|First direct evidence for gravitons.|
Almost every time I give a seminar about my research field, the phenomenology of quantum gravity, I find myself in the bizarre situation of first having to convince the audience that it is a research field. And that even though hundreds of people work on it. I have been organizing and co-organizing a series of conferences on Experimental Search for Quantum Gravity, and in each installment we had to turn away applicants due to space limitations. The arXiv is full with papers on the topic, more than I can keep up with on this blog, and it’s in the popular press more often than I’d like*. Why are my fellow physicists so slow to notice? I make Freeman Dyson responsible for this.
Dyson has popularized the idea that quantum gravity is inaccessible to experiment and thereby discouraged studies of phenomenological consequences of quantum gravity. In a 2004 review of Brian Greene’s book “The Fabric of the Cosmos” he wrote:
“According to my hypothesis [...] the two theories [general relativity and quantum theory] are mathematically different and cannot be applied simultaneously. But no inconsistency can arise from using both theories, because any differences between their predictions are physically undetectable.”And in a 2012 essay for the Edge Annual Question, he still pushed the idea of quantum gravitational effects being unobservable:
“I propose as a hypothesis... that single gravitons may be unobservable by any conceivable apparatus. If this hypothesis were true, it would imply that theories of quantum gravity are untestable and scientifically meaningless. The classical universe and the quantum universe could then live together in peaceful coexistence. No incompatibility between the two pictures could ever be demonstrated. Both pictures of the universe could be true, and the search for a unified theory could turn out to be an illusion.”The problem with this argument is that he equates the observation of a single graviton with evidence for a quantization of gravity. But the two are not the same. If single gravitons were unobservable, it would not imply that “theories of quantum gravity are untestable and scientifically meaningless.”
It might indeed be that we will never be able to detect gravitons. One can estimate the probability of detecting gravitons and even with extremely futuristic detectors the size of Jupiter put in orbit around a Newton star, chances would be slim. (See this paper for estimates.) Clearly not an experiment you want to write a grant proposal for.
But we don’t need to detect single gravitons to find experimental evidence for quantum gravity.
Look around. The fact that atoms are stable is evidence for the quantization of the electromagnetic interaction. You don’t need to detect single photons for that. You also don’t need to resolve atomic structures to find evidence for the atomic theory. Brownian motion famously provided this evidence, visible by eye. And Planck introduced what is now known as “Planck’s constant” before Einstein’s Nobel-prize winning explanation for the photoelectric effect.
If we pay attention to the history of physics, it is thus plausible that we can find evidence for quantum gravity without directly detecting gravitons. The quantum theory of gravity might have consequences that we can access in regimes where gravity is weak, as long as we ask the right questions.
Some people have a linguistic problem with calling something a “quantum gravitational effect” if it isn’t actually an effect that directly involves quanta of the gravitational field. This is why I instead often use the expression “Planck scale effects” to refer to effects beyond the standard model that might be signatures of quantum gravity.
Interestingly, Christine recently pointed me to a writeup of a 2012 talk by Freeman Dyson, in which he discusses the possibility of detecting gravitons without jumping to the conclusion that an inability to detect gravitons means that quantum gravity is a subject for philosophers. Instead, Dyson is very careful with stating:
“One hypothesis is that gravity is a quantum field and gravitons exist. A second hypothesis is that the gravitational field is a statistical concept like entropy or temperature, only defined for gravitational effects of matter in bulk and not for effects of individual elementary particles… If a graviton detector is in principle impossible, then both hypotheses remain open.”A hooray for Dyson!
Unfortunately, there are still other people barking up the same tree, for example by pulling the accelerator argument. For example John Horgan writes:
“String theory, loop-space theory and other popular candidates for a unified theory postulate phenomena far too minuscule to be detected by any existing or even conceivable (except in a sci-fi way) experiment. Obtaining the kind of evidence of a string or loop that we have for, say, the top quark would require building an accelerator as big as the Milky Way.”Horgan is well known for proclaiming The End of Science, and it seems indeed he’s run out of science when he wrote the above. To begin with, string theory doesn’t “postulate... phenomena,” what would be the point of doing this? It postulates, drums please, strings. And I’m not at all sure what “loop-space theory” is supposed to be. But leaving aside this demonstration of Hogan’s somewhat fuzzy understanding of the subject, if we could build a detector the size of the Milky Way, we’d be able to test very high energies, all right. But that doesn’t mean we can conclude this is the only way to find evidence for quantum gravity.
Luckily Horgan has colleagues who think before they write, like George Musser who put it this way:
“[Q]uantum gravity” and “experiment” are… like peanut butter and chocolate. They actually go together quite tastily.(I had meant to write a summary of which possible experiments for quantum gravity pheno are presently being discussed and how plausible I think they are to deliver results, but I got distracted by Dyson’s above mentioned paper on graviton detection. The summary will follow some other time. Update: The summary is here.)
*Almost everything I read in the popular press about evidence for quantum gravity is wrong or misleading or both. But then you already knew I would complain about this :p