 years old; and a “liberal arts college”  aims to give students a broad education in the arts and sciences, along with more focused training in their chosen discipline.] My visit was sponsored by the college’s Center for Science and the Common Good, an impressive little program funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (kudos to them!).  Its goal is to assure that the Center’s `fellows’ — the students in the program — are not only trained in their scientific fields but also become versed in thinking broadly about the role of science in our culture and society, and about how science is communicated to the public.

These wider issues are ones I think about a lot — I myself was educated at a liberal arts college — and are what motivated me to start this website and blog.  So I was honored that the Center invited me to visit. And they kept me (pleasantly) busy! In addition to the public talk, I spoke at length with the fellows of the Center about the role of science and scientists in society, as well as about the Center’s program and their career plans, and I also gave the undergraduate physics majors a slightly more technical tour of modern particle physics.

Since the Center was my host, my public talk was somewhat different from ones I’ve given previously.  Rather than focus entirely on the science behind the Higgs particle and field, I included some comments concerning the role of scientists in communicating science to the public. Among the meta-scientific questions I touched on were these:

  • What role should and can be played by blogs and websites run by scientists?
  • Can (or should) anything be done about the wildly inaccurate science reporting that one so often sees in the media?
  • Is it really that important that the public be informed about scientific research — given that public knowledge of the details of law, medicine, construction, accounting, plumbing, and other technical fields is also very limited?

I’ve got my own (tentative) answers to these questions, but if you’d like to weigh in, I’d be interested in your opinions. (If you do decide to make a comment, please feel free to include a parenthetic remark describing how much science you yourself know, and whether you learned it, say, in college, from magazines or popular books, etc.  This will give us all some perspective on what might shape your views.)

Thanks again to Ursinus College for the invitation and a very interesting visit!

He’s Not Wrong: The US and Science Research

In a letter entitled “Am I Wrong?”, Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-Chief of the major journal Science, asks how the United States has gone so far off course.  The leading nation in a technological age has lost sight of its scientific foundation; what will be the consequences?

A mere twenty years ago, this nation was clearly the best place in the world to do scientific research.  Since 2000 the decline has been precipitous, and though the U.S. still surely ranks in the top ten, few would say it clearly is the best anymore.  In general, the country remains a relatively great place to live and work.  But any excellent young scientist from abroad has to think carefully about coming to or staying in the U.S. for a career, because there might not be enough money to support even first-rate research.  Similarly, any young U.S. scientist, no matter how devoted to this country and no matter how skilled, may face the tough choice of either going abroad or abandoning his or her career. (It’s not just young people either, as I can personally attest.)

Whereas before the year 2000 it was easy for U.S. universities to attract the best in the world to teach and do research at their institutions, and to train the next generation of American scientists, the brain drain since that time has been awful.  (I see this up close, as more and more often I fail to hire talented individuals specifically because they see a better scientific and personal future outside the United States.)  And it is getting worse.  All of this affects our economy’s future, our society’s health, and even our ability to defend ourselves, especially since some of the most active spending on science is being done by countries that are hostile or potentially hostile to the free world.

It’s easy to blame this on the recession.  “Oh, these are bad times and we all have to share the pain.”  That’s true, but this problem started long before 2008.  The system became threadbare during the Bush administration, and now, in the ensuing recession and political chaos, it’s at risk of falling apart.

Please forward this letter by Mr. Alberts to your friends.  This is serious business with long-term consequences.