Saturday, July 19, 2008

Nothingness

The recent issue of Discover magazine has an article by by Tim Folger

It is nicely written, scientifically accurate though vague, but its narrative is absolutely pointless - it just ends somewhere and I kept looking for the next page.

The article adds more evidence that headlines are in most cases nonsensical and have rarely something to do with the content of the article. I've been told repeatedly headlines are picked by the editors not the writers, and I find this increasingly annoying. The article by Folger talks a bit about Casimir energy and dark energy. Then it features the idea of 'extracting' energy from the vacuum which could destroy the universe in a chain reaction in which our vacuum reverts to an energetically more favorable state: “If some clever engineer were ever to extract energy from the vacuum, it could set off a chain reaction that would spread at the speed of light and destroy the universe.” At least that wasn't the headline. Finally there are some paragraphs about the LHC and the Higgs and a rather unmotivated mentioning of extra dimensions and M-theory. How the vacuum is supposed to “illuminate” the Theory of Everything remains remarkably unclear throughout the whole article.

John Baez is quoted in various places and is a voice of reason, esp. with regard to the destruction of the universe. About the possibility that the LHC might find the Higgs and only the Higgs, he says
“Well, it would be exciting, but only in the same sense as if you lose your keys and then you find them again. Someone would certainly win a Nobel Prize for it, but after the initial excitement, particle physicists would become grumpy because it would just mean that what we thought was true is true, and all the things we don’t understand we still don’t understand, and there is still no new evidence.”

Sean Carroll is quoted with “we really have to think deeply about what our theories are.”

Amen.

36 comments:

Uncle Al said...

Fabricate Casimatter and find out! A flat ring spins above alternating vacuum magnetron sputter sectors. Deposit a bifilar spiral of 70 nm aluminum (93% reflectivity at 120 nm) and 37 nm 60:40 MgF2/LiF alloy (to match thermal expansion, RI = 1.628, half-lambda optical path). 560 layers is hair thickness, 60 microns. Cut out a square of nothing but Casimir etalons.

Will Casimatter be naughty beyond 10^(-15) mass deficit for chemical binding energy?

Lamellar solids such as guanine, graphite, h-BN, MgB2, MoS2, TaS2, BiOCl; carpathite, phthalocyanines; micas, smectite clays, talc, ceramic superconductors; Langmuir-Blodgett films... did not end the universe.

Eric said...

If only the Higgs is found at LHC and nothing else, it would be extremely puzzling. There would have to be some new physics to stabilize the Higgs mass which we would not be visible to us.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I would agree that the article is somewhat vague and yet in the context of where it’s written and to the audience it serves it’s not all that bad. To be honest the public at large are for the most part not aware of the current issues in physics, which are resultant of relatively recent observations as to how serious they are. That is, with the dark matter, dark energy questions and how they in turn are coupled to the vacuum question. I would wager many think that people such as you are simply wasting time and money ironing out just a few unresolved issues that have little relevance. How wrong they are.

Best,

Phil

P.S. I don’t really think John Baez’s analogy is all that accurate in terms of the final discovery of the Higgs. He relates this to loosing and then finding ones car keys, while I say it relates more strongly to loosing and then finding ones eye glasses. That is with the failure up to now to find the higgs physics has lost its clear vision and thereby in part which direction to follow. Then as such if the Higgs is discovered the vision and therefore the direction will become clear once again and if not there will be more stumbling around. With this said I’m still betting against the Higgs discovery and or existence. I guess then it must mean I like the stumbling:-)

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

To be honest the public at large are for the most part not aware of the current issues in physics, which are resultant of relatively recent observations as to how serious they are.

There is nothing in that article that hasn't already been said hundreds of times elsewhere, and nothing that couldn't have been said already some years ago. If it wasn't the case that people are constantly facing an enormous amount of information and seem to focus most of their attention on recent writings then it wouldn't be necessary to flood the world with redundant writings like this.

Seriously, the web is full with stuff that people don't have the time to read and digest. Why do we constantly produce more stuff that nobody reads instead of giving people the time to read what is already there? Why do scientists constantly produce more and more papers with less and less new information with the effect that nobody has time to really read them? Why do journalists have to repeat the same stories instead of just being silent? Wouldn't that be a relieve?

Regarding my LHC guess is: No Higgs, no SUSY, but a fourth generation. Wouldn't that be funny?

Hi Eric,

There would have to be some new physics to stabilize the Higgs mass which we would not be visible to us.

It could also be we just don't understand what is visible to us.

Best,

B.

Eric said...

Hi Bee,
I think we have a pretty good grasp of the physics which is operative at the electroweak scale.

My prediction: Higgs with mass 115-120 GeV and superpartners from around 200-300 GeV up to 2 TeV.

A fourth generation is an intriguing possibility.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,


“There is nothing in that article that hasn't already been said hundreds of times elsewhere, and nothing that couldn't have been said already some years ago.”


This of course is indisputable and yet I would maintain that the public at large has very little knowledge of such matters. In as I am an incurable and self admitted interested novice of such things I would contend it lends me some insight in the matter. To even mention physics or cosmology to many of my friends, family or co-workers at best one is presented with a false pretense of interest (oh really, yawn)and most times with what boils down to why would anyone want to know or be interested in such things as they have no relevance to me.


You contend it’s resultant of information overload and the medias and its presentation and focus. This has undoubtedly some impact on the matter. However, I would insist that people in general have not changed much since first leaving the caves and that only the few drew the paintings found and yes perhaps a few others were interested and yet I am firmly convinced many held no interest at all and like many of their current decendance within the foreseeable future never will.


Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Sure, I do agree that writing articles about science is important to communicate our research, and often it has to be repeated. I guess I am just in a foul mood today. Thing is, I find the topic of that article quite interesting but then reading it was very disappointing.

To even mention physics or cosmology to many of my friends, family or co-workers at best one is presented with a false pretense of interest (oh really, yawn)

Well, I am afraid articles as pointless at this aren't going to change much about it. At least I feel left with an impression of fuzziness and incoherence instead of one of excitement, won insight and remaining puzzles. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,


“At least I feel left with an impression of fuzziness and incoherence instead of one of excitement, won insight and remaining puzzles.”


Like it or not it is those like you that are both blessed and cursed as being the ones able to lead the rest out of the caves. I’m not sure how you feel about it all, for I believe as yourself a need, born of compassion for those that are drowning, even though they never bothered to learn to swim. That does not mean however you should be prepared or feel obligated to be dragged down in the attempt.

Best,

Phil

P.S. I think it more to do with the hangover you mentioned in your feed that you currently have:-)

plato said...

At first sight, string theory presents an exciting picture. It has pretensions to being an ultimate theory, jokingly called a theory of everything. (Theorist John Ellis relates that he invented the term in response to critics who had called string theory a theory of nothing.)Michael Dine:)

So you can see the dilemma? "Nothing" is a hard one to wrap your head around.

Andrew Thomas said...

In a short article, it covered:

1) Zero-point energy
2) Dark energy
3) Higgs boson
4) String theory

all loosely tied together by some idea that they "emerge from nothingness". Deary me, I think the new reader would have been terribly confused at the end.

I suspect "Discover" takes quite a "magazine-y" approach to science, just make the reader go "ooh" and not try to actually teach them anything. In contrast, a quality SciAm or New Scientist article would have taken one of those topics and expounded on it carefully and in depth in an article two or three times the length.

Dr Who said...

Bee asks an interesting question:
"Why do scientists constantly produce more and more papers with less and less new information with the effect that nobody has time to really read them?"

Actually, I really wonder how much of what goes on the arxiv ever gets read by anyone. My impression is that, to a greater extent than ever before, people are citing old papers and not the ones that came out recently. There was a time when even quite obscure people could hope to write a paper that hits 50 citations; nowadays reaching even 10 is a major achievement. Personally I try to look at least briefly at *any* paper that looks interesting, even if it is not directly relevant to my own work, but it is a lot of effort. Unfortunately I have the impression that many young people choose to read papers on the same basis that they use to choose which rock concert to attend, to wit, the presence of celebrity names. Though even the celebrities are getting horrible citation rates these days.....

Aunt Al said...

Dear Uncle Al,

In order to fabricate Casimatter we would have to lamellate the pyroxine of Uranian polysyllabary. This is not difficult, but in view of the epigonic epigastrianism of the times, I can hold out little hope, quasilamellar or otherwise.
But let us persist in the Procrustean analysis of Hegelian paraphysics!

Bee said...

Hi Dr. Who,

Indeed, it is an interesting question. I was talking to Stefan yesterday about that new Science report I just read

"Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship"

I will probably have a post on it at some point. Part of the citation behavior you mention I think is just due to improvements in searchability. If you provide a couple of keywords and can search for related work online one doesn't need to provide extensive references. So that doesn't necessarily mean much.

On the other hand I can not actually say that I notice any trend to cite less. If anything it seems to me people have typically two kinds of citations. The ones that point to the really essential works, and the ones that Thomas at an earlier post dubbed 'social citations' - those that are smart for political reasons. The latter sort of citations can be really a lot and leads to a positive feedback effect that promotes fads. I see no indication this behavior is changing.

As to the paper overproduction, I think the reason for this is quite obvious and lies in the attempt to organize science by operation for profit (on the inappropriateness of which I commented in my recent post). You have the same effect in any capitalist system - it tends to produce a lot of crap that nobody needs and people who try to artificially create such a need which leads to an inefficient use of resources (if you don't know what I mean, go watch the SATC movie). The problem is that in science there is no mechanism to sort out the 'stuff that nobody needs' on timescales where we don't have access to experimental tests except our own judgement. I am afraid this judgement process is presently very skewed which leads people to strive to fulfil all kinds of nonsensical criteria, like eg writing many papers and collecting many citations or shaking the hands of the really important people and so on. Best,

B.

stefan said...

Dear Bee,

There is nothing in that article that hasn't already been said hundreds of times elsewhere, and nothing that couldn't have been said already some years ago.

That's true, but actually, I've found the article quite entertaining, with some bits of interesting information, and I guess that's an important point in a magazine like Discover. And there are for sure people to whom this is all new, at least in parts, and they don't get a completely wrong picture. It's similar to the one-thousandth article about the LHC ;-)

As for the "TOE", mybe the author wanted to make the point that finding answers to the dark energy/the cosmological constant problem might be a big step towards the "TOE", but true, that's not so clear if you don't know it yet...

I'm not a regular reader of Discover magazine - is it more entertaining/magazine-like than, say, SciAm in general?

BTW, it seems that in Germany, circulation of "Spektrum der Wissenschaft" (the German language edition of SciAm) is has been dropping since quite some time, while the recent "Welt der Wunder" is soaring - see this graph...

Cheers, Stefan

Bee said...

Dear Stefan,

I didn't say the article is bad or incorrect. I just said it's somehow pointless. Yes, the author touches a lot of interesting topics, but what actually is it that he means to say? Maybe he wanted to say understanding what dark energy is or to begin with why the CC isn't 120 orders of magnitude larger would be great and hopefully a first step to our understanding of a TOE, if there is one. But then why didn't he say this? The only thing this article illuminates is the nothingness of its conclusion. Best,

B.

Bee said...

PS: Regarding Welt der Wunder - awful, awful. I am glad to see 'Bild der Wissenschaft' is fighting bravely.

Bee said...

Hi Plato,

Maybe we should just call it a Theory of Everystring ;-) Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Stefan,


“I'm not a regular reader of Discover magazine - is it more entertaining/magazine-like than, say, SciAm in general?”

Yes Discover magazine is more of a lighter read magazine then SciAm and is more entertainment based, which I see as an effort to reach a larger sector of the population. SciAm is closer in format to a journal and is more technical.

The trouble is my perception is less and less of either is being read, with it being falsely assumed that this is a result of the internet replacing them. My experience suggests not and the internet has shifted almost entirely to an entertainment and day to day business media (Youtube,Facebook and online banking). I too found the article not bad for the audience it caters to, which in turn might inspire a few to look a little deeper into what was covered.

Best,

Phil

Neil' said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil' said...

I have heard contradictory things about how "real" (even in the sense appropriate to them!) virtual particles are, as a sea of particles popping in and out of existence faster than the UP allows for direct observation. (Yes I know of Lamb shift but various viewpoints on VPs are out there.) Any opinions on this? Also, how many virtual photons per cubic meter per second (or appropriate measure) versus how many virtual rho mesons, etc? I mean, I can imagine a fundamental basis for something like how many of types of photons are virtual, but I can't imagine the basis for how many virtual rho mesons versus how many virtual lambda particles, and even how many virtual deuterons (wouldn't there be?), virtual carbon nuclei, virtual benzene molecules,... ?

Andrew Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Thomas said...

Neil, I think virtual particles arise as an inevitable consequence of the uncertainty principle (there can be enough uncertainty about the energy at a point to allow the creation of particle, but only for a very short time - time and energy being complementary variables in the uncertainty principle). So that's all standard quantum mechanics, so whether you think the particle is "real" before observation depends on your interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Neil' said...

Thanks Andrew, but I'm still wondering about the various types of virtual particles, their relative proportions, and how far "up" does it go - like to deuterons, nuclei, molecules, mice (;-), etc? Anyone?

Dr Who said...

Bee said: "On the other hand I can not actually say that I notice any trend to cite less."

Hi, I didn't say that they are citing less: I said that [broadly speaking] they are citing the old papers more and the *new* ones less. That is, it is harder these days to write a new paper and get a lot of citations. This is just my impression but I'm pretty sure this is correct.

Regarding your other points:



If anything it seems to me people have typically two kinds of citations. The ones that point to the really essential works, and the ones that Thomas at an earlier post dubbed 'social citations' - those that are smart for political reasons.

My philosophy is that I will cite any paper that I actually read and that may be relevant and interesting to a reader who is interested in the whole problem and not just my contribution to it. They may not be "really essential" but if I used them in *any* way I will cite them. I will even cite silly papers if thinking about their silliness has helped me to clarify my ideas. Sometimes too I give in to the temptation to cite papers by obscure people so that they won't feel lonely. Alas, sometimes too I give in to the temptation to say, "as [famous person] points out......" because I have encountered so many dim-witted referees who have to be persuaded that what I am saying is not too way-out.

But anyway the point I am making is that there can be a whole spectrum of reasons for citing people; I hope you will not get to be too cynical about this. On the whole I like to cite lots of papers, especially recent ones, and I would like to see more long citation lists at the end of papers. I hope that the citation-riches can be spread out more evenly instead of gravitating towards the same old stuff.

Arun said...

Speaking of string - I need a theory of why my shoe laces get untied. Some days, no problem at all, other days, no matter how I tie them, five minutes later they're untied.

Daniel said...

This is off topic, but is there any theory of shoes untieing? I've wondered about this, but haven't ever looked it up, or tried to come up with anything myself...

Plato said...

Bee:Maybe we should just call it a Theory of Everystring

Below is part of a response to Phil on this note.

Plato:The "logic of nothing" is to talk about what does not exist. The logic dictates "that nothing is nothing," and to try and comment on nothing is like, to think that an opinion on theoretics, is somehow not as predictive as they are in opinion only. That is being safe, and not being bold.

Would it be better to be silent?:) Um....no, that is not right.

Neil was close. "Visible, or Invisible?" I wonder what Dali wold have thought?;)

So here's the thing. You listen to fellows who deny "as a cosmologist" that the fishbowl has anything greater then what we can see, and what is beyond that, well, you'd think his atheistic conjectures had some validity in science?:)Do not consent to censorship, and think you are the voice of reason.

Censorship, when appearing to be the voice of reason, demonstrates it's anything but. Is there not a logic for this basis to say instead of these little quips of amazement that such a thing as a string can be anything but a shoe knot tied. :)

Perspectives have been pushed back to the microseconds. Qui?:)An emergent process, most definitely Andrew.

Cycle of Birth, Life, and Death-Origin, Indentity, and Destiny by Gabriele Veneziano

In one form or another, the issue of the ultimate beginning has engaged philosophers and theologians in nearly every culture. It is entwined with a grand set of concerns, one famously encapsulated in an 1897 painting by Paul Gauguin: D'ou venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Ou allons-nous? "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?"

You see deleting comments based on the pictures of a Gauguin while being used in the take of Veneziano, is a denial of what a super cosmologist likes to think about, while there are those have been circumspect.

A disservice has been done to string theory.

I question the logic of accepting only those comments that fit the perspective of a "theory of nothing?" I would think John Ellis has been the voice of reason. So stand tall :)

So, "they" have been defeated right off the start. To me there is no dilemma, yet, how easy it is to say such patronization of a such and a such a theory? Some scientists, with a "public attitude?"

The fairy is held afloat by a cable from the mountain to the castle, Phil:)

Best,:)

Plato said...

The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality (2004) is the second book on theoretical physics, cosmology and string theory written by Brian Greene, professor and co-director of Columbia's Institute for Strings, Cosmology, and Astroparticle Physics (ISCAP).[1]

Greene begins with the key question: What is reality? Or more specifically: What is spacetime? He sets out to describe the features he finds both exciting and essential to forming a full picture of the reality painted by modern science. In almost every chapter, Greene introduces its basic concepts and then slowly builds to a climax, which is usually a scientific breakthrough. Greene then attempts to connect with his reader by posing simple analogies to help explain the meaning of a scientific concept without oversimplifying the theory behind it.




The Revolution that Didn't Happen by Steven Weinberg

It is important to keep straight what does and what does not change in scientific revolutions, a distinction that is not made in Structure.5 There is a "hard" part of modern physical theories ("hard" meaning not difficult, but durable, like bones in paleontology or potsherds in archeology) that usually consists of the equations themselves, together with some understandings about what the symbols mean operationally and about the sorts of phenomena to which they apply. Then there is a "soft" part; it is the vision of reality that we use to explain to ourselves why the equations work. The soft part does change; we no longer believe in Maxwell's ether, and we know that there is more to nature than Newton's particles and forces.

Would you deny a GUT? Where is that? Is there a turning inside/out of our universe? It would topological appealing to me:)

Thomas Kuhn

Now that naturalism has become an accepted component of philosophy, there has recently been interest in reassessing Kuhn's work in the light of developments in the relevant sciences, many of which provide corroboration for Kuhn's claim that science is driven by relations of perceived similarity and analogy to existing problems and their solutions (Nickles 2003b, Nersessian 2003). It may yet be that a characteristically Kuhnian thesis will play a prominent part in our understanding of science.

Bee said...

Dear Arun,

The obvious explanation is simply cosmic conspiracy meant to annoy you ;-) I can recommend bumpy strings. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Daniel,

Here is a theory of shoes untieing ;-)
Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Neil,

To begin with let me emphasize that speaking of virtual particles as things that pop up out of vacuum and vanish again is a heuristic description of a mathematical formalism and as such inaccurate. There are properties that can mathematically be well-defined but are hard to describe in terms of 'particles popping out of vacuum'. It's a simplified explanation that can't be pushed arbitrarily far.

Reg your questions: there's infinitely many virtual particles of any kind, virtual particles are the elementary ones, they can have arbitrarily high energy. However, in the standard model, nothing that has an energy higher than the Planck mass makes much sense to speak about. If you leave aside the infinities, not all particles contribute the same way to the vacuum energy, esp. bosons and fermions do differently. It is for this reason that you can with (unbroken) supersymmetry, and a different particle content, get the vacuum energy from virtual contributions to cancel. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee, Arun & Daniel,

I’m not aware of any theory for tying or untying strings, yet I am aware of one for loops :-)

Best,

Phil

Plato said...

Okay. I meant, Neil was closest to this.:)

Sorry for the confusion.

This might help explain my pointing out Gauguin.:)Of course, I value Michelangelo L. MANGANO thoughts.

I've wondered myself on such a contention as to "what is viable" when thinking about God in terms of such geometric proportion, in terms of Dali's Crucification. Of course then there is Tegmark:)

None of us are innocent of the "pompous attitude" when it comes to "being responsible" for other human beings.

It is always going to be a battle for a succession of our emotive states, whether we think we are most efficient at science or social constructiveness. These are very fluid things.

Thomas D said...

I don't know if this is truly the case, but I might have been the first to use the 'lost keys' metaphor for the Higgs ... back in January 2002
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg17323243.500-letters--------.html

Could have been just my memory of someone else using the same phrase, but who?

Bee said...

Hi Thomas,

That's funny! I think they should cite you on that ;-) Best,

B.

cynthia said...

But the lost-keys metaphor isn't complete without the light post and especially the drunk.