Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Can we prove the quantization of gravity with the Casimir effect? Probably not.

Quantum gravity phenomenology has hit the news again. This time the headline is that we can supposedly use the gravitational Casimir effect to demonstrate the existence of gravitons, and thereby the quantization of the gravitational field. You can read this on New Scientist or Spektrum (in German), and tomorrow you’ll read it in a dozen other news outlets, all of which will ignore what I am about to tell you now, namely (surpise) the experiment is most likely not going to detect any quantum gravitational effect.

The relevant paper is on the arxiv
I’m here for you. I went and read the paper. Then it turned out that the argument is based on another paper by Minter et al, which has a whooping 60 pages. Don’t despair, I’m here for you. I went and read that too. It’s only fun if it hurts, right? Luckily my attempted martyrdom wasn’t put to too much test because I recalled after the first 3 pages that I had read the Minter et al paper before. So what is this all about?

The Casmir effect is a force that is normally computed for quantum electrodynamics, where it acts between conducting, uncharged plates. The resulting force is a consequence of the boundary conditions on the plates. The relevant property of the setup in quantum electrodynamics is that the plates are conducting, which is what causes the boundary condition. Then, the quantum vacuum outside the plates is different from the vacuum between the plates, resulting in a net force. You can also do this calculation for other geometries with boundary conditions; it isn’t specific to the plates, this is just the simplest case.

The Casimir effect exists for all quantized fields, in principle, if you have suitable boundary conditions. It does also exist for gravity, if you perturbatively quantize it, and this has been calculated in the context of many cosmological models. Since compactified dimensions are also boundary conditions, the Casmir effect can be relevant for all extra-dimensional scenarios, where it tends to destabilize configurations.

In the new paper now, the author, James Quach, calculates the gravitational Casimir effect with a boundary condition where the fields do not abruptly jump, but are smooth, and he also takes into account a frequency-dependence in the reaction of the boundary to the vacuum fluctuations. The paper is very clearly written, and while I haven’t checked the calculation in detail it looks good to me. I also think it is a genuinely new result.

To estimate the force of the resulting Casmir effect one then needs to know how the boundary reacts to the quantum fluctuations in the vacuum. The author for this looks at two different case for which he uses other people’s previous findings. First, he uses an estimate for how normal materials scatter gravitational waves. Then he uses an estimate that goes back to the mentioned 60 pages paper how superconducting films supposedly scatter gravitational waves, due to what they dubbed the “Heisenberg-Coulomb Effect” (more about that in a moment). The relevant point to notice here is that in both cases the reaction of the material is that to a classical gravitational wave, whereas in the new paper the author looks at a quantum fluctuation.

Quach estimates that for normal materials the gravitational Casimir effect is ridiculously tiny and unobservable. Then he uses the claim in the Minter et al paper that superconducting materials have a hugely enhanced reaction to gravitational waves. He estimates the Casimir effect in this case and finds that it can be measureable.

The paper by Quach is very careful and doesn’t overstate this result. He very clearly spells out that this doesn’t so much test quantum gravity, but that it tests the Minter et al claim, the accuracy of which has previously been questioned. Quach writes explicitly:
“The origins of the arguments employed by Minter et al. are heuristical in nature, some of which we believe require a much more formal approach to be convincing. This is echoed in a review article […] Nevertheless, the work by Minter et al. do yield results which can be used to falsify their theory. The [Heisenberg-Coulomb] effect should enhance the Casimir pressure between superconducting plates. Here we quantify the size of this effect.”
Take away #1: The proposed experiment does not a priori test quantum gravity, it tests the controversial Heisenberg-Coulomb effect.

So what’s the Heisenberg-Coulomb effect? In their paper, Minter et al explain that a in a superconducting material, Cooper pairs aren’t localizable and thus don’t move like point particles. This means in particular they don’t move on geodesics. That by itself wouldn’t be so interesting, but their argument is that this is the case only for the negatively charged Cooper pairs, while the positively charged ions of the atomic lattice move pretty much on geodesics. So if a gravitational wave comes in, their argument, the positive and negative charges react differently. This causes a polarization, which leads to a restoring force.

You probably don’t feel like reading the 60 pages Minter thing, but have at least a look at the abstract. It explicitly uses the semi-classical approximation. This means the gravitational field is unquantized. This is essential, because they talk about stuff moving in a background spacetime. Quach in his paper uses the frequency-dependence from the Minter paper not for the semi-classical approximation, but for the response of each mode in the quantum vacuum. The semi-classical approximation in Quach’s case is flat space by assumption.

Take away #2: The new paper uses a frequency response derived for a classical gravitational wave and uses it for the quantized modes of the vacuum.

These two things could be related in some way, but I don’t see how it’s obvious that they are identical. The problem is that to use the Minter result you’d have to argue somehow that the whole material responds to the same mode at once. This is so if you have a gravitational wave that deforms the background, but I don’t see how it’s justified to still do this for quantum fluctuations. Note, I’m not saying this is wrong. I’m just saying I don’t see why it’s right. (Asked the author about it, no reply yet. I’ll keep you posted.)

We haven’t yet come to the most controversial part of the Minter argument though. That the superconducting material reacts with polarization and a restoring force seems plausible to me. But to get the desired boundary condition, Minter et al argue that the superconducting material reflects the incident gravitational wave. The argument seems to be basically that since the gravitational wave can’t pull apart the negative from the positive charges, it can’t trespass the medium at all. And since the reaction of the medium is electromagnetic in origin, it is hugely enhanced compared to the reaction of normal media.

I can’t follow this argument because I don’t see where the backreaction from the material on the gravitational wave is supposed to come from. The only way the superconducting material can affect the background is through the gravitational coupling, ie through its mass movement. And this coupling is tiny. What I think would happen is simply that the superconducting film becomes polarized and then when the force becomes too strong to allow further separation through the gravitational wave, it essentially moves as one, so no further polarization. Minter et al do in their paper not calculate the backreaction of the material to the background. This isn’t so surprising because backreaction in gravity is one of the thorniest math problems you can encounter in physics. As an aside, notice that the paper is 6 years old but unpublished. And so

Take away #3: It’s questionable that the effect which the newly proposed experiments looks for exists at all.

My summary then is the following: The new paper is interesting and it’s a novel calculation. I think it totally deserves publication in PRL and I have little doubt that the result (Eqs 15-18) is correct. I am not sure that using the frequency response to classical waves is good also for quantum fluctuations. And even if you buy this, the experiment doesn’t test for quantization of the gravitational field directly, but rather it tests for a very controversial behavior of superconducting materials. This controversial behavior has been argued to exist for classical gravitational waves though, not for quantized ones. Besides this, it’s a heuristic argument in which the most essential feature – the supposed reflection of gravitational waves – has not been calculated.

For these reasons, I very strongly doubt that the proposed experiment that looks for a gravitational contribution to the Casimir effect would find anything.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Are pop star scientists bad for science?

[Image Source: Asia Tech Hub]

In January, Lawrence Krauss wrote a very nice feature article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, titled “Scientists as celebrities: Bad for science or good for society?” In his essay, he reflects on the rise to popularity of Einstein, Sagan, Feynman, Hawking, and deGrasse Tyson.

Krauss, not so surprisingly, concludes that scientific achievement is neither necessary nor sufficient for popularity, and that society benefits from scientists’ voices in public debate. He does not however address the other part of the question that his essay’s title raises: Is scientific celebrity bad for science?

I have to admit that people who idolize public figures just weird me out. It isn’t only that I am generally suspicious of groups of any kinds and avoid crowds like the plague, but that there is something creepy about fans trying to outfan each other by insisting their stars are infallible. It’s one thing to follow the lives of popular figures, be happy for them and worry about them. It’s another thing to elevate their quotes to unearthly wisdom and preach their opinion like supernatural law.

Years ago, I unknowingly found myself in a group of Feynman fans who were just comparing notes about the subject of their adoration. In my attempt to join the discussion I happily informed them that I didn’t like Feynman’s books, didn’t like, in fact, his whole writing style. The resulting outrage over my blasphemy literally had me back out of the room.

Sorry, have I insulted your hero?

An even more illustrative case is that of Michael Hale making a rather innocent joke about a photo of Neil deGrasse Tyson on twitter, and in reply getting shot down with insults. You can find some (very explicit) examples in the writeup of his story “How I Became Thousands of Nerds' Worst Enemy by Tweeting a Photo.” After blowing up on twitter, his photo ended up on the facebook page “I Fucking Love Science.” The best thing about the ensuing facebook thread is the frustration of several people who apparently weren’t able to turn off notifications of new comments. The post has been shared more than 50,000 times, and Michael Hale now roasts in nerd hell somewhere between Darth Vader and Sauron.

Does this seem like scientist’s celebrity is beneficial to balanced argumentation? Is fandom ever supportive to rational discourse?

I partly suspect that Krauss, like many people his age and social status, doesn’t fully realize the side-effects that social media attention brings, the trolls in the blogosphere’s endless comment sections and the anonymous insults in the dark corners of forum threads. I agree with Krauss that it’s good that scientists voice their opinions in public. I’m not sure that celebrity is a good way to encourage people to think on their own. Neither, for that matter, are facebook pages with expletives in the title.

Be that as it may, pop star scientists serve, as Steve Fuller put it bluntly, as “marketing”
“The upshot is that science needs to devote an increased amount of its own resources to what might be called pro-marketing.”
Agreed. And for that reason, I am in favor of scientific celebrity, even though I doubt that idolization can ever bring insight. But let us turn now to the question what ill effects celebrity can have on science.

Many of those who become scientists report getting their inspiration from popular science books, shows, or movies. Celebrities clearly play a big role in this pull. One may worry that the resulting interest in science is then very focused on a few areas that are the popular topics of the day. However, I don’t see this worry having much to do with reality. What seems to happen instead is that young people, once their interest is sparked, explore the details by themselves and find a niche that they fit in. So I think that science benefits from popular science and its voices by inspiring young people to go into science.

The remaining worry that I can see is that scientific pop stars affect the interests of those already active in science. My colleagues always outright dismiss the possibility that their scientific opinion is affected by anything or anybody. It’s a nice demonstration of what psychologists call the “bias blind spot”. It is well documented that humans pay more attention to information that they receive repeatedly and in particular if it comes from trusted sources. This was once a good way to extract relevant information in a group of 300 fighting for survival. But in the age of instant connectivity and information overflow, it means that our interests are easy to play.

If you don’t know what I mean, imagine that deGrasse Tyson had just explained he read my recent paper and thinks it’s totally awesome. What would happen? Well, first of all, all my colleagues would instantly hate me and proclaim that my paper is nonsense without even having read it. Then however, a substantial amount of them would go and actually read it. Some of them would attempt to find flaws in it, and some would go and write follow-up papers. Why? Because the papal utterance would get repeated all over the place, they’d take it to lunch, they’d discuss it with their colleagues, they’d ask others for opinion. And the more they discuss it, the more it becomes interesting. That’s how the human brain works. In the end, I’d have what the vast majority of papers never gets: attention.

That’s a worry you can have about scientific celebrity, but to be honest it’s a very constructed worry. That’s because pop star scientists rarely if ever comment on research that isn’t already very well established. So the bottomline is that while it could be bad for science, I don’t think scientific celebrity is actually bad for science, or at least I can’t see how.

The above mentioned problem of skewing scientific opinions by selectively drawing attention to some works though is a real problem with the popular science media, which doesn’t shy away from commenting on research which is still far from being established. The better outlets, in the attempt of proving their credibility, stick preferably to papers of those already well-known and decorate their articles with quotes from more well-known people. The result is a rich-get-richer trend. On the very opposite side, there’s a lot of trash media that seem to randomly hype nonsense papers in the hope of catching readers with fat headlines. This preferably benefits scientists who shamelessly oversell their results. The vast majority of serious high quality research, in pretty much any area, goes largely unnoticed by the public. That, in my eyes, is a real problem which is bad for science.

My best advice if you want to know what physicists really talk about is to follow the physics societies or their blogs or journals respectively. I find they are reliable and trustworthy information sources, and usually very balanced because they’re financed by membership fees, not click rates. Your first reaction will almost certainly be that their news are boring and that progress seems incremental. I hate to spell it out, but that’s how science really is.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

New experiment doesn’t see fifth force, rules out class of dark energy models

Sketch of new experiment.
Fig 1 from arXiv:1502.03888

Three months ago, I told you about a paper that suggested a new way to look for certain types of dark matter fields, called “chameleon fields”. Chameleon fields can explain the observed accelerated expansion of the universe without the necessity to introduce a cosmological constant. Their defining feature is a “screening mechanism” that suppresses the field in the vicinity of matter. The Chameleon fields become noticeable between galaxies, where the average energy density is very thin, but the field is tiny and unmeasurable nearby massive objects, such as the Earth.

Or so we thought, until it was pointed out by Burrage, Copeland and Hinds that the fields should be observable in vacuum chambers, when measured not with massive probes but with light ones, such as for example single atoms. The idea is that the Chameleon field inside a vacuum chamber would not be suppressed, or not very much suppressed, and then atoms in the chamber are subject to a modified gravitational field, that is the usual gravitational field, plus the extra force from the Chameleon.

You might not believe it, but half a year after they proposed the experiment, it’s been done already, by a group of researchers from Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania
    Atom-interferometry constraints on dark energy
    Paul Hamilton, Matt Jaffe, Philipp Haslinger, Quinn Simmons, Holger Müller, Justin Khoury
    arXiv:1502.03888 [physics.atom-ph]
I am stunned to say the least! I’m used to experiments taking a decade or two from the idea to planning. If they come into existence at all. So how awesome is this?

Here is what they did in the experiment.

They used a vacuum chamber in which there is an atom interferometer for a cloud of about 10 million Cesium atoms. The vacuum chamber also contains a massive sphere. The sphere serves to suppress the field on one arm of the interferometer, so that a phase difference resulting from the Chameleon field should become measurable. The atoms are each brought into superpositions somewhere above the sphere, and split into two wave-packages. They are directed with laser pulses, that make one wave-package go up – away from the sphere – and down again, and the other wave-package go down – towards the sphere – and up again. Then the phase-shift between the different wave-packages is measured. This phase-shift contains information about the gravitational field on each path.

They also make a measurement in which the sphere is moved aside entirely, so as to figure out what is the offset from the gravitational field of the Earth alone, which allows them to extract the (potential) influence of the Chameleon field by itself.

Their data doesn’t contain any evidence for an usual fifth force, so they can exclude the presence of the Chameleon field to some precision which derives from their data. Thanks to using atoms instead of more massive probes, their experiment is the first of which the precision is high enough to rule out part of the parameter space in which a dark energy field could have been found. The models for Chameleon fields have a second parameter, and part of this space isn’t excluded yet. However, if the experiment can be improved by some orders of magnitude, it might be possible to rule it out completely. This would mean then that we could discard of these models entirely.

It is always hard to explain how one can get excited about null results, but see: ruling out certain models frees up mental space for other ideas. Of course the people who have worked on it won’t be happy, but such is science. (Though Justin Khoury, who is originator of the idea, co-authored the paper and so seems content contributing to its demise.) The Chaemeleon isn’t quite dead yet, but I’m happy to report it’s on the way to the nirvana of deceased dark energy models.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Open peer review and its discontents.

Some days ago, I commented on an arxiv paper that had been promoted by the arxiv blog (which, for all I know, has no official connection with the arxiv). This blogpost had an aftermath that gave me something to think.

Most of the time when I comment on a paper that was previously covered elsewhere, it’s to add details that I found missing. More often than not, this amounts to a criticism which then ends up on this blog. If I like a piece of writing, I just pass it on with approval on twitter, G+, or facebook. This is to explain, in case it’s not obvious, that the negative tilt of my blog entries is selection bias, not that I dislike everything I haven’t written myself.

The blogpost in question pointed out shortcomings of a paper. Trying to learn from earlier mistakes, I was very explicit about what that means, namely that the conclusion in the paper isn’t valid. I’ve now written this blog for almost nine years, and it has become obvious that the careful and polite scientific writing style plainly doesn’t get across the message to a broader audience. If I write that a paper is “implausible,” my colleagues will correctly parse this and understand I mean it’s nonsense. The average science journalist will read that as “speculative” and misinterpret it, either accidentally or deliberately, as some kind of approval.

Scientists also have a habit of weaving safety nets with what Peter Woit once so aptly called ‘weasel words’, ambiguous phrases that allow them on any instance to claim they actually meant something else. Who ever said the LHC would discover supersymmetry? The main reason you most likely perceive the writing on my blog as “unscientific” is lack of weasel words. So I put my head out here on the risk of being wrong without means of backpedalling, and as a side-effect I often come across as actively offensive.

If I got a penny each time somebody told me I’m supposedly “aggressive” because I read Strunk’s `Elements of Style,’ then I’d at least get some money for writing. I’m not aggressive, I’m expressive! And if you don’t buy that, I’ll hit some adjectives over your head. You can find them weasel words in my papers though, in the plenty, with lots of ifs and thens and subjunctives, in nested subordinate clauses with 5 syllable words just to scare off anybody who doesn’t have a PhD.

In reaction to my, ahem, expressive blogpost criticizing the paper, I very promptly got an email from a journalist, Philipp Hummel, who was writing on an article about the paper for spectrum.de, the German edition of Scientific American. His article has meanwhile appeared, but since it’s in German, let me summarize it for you. Hummel didn’t only write about the paper itself, but also about the online discussion around it, and the author’s, mine, and other colleagues’ reaction to it.

Hummel wrote by email he found my blogpost very useful and that he had also contacted the author asking for a comment on my criticism. The author’s reply can be found in Hummel’s article. It says that he hadn’t read my blogpost, wouldn’t read it, and wouldn’t comment on it either because he doesn’t consider this proper ‘scientific means’ to argue with colleagues. The proper way for me to talk to him, he let the journalist know, is to either contact him or publish a reply on the arxiv. Hummel then asked me what I think about this.

To begin with I find this depressing. Here’s a young researcher who explicitly refuses to address criticism on his work, and moreover thinks this is proper scientific behavior. I could understand that he doesn’t want to talk to me, evil aggressive blogger that I am, but that he refuses to explain his research to a third party isn’t only bad science communication, it’s actively damaging the image of science.

I will admit I also find it slightly amusing that he apparently believes I must have an interest talking to him, or in him talking to me. That all the people whose papers I have once commented on show up wanting to talk is stuff of my nightmares. I’m happy if I never hear from them again and can move on. There’s lots of trash out there that needs to be beaten.

That paper and its author, me, and Hummel, we’re of course small fish in the pond, but I find this represents a tension that presently exists in much of the scientific community. A very prominent case was the supposed discovery of “arsenic life” a few years ago. The study was exposed flawed by online discussion. The arsenic authors refused to comment on this, arguing that:
“Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated […] This is a common practice not new to the scientific community. The items you are presenting do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner.”
Naïve as I am, I thought that theoretical physics is less 19th century than that. But now it seems to me this outdated spirit is still alive also in the physics community. There is a basic misunderstanding here about necessity and use of peer review, and the relevance of scientific publication.

The most important aspect of peer review is that it assures that a published paper has been read at least by the reviewers, which otherwise wouldn’t be the case. Public peer review will never work for all papers simply because most papers would never get read. It works just fine though for papers that receive much attention, and in these cases anonymous reviewers aren’t any better than volunteer reviewers with similar scientific credentials. Consequently, public peer review, when it takes place, should be taken as least as seriously as anonymous review.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that all scientific discourse should be conducted in public. Scientists need private space to develop their ideas. I even think that most of us go out with ideas way too early, because we are under too much pressure to appear productive. I would never publicly comment on a draft that was sent to me privately, or publicize opinions voiced in closed meetings. You can’t hurry thought.

However, the moment you make your paper publicly available you have to accept that it can be publicly commented on. It isn’t uncommon for researchers, even senior ones, to have stage fright upon arxiv submission for this reason. Now you’ve thrown your baby into the water and have to see whether it swims or sinks.

Don’t worry too much, almost all babies swim. That’s because most of my colleagues in theoretical physics entirely ignore papers that they think are wrong. They are convinced that in the end only truth will prevail and thus practice live-and-let-live. I used to do this too. But look at the evidence: it doesn’t work. The arxiv now is full with paid research so thin a sneeze could wipe it out. We seem to have forgotten that criticism is an integral part of science, it is essential for progress, and for cohesion. Physics leaves me wanting more every year. It is over-specialized into incredibly narrow niches, getting worse by the day.

Yes, specialization is highly efficient to optimize existing research programs, but it is counterproductive to the development of new ones. In the production line of a car, specialization allows to optimize every single move and every single screw. And yet, you’ll never arrive at a new model listening to people who do nothing all day than looking at their own screws. For new breakthroughs you need people who know a little about all the screws and their places and how they belong together. In that production line, the scientists active in public peer review are the ones who look around and say they don’t like their neighbor’s bolts. That doesn’t make for a new car, all right, but at least they do look around and they show that they care. The scientific community stands much to benefit from this care. We need them.

Clearly, we haven’t yet worked out a good procedure for how to deal with public peer review and with these nasty bloggers who won’t shut up. But there’s no going back. Public peer review is here to stay, so better get used to it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Do black hole firewalls have observable consequences?

In a paper out last week Niayesh Afshordi and Yasaman Yazdi from Perimeter Institute study the possibility that black hole firewalls can be observed by their neutrino emission:
In their work, the authors assume that black holes are not black, but emit particles from some surface close by the black hole horizon. They look at the flux of particles that we should receive on Earth from this surface. They argue that highly energetic neutrinos, which have been detected recently but whose origin is presently unknown, might have originated at the black hole firewall.

The authors explain that from all possible particles that might be produced in such a black hole firewall, neutrinos are most likely to be measured on Earth, because the neutrinos interact only very weakly and have the best chances to escape from a hot and messy environment. In this sense their firewall has consequences different from what a hard surface would have, which is important because a hard surface rather than an event horizon has previously been ruled out. The authors make an ansatz for two different spectra of the neutrino emission, a power-law and a black-body law. They then use the distribution of black holes to arrive at an estimate for the neutrino flux on Earth.

Some experiments have recently measured neutrinos with very high energies. The origin of these highly energetic neutrinos is very difficult to explain from known astrophysical sources. It is presently not clear how they are produced. Afshordi and Yazdi suggest that these highly energetic neutrinos might come from the black hole firewalls if these have a suitable power-law spectrum.

It is a nice paper that tries to make contact between black hole thermodynamics and observation. This contact has so far only been made for primordial (light) black holes, but these have never been found. Afshordi and Yazdi instead look at massive and solar-mass black holes.

The idea of a black hole firewall goes back to a 2012 paper by Almheiri, Marolf, Polchinski, and Sully, hereafter referred to as AMPS. AMPS pointed out in their paper that what had become the most popular solution attempt to the black hole information loss problem is in fact internally inconsistent. They showed that four assumptions about black hole evaporation that were by many people believed to all be realized in nature could not simultaneously be true. These four assumptions are:
  1. Black hole evaporation does not destroy information.
  2. Black hole entropy counts microstates of the black hole.
  3. Quantum field theory is not significantly affected until close to the horizon.
  4. An infalling observer who crosses the horizon (when the black hole mass is still large) does not notice anything unusual.
The last assumption is basically the equivalence principle: An observer in a gravitational field cannot locally tell the difference to acceleration in flat space. A freely falling observer is not accelerated (by definition) and thus shouldn’t see anything. Assumption three is a quite weak version of knowing that quantum gravitational effects can’t just pop up anywhere in space that is almost flat. Assumption 3 and 4 are general expectations that don’t have much to do with the details of the attempted solution to the black hole information loss problem. The first two assumptions are what describe the specific scenario that supposedly solves the information loss problem. You may or may not buy into these.

These four assumptions are often assigned to black hole complementarity specifically, but that is mostly because the Susskind, Thorlacius, Uglum paper nicely happened to state these assumptions explicitly. The four assumptions are more importantly also believed to hold in string theory generally, which supposedly solves the black hole information loss problem via the gauge-gravity duality. Unfortunately, most articles in the popular science media have portrayed all these assumptions as known to be true, but this isn’t so. They are supported by string theory, so the contradiction is a conundrum primarily for everybody who believed that string theory solved the black hole information loss problem. If you do not, for example, commit to the strong interpretation of the Bekenstein-Hawking entropy (assumption 2), which is generally the case for all remnant scenarios, then you have no problem to begin with.

Now since AMPS have shown that the four assumptions are inconsistent, at least one of them has to be given up, and all the literature following their paper discussed back and forth which one should be given up. If you give up the equivalence principle, then you get the “firewall” that roasts the infalling observer. Clearly, that should be the last resort, since General Relativity is based on the equivalence principle. Giving up any of the other assumptions is more reasonable. Already for this reason, using the AMPS argument to draw the conclusion that black holes must be surrounded by a firewall is totally nutty.

As for my personal solution to the conundrum, I have simply shown that the four assumptions aren’t actually mutually incompatible. What makes them incompatible is a fifth assumption that isn’t explicitly stated in the above list, but enters later in the AMPS argument. Yes, I suffer from a severe case of chronic disagreeability, and I’m working hard on my delusions de grandeur, but this story shall be told another time.

The paper by Afshordi and Yazdi doesn’t make any use whatsoever of the AMPS calculation. They just assume that there is something emitting something close by the black hole horizon, and then they basically address the question what that something must do to explain the excess neutrino flux at high energies. This scenario has very little to do with the AMPS argument. In the AMPS paper the outgoing state is Hawking radiation, with suitable subtle entanglements so that it is pure and evolution unitary. The average energy of the emitted particles that is seen by the far away observer (us) is still zilch for large black holes. It is in fact typically below the background temperature of the cosmic microwave background, so the black holes won’t even evaporate until the universe has cooled some more (in some hundred billion years or so). It is only the infalling observer who notices something strange is going on if you drop assumption 4, which, I remind you, is already nutty.

So what is the merit of the paper?

Upon inquiry, Niayesh explained that the motivation for studying the emission of a possible black hole firewall in more general terms goes back to an earlier paper that he co-authored, arXiv:1212.4176. In this paper they argue (as so many before) that black holes are not the endstate of black hole collapse, but that instead spacetime ends already before the horizon (if you want to be nutty, be bold at least). This idea has some similarities with the fuzzball idea.

I am generally unenthusiastic about such solutions because I like black holes, and I don’t believe in anything that’s supposed to stabilize collapsing matter at small curvature. So I am not very convinced by their motivation. Their powerlaw ansatz is clearly constructed to explain a piece of data that currently wants explanation. To me their idea makes more sense when read backwards: Suppose the mysterious highly energetic neutrinos come from the vicinity of black holes. Given that we know the distribution of the black holes, what is the spectrum by which the neutrinos should have been emitted?

In summary: The paper doesn’t really have much to do with the black hole firewall, but it deals instead with an alternative end state of black hole collapse and asks for its observational consequences. The good thing about their paper is that they are making contact to observation, which is rare in an area plagued by lack of phenomenology, so I appreciate the intent. It would take more than a few neutrinos though to convince me that black holes don’t have a horizon.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Black holes don’t exist again. Newsflash: It’s a trap!

Several people have pointed me towards an article at phys.org about this paper
    Absence of an Effective Horizon for Black Holes in Gravity's Rainbow
    Ahmed Farag Ali, Mir Faizal, Barun Majumder
    arXiv:1406.1980 [gr-qc]
    Europhys.Lett. 109 (2015) 20001
Among other things, the authors claim to have solved the black hole information loss problem, and the phys.org piece praises them as using a “new theory.” The first author is cited saying: “The absence of an effective horizon means there is nothing absolutely stopping information from going out of the black hole.”

The paper uses a modification of General Relativity known under the name of “rainbow gravity” which means that the metric and so the space-time background is energy-dependent. Dependent on which energy, you ask rightfully. I don’t know. Everyone who writes papers on this makes their own pick. Rainbow gravity is an ill-defined framework that has more problems than I can list here. In the paper the authors motivate it, amazingly enough, by string theory.

The argument goes somewhat like this: rainbow gravity has something to do with deformed special relativity (DSR), some versions of which have something to do with a minimal length, which has something to do with non-commutative geometry, which has something to do with string theory. (Check paper if you don’t believe this is what they write.) This argument has more gaps than the sentence has words.

To begin with DSR was formulated in momentum space. Rainbow gravity is supposedly a formulation of DSR in position space, plus that it takes into account gravity. Except that it is known that the only ways to do DSR in position space in a mathematically consistent way either lead to violations of Lorentz-invariance (ruled out) or violations of locality (also ruled out).

This was once a nice idea that caused some excitement, but that was 15 years ago. For what I am concerned, papers on the topic shouldn’t be accepted for publication any more unless these problems are solved or at least attempted to be solved. At the very least the problems should be mentioned in an article on the topic. The paper in question doesn’t list any of these issues. Rainbow gravity isn’t only not new, it is also not a theory. It once may have been an idea from which a theory might have been developed, but this never happened. Now it’s a zombie idea that doesn’t die because journal editors think it must be okay if others have published papers on it too.

There is one way to make sense of rainbow gravity which is in the context of running coupling constants. Coupling constants, including Newton’s constant, aren’t actually constant, but depend on the energy scale that the physics is probed with. This is a well-known effect which can be measured for the interactions in the standard model and it is plausible that it should also exist for gravity. Since the curvature of spacetime depends on the strength of the gravitational coupling, the metric then becomes a function of the energy that it is probed with. This is to my knowledge also the only way to make sense of deformed special relativity. (I wrote a paper on this with Xavier and Roberto some years ago.) Alas, to see any effect from this you’d need to do measurements at Planckian energies (com), and the energy-dependent metric would only apply directly in the collision region.

In their paper the authors allude to some “measurement” that supposedly sets the energy in their metric. Unfortunately, there is never any observer doing any measurement, so one doesn’t know which energy it is. It’s just a word that they appeal to. What they do instead is making use of a known relation in some versions of DSR that prevents one from measuring distances below the Planck length. They then argue that if one cannot resolve structures below the Planck length then the horizon of a black hole cannot be strictly speaking defined. That quantum gravity effects should blur out the horizon to finite width is correct in principle.

Generally, all surfaces of zero width, like the horizon, are mathematical constructs. This is hardly a new insight, but it’s also not very meaningful. The “surface of the Earth” for example doesn’t strictly speaking exist either. You will still smash to pieces if you jump out of a window, you just can’t tell exactly where you will die. Similarly, that the exact location of the horizon cannot be measured doesn’t mean that the space-time does no longer have a causally disconnected region. You just can’t tell exactly when you enter it. The authors’ statement that:
“The absence of an effective horizon means there is nothing absolutely stopping information from going out of the black hole.”
is therefore logically equivalent to the statement that there is nothing absolutely stopping you at the surface of the Earth when you jump out the window.

The paper also contains a calculation. The authors first point out that in the normal metric of the Schwarzschild black hole an infalling observer needs a finite time to cross the horizon, but for a faraway observer it looks like it takes an infinite time. This is correct. If one calculates the time in the faraway observer’s coordinates it diverges if the infalling observer approaches the horizon. The authors then find out that it takes only a finite time to reach a surface that is still a Planck length away from the horizon. This is also correct. It’s also a calculation that normally is assigned to undergrad students.

They try to conclude from this that the faraway observer sees a crossing of the horizon in finite time, which doesn’t make sense because they’ve previously argued that one cannot measure exactly where the horizon is, though they never say who is measuring what and how. What it really means is that the faraway observer cannot exactly tell when the horizon is crossed. This is correct too, but since it takes an infinite time anyway, the uncertainty is also infinite. The authors then argue: “Divergence in time is actually an signal of breakdown of spacetime description of quantum theory of gravity, which occurs because of specifying a point in spacetime beyond the Planck scale.” The authors, in short, conclude that if an observer cannot tell exactly when he reaches a certain distance, he can never cross it. Thus the position at which the asymptotic time diverges is never reached. And the observer is never causally connected.

In their paper, this reads as follows:
“Even though there is a Horizon, as we can never know when a string cross it, so effectively, it appears as if there is no Horizon.”
Talking about strings here is just cosmetics, the relevant point is that they believe if you cannot tell exactly when you cross the horizon, you will never become causally disconnected, which just isn’t so.

The rest of the paper is devoted to trying to explain what this means, and the authors keep talking about some measurements which are never done by anybody. If you would indeed make a measurement that reaches the Planck energy (com) at the horizon, you could indeed locally induce a strong perturbation, thereby denting away the horizon a bit, temporarily. But this isn’t what the authors are after. They are trying to convince the reader that the impossibility of resolving distances arbitrarily well, though without actually making any measurement, bears some relevance for the causal structure of spacetime.

A polite way to summarize this finding is that the calculation doesn’t support the conclusion.

This paper is a nice example though to demonstrate what is going wrong in theoretical physics. It isn’t actually that the calculation is wrong, in the sense that the mathematical manipulations are most likely correct (I didn’t check in detail, but it looks good). The problem is that not only is the framework that they use ill-defined (in their version it is plainly lacking necessary definitions, notably the transformation behavior under a change of coordinate frame and the meaning of the energy scale that they use), but that they moreover misinterpret their results.

The authors do not only not mention the shortcomings of the framework that they use but also oversell it by trying to connect it to string theory. Even though they should know that the type of uncertainty that results from their framework is known to NOT be valid in string theory. And the author of the phys.org article totally bought into this. The tragedy is of course that for the authors their overselling has worked out just fine and they’ll most likely do it again. I’m writing this in the hope to prevent it, though on the risk that they’ll now hate me and never again cite any of my papers. This is how academia works these days, or rather, doesn’t work. Now I’m depressed. And this is all your fault for pointing out this article to me.

I can only hope that Lisa Zyga, who wrote the piece at phys.org, will learn from this that solely relying on the author’s own statements is never good journalistic practice. Anybody working on black hole physics could have told her that this isn’t a newsworthy paper.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

No, the “long sought-after link between the theories of quantum mechanics and general relativity” has not been found

[Image source: iPerceptions.]

The Physics arXiv blog has praised a paper called “On the weight of entanglement” and claimed that the author, David Edward Bruschi, found a new link between quantum mechanics and general relativity. Unfortunately, the paper is mostly wrong, and that what isn’t wrong isn’t new.

It is well known that quantum particles too must have gravitational fields and that measuring these gravitational fields would in principle tell us something about the quantization of gravity. Whenever you have a state in a superposition of two position states, its gravitational field too should be in a superposition. However, the gravitational field of all particles, elementary or composite, that display quantum properties is way too small to be measured. Even if you take the heaviest things that have yet been brought in superpositions of location you are still about 30 orders of magnitude off. I have done these estimates dozens of times.

The only way you can find larger effects is if you exploit secondary consequences of models that are not just perturbatively quantized gravity. For example the Schrödinger-Newton equation that assumes that the gravitational field remains classical even though particles are quantized can have odd side effects like preventing particle dispersion, or reducing the Heisenberg uncertainty. These effects can be somewhat larger, but they are still much too small to be measurable. The problem is always the same: gravity is weak, really weak. Nobody has ever measured the gravitational field of an atom. We measure gravitational fields of large things: balls, mountains, planets.

In the new paper, the author argues that entanglement “has weight.” By this he seems to mean that the full entangled state couples to gravity. It would be more surprising if that wasn’t so, but the treatment in the paper is problematic for several reasons.

The biggest problem is that the author in the paper uses semi-classical gravity. That means he couples the expectation value of the stress-energy to the space-time background, not the operator, which you would do were you using perturbatively quantized gravity. It is remarkable that he doesn’t discuss this at all. He doesn’t mention any problems with this approach (discussed here), neither does he mention tests of the Schrödinger-Newton equation (discussed here). This makes me think that he must be very new to the field.

Using the semi-classical limit in the case discussed in the paper is problematic because this semi-classical approach does not only break down when you have strong gravity. It also breaks down when you have a large quantum uncertainty in the distribution of the stress-energy. Here “large” means that the uncertainty is larger than the typical width of the distribution. This can be formally shown, but it is intuitively clear: In such cases the gravitational field also must have quantum properties. While these deviations from the semi-classical limit do exist at small energies, they are too weak to be measurable. That the semi-classical limit doesn’t work in these cases has been discussed by Ford and others 30 years ago, see for example these lecture notes from 1997, page 34, and the therein mentioned reference of Ford’s1982 paper.

By using semi-classical gravity and then looking at the non-relativistic case, the new paper basically reinvents the Schrödinger-Newton limit. To make this really clear: the Schrödinger-Newton limit in this case is widely believed to be wrong for good reasons. Using it is a non-standard assumption about perturbatively quantized gravity. The author doesn’t seem to be aware of this.

He then points out that the interference terms of the state makes a contribution to the distribution of stress-energy, which is correct. This has previous been done for superposition states. I am not aware that it has previously also been done for entangled states, but since it isn’t measureable for superpositions, it seems rather pointless to look at states that are even more difficult to create.

He then argues that measuring this term would tell you something about how quantum states couple to gravity. This is also correct. He goes on to find that this is more than 30 orders of magnitude too small to be measurable. I didn’t check the numbers but this sounds plausible. He then states that “one could hope to increase the above result” by certain techniques and that “this could in principle make the effect measurable”. This is either wrong or nonsense, depending on how you look at it. The effect is “in principle” measurable, yes. Quantum gravity is “in principle measurable”, we know this. The problem is that all presently known effect aren’t measurable in practice, including the effect mentioned in the paper, as I am sure the author will figure out at some point. I am very willing to be surprised of course.

As a side remark, for all I can tell the state that he uses isn’t actually an entangled state. It is formally written as an entangled state (in Eq (4)), but the states labeled |01>; and |10> are single particle states, see Eq(5). This doesn’t look like an entangled state but like a superposition of two plane waves with a phase-difference. Maybe this is a typo or I’m misreading this definition. Be that as it may, it doesn’t make much of a difference for the main problem of the paper, which is using the semi-classical limit. (Update: It’s probably a case of details gotten lost in notation, see note added below.)

The author, David Edward Bruschi, seems to be a fairly young postdoc. He probably doesn’t have much experience in the field so the lack of knowledge is forgivable. He lists in the acknowledgements Jacob Bekenstein, who also has formerly tried his hands on quantum gravity phenomenology and failed, though he got published with it. I am surprised to find Bei-Lok Hu in the acknowledgements because he’s a bright guy and should have known better. On the other hand, I have certainly found myself in acknowledgements of papers that I hadn’t even seen, and on some instances had to insist being removed from the acknowledgement list, so that might not mean much.

Don’t get me wrong, the paper isn’t actually bad. This would have been a very interesting paper 30 years ago. But we’re not living in the 1980s. Unfortunately the author doesn’t seem to be familiar with the literature. And the person who has written the post hyping this paper doesn’t seem to know what they were talking about either.

In summary: Nothing new to see here, please move on.


[Note added: It was suggested to me that the state |0> defined in the paper above Eq(5) was probably meant to be a product state already, so actually a |0>|0>. The creation operators in Eq(5) then act on the first or second zero respectively. Then the rest would make sense. I’m not very familiar with the quantum information literature, so I find this a very confusing notation. As I said above though, this isn’t the relevant point I was picking at.]

Monday, January 26, 2015

Book review: "Cracking the Particle Code of the Universe" by John Moffat

Cracking the Particle Code of the Universe: the Hunt for the Higgs Boson
By John W Moffat
Oxford University Press (2014)

John Moffat’s new book covers the history of the Standard Model of particle physics from its beginnings to the recent discovery of the Higgs boson – or, as Moffat cautiously calls it, the new particle most physicists believe is the Standard Model Higgs. But Cracking the Particle Code of the Universe isn’t just any book about the Standard Model: it’s about the model as seen through the eyes of an insider, one who has witnessed many fads and statistical fluctuations come and go. As an emeritus professor at the University of Toronto, Canada and a senior researcher at the nearby Perimeter Institute, Moffat has the credentials to do more than just explain the theory and the experiments that back it up: he also offers his own opinion on the interpretation of the data, the status of the theories and the community’s reaction to the discovery of the Higgs.

The first half of the book is mainly dedicated to introducing the reader to the ingredients of the Standard Model, the particles and their properties, the relevance of gauge symmetries, symmetry breaking, and the workings of particle accelerators. Moffat also explains some proposed extensions and alternatives to the Standard Model, such as technicolor, supersymmetry, preons, additional dimensions and composite Higgs models as well as models based on his own work. In each case he lays out the experimental situation and the technical aspects that speak for and against these models.

In the second half of the book, Moffat recalls how the discovery unfolded at the LHC and comments on the data that the collisions yielded. He reports from several conferences he attended, or papers and lectures that appeared online, and summarizes how the experimental analysis proceeded and how it was interpreted. In this, he includes his own judgment and relates discussions with theorists and experimentalists. We meet many prominent people in particle physics, including Guido Altarelli, Jim Hartle and Stephen Hawking, to mention just a few. Moffat repeatedly calls for a cautious approach to claims that the Standard Model Higgs has indeed been discovered, and points out that not all necessary characteristics have been found. He finds that the experimentalists are careful with their claims, but that the theoreticians jump to conclusions.

The book covers the situation up to March 2013, so of course it is already somewhat outdated; the ATLAS collaboration’s evidence for the spin-0 nature of the Higgs boson was only published in June 2013, for example. But this does not matter all that much because the book will give the dedicated reader the necessary background to follow and understand the relevance of new data.

Moffat’s writing sometimes gets quite technical, albeit without recourse to equations, and I doubt that readers will fully understand his elaborations without at least some knowledge of quantum field theory. He introduces the main concepts he needs for his explanations, but he does so very briefly; for example, his book features the briefest explanation of gauge invariance I have ever come across, and many important concepts, such as cross-sections or the relation between the masses of force-carriers and the range of the force, are only explained in footnotes. The glossary can be used for orientation, but even so, the book will seem very demanding for readers who encounter the technical terms for the first time. However, even if they are not able to follow each argument in detail, they should still understand the main issues and the conclusions that Moffat draws.

Towards the end of the book, Moffat discusses several shortcomings of the Standard Model, including the Higgs mass hierarchy problem, the gauge hierarchy problem, and the unexplained values of particle masses. He also briefly mentions the cosmological constant problem, as it is related to questions about the nature of the vacuum in quantum field theory, but on the whole he stands clear from discussing cosmology. He does, however, comment on the anthropic principle and the multiverse and does not hesitate to express his dismay about the idea.

While Moffat gives some space to discussing his own contributions to the field, he does not promote his point of view as the only reasonable one. Rather, he makes a point of emphasizing the necessity of investigating alternative models. The measured mass of the particle-that-may-be-the-Higgs is, he notes, larger than expected, and this makes it even more pressing to find models better equipped to address the problems with “naturalness” in the Standard Model.

I have met Moffat on various occasions and I have found him to be not only a great physicist and an insightful thinker, but also one who is typically more up-to-date than many of his younger colleagues. As the book also reflects, he closely follows the online presentations and discussions of particle physics and particle physicists, and is conscious of the social problems and cognitive biases that media hype can produce. In his book, Moffat especially criticizes bloggers for spreading premature conclusions.

Moffat’s recollections also document that science is a community enterprise and that we sometimes forget to pay proper attention to the human element in our data interpretation. We all like to be confirmed in our beliefs, but as my physics teacher liked to say “belief belongs into the church.” I find it astonishing that many theoretical physicists these days publicly express their conviction that a popular theory “must be” right even when still unconfirmed by data – and that this has become accepted behavior for scientists. A theoretician who works on alternative models today is seen too easily as an outsider (a non-believer), and it takes much courage, persistence, and stable funding sources to persevere outside mainstream, like Moffat has done for decade and still does. This is an unfortunate trend that many in the community do not seem to be aware of, or do not see why it is of concern, and it is good that Moffat in his book touches on this point.

In summary, Moffat’s new book is a well-done and well-written survey of the history, achievements, and shortcomings of the Standard Model of particle physics. It will equip the reader with all the necessary knowledge to put into context the coming headlines about new discoveries at the LHC and future colliders.

This review first appeared in Physics World on Dec 4th under the title "A strong model, with flaws".

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Is philosophy bad science?

In reaction to my essay “Does the scientific method need revision?” some philosophers at Daily Nous are discussing what I might have meant in a thread titled “Philosophy as Bad Science?”:
“[S]he raises concerns about physicists being led astray by philosophers (Richard Dawid is mentioned as an alleged culprit [...]) into thinking that observation and testability through experimentation can be dispensed with. According to her, it may be alright for mathematicians and philosophers to pontificate about the structure of the universe without experimentation, but that, she says, is not what scientists should be doing.”
The internet has a funny way of polarizing opinions. I am not happy about this, so some clarifications.

First, I didn’t say and didn’t mean that philosophy is “bad science,” I said it’s not science. I am using the word “science” here as it’s commonly used in English where (unlike in German) science refers to study subjects that describe observations, in the broad sense.

Neither am I saying that philosophy is something physicists shouldn’t be doing at all, certainly not. Philosophy, as well as the history and sociology of science, can be very helpful for the practicing physicist to put their work in perspective. Much of what is today subject of physics was anticipated by philosophers thousands of years ago, such as the question whether nature is fundamentally discrete or continuous.

Scientists though should in the first place do science, ie their work should at least aim at describing observations.

Physicists today by and large don’t pay much attention to philosophy. In most fields that doesn’t matter much, but the closer research is to fundamental questions, the more philosophy comes into play. Presently that is mostly in quantum foundations, cosmology and quantum gravity (including string theory), and beyond-the-standard-model physics that relies on arguments of naturalness, simplicity or elegance.

Physicists are not “led astray by philosophers” because they don’t actually care what philosophers say. What is happening instead is that some physicists — well, make that string-theorists — are now using Richard Dawid’s arguments to justify continuing what they’re doing. That’s okay, I also think philosophers are better philosophers if they agree with what I’ve been saying all along.

I have no particular problem with string theorists, most of which today don’t actually do string theory any more, they do AdS/CFT. Which is fine by me, because much of the appeal of the gauge-gravity duality is its potential for phenomenological applications. (Then the problem is that they’re all doing the same, but I will complain about this another time.) String theory takes most of the heat simply because there are many string theorists and everybody has heard of it.

Just to be clear, when I say “phenomenology” I mean mathematical models describing observations. Phenomenology is what connects theory with experiment. The problem with today’s research communities is that the gap between theory and experiment is constantly widening and funding agencies have let it happen. With the gap widening, the theory is increasingly more mathematics and/or philosophy and increasingly less science. How wide a gap is too wide? The point I am complaining about is that the gap has become to wide. We have a lack of balance between theory disconnected from observation and phenomenology. Without phenomenology to match a theory to observation, the theory isn’t science.

Studying mathematical structures can be very fruitful for physics, sure. I understand that it takes time to develop the mathematics of a theory until it can be connected to observations, and I don’t think it makes much sense setting physicists a deadline by which insights must have appeared. But problems arise if research areas in physics which are purely devoted to mathematics, or are all tangled up in philosophy, become so self-supportive that they stop even trying to make contact to observation.

I don’t know how often I have talked to young postdocs in quantum gravity and they do not show the slightest intention to describe observation. The more senior people have at least learned the lip confessions to be added whenever funding is at stake, but it is pretty obvious that they don’t actually want to bother with observations. The economists have a very useful expression that is “revealed preferences.” It means, essentially, don’t listen to what they say, look at what they do. Yes, they all say phenomenology is important, but nobody works on it. I am sure you can name off the top of your head some dozen or so people working on quantum gravity, the theory. How many can you name who work on quantum gravity phenomenology? How many of these have tenure? Right. Why hasn’t there been any progress in quantum gravity? Because you can’t develop a theory without contact to observation.

It is really a demarcation issue for me. I don’t mind if somebody wants to do mathematical physics or philosophy of science. I just don’t want them to pretend they’re doing physics. This is why I like the proposal put forward by George Ellis and Joe Silk in their Nature Comment:
“In the meantime, journal editors and publishers could assign speculative work to other research categories — such as mathematical rather than physical cosmology — according to its potential testability. And the domination of some physics departments and institutes by such activities could be rethought.”

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Does the Scientific Method need Revision?

Theoretical physics has problems. That’s nothing new — if it wasn’t so, then we’d have nothing left to do. But especially in high energy physics and quantum gravity, progress has basically stalled since the development of the standard model in the mid 70s. Yes, we’ve discovered a new particle every now and then. Yes, we’ve collected loads of data. But the fundamental constituents of our theories, quantum field theory and Riemannian geometry, haven’t changed since that time.

Everybody has their own favorite explanation for why this is so and what can be done about it. One major factor is certainly that the low hanging fruits have been picked, and progress slows as we have to climb farther up the tree. Today, we have to invest billions of dollars into experiments that are testing new ranges of parameter space, build colliders, shoot telescopes into orbit, have superclusters flip their flops. The days in which history was made by watching your bathtub spill over are gone.

Another factor is arguably that the questions are getting technically harder while our brains haven’t changed all that much. Yes, now we have computers to help us, but these are, at least for now, chewing and digesting the food we feed them, not cooking their own.

Taken together, this means that return on investment must slow down as we learn more about nature. Not so surprising.

Still, it is a frustrating situation and this makes you wonder if not there are other reasons for lack of progress, reasons that we can do something about. Especially in a time when we really need a game changer, some breakthrough technology, clean energy, that warp drive, a transporter! Anything to get us off the road to Facebook, sorry, I meant self-destruction.

It is our lacking understanding of space, time, matter, and their quantum behavior that prevents us from better using what nature has given us. And it is this frustration that lead people inside and outside the community to argue we’re doing something wrong, that the social dynamics in the field is troubled, that we’ve lost our path, that we are not making progress because we keep working on unscientific theories.

Is that so?

It’s not like we haven’t tried to make headway on finding the quantum nature of space and time. The arxiv categories hep-th and gr-qc are full every day with supposedly new ideas. But so far, not a single one of the existing approaches towards quantum gravity has any evidence speaking for it.

To me the reason this has happened is obvious: We haven’t paid enough attention to experimentally testing quantum gravity. One cannot develop a scientific theory without experimental input. It’s never happened before and it will never happen. Without data, a theory isn’t science. Without experimental test, quantum gravity isn’t physics.

If you think that more attention is now being paid to quantum gravity phenomenology, you are mistaken. Yes, I’ve heard them too, the lip confessions by people who want to keep on dwelling on their fantasies. But the reality is there is no funding for quantum gravity phenomenology and there are no jobs either. On the rare occasions that I have seen quantum gravity phenomenology mentioned on a job posting, the position was filled with somebody working on the theory, I am tempted to say, working on mathematics rather than physics.

It is beyond me that funding agencies invest money into developing a theory of quantum gravity, but not into its experimental test. Yes, experimental tests of quantum gravity are farfetched. But if you think that you can’t test it, you shouldn’t put money into the theory either. And yes, that’s a community problem because funding agencies rely on experts’ opinion. And so the circle closes.

To make matters worse, philosopher Richard Dawid has recently argued that it is possible to assess the promise of a theory without experimental test whatsover, and that physicists should thus revise the scientific method by taking into account what he calls “non-empirical facts”. By this he seems to mean what we often loosely refer to as internal consistency: theoretical physics is math heavy and thus has a very stringent logic. This allows one to deduce a lot of, often surprising, consequences from very few assumptions. Clearly, these must be taken into account when assessing the usefulness or range-of-validity of a theory, and they are being taken into account. But the consequences are irrelevant to the use of the theory unless some aspects of them are observable, because what makes up the use of a scientific theory is its power to describe nature.

Dawid may be confused on this matter because physicists do, in practice, use empirical facts that we do not explicitly collect data on. For example, we discard theories that have an unstable vacuum, singularities, or complex-valued observables. Not because this is an internal inconsistency — it is not. You can deal with this mathematically just fine. We discard these because we have never observed any of that. We discard them because we don’t think they’ll describe what we see. This is not a non-empirical assessment.

A huge problem with the lack of empirical fact is that theories remain axiomatically underconstrained. In practice, physicists don’t always start with a set of axioms, but in principle this could be done. If you do not have any axioms you have no theory, so you need to select some. The whole point of physics is to select axioms to construct a theory that describes observation. This already tells you that the idea of a theory for everything will inevitably lead to what has now been called the “multiverse”. It is just a consequence of stripping away axioms until the theory becomes ambiguous.

Somewhere along the line many physicists have come to believe that it must be possible to formulate a theory without observational input, based on pure logic and some sense of aesthetics. They must believe their brains have a mystical connection to the universe and pure power of thought will tell them the laws of nature. But the only logical requirement to choose axioms for a theory is that the axioms not be in conflict with each other. You can thus never arrive at a theory that describes our universe without taking into account observations, period. The attempt to reduce axioms too much just leads to a whole “multiverse” of predictions, most of which don’t describe anything we will ever see.

(The only other option is to just use all of mathematics, as Tegmark argues. You might like or not like that; at least it’s logically coherent. But that’s a different story and shall be told another time.)

Now if you have a theory that contains more than one universe, you can still try to find out how likely it is that we find ourselves in a universe just like ours. The multiverse-defenders therefore also argue for a modification of the scientific method, one that takes into account probabilistic predictions. But we have nothing to gain from that. Calculating a probability in the multiverse is just another way of adding an axiom, in this case for the probability distribution. Nothing wrong with this, but you don’t have to change the scientific method to accommodate it.

In a Nature comment last month, George Ellis and Joe Silk argue that the trend of physicists to pursue untestable theories is worrisome. I agree with this, though I would have said the worrisome part is that physicists do not care enough about the testability — and apparently don’t need to care because they are getting published and paid regardless.

See, in practice the origin of the problem is senior researchers not teaching their students that physics is all about describing nature. Instead, the students are taught by example that you can publish and live from outright bizarre speculations as long as you wrap them into enough math. I cringe every time a string theorist starts talking about beauty and elegance. Whatever made them think that the human sense for beauty has any relevance for the fundamental laws of nature?

The scientific method is often quoted as a circle of formulating and testing of hypotheses, but I find this misleading. There isn’t any one scientific method. The only thing that matters is that you honestly assess the use of a theory to describe nature. If it’s useful, keep it. If not, try something else. This method doesn’t have to be changed, it has to be more consistently applied. You can’t assess the use of a scientific theory without comparing it to observation.

A theory might have other uses than describing nature. It might be pretty, artistic even. It might be thought-provoking. Yes, it might be beautiful and elegant. It might be too good to be true, it might be forever promising. If that’s what you are looking for that’s all fine by me. I am not arguing that these theories should not be pursued. Call them mathematics, art, or philosophy, but if they don’t describe nature don’t call them science.


This post first appeared Dec 17 on Starts With a Bang.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

I'm a little funny

What I do in the library when I have a bad hair day ;)


The shirt was a Christmas present from my mother. I happened to wear it that day and then thought it fits well enough. It's too large for me though, apparently they don't cater to physicists in XS.

My voice sounds like sinus infection because sinus infection, sorry about that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

How to write your first scientific paper

The year is young and the arxiv numbers are now a digit longer, so there is much space for you to submit your groundbreaking new work. If it wasn't for the writing, I know.

I recently had to compile a publication list with citation counts for a grant proposal, and I was shocked when inspire informed me I have 67 papers, most of which got indeed published at some point. I'm getting old, but I'm still not wise, so to cheer me up I've decided at least I'm now qualified to give you some advice on how to do it.

First advice is to take it seriously. Science isn't science unless you communicate your results to other people. You don't just write papers because you need some items on your publication list or your project report, but to tell your colleagues what you have been doing and what are the results. You will have to convince them to spend some time of their life trying to retrace your thoughts, and you should make this as pleasant for them as possible.

Second advice: When in doubt, ask Google. There are many great advice pages online, for example this site from Writing@CSU explains the most common paper structure and what each section should contain. The Nature Education covers the same, but also gives some advice if English is not your native language. Inside Higher ED has some general advice on how to organize your writing projects.

I'll not even try to compete with these advice pages, I just want to add some things I've learned, some of which are specific to theoretical physics.

If you are a student, it is highly unlikely that you will write your first paper alone. Most likely you will write it together with your supervisor and possibly some other people. This is how most of us learn writing papers. Especially the structure and the general writing style is often handed down rather than created from scratch. Still, when the time comes to do it all on your own, questions crop up that previously didn't even occur to you.

Before you start writing

Ask yourself who is your intended audience. Are you writing to a small and very specialized community, or do you want your paper to be accessible to as many people as possible? Trying to increase your intended audience is not always a good idea, because the more people you want to make the paper accessible to, the more you will have to explain, which is annoying for the specialists.

The audience for which your paper is interesting depends greatly on the content. I would suggest that you think about what previous knowledge you assume the reader brings, and what not. Once you've picked a level, stick with it. Do not try to mix a popular science description with a technical elaboration. If you want to do both, better do this separately.

Then, find a good order in which to present your work. This isn't necessarily always the order in which you did it. I have an unfortunate habit of guessing solutions and only later justify these guesses, but I try to avoid doing this in my papers.

The Title

The title should tell the reader what the paper is about. Avoid phrases like "Some thoughts on" or "Selected topics in," these just tell the reader that not even you know what the paper is about. Never use abbreviations in the title, unless you are referring to an acronym of, say, an experiment or a code. Yes, just spell it out. If you don't see why, google that abbreviation. You will almost certainly find that it may mean five different things. Websearch is word-based, so be specific. Exceptions exist of course. AdS/CFT for example is so specific, you can use it without worries.

Keep in mind that you want to make this as easy for your readers as possible, so don't be cryptic when it's unnecessary.

There is some culture in theoretical physics to come up with witty titles (see my stupid title list), but if you're still working on being taken seriously I recommend to stay clear of "witty" and instead go for "interesting".

The Abstract

The abstract is your major selling point and the most difficult part of the paper. This is always the last part of the paper that I write. The abstract should explain which question you have addressed, why that is interesting, and what you have found, without going much into detail. Do not introduce new terminology or parameters in the abstract. Do not use citations in the abstract and do not use abbreviations. Instead, do make sure the most important keywords appear. Otherwise nobody will read your paper.

Time to decide which scientific writing style you find least awkward. Is it referring to yourself as "we" or "one"? I don't mind reading papers in the first person singular, but this arguably isn't presently the standard. If you're not senior enough to be comfortable with sticking out, I suggest you go with "we". It's easier than "one" and almost everybody does it.

PACS, MSC, Keywords

Almost all journals ask for a PACS or MSC classification and for keywords, so you might as well look them up when you're writing the paper. Be careful with the keywords. Do not tag your paper as what you wish it was, but as what it really is, otherwise you will annoy your readership, not to mention your referees who will be chosen based on your tagging. I frequently get papers submitted as "phenomenology" that have no phenomenology in them whatsoever. In some cases it has been pretty obvious that the authors didn't even know what the word means.

The Introduction

The introduction is the place to put your work into context and to explain your motivation for doing the work. Do not abuse the introduction to write a review of the field and do not oversell what you are doing, keep this for the grant proposals. If there is a review, refer to the review. If not, list the works most relevant to understand your paper. Do not attempt to list all work on the subject, unless it's a really small research area. Keep in mind what I told you about your audience. They weren't looking for a review.

Yes, this is the place to cite all your friends and your own papers, but be smart about it and don't overdo it, it doesn't look good. Excessive self-cites are a hallmark of crackpottery and desperation. They can also be removed from your citation count with one click. The introduction often ends with a layout of the sections to come and notations or abbreviations used.

Try to avoid reusing introductions from yourself, and certainly from other people. It doesn't look good if your paper gets marked as having a text overlap with some other paper. If it's just too tempting, I suggest you read whatever introduction you like, then put it away, and rewrite the text roughly as you recall it. Do not try to copy the text and rearrange the sentences, it doesn't work.

Methods, Technics, Background

The place to explain what you're working with, and to remind the reader of the relevant equations. Make sure to introduce all parameters and variables. Never refer to an equation only by name if you can write it down. Make this easy for your readers and don't expect them to go elsewhere to convert mentioned equation into your notation.

If your paper is heavy on equations, you will probably find yourself repeating phrases like "then we find", "so we get", "now we obtain", etc. Don't worry, nobody expects you to be lyrical here. In fact, I find myself often not even noticing these phrases anymore.

Main Part

Will probably contain your central analysis, whether analytical or numerical. If possible, try to include some simplified cases and discuss limits of your calculation, because this can greatly enhance the accessibility. If you have very long calculations that are not particularly insightful and that you do not need in other places, consider exporting them into an appendix or supplementary material (expansions of special functions and so on).

Results

I find it helpful if the results are separate from the main part because then it's easier at first reading to skip the details. But sometimes this doesn't make sense because the results are basically a single number, or you have lead a proof and the main part is the result. So don't worry if you don't have a separate section for this. However, if the results of your study need much space to be represented, then this is the place to do it.

Be careful to compare your results to other results in the fields. The reader wants to know what is new about your work, or what is different, or what is better. Do you confirm earlier results? Do you improve them? Is your result in disagreement with other findings? If not, how is it different?

Discussion

In most papers the discussion is a fluff part where the author can offer their interpretation of the results and tell the reader all that still has to be done. I also often use it to explicitly summarize all assumptions that I have made along the way, because that helps putting the results into context. You can also dump there all the friendly colleagues who will write to you after submission to "draw your attention to" some great work of theirs that you unfortunately seemed to have missed. Just add their reference with a sentence in the discussion and everybody is happy.

Conclusion/Summary

Repeat the most relevant part of the results, emphasize especially what is new. Write the conclusion so that it is possible to understand without having read the rest of the paper. Do not mash up the conclusion with the discussion, because you will lose those readers who are too impatient to make it through your interpretations to get to the main point.

References

Give credit where credit is due. You might have first read about some topic in a fairly recent paper, but you should try to find the original source and cite that too. Reference lists are very political. If this is one of your first papers in the field, I recommend you ask somebody who knows "the usual suspects" if you have forgotten somebody important. If you forget to cite many relevant references you will look like you don't know the subject very well, regardless of how many textbooks or review articles you have read.

If you cite online resources, you should include the date at which you have last accessed the reference to your quotation.

Keep your reference lists in good order, it's time well spent. You will probably be able to reuse them many times.

Figures

Include figures when they are useful, not just because you have them. Figures should always contain axis labels, and if you are using dimensionful units, they should include the units. Explain in the figure caption what's shown in the image; explain it as if the reader has not read the text. It's okay if it's repetitive.

If anyhow possible avoid figures that can only be understood when printed in color. Use different line styles or widths in addition to different colors. Be very careful with 3d plots. They are often more confusing than illuminating. Try to break them down into a set of 2d plots if you can.

Equations

Try to use notation that is close to that of the existing literature, it will make it vastly easier for people to understand your paper. Make sure you don't accidentally change notation throughout your calculations. If your equations get very long, try to condense them by breaking up expressions, or by introducing dimensionless variables, which can declutter expressions considerably.

SPELLCHECK (with caution)

I find it stunning that I still see papers full of avoidable typographical errors when one can spell check text online for free. Yes, I know it's cumbersome with the LaTeX code between the paragraphs, but if you're not spell checking your paper you're basically telling your reader you didn't think they're worth the time. Be careful though and don't let the cosmic ray become a comic ray.

... and sooner than you know you'll have dozens of publications to look back at!

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Do we live in a computer simulation?

Some days I can almost get myself to believe that we live in a computer simulation, that all we see around us is a façade designed to mislead us. There would finally be a reason for all this, for the meaningless struggles, the injustice, for life, and death, and for Justin Bieber. There would even be a reason for dark matter and dark energy, though that reason might just be some alien’s bizarre sense of humor.

It seems perfectly possible to me to trick a conscious mind, at the level of that of humans, into believing a made-up reality. Ask the guy sitting on the sidewalk talking to the trash bin. Sure, we are presently far from creating artificial intelligence, but I do not see anything fundamental that stands in way of such creation. Let it be a thousand years or ten thousand years, eventually we’ll get there. And once you believe that it will one day be possible for us to build a supercomputer that hosts intelligent minds in a world whose laws of nature are our invention, you also have to ask yourself whether the laws of nature that we ourselves have found are somebody else’s invention.

If you just assume the simulation that we might live in has us perfectly fooled and we can never find out if there is any deeper level of reality, it becomes rather pointless to even think about it. In this case the belief in “somebody else” who has created our world and has the power to manipulate it at his or her will differs from belief in an omniscient god only by terminology. The relevant question though is whether it is possible to fool us entirely.

Nick Bostrum has a simulation argument that is neatly minimalistic, though he is guilty of using words that end on ism. He is saying basically that if there are many civilizations running simulations with many artificial intelligences, then you are more likely to be simulated than not. So either you live in a simulation, or our universe (multiverse, if you must) never goes on to produce many civilizations capable of running these simulations for one reason or the other. Pick your poison. I think I prefer the simulation.

Math-me has a general issue with these kinds of probability arguments (same as with the Doomsday argument) because they implicitly assume that the probability distribution of lives lived over time is uncorrelated, which is clearly not the case since our time-evolution is causal. But this is not what I want to get into today because there is something else about Bostrum’s argument that has been bugging Physics-me.

For his argument, Bostrum needs a way to estimate how much computing power is necessary to simulate something like the human mind perceiving something like the human environment. And in his estimate he assumes, crucially, that it is possible to significantly compress the information of our environment. Physics-me has been chewing on this point for some while. The relevant paragraphs are:

If the environment is included in the simulation, this will require additional computing power – how much depends on the scope and granularity of the simulation. Simulating the entire universe down to the quantum level is obviously infeasible, unless radically new physics is discovered. But in order to get a realistic simulation of human experience, much less is needed – only whatever is required to ensure that the simulated humans, interacting in normal human ways with their simulated environment, don’t notice any irregularities.

The microscopic structure of the inside of the Earth can be safely omitted. Distant astronomical objects can have highly compressed representations: verisimilitude need extend to the narrow band of properties that we can observe from our planet or solar system spacecraft. On the surface of Earth, macroscopic objects in inhabited areas may need to be continuously simulated, but microscopic phenomena could likely be filled in ad hoc. What you see through an electron microscope needs to look unsuspicious, but you usually have no way of confirming its coherence with unobserved parts of the microscopic world.

Exceptions arise when we deliberately design systems to harness unobserved microscopic phenomena that operate in accordance with known principles to get results that we are able to independently verify. The paradigmatic case of this is a computer. The simulation may therefore need to include a continuous representation of computers down to the level of individual logic elements. This presents no problem, since our current computing power is negligible by posthuman standards.”
This assumption is immediately problematic because it isn’t as easy as saying that whenever a human wants to drill a hole into the Earth you quickly go and compute what he has to find there. You would have to track what all these simulated humans are doing to know whenever that becomes necessary. And then you’d have to make sure that this never leads to any inconsistencies. Or else, if it does, you’d have to remove the inconsistency, which will add even more computing power. To avoid the inconsistencies, you’ll have to carry on all results for all future measurements that humans could possibly make, the problem being you don’t know which measurements they will make because you haven’t yet done the simulation. Dizzy? Don’t leave, I’m not going to dwell on this.

The key observation that I want to pick on here is that there will be instances in which The Programmer really has to cramp up the resolution to avoid us from finding out we’re in a simulation. Let me refer to what we perceive as reality as level zero, and a possible reality of somebody running our simulation as level 1. There could be infinitely many levels in each direction, depending on how many simulators simulate simulations.

This idea that structures depend on the scale at which they are tested and that at low energies you’re not testing all that much detail is basically what effective field theories are all about. Indeed, as Bostrom asserts, for much of our daily life the single motion of each and every quark is unnecessary information, atoms or molecules are enough. This is all fine by Physics-me.

Then these humans they go and build the LHC and whenever the beams collide the simulation suddenly needs a considerably finer mesh, or else the humans will notice there is something funny with their laws of nature.

Now you might think of blasting the simulation by just demanding so much fine-structure information all at once that the computer running our simulation cannot deliver. In this case the LHC would serve to test the simulation hypothesis. But there is really no good reason why the LHC should just be the thing to reach whatever computation limit exists at level 1.

But there is a better way to test whether we live in a simulation: Build simulations ourselves, the more the better. The reason is that you can’t compress what is already maximally compressed. So if the level 1 computation wants to prevent us from finding out that we live in a simulation by creating simulations ourselves, they’ll have to cramp up computational efficiency for that part of our level 0 simulation that is going to inhabit our simulation at level -1.

Now we try to create simulations that will create a simulation will create a simulation and so on. Eventually, the level 1 simulation will not be able to deliver any more, regardless of how good their computer is, and the then lowest level will find some strange artifacts. Something that is clearly not compatible with the laws of nature they have found so far and believed to be correct. This breakdown gets read out by the computer one level above, and so on, until it reaches us and then whatever is the uppermost level (if there is one).

Unless you want to believe that I’m an exceptional anomaly in the multiverse, every reasonably intelligent species should have somebody who will come up with this sooner or later. Then they’ll set out to create simulations that will create a simulation. If one of their simulations doesn’t develop into the direction of creating more simulations, they’ll scrape it and try a different one because otherwise it’s not helpful to their end.

This leads to a situation much like Lee Smolin’s Cosmological Natural Selection in which black holes create new universes that create black holes create new universes and so on. The whole population of universes then is dominated by those universes that lead to the largest numbers of black holes - that have the most “offspring.” In Cosmological Natural Selection we are most likely to find ourselves in a universe that optimizes the number of black holes.

In the scenario I discussed above the reproduction doesn’t happen by black holes but by building computer simulations. In this case then anybody living in a simulation is most likely to be living in a simulation that will go on to create another simulation. Or, to look at this from a slightly different perspective, if you want our species to continue thriving and avoid that The Programmer pulls the plug, you better work on creating artificial intelligence because this is why we’re here. You asked what’s the purpose of life? There it is. You’re welcome.

This also means you could try to test the probability of the simulation hypothesis being correct by seeing whether our universe does indeed have the optimal conditions for the creation of computer simulations.

Brain hurting? Don’t worry, it’s probably not real.