What Me Worry About The Future of High Energy Physics?

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.

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19 Responses to What Me Worry About The Future of High Energy Physics?

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    • I agree with your quotation; there is more speculative effort, called theoretical research, then empiricist efforts to explain unknown phenomena, such are gravity, entropy and different experimental measurement of heat and their explanations, and especially the mystery of mass and various subatomic particles your wrote an article about two year ago.

      The theoretical explanation of the Big Bang and the Standard Model have missing logical foundations of gravity, the physical essence of matter before of Big Bang, just to mention two flaws. The Higgs theory and its Higgs Boson is no help either, they suffer from the same inconsistencies. Enormously high priced experiment with miles-long accelerators and extremely complex detectors are not helping. They will create more multimillions of various sub-nuclear fragments in the “zoo of particles” quoting Steven Weinberg. I hope you could influence the ongoing trend of research to become for something far better.

      Best wises: George

  5. David Brown says:

    “… what is the correct unification of quantum mechanics with gravity …” Is the Newton-Einstein theory of gravity 100% correct? Does M-theory need additional hypotheses (including Milgrom’s MOND)? According to Stephen Hawking, “To understand the universe at the deepest level, we have to understand why there is something rather than nothing. Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws, and not some other? I believe the answer to all these things is M-theory.”
    According to Kroupa, Pawlowski, and Milgrom, “Cosmological models that invoke warm or cold dark matter can not explain observed regularities in the properties of dwarf galaxies, their highly anisotropic spatial distributions, nor the correlation between observed mass discrepancies and acceleration.”
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1301.3907 “The failures of the standard model of cosmology require a new paradigm”, 16 Jan. 2013
    I have suggested that Milgrom is the Kepler of contemporary cosmology.
    http://www.vixra.org/abs/1301.0045 “Does Each Superstring Have 24 D-Brane Charges?”
    I conjecture that unless theoretical physicists realize that Milgrom is the Kepler of contemporary cosmology they shall fail to correctly unify quantum field theory with gravitation theory.

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  7. Dan Iezzi says:

    Observationally, could one discern the difference between the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) as predicted by the big bang and inflation theory, and observing a one star supernova explosion from the inside-out to the CMBR after the temperature is cool enough for recombination as I have heard that the CMBR is as looking at the surface of a star? Would looking at the surface of a star be the same surface if one looked from the outside to the surface as looking from the inside out to the surface?

  8. D R Lunsford says:

    Don’t know what to say – the culture of physics is completely dead, destroyed from within. At this point, results be damned – the culture itself is gone, and that’s a greater loss.


  9. Dan Iezzi says:

    Is it feasible for quarks to exist in isolation?

    I was thinking that if there was an event powerful enough to break apart the nuclei and liberate the quarks in such a manner that there was a lot of empty space (look into outer space) amongst the quarks, and other nuclear parts after the separation so that forming other nuclei was physically improbable because these parts were too far apart, could these quarks and other nuclear parts then exist in isolation?

  10. Pingback: [Reblog]: What Me Worry About The Future of High Energy Physics? | Io Non Faccio Niente

  11. chris says:

    Regge theory is not QCD and it is wrong. if you think otherwise, please show me a Regge explanation for Bjorken scaling and asymptotic freedom.

  12. Cliff says:

    “Only one awarded Fundamental Physics Prize fits the iron rule”

    Wow, you sure haven’t examined the list very hard. Here is the list of winners:


    For starters, how about inflationary cosmology? Surely you are aware of the experimental evidence for that. Nima Arkani-Hamed’s study of scattering amplitudes, which also built on the work of Witten, has been used (and has been necessary) to compute QCD backgrounds for the LHC. Juan Maldacena’s gauge-string duality has been used to understand a variety of strongly-coupled quantum field theories, and yes, to confront experimental data…

    Ironically the one thing you cited as obeying the “iron rule”, the work on “new theories for the Higgs boson” by Nima Arkani-Hamed actually refers to the so-called ‘Little Higgs’ theories, based on dimensional deconstruction, which are not actually among the ideas that have successfully described experimental data so far.

    I don’t know what the point is of belittling the Fundamental Physics prize, which is clearly not supposed to be the Nobel Prize. If it were, what would be the point? It was obviously created to recognize people who have made awesome contributions to our understanding, and with good reason. Nobody is shutting down the Nobel Committee. This guy is using a lot of his own money, and its a really good thing for physics that he is.

    Its obviously understandable to long for exciting discoveries in the future, but its really not a physicist’s place to complain about nature, for example, about the value of Planck’s constant. It supports our lives, after all. As Feynman would say, if you don’t like it, move to another universe.

  13. steve newman says:

    Hi- thanks for your good blog.

    any thoughts on this-
    Observation that doesnt fit the Standard Model of Cosmology.


    published last month in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.


  14. Martin,

    You write:

    … there were the arguments of the Energeticists such as Ostwald against the kinetic theory of gases, …

    The Energeticists were right!! Modern quantum theory is closer to them than to the classical kinetic theory of gases!!

    I’m working on a paper arguing just this point.


  15. Pingback: Short Items | Not Even Wrong

  16. Dan Iezzi says:

    Any new particle discovery may depend on the highest energy levels that can be achieved. Is the intersection of the electroweak and the strong force energy levels attainable?

  17. J.R. Cudell says:

    QCD is really contained in the analytic S-matrix theory (or “Regge” theory as often called), and it has cuts and poles. So both are correct. But Nobel prizes only went to QCD.

  18. Dileep Sathe says:

    A recent story on Scientific American suggests physicists to seek new ideas because super-symmetry has failed the test, see http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=supersymmetry-fails-test-forcing-physics-seek-new-idea There, in response, I have suggested a new idea, in comment # 43 on 01 December 2012.

    The Nobel Prize for Physics, 2011, is for the discovery of accelerating expansion of universe, which has revived interest in the Dark Energy, a repulsive forces that permeates all of space – http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1799977/Nobel-Prizes-Year-In-Review-2011/302128/Prize-for-Physics#ref1123562 Therefore, in my comment of 09 July 2012, under “I didn’t know that…” I have described my very old idea of March 1977 – visit: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1055698/dark-energy/1055698yblinks/Year-in-Review-Links

    Introducing new ideas in high school, I think, is worth considering in view of the motive for celebrating the year 2005 as the Einstein year.

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