The question “What Me Worry” by Alfred E. Neuman of MAD magazine fame, applies these days to a substantial number of practitioners of high energy physics, probably more to theoreticians than to experimenters. There are several causes of these worries. We have no answers to questions such as: is supersymmetry a valid theory, why are there just three generations, or are there more generations, what sets the masses of the leptons, what is the correct unification of quantum mechanics with gravity. So many unanswered questions!
Of course there has been magnificent progress, such as the discovery of the Higgs using the Large Hadron Collider. But this success has had a peculiar reverse effect on the morale of our community, what if the community cannot top this accomplishment? Compare this reverse morale effect in particle physics with the great boost given to morale in cosmology by the discovery of the dark energy phenomenon.
At the practical level, there is the serious worry that our governments are not willing to fund major new particle physics, such as a very high energy linear electron-positron collider, or if feasible, a circular muon-muon collider. The next very high energy facility will not be built within the next decade, perhaps not within the next two decades. The remaining working lifetime of older physicists, such yours truly, is a few decades.
References to, and discussions of, these worries are recounted in Peter Woit’s fine blog “Not Even Wrong”, posted on January 14, 2013. Incidentally, I first learned from Peter’s blog of the CERN Briefing Book, a most useful compendium of high energy physics information.
The worries of middle age and older particle physicists as to will we learn anything new before we die, leads to what I call if only particle physics theories. These if only theories could be tested if only experimenters and observers had instruments not presently existing. These instruments not existing at present because of the expense or more likely we don’t know how to build these instruments or even more likely we cannot even conceive of these instruments.
A splendid example is the problem of building an instrument to detect individual, zero mass, gravitons – first discussed by Dyson in the New York Review of Books, May 13 issue (2004). Rothman and Boughn have treated this problem in more detail [Found. Phys. 36, 1801-1825 (2006)]. Their abstract reads in part: Freeman Dyson has questioned whether any conceivable experiment in the real universe can detect a single graviton. If not, is it meaningful to talk about gravitons as physical entities? We attempt to answer Dyson’s question and find it is possible concoct an idealized thought experiment capable of detecting one graviton; however, when anything remotely resembling realistic physics is taken into account, detection becomes impossible.
The Fundamental Physics Prize Award
I see the worries of middle-aged and older particle physicists, particularly theorists, as a major cause of the spectacular rise in prestige of the Fundamental Physics Prize Award. These honors are awarded by the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation. The monetary size of this prize can be as large as three times the Nobel Prize. About a dozen Fundamental Physics Prizes have been distributed by the Foundation as well some number of prizes of lesser monetary value.
The conditions for receiving the Fundamental Physics Prize differ in one fundamental way from the conditions for receiving the Nobel Prize. The physics work leading to the award of the Fundamental Physics Prize must be advanced, fundamental, penetrating and exciting as is generally required for the Nobel Prize; but the work need not be proven correct by experiment or observation. Citations for awarded Fundamental Physics Prize include work on string theory, large dimensions, and multiuniverses. The Fundamental Physics Prize does not apply the iron rule of the Nobel Prize – prove the work is correct in the natural world by experiment or observation. Only one awarded Fundamental Physics Prize fits the iron rule – the discovery of the Higgs boson.
My experience in physics leads me to want the iron rule to be applied to all research based prizes in science. In the 1960s the Regge theory of strong interactions with its trajectories, poles and cuts would have been a candidate for the Fundamental Physics Prize. Proton-proton and pion-proton elastic scattering partially validated Regge theory. Some of these experiments were carried out by C. C. Ting, L. Jones and I in the 1960s [Phys. Rev. Lett. 9, 468–471 (1962)] using optical spark chambers at the Bevatron. A bit of particle physics nostalgia here: the experiment required the three of us and a marvelous mechanic, Orman Hays; and the data was acquired in a few weeks. But now we know that QCD, not Regge theory, is the fundamental theory for strong interactions. The iron rule must be applied with patience as well as severity.
Physics for a New Century: Papers Presented at the 1904 St. Louis Congress of Arts and Science
I recently found a volume of physics papers from the week-long 1904 St. Louis Congress of Arts and Science. Hundreds of talks were presented covering the intellectual achievements of nineteenth century in all fields of the arts and sciences. About a dozen papers on physics were given by Boltzmann, Langevin, Kimball, Newcomb, Ostwald, Poincare, and Rutherford, and lesser known physicists. These papers have been assembled by Katherine Sopka into Volume 5 of the History of Modern Physics (American Inst. Phys., Tomash Publishers, 1986).
A paper by C. Barus of Brown University summarizes nineteenth century progress in physics in the time-honored classical classifications of dynamics, heat, light and optics. Other papers introduce the emerging areas of alpha rays, beta rays, gamma rays, X-ray, radioactivity, the theories of the electron, and pre-Einstein relativity. Nineteenth century progress in physics was tremendous.
However there were substantial theoretical and conceptual mistakes in nineteenth century physics. There was Lord Kelvin‘s vortex theory of atoms, there were the arguments of the Energeticists such as Ostwald against the kinetic theory of gases, and of course the mechanical models of the ether. If the Fundamental Physics Prize had been available in the nineteenth century, some of these mistakes would have received the Prize. It took half a century or more to correct these mistakes.
The time scale for physics progress is a century not a decade. There are no decade scale solutions to worries about the rate of progress of fundamental physics knowledge. My advice is (a) study calculus and machine shop in high school and (b) have a long life as advised in the old song by buttoning up your overcoat and eating an apple every day.
On the hand, occasional scanning of the obituaries in the New York Times indicates that financiers live longer than physicists, so perhaps start a hedge fund in high school.