I see dead physics

Pop physics stories on Flipboard have recently been dominated by conjectural fluff about black holes, wormholes, time travel, and finding planets in other galaxies. Consider that last one. Why is that a thing? Why wouldn’t there be planets in other galaxies? The probability that some nearby galaxy should lack planets is 0. The probability that there are scads of them is 1. The probability that one of those planets should be habitable is closer to 1 than 0. Should we discover that one is more than habitable, maybe even paradisiacal, the probability that we should ever be able to travel there and make it non paradisiacal, maybe even uninhabitable, is 0. Not that we couldn’t easily destroy its ecosystem; we just will never have the technology to make the trip. We will never have the technology to send humans to other stars in our own galaxy – or to wormholes, should these highly conjectural figments even exist, and even if in entering one you wouldn’t be crushed … So, no, we don’t live in a universe in which any sci fi plot device is possible, requiring only a little funding and effort. Looking for planets in other galaxies is like looking for sand on a beach. Take a plastic shovel and a bucket, et voilà.

Anyway, one thing I almost never see in pop physics stories anymore is any mention of high energy physics (HEP), and elementary particles. The vast majority of exceptions to this dearth are paeans of praise for the plethora of physics advances to which the 20th century gave birth. These stories extoll the virtues of the likes of Feynman, Dirac, and Heisenberg, virtually patting humanity on the back for the intellectual achievements of this ilk, while ignoring the what-have-you-done-lately meme. The science to which I devoted most of my research life is not dead, but certainly comatose. Well, it might be dead.

And speaking of the 20th century, 87 year old S Weinberg recently won a 3 million dollar Breakthrough Prize. Not that he doesn’t deserve prizes, but his breakthroughs occurred half a century ago. Although I may not live long enough to see it, when all the Standard Model Nobelists are gone, to whom will such prizes be given?

Arguably the last glory decade for HEP was the 1970s, and those involved in making it glorious are now more likely to appear in obituaries than in arxiv. Four ensuing decades of work on creating a viable theory of quantum gravity produced lots of interesting mathematics, but by and large fizzled as regards physics and reality. Wide-eyed youths who surrendered to the clarion call of this effort became lost in a swamp, and its viscous bogginess only relatively recently became apparent. They still dot the arxiv with matters supersymmetric, or stringy, especially as regards how these faded glories relate to black holes – but now far less often than earlier. Of course, the arxiv gatekeepers allow this dross into hep-th, only relegating to gen-phys ideas that do not relate to beloved failed dogmas. Sniff.

Still, no one cares anymore. Forbes main physics guy, Ethan Siegel, recently published an article entitled: Why Are Scientists So Cruel To New Ideas? This is filled with carefully crafted hurdles over which novel ideas must leap if they are to be taken seriously. But …

You know how in the olympics pole vaulters have to vault over ever higher bars, and with each raise of the bar vaulters get eliminated, and how sometimes the bar is set so high that no one can achieve victory? Well, the failure of the LHC vaulter to provide unequivocal evidence of new physics beyond the Standard Model has doomed the mainstream’s coterie of young theoretical vaulters to face a bar so inconceivably high it is invisible. And the slew of erstwhile enthusiastic pop sci onlookers have become disenchanted with this particular enterprise and mostly drifted away.

In Ethan’s article there is a picture of Bohr and Einstein lounging contentedly while they discuss and debate ideas that will be testable in their lifetimes. This picture exemplifies the notion that dead physicists are the best, as is dead physics. But it has utterly nothing to do with the milieu in which young physicists find themselves, and especially the mavericks amongst that group.

What to do? How do you avoid the slow decline of rigor into an almost spiritual acceptance of whatever notions fit your fancy, and evidence be damned? Because – let’s face it – evidence in any historically conventional sense is hard to find anymore. Is there a viable alternative to experimentally based progress?

Well, in my oh so humble and self-effacing opinion (IMosHaSEO) there is a way of assigning potential value to new ideas. It’s not the first time I’ve suggested this, but here is my notion of rigor based on mathematics:
1. Start with mathematics, and at least convince yourself that your chosen mathematics is unavoidable, resonant, and special;
2. Make your work on this mathematics unassailable;
3. Make the interpretation of this work as a contextual foundation of some part of theoretical physics unavoidable, or as much so as possible;
4. Ignore your own biases and let the mathematics speak – follow it – do not lead it or push it.

You know, as an example of applied mathematics that irks me, at the core of much of quantum mechanics is the mathematical notion of Hilbert space. There are infinitely many Hilbert spaces, but surely infinitely many of those are physically irrelevant. The problem is, Hilbert space is not really a space, nor even a mathematical object; it is an abstract collection of properties from which spaces and mathematical objects can be constructed. It is an entirely too flexible tool that suited the needs of 20th century theorists (now mostly dead) trying to make sense of things quantum. Again, IMosHaSEO Nature is not that nonspecific nor flexible. Nature is in fact not at all nonspecific. If you require yourself to use a Hilbert space, pick one, damn it. And make your mathematical application of it unassailable; and blah blah blah. And you might want to base it on the parallelizable spheres … if you want it to have anything to do with the universe we live in.

And by the way, Hilbert is dead too – beatified, sure, but … Even in science we are prone to thinking religiously.