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No one in physics would dare say it, but the race to invent new particles is pointless | Sabine Huseinfelder

No one in physics would dare say it, but the race to invent new particles is pointless | Sabine Huseinfelder

IImagine you are going to a zoology conference. The first speaker talks about her 3D model of a 12-foot purple spider that lives in the Arctic. There’s no evidence of their existence, she admits, but it’s a testable hypothesis, and she argues that a mission should be sent to search the Arctic for spiders.

The second speaker has a model of a flying earthworm, but it only flies in caves. There is no evidence for this either, but he asks to search the caves of the world. The third has a model of octopuses on Mars. It confirms that it is testable.

Kudos to zoologists, I’ve never heard of such a conference. But almost all particle physics conferences have sessions like this, except they do it with more math. It has become popular among physicists to invent new particles for which there is no evidence, to publish papers about them, to write more papers about the properties of these particles, and to demand that the hypothesis be tested experimentally. Many of these tests have already been done, and more are being commissioned as we speak. It wastes time and money.

Since the 1980s, physicists have created a whole particle zoo, whose inhabitants have names such as prions, spheromones, dioes, magnetic monopoles, simps, cheeses, lambsillas, axions, flaxes, vents, accelerators, horns, giant magnets, bases, large units, and strings. , fips, branons, skyrmions, chameleons, cuscutons, planckons and sterile neutrinos, to name a few. We even had a (fortunately short-lived) fad of “particles”.

All the experiments looking for those particles came back empty-handed, especially those that searched for the particles that make up dark matter, the kind of matter that supposedly fills the universe and makes itself noticeable through its own gravity. However, we do not know that dark matter is actually made of particles. And even if that were the case, to explain astrophysical observations, one need not know the details of particle behavior. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) hasn’t seen any of these particles either, although many theoretical physicists were confident it would see at least a few before it launched.

Talk to particle physicists privately, and many of them will admit that they don’t actually believe these particles exist. They justify their action by claiming that it is good practice, or that every now and then someone accidentally comes up with a useful idea for something else. An army of typewriter monkeys can sometimes produce a useful sentence. But is this a good strategy?

Experimental particle physicists know the problem, and are trying to distance themselves from what their colleagues in theoretical development are doing. At the same time, they take advantage of it, because all those virtual particles are used in grant proposals to justify experiments. And so the empiricists kept their mouths silent, too. This makes people like me, who have left the field – now I’m in astrophysics – the only ones who are able and willing to criticize the situation.

There are many factors that have contributed to this sad decline of particle physics. The problem is partly social: most of the people who work in this field (I used to be one of them) They sincerely believe that the invention of particles is a good measure because it is what they have learned and what all their colleagues are doing.

But I think the biggest contributor to this trend is the misunderstanding of Karl Popper’s philosophy of science, which, to make a long story short, requires a good scientific idea that must be refutable. Particle physicists seem to have misunderstood this to mean that any idea that can be refuted is also good science.

In the past, predictions of new particles were correct only when adding them solved a problem with existing theories. For example, the currently accepted theory of elementary particles – the Standard Model – does not require new particles; It works fine as is. On the other hand, the Higgs boson was required to solve a problem. The antiparticles predicted by Paul Dirac were also necessary to solve a problem, as were the neutrinos predicted by Wolfgang Pauli. Modern modern particles do not solve any problems.

In some cases, the task of the new particles is to make the theory more aesthetically appealing, but in many cases its purpose is to reconcile statistical anomalies. Every time an anomaly is reported, particle physicists quickly write hundreds of papers on how to interpret new particles for observation. This behavior is so common that they even have a name for it: “ambulance chase,” after the anecdotal strategy of lawyers following ambulances in hopes of finding new clients.

Chasing ambulances is a good strategy to advance one’s career in particle physics. Most of these papers pass peer review and are published because they are not technically wrong. And since ambulance chasers cite each other’s papers, they can each quickly collect hundreds of citations. But it is a bad strategy for scientific progress. After the anomaly disappears, those sheets will become irrelevant.

This procedure of inventing and then eliminating particles has been going on for so long that there are thousands of permanent professors with research groups who make a living from this. It has become a generally accepted practice in the physics community. Nobody even wonders if that makes sense. At least not in public.

I think there are breakthroughs waiting to be made in the foundations of physics. The world needs technological progress more than ever, and now is not the time to be slow to invent molecules, arguing that even a blind chicken sometimes finds a pill. As a former particle physicist, it saddens me to see that this field has become a factory of useless academic papers.

  • Sabine Hussienfelder is a physicist at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies in Germany. She is the author of Existential Physics: The World’s Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions and the creator of the YouTube Science Channel Without Gobbledygook.

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words for consideration for publication, email it to us at guardian.letters@theguardian.com


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