Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What if... #17

What if somebody we've never heard of found a way to compute all the ratios of masses in the standard model (without introducing new ad hoc parameters)?
This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."


  1. If unheard of at first they would be most likely considered as being crack pot. Yet if science plays its role as it’s supposed to, where all was after examined and found consistent, it would have to be accepted regardless of source. If your question however is to ask if this be the end of science, I would say no for it would only represent a new place to continue from.

  2. Assuming it was legit, this would be the third in the series - Newton, Einstein, ....

    The reason I think so is because presumably the calculation would be the fruit of a physical insight missed by an entire generation of physicists.

    As to where such an insight would lead, beyond the standard model, it is not knowable. E.g., if the result came from string theory, then that would lead us one way; if it came from a QFT-type computation, that would lead us another way entirely, and so on.

  3. Hello Bee,
    the most "interesting" situation were if that
    "somebody" was from outside theoretical
    physics academies and if that calculation
    would deliver the mass ratios without
    any or only little significant new knowledge beyond
    standard model.
    The reception would show how much academies
    are composed by humans. :=)

  4. If it's a simple calculation, people from academia would look at it, for fun, and if it turns out to be true then I think the academic circle would give him the credit he deserve.

    But if his calculation is very complex, most likely nobody would take the time to understand it, he would be called a crackpot and be quickly forgotten.

  5. Pssshhtt!! That's easy: I did that just last weekend.

    I have a truly marvellous proof of this which this comment section is too narrow to contain.

    Since then, I've been trying to figure out a much harder problem: how Planter's manages to salt the peanut inside the shell.

  6. Andy S., maybe they soak them in salt water and then roast them? I don't know. Just guessing. :-)

    I've always been too intellectually lazy to memorize formulas, ratios, and so on. Maybe this isn't something to confess on a physics blog! LOL

    funny word verification: symbletr

  7. If the Standard Model is correct and complete, arriving massless it cannot do that. Euclid cannot navigate a sphere, the Shroud of Turin is a trivial fraud (Fifth Postulate violations).

    A Standard Model extension generating all fundamental masses would be called numerology unless it had testable new predictions. Can physics accept fundamental error demonstrated by empirical observation?

    Equivalence Principle folk measure and remeasure composition zeros to 14 decimal places rather than perform one parity Eötvös experiment as a geometric test of spacetime. Isn't every theory of gravitation sensitive to composition and inert to geometry?

  8. A new idea never comes alone. I think that I would study his other ideas because there would be still more to discover.

  9. Recently I have read about a "theory" that claims to be able to calculate not only the ratios but the absolute values of the elementary particle masses. Its mass formula comes remarkably close to the real values. That theory starts with not much else than uniform 2-dimensional spacetime quanta. The author was a student of Weizsäcker.

    Today this theory is almost unknown, and most of the very few who took a closer look, consider it crackpot stuff.

    Unfortunately I am not qualified to evaluate it. Maybe it is crackpot stuff. But if I were a physicist who thinks of LQG as an interesting approach, I would waste a few hours and take a closer look ..

    If you are interested in further information, I can give you some links.


  10. Hi Millka,

    I have nothing to do with LQG, and I doubt I have a few hours to look at it, but if you like, leave a reference (no link please). Best,


  11. Oh, please, no mentioning of Burkhard Heim! That's as sure a recipe for blasting a comment thread as briging up the editor of Chaos, Solitons & Fractals ;-)

    Cheers, Stefan

  12. Who, what? Another numerologic game?

  13. I was wondering if one could crowdsource the problem and what would happen if somebody who doesn't know anything about elementary particle physics in the first place came up with a solution. Like, just given them the masses of the particles and their quantum numbers and see if anybody can come up with a cooking recipe. Maybe somebody can? Now that would really shake things up. And it would bury anthropic reasoning. Best,


  14. The author would be unable to submit the paper to the arXiv and it would be rejected by peer review. The idea would be ignored until a little later when the student of a well known physicist rediscovered the same idea using different terminology based on category theory. The original discoverer would not be cited in the new work because such horizontal citations were not "necessary to its understanding". The student and his supervisor would get a Nobel prize.

  15. There's only a few hundred bits of information there, for the current accuracy of the mass measurements.

    Unless the calculation is incredibly short, or the calculation is believable for other reasons [e.g., it's part of larger theory], it would unfortunately be indistinguishable from numerology - even if it was perfect.

    On the other hand, correctly predicting one more bit on each of the 20-odd masses is a different kettle of fish - that puts you close to 5-sigma significance.

  16. If the calculation looked like interesting physics instead of numerology, I'd throw a huge party!

    Then I'd try to explain the calculation on This Week's Finds.

  17. Hi John Baez,

    “If the calculation looked like interesting physics instead of numerology, I'd throw a huge party!”

    An interesting statement and yet I would ask what would allow one to differentiate a distinction, other then physical testing and confirmed agreement. As for example, would you consider Phi as being a number indicative of physical reality or simply one of many interesting mathematical relationships? This should not be taken to represent a challenge yet merely a clarification as to what one means.



  18. John wrote:

    If the calculation looked like interesting physics instead of numerology, I'd throw a huge party!

    Phil wrote:

    An interesting statement and yet I would ask what would allow one to differentiate a distinction, other then physical testing and confirmed agreement.

    Anybody can fiddle with numbers to fit the known particle masses - for example, when I was a kid playing with my calculator I noticed that the ratio of the proton mass to the electron mass was close to 6 pi^5. That's an example of "numerology".

    "Interesting physics" would be getting a mathematically precise but conceptually lucid model that also predicts the masses of particles as a kind of spinoff.

    For example, when Einstein first came up with general relativity, there were only a couple new numbers that he could predict that were measurable at the time: the precession of Mercury, the bending of starlight as it went past the Sun. But, it was a mathematically precise and conceptually lucid theory that reconciled the existence of gravity with the fact that nothing can travel faster than light. That's why his theory was interesting - at the time. By now general relativity has passed lots of tests. But good physicists did not need to wait for all those tests to find general relativity interesting.

    Part of learning to be a physicist is learning the difference between bullshit and promising stuff. This is not something that can be quickly explained. And, one can always turn out be mistaken. But, it's possible to be right a lot of the time.

    As for example, would you consider Phi as being a number indicative of physical reality or simply one of many interesting mathematical relationships?

    I don't want to pick one of those choices. Let me just say that I can tell Phi is being used in a sensible way in the KAM theorem, and that it's being used in a silly way by El Naschie.

  19. Hi John,

    Thanks for responding to my query in regards to what distinguishes numerology from theory. It’s clear that to find a number that appears to hold significance in relation to reality is not what the physical sciences are meant to primarily address. Like at times when I talk with friends in regards to physics they sometimes ask why we find so many things are squared, with me responding it often simply relates as being a close approximation to how things behave in what presents to us as a three dimensional reality.

    On the other hand as demonstrated in things such as String Theory or say Garret’s idea that number(s) in the form of equations representing symmetry with its beauty and elegance prove much too irresistible not to pursue. I both undestand and respect that with training one gathers more tools and abilities with which one can decide, yet in the end is it not nature itself that counts as the arbitrator? This is not in defense of those that would pass off only numbers as truth, yet rather that for the most part have it acknowledged science requires that it be so expressed. I think however what in short you are saying and with which I would agree, is in physics it is best done when you go from nature to number then from the reverse.




Comment moderation on this blog is turned on.
Submitted comments will only appear after manual approval, which can take up to 24 hours.