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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

String theories in trouble

As supersymmetry looks as if it's going down:
Researchers at the Large Hadron Collider have detected one of the rarest particle decays seen in Nature.  The finding deals a significant blow to the theory of physics known as supersymmetry.  Many researchers had hoped the LHC would have confirmed this by now.  Supersymmetry, or SUSY, has gained popularity as a way to explain some of the inconsistencies in the traditional theory of subatomic physics known as the Standard Model.

The new observation, reported at the Hadron Collider Physics conference in Kyoto, is not consistent with many of the most likely models of SUSY.
Stickwick can explain this much better than I can, but while string theory would survive the shooting down of the supersymmetry concept, at least for a while, the falsification of three of the seven string theories would seem to reduce the likelihood that it is scientifically viable.

On the other hand, it would be a useful demonstration of the intrinsic bankruptcy of democratic popularity in science.

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54 Comments:

Anonymous Red November 13, 2012 3:52 AM  

I read a book called the "The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next" a few years ago and was astounded by how political even a hard science like physics is. The author didn't want to come right out and say it, but almost all physics done since the 1970s has been politically motivated string theory research. Physics is basically dead when it comes to learning anything new.

Anonymous VryeDenker November 13, 2012 4:03 AM  

Funny how all these radical new theories started popping up around the same time as the cultural marxist revolution in the West...

Anonymous Tom White November 13, 2012 4:46 AM  

I remember in HS seeing a documentary on string theory at a friend's house. He was two years above me and in his final year of HS math and physics. He started calling BS and finally lost his temper. If a HS student could see through the shaky mathematical foundation how could physicists take it seriously.

I always believed it violated Ockham's razor by unnecessarily multiplying metaphysical entities that added nothing to the explanation, sophistry at its finest

Anonymous map November 13, 2012 5:15 AM  

I'm intrigued by theory that string theory is politically motivated. I, however, don't see how this is the case. Can someone explain this to me?

From wiki[pedia:

String theory posits that the electrons and quarks within an atom are not 0-dimensional objects, but made up of 1-dimensional strings. These strings can oscillate, giving the observed particles their flavor, charge, mass and spin. Among the modes of oscillation of the string is a massless, spin-two state—a graviton. The existence of this graviton state and the fact that the equations describing string theory include Einstein's equations for general relativity mean that string theory is a quantum theory of gravity. Since string theory is widely believed[7] to be mathematically consistent, many hope that it fully describes our universe, making it a theory of everything. String theory is known to contain configurations that describe all the observed fundamental forces and matter but with a zero cosmological constant and some new fields.[8] Other configurations have different values of the cosmological constant, and are metastable but long-lived. This leads many to believe that there is at least one metastable solution that is quantitatively identical with the standard model, with a small cosmological constant, containing dark matter and a plausible mechanism for cosmic inflation. It is not yet known whether string theory has such a solution, nor how much freedom the theory allows to choose the details.

Anonymous dh November 13, 2012 5:29 AM  

> On the other hand, it would be a useful demonstration of the intrinsic bankruptcy of democratic
> popularity in science.

And also a nice way to validate that experimental observation is perhaps still the only way to get anything really done in science. Thought-experiments are interesting only, but are hardly related to science at all.

Anonymous jay c November 13, 2012 7:19 AM  

Everything in academia is politically motivated.

Anonymous 691 November 13, 2012 7:46 AM  

It's a cruel fate that supersymmetry and string theory are not accurate models of particle physics. The past 30 years of string theory research might have been wasted from the perspective of theoretical physics but the string theorists have revolutionized many fields of mathematics. A wide swath of research mathematics has been recast from the perspective of string theory and as increasing specialization leads the wider mathematical community to splinter, string theory and theoretical physics is one way to make sense of a wide array of topics and to understand connections between some other field and your area of expertise.

If a HS student could see through the shaky mathematical foundation how could physicists take it seriously.

This is completely implausible. The strong mathematical foundations of string theory, despite no experimental evidence to support the theory, is exactly why it has held on so long.

Anonymous Susan November 13, 2012 7:48 AM  

Though I was known as Susy in my school years, I would have to proudly admit I was never symmetrical.

Anonymous jack November 13, 2012 8:05 AM  

Perhaps there is a creator entity out there somewhere that is having a good laugh today. Oh these humans! My best and most entertaining concoction yet. What ever can I do to top this. The drama and comedy is never ending. And, eons ago, I had a brief thought, very brief...only a few billion years or so, that I was getting bored.

Anonymous jack November 13, 2012 8:13 AM  

If supersymmetry is not an explanation for dark matter, then theorists will have to find alternative ideas to explain those inconsistencies in the Standard Model.

Can it be that 'dark matter', 'dark energy' is an overt, corporeal, 'humans can perceive this', aspect of Devine Thought? One of the many 'voices' of God?

May have to do some math on this....

Anonymous Ron Potato November 13, 2012 8:15 AM  

Funding is decided by political institutions, and scientists are on grant money rather than pursuing the most promising lines of research.

You can see this in high-energy physics, where funding by governments stems from the last military success, the atomic bomb, and on the government model: a large centrally managed bureaucracy.

Anonymous VryeDenker November 13, 2012 8:28 AM  

This is actually another good argument for engineers being cooler than scientists.

Anonymous Question November 13, 2012 8:54 AM  

> On the other hand, it would be a useful demonstration of the intrinsic bankruptcy of democratic
> popularity in science.

And also a nice way to validate that experimental observation is perhaps still the only way to get anything really done in science. Thought-experiments are interesting only, but are hardly related to science at all.


I don't think anyone would argue that experimental observation is the only way to get anything really done in science. Hypothesis and experiment are the scientific process and without experiment all you have left is theology. That being said for most of the 20th century physics has been led by theory and the experimentalists have just confirmed or rejected the different presented theories. While I won't say that experiment couldn't turn up something totally unexpected(heck I hope it does) the time of progress being made by someone bumbling into something new in the lab has been over for awhile. Thought experiments are very much the leader of modern physics. Science isn't just a collection of engineers.

Anonymous Anonymous November 13, 2012 9:04 AM  

the important word throughout all this is theory.

Anonymous ridip November 13, 2012 9:11 AM  

Too bad the LHC can't invalidate the economic theories the world has been operating under.

OT: When HuffPo can see an economic cliff coming things must be getting bad. The TL;DR is this isn't The Economic Cliff we are racing toward it's just a way to scare people into accepting whatever budget and QEx they come up with next because it will be soooooo much better than the theoretical alternative.

Drive the mob before you with fear, they'll help cushion the blow when you hit the bottom.

Anonymous JartStar November 13, 2012 9:25 AM  

Ridip –Even NPR had a segment on it this morning and pointed out that taxing the wealthy would only reduce the debt by 20% over 10 years and it would still be something like $5 trillion higher, and if we drove off the cliff we’d still have a deficit going forward.

If anyone is upset about the WASPs losing power you could take solace in what they are handing off is a ticking time bomb which cannot be diffused.

Anonymous JAU November 13, 2012 9:44 AM  

String Theory was beyond me until I saw this:

A spatula explains String Theory

Anonymous JI November 13, 2012 9:55 AM  

So what if the data don't agree with the models. That never stops the Global Warming crowd.

Anonymous physphilmusic November 13, 2012 10:15 AM  

This might actually be a good thing, from the point of view of a theorist. After all, what's the use of spending $8 billion for just confirming something which had been assumed for many years?

Anonymous physphilmusic November 13, 2012 10:18 AM  

almost all physics done since the 1970s has been politically motivated string theory research. Physics is basically dead when it comes to learning anything new.

Nah, to say "almost all physics" is misleading. "Most of theoretical particle physics" is more correct. After all, Smolin was mainly just arguing that other approaches to quantum gravity such as loop quantum gravity should be considered. There has been a lot of both experimental and theoretical research in physics which has little to do with string theory. Nothing really truly revolutionary like the discovery of relativity and quantum mechanics, but still, it's misleading to say that physics has been dead since the 1970s.

Anonymous Stickwick November 13, 2012 10:23 AM  

I don't really have much to add to this, except to say that while the Standard Model has been very successful in the last few decades, it has never been a completely satisfying model. I do think, for philosophical reasons, that some version of string theory is probably correct.

That being said for most of the 20th century physics has been led by theory and the experimentalists have just confirmed or rejected the different presented theories.

It's ironic you say this in light of the implications this result has for the nature of dark matter. While it is not inaccurate to say that a good deal of 20th century physics has been led by theory, the fact is a good deal of it has not, particularly in astrophysics.

One reason theory has taken more of a leading role in recent times is the unfortunate tendency for the scientific industry to be very conservative with how it funds experiments and allocates time at the big facilities. Despite what a lot of people think, in physics/astrophysics this process is not really agenda-driven, but rather has mostly to do with: a) current trends in research (what's "hot"); and b) how the scientific community thinks the public perceives the value of their work. Ideally, at least some portion of time on, say, the Hubble Space Telescope or the LHC should be devoted to "fishing expeditions." That is, just looking at stuff to see what we find or following a crazy hunch or something. But time on the HST and LHC is very precious, and so allocation committees invariably want investigators (scientists applying for time at the facility) to make a very strong case for their projects, i.e. the likelihood that they'll get ABC or XYZ results, and this is based on theory and previous experimental results. It just doesn't look good to the taxpayers and private donors who fund the facilities if the headline goes, "Scientists poke around universe, find nothing much this time around, vow to keep looking." You're much more likely to get funded for a project that investigates some aspect of an established theory, like the Standard Model, than if you want to try something new just for the heck of it. It's just the nature of things when you have limited resources allocated by committees.

Anonymous physphilmusic November 13, 2012 10:23 AM  

If a HS student could see through the shaky mathematical foundation how could physicists take it seriously.

I'm dubious that a high school student, even if he is as precocious as a Terrence Tao or damn, Ramanujan, can "see through the shaky mathematical foundation" of string theory just by watching a documentary. The mathematics just way too advanced - you would be hard-pressed to find even a good college physics senior who can criticize the theory. If there were any doubts, it was probably caused by the fact that string theory posits so many things which seem ad hoc, such as extra unseen (curled) dimensions). It also offers few, if any, experimental predictions, sometimes on the verge of being unfalsifiable (the "infinitely many string theories" issue which has often been mentioned, even in popular presentations). That's what's turning off some physicists (especially experimentalists) to it.

Anonymous Stickwick November 13, 2012 10:35 AM  

So what if the data don't agree with the models. That never stops the Global Warming crowd.

It is a mistake to lump all scientists and all scientific fields together. Physics has an enduring reputation as a relatively pure science, given that: a) unlike some other fields, it has already passed through its infancy and adolescence; and b) it doesn't really have any application to forcing people to behave one way or another. Whenever there is a strong motivation to use the results to influence people's behavior (GW/ACC, Darwinism, etc.) or to make a truckload of money, that's when you should worry about the integrity of a scientific field.

This might actually be a good thing, from the point of view of a theorist. After all, what's the use of spending $8 billion for just confirming something which had been assumed for many years?

Nope. That's not the way theory works. Theorists are happy when things don't turn out as expected. There's neither fun nor job security in proposing a theory and just sitting on it for decades. When a theory is either proved wrong or evidence indicates it needs tweaking, that's a guarantee of many more years of work for theorists. Also, theorists do base much of their work on, you know, actual evidence.

Anonymous CunningDove November 13, 2012 10:45 AM  

This reminds me of a Q&A in one of my High School math classes.

Student: If you can't have 2 negative numbers multiply together & remain negative, how can your equation be right if it ends with a negative square root of a number?
Teacher: Because the rocket flew to the moon. We know the equation is right. Even if it breaks the laws of mathematics.

Anonymous physphilmusic November 13, 2012 11:04 AM  

Nope. That's not the way theory works. Theorists are happy when things don't turn out as expected. There's neither fun nor job security in proposing a theory and just sitting on it for decades. When a theory is either proved wrong or evidence indicates it needs tweaking, that's a guarantee of many more years of work for theorists. Also, theorists do base much of their work on, you know, actual evidence.

I don't understand how you're trying to contradict me here. What I meant was exactly the same thing: the discovery of unexpected experimental results is a blessing for theorists, because it means more material to think about. I have heard several times by now that it would be disappointing if all the LHC manages to do is discover a Higgs boson which has properties entirely as predicted by the Standard Model. If the LHC manages to topple supersymmetry, that would be a great additional justification for its multi-billion dollar price tag.

Anonymous . November 13, 2012 11:05 AM  

Can someone tell me why I should care?

If all theoretical physicists were sent to Arctic labor camps tomorrow, and their departments shut down, would anyone even notice? What would change?

Anonymous physphilmusic November 13, 2012 11:06 AM  

Student: If you can't have 2 negative numbers multiply together & remain negative, how can your equation be right if it ends with a negative square root of a number?

Complex numbers aren't negative numbers. That's the whole point.

Teacher: Because the rocket flew to the moon. We know the equation is right. Even if it breaks the laws of mathematics.

Well, AFAIK, in engineering complex numbers are a crucial tool, but they are just a tool - no physical quantity is "really" imaginary. Unlike in quantum mechanics.

Anonymous physphilmusic November 13, 2012 11:07 AM  

If all theoretical physicists were sent to Arctic labor camps tomorrow, and their departments shut down, would anyone even notice? What would change?

You'd have to change the requirements for medical school, because there won't be enough people to teach first year introductory physics.

Well on the other hand perhaps the experimentalists can do all of that.

Anonymous Stickwick November 13, 2012 11:20 AM  

I don't understand how you're trying to contradict me here.

Oy, that's because I misread your comment. Never mind!

Can someone tell me why I should care?

Nobody cares if you care.

Anonymous . November 13, 2012 11:27 AM  

I didn't ask if you cared that I care. I asked why I should care.

Blogger Markku November 13, 2012 11:30 AM  

What would change?

The devices that we would have available to us in five to ten years, provided that the standard model is incomplete. The more accurate model would reveal interactions that we weren't aware of, and we could exploit those interactions in new gadgets.

Anonymous Question November 13, 2012 11:44 AM  

The devices that we would have available to us in five to ten years, provided that the standard model is incomplete. The more accurate model would reveal interactions that we weren't aware of, and we could exploit those interactions in new gadgets.

Aka doomsday devices. At this point you really don't want anything practical to come out of high energy physics because its almost guaranteed to be bad.

Anonymous Orville November 13, 2012 11:46 AM  

As and outside observer I see this same thing in fusion research where billions have been spent on tokamaks for several decades with no realistic goal of acheiving net power in the forseable future.

Yet there are private and semi-private projects, some of which are peer-reviewed who are making progress towards net power fusion. Buzzard's Polywell device is one, and it's funded by the Navy.

Lawrenceville Plasma Physics has a very promising approach for garage sized megawatt fusion devices http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OM4talPKvtU&feature=player_embedded

Blogger Markku November 13, 2012 12:14 PM  

Aka doomsday devices

I happen to like doomsday.

*sulk*

Anonymous cheddarman November 13, 2012 12:21 PM  

Though I was known as Susy in my school years, I would have to proudly admit I was never symmetrical. - Susan

Susan, all vertebrates have bilateral symmetry. Do you have an extra appendage?

:)

Cheddarman

Anonymous Matt November 13, 2012 12:23 PM  

If all theoretical physicists were sent to Arctic labor camps tomorrow, and their departments shut down, would anyone even notice? What would change?

Theoretical high-energy particle physicists? Not much.

But they're only a small subset of theoretical physicists, most of whom work in condensed matter, optics, polymers, nuclear physics, molecular physics, materials, and so forth. If they all dropped dead, technological progress would probably slow down. Can't really invent an MRI unless you know how molecules respond to magnets.

Anonymous CunningDove November 13, 2012 12:25 PM  

physphilmusic November 13, 2012 11:06 AM
Complex numbers aren't negative numbers. That's the whole point.


That's right. Complex numbers like,
X= the square root of -169

they are imaginary. Imaginary numbers are used because there is no way to multiply 13 by itself & have a negative number be the result. 13x13=169 or -13x-13=169... (or at least in HS this is how we were told to solve the problem
X=13i).

I am not saying that the rocket did not fly to the moon. Nor am I saying that the equation is necessarily wrong. I just thought it was a lame answer. Something somewhere is off. Either the rules by which we do math or the equation as currently expressed is flawed.

Experiments are good. But saying this is the way it is & that's just how it is... makes me question any "theory". And there is a quote at the end of the original linked article where one physicist said:
Supporters of supersymmetry, however, such as Prof John Ellis of King's College London, said that the observation is "quite consistent with supersymmetry".

"In fact," he said, "(it) was actually expected in (some) supersymmetric models. I certainly won't lose any sleep over the result."


So... if it is expected in (some) models, why is it expected in those models and not others? And if those results were expected, why is there not a statistically significant number of results to fit this model? I would like to see more information regarding those types of questions. Not just, oh I'm not worried about it.

Note: I do understand that this was not an all inclusive article, so I am waiting to see what comes next. All in all, there have been some fascinating discoveries from these experiments. I enjoy reading about them.

Blogger IM2L844 November 13, 2012 12:32 PM  

You'd have to change the requirements for medical school, because there won't be enough people to teach first year introductory physics.

If an economist can head up the CIA then surely an economist would also be qualified to teach introductory physics.

Anonymous rho November 13, 2012 12:33 PM  

I always thought of string theory as the Young Earth Creationism for physics.

Anonymous LI November 13, 2012 12:45 PM  

Economists are qualified to teach every subject in existence.

Anonymous Jack Amok November 13, 2012 12:51 PM  

One reason theory has taken more of a leading role in recent times is the unfortunate tendency for the scientific industry to be very conservative with how it funds experiments and allocates time at the big facilities.

I think this is the heart of the matter with trans-Newtonian physics. The difficulty of conducting experiments for this stuff makes for a limited number of them, and theories go decades without being subjected to experiment. During those decades, theory morphs into theology. I mean, centuries ago if you came up with a Newtonian theory, say that bowling balls and bags of feathers dropped at the same rate, and you started going around lecturing on your theory, it wouldn't be very long before another scientist said "well old Chap, let's go see if it's true."

Nowadays, theories hobble along neither confirmed nor rejected by observation, sorting the folks who care into Shiite and Sunni camps, calling each other heretics.

Anonymous Daniel November 13, 2012 1:07 PM  

It is a mistake to lump all scientists and all scientific fields together. Physics has an enduring reputation as a relatively pure science, given that: a) unlike some other fields, it has already passed through its infancy and adolescence; and b) it doesn't really have any application to forcing people to behave one way or another. Whenever there is a strong motivation to use the results to influence people's behavior (GW/ACC, Darwinism, etc.) or to make a truckload of money, that's when you should worry about the integrity of a scientific field.

Yeah, but that still doesn't explain how an atheist religious studies professor got Guillermo Gonzalez denied tenure in astronomy.

Blogger Desert Cat November 13, 2012 1:08 PM  

cheddarman November 13, 2012 12:21 PM
Though I was known as Susy in my school years, I would have to proudly admit I was never symmetrical. - Susan

Susan, all vertebrates have bilateral symmetry. Do you have an extra appendage?
:)
Cheddarman


Sometimes the boobies don't match.

I've never heard that be a point of pride however...

Anonymous Susan November 13, 2012 2:54 PM  

To Cheddarman and Desert Cat, I was thinking more along the line of walking to the beat of my own drum kind of personality in my school years. Never was a yellow pencil kind of girl.

My boobies are just fine, thanks for asking DC. I forgot to factor in that nice front porches are never off topic around here.

Anonymous Big Stu November 13, 2012 3:12 PM  

"My boobies are just fine, thanks for asking.."

Ignore them Susan, us chaps have a couple of asymmetric bits too.

Unless it's really cold or we get a fright or something.

Back OT. I'll kind of miss strings if they go. They used to be described as being more like an idea of a thing than an actual thing, which makes you wonder in whose mind is the idea that the Universe is based on?

Anonymous Sojourner November 13, 2012 3:18 PM  

Mmmm, front porches...

Anonymous TheVillageIdiotRet November 13, 2012 3:22 PM  

Motorboatin!

Anonymous Outlaw X November 13, 2012 3:46 PM  

String Theory is an agenda driven theory as an alternative to a Creator. They will never let it go.

Anonymous Daniel November 13, 2012 5:00 PM  

Wait a minute. Is this about physics or anatomy? I mixed up the sciences about halfway through.

Anonymous WaterBoy November 13, 2012 6:01 PM  

Both. Gravity's influence on anatomy increases as time passes.

Anonymous kh123 November 13, 2012 6:09 PM  

SUSY.

I'm assuming there was an inside joke when naming this.

Anonymous Sheldon Cooper, PhD November 13, 2012 6:44 PM  

You mean all of my work is inferior to that of Leonard Hoefstader???

Anonymous JI November 13, 2012 10:43 PM  

Stickwick wrote as a response to my tongue-in-cheek comment:
"So what if the data don't agree with the models. That never stops the Global Warming crowd.

It is a mistake to lump all scientists and all scientific fields together. Physics has an enduring reputation as a relatively pure science, given that: a) unlike some other fields, it has already passed through its infancy and adolescence; and b) it doesn't really have any application to forcing people to behave one way or another. Whenever there is a strong motivation to use the results to influence people's behavior (GW/ACC, Darwinism, etc.) or to make a truckload of money, that's when you should worry about the integrity of a scientific field. "

Very well put. I agree 100%. Was just being a smart-aleck. :-)

Blogger james wilson November 16, 2012 12:26 AM  

Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the only one who asked why.

Max Perutz, Nobel in chemistry--
I distrust scientist who complain about others stealing their ideas–I have always had to force new ideas down their throats.

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