Monday, February 04, 2019

Maybe I’m crazy

How often can you hold up four fingers, hear a thousand people shout “five”, and not agree with them? How often can you repeat an argument, see it ignored, and still believe in reason? How often can you tell a thousand scientists the blatantly obvious, hear them laugh, and not think you are the one who is insane?

I wonder.

Every time a particle physicist dismisses my concerns, unthinkingly, I wonder some more. Maybe I am crazy? It would explain so much. Then I remind myself of the facts, once again.

Fact is, in the foundations of physics we have not seen progress for the past four decades. Ever since the development of the standard model in the 1970s, further predictions for new effects have been wrong. Physicists commissioned dozens of experiments to look for dark matter particles and grand unification. They turned data up-side down in search for supersymmetric particles and dark energy and new dimensions of space. The result has been consistently: Nothing new.

Yes, null-results are also results. But they are not very useful results if you need to develop a new theory. A null-result says: “Let’s not go this way.” A result says: “Let’s go that way.” If there are many ways to go, discarding some of them does not help much. To move on in the foundations of physics, we need results, not null-results.

It’s not like we are done and can just stop here. We know we have not reached the end. The theories we currently have in the foundations are not complete. They have problems that require solutions. And if you look at the history of physics, theory-led breakthroughs came when predictions were based on solving problems that required solution.

But the problems that theoretical particle physicists currently try to solve do not require solutions. The lack of unification, the absence of naturalness, the seeming arbitrariness of the constants of nature: these are aesthetic problems. Physicists can think of prettier theories, and they believe those have better chances to be true. Then they set out to test those beauty-based predictions. And get null-results.

It’s not only that there is no reason to think this method should work, it does – in fact! – not work, has not worked for decades. It is failing right now, once again, as more beauty-based predictions for the LHC are ruled out every day.

They keep on believing, nevertheless.

Those who, a decade ago, made confident predictions that the Large Hadron Collider should have seen new particles can now not be bothered to comment. They are busy making “predictions” for new particles that the next larger collider should see. We risk spending $20 billion dollars on more null-results that will not move us forward. Am I crazy for saying that’s a dumb idea? Maybe.

Someone recently compared me to a dinghy that has the right of way over a tanker ship. I could have the best arguments in the world, that still would not stop them. Inertia. It’s physics, bitches.

Recently, I wrote an Op-Ed for the NYT in which I lay out why a larger particle collider is not currently a good investment. In her response, Prof Lisa Randall writes: “New dimensions or underlying structures might exist, but we won’t know unless we explore.” Correct, of course, but doesn’t explain why a larger particle collider is a promising investment.

Randall is professor of physics at Harvard. She is famous for having proposed a model, together with Raman Sundrum, according to which the universe should have additional dimensions of space. The key insight underlying the Randall-Sundrum model is that a small number in an exponential function can make a large number. She is one of the world’s best-cited particle physicists. There is no evidence these extra-dimension exist. More recently she has speculated that dark matter killed the dinosaurs.

Randall ends her response with: “Colliders are expensive, but so was the government shutdown,” an argument so flawed and so common I debunked it two weeks before she made it.

And that is how the top of tops of theoretical particle physicists react if someone points out they are unable to acknowledge failure: They demonstrate they are unable to acknowledge failure.

When I started writing my book, I thought the problem is they are missing information. But I no longer think so. Particle physicists have all the information they need. They just refuse to use it. They prefer to believe.

I now think it’s really a standoff between reason and intuition. Here I am, with all my arguments. With my stacks of papers about naturalness-based predictions that didn’t work. With my historical analysis and my reading of the philosophy of physics. With my extrapolation of the past to the future that says: Most likely, we will see more null-results at higher energies.

And on the other side there are some thousand particle physicists who think that this cannot possibly be the end of the story, that there must be more to see. Some thousand of the most intelligent people the human race has ever produced. Who believe they are right. Who trust their experience. Who think their collective hope is reason enough to spend $20 billion.

If this was a novel, hope would win. No one wants to live in a world where the little German lady with her oh-so rational arguments ends up being right. Not even the German lady wants that.

Wait, what did I say? I must be crazy.


  1. Keep on keeping on. You're the most refreshing voice in physics I've found in years.

  2. Replies
    1. No, she isn't: she's inconsequent and frustrated lady who wants some attention (and publicity stunt for her book).

      She undertsands perfectly that the (failed) BSM is just a tiny fraction of the whole theoretical HEP, there are lots of other directions which are flourishing with new LHC data and suffer due to lack of manpower, yet she generalizes her personal disappointment with BSM to the whole HEP. Large part (90% ?) of HEP are experimentalists who have vague idea about theoretical physics and its problems. Large ṕart of theoretical HEP (90 %?) are doing "old dull correct QCD". And there is remaining brilliant-highly-cited ~1% of the whole community generating annually hundreds of BSM extensions which fail for 50 years. And finally there is frustrated Mrs Hossenfelder who in contrast to Socrate, "knows that she knows everything" (and thus can judge).

      When she speaks about billions of dollars spent in vain, she forgets to say that the nerds generating hundreds of look-alike BSM predictions hardly get crumbs of this money - large part returns back to the same society in the form of purchase orders to many small companies (see CERN financial report). And this amount is dwarfed compared to money "gifted" by society to these companies via different tax cuts and loopholes. Or even compared to marketing budget of all Ivy League universities.

      In her book she (correctly) identifies modern citation system as a culprit of existing positive feedback loops, yet attacks HEP on it, and nevertheless in her posts regularly uses citations to attribute weight to her opponent (in this post: Lisa Sundrum and all her "genious" ideas).

      She implicitly promotes her favorite Quantum Gravity as a promising direction, yet she doesn't mention that it has zero chances to be measured in this century. Even in the classical gravity, linearized approximation is perfectly fine in the solar system and one light year around, so the nonlinear tests have to rely on astronomical observations, models of what is going on thousands of light years away, with poorly controlled uncertainties. From this point of view QG is even worse "handwaving" than most speculative BSM extensions.


    2. Oh, how interesting. What is my "favorite quantum gravity"? Would you be so kind to tell me?

      Your statements about the weak field limit are bluntly wrong, see eg

      Your mistake is in forgetting that the semi-classical limit is only valid if the masses are well-localized. If I recall correctly, Kiefer discusses this very nicely in his QG book.

      Indeed, I sometimes draw attention to what kind of research is well-cited today exactly because I think that's a bad measure of quality.

      I have made it abundantly clear, here and elsewhere, that I am referring to research in the foundations of physics. It is stated in the first sentence of the first chapter of my book.

      I get the impression that you are here simply because you don't like what I say, and you don't want to think about it either. This will not help, neither you, nor scientific progress.

  3. Contrary to common wisdom (with plenty of medical evidence) the rational parts of our brain are seldom in control of our actions. They can be, with some effort, but the default state is we are ruled by our emotions, and the neocortex serves the emotions.

    That is what is happening here. Emotional investment in a dumb decision, based on a belief (not reason or facts), and bolstered by a sense of superiority (another emotion), or bolstered by the sense of "consensus" (another emotion).

    Emotions rule the world because emotions rule individuals. Often, what we want emotionally coincides with what we should do, rationally, to get it. Rationality is very good at getting us what we want, emotionally.

    But when rationality fails to get us what we want, then emotions reign anyway, it is nearly impossible to sacrifice what you really want because, rationally, it doesn't make sense. That's when we cling to remote possibility, and dismiss logic as somehow flawed, even if we can't quite say why it is flawed.

    I think that is what is happening here. A thousand physicists cannot believe you, Sabine, because the consequences of your oh-so rational arguments are emotionally unacceptable. And emotions rule the world.

  4. As I recall, you're a monist materialist, but the entirely rational argument for discarding ontology doesn't play in Peoria, either.

    1. If you want to attach isms to me, instrumentalist and pragmatist are the best fits I've come across.

    2. Dr Hossenfelder,
      Given the controversy around your views would 'non-conformist' be appropriate?

    3. I found instrumentalism and pragmatism too anti-realist, but I am not a realist, so I invented codicalism.

  5. Mycenaeans fought in vain for 30 years at the shores of Troy only to find that all they needed was a damn wooden horse! For the "heroic" mind of the westerneer, unknowledging failure is unknowledging not just death but something much worse, total "amnesia", erasure from the records, which is nothing but the Homeric "Hysterophemia" (posthumous fame). How little this world changes. Death remains the dictum but the cunning fox of Ulysse shows the way to the entrance. And maybe, just maybe, for the last 300 years people took this 2500 years old idea of Demokritus waaay too far! Perhaps though, a next song should be titled "Walking in Epicycles!"


    If you can find your own peace with your understanding of reality, it doesn't really matter what the rest of the industry thinks.

    This is a timeless problem which as been debated for millenia. Hopefully we will be live long enough for experiments or a new prophet to show us the next step.

  7. The need for better instruments is a constant in any branch of scientific observations and experiments, these better instruments expand our always limited perception of Reality and the "consistent" empirical data collected using these instruments is independent of how we interpret them.
    On the other hand our ideas of Reality are always fluid, immutable and unquestionable dogmas are the domain of cults and religions but not Science.
    Using the failure of current mainstream theoretical predictions in any branch of natural sciences as an argument against building better instruments is fallacious at best because the only objective way to expand our knowledge is by collecting more empirical(objective) evidence with better and better instruments in a never ending process.
    Theories always have intrinsic limitations and fresh consistent empirical evidence have precedence over any existing ideas that we may have about Reality.

    1. "Using the failure of current mainstream theoretical predictions in any branch of natural sciences as an argument against building better instruments"

      I might have misunderstood Sabine, but I don't think that's her argument, at all. The argument is "there are no good reasons to build a bigger collider".

      I'm all for building newer bigger fancier machines, but IMHO there has to be a reason other than "let's see what happens". In a world with infinite resources, doing things for the sake of doing them is great. We don't live in that world, we don't have infinite money, infinite engineers and infinite scientists to dedicate to every dead-end scientific avenue you might be able to think of. If we are going to make a 20 billion dollar investment in a new experiment, we better have the best of reasons to do so. And again, "I'd like to see what happens" is not even a bad reason. The answer to "why should we spend 20 billion dollars in this" can't be an inspirational poster catchphrase, and that's all I've seen so far, inspirational quotes about the greatness of scientific pursue.

  8. "...Confederacy of Dunces." I love the little German lady with her oh-so rational arguments. You give me hope, Sabine.

  9. I am not a particle physicist, but your arguments are much more convincing to me than anybody else's. if a theory doesnt produce testable predictions, it isn't a useful theory. You don't have to be a strict Popper person to think that - if a theory doen't extend your understanding into new areas, it isn't worth anything.

    1. LP,
      Define 'testable'? What limits do you place on technology and time? The Higgs boson for example was predicted in 1964 and found in 2012. The bending of light in a gravitational field predicted by Einstein in 1915 was observed in 1919 (fortuitously - had it been cloudy during the solar eclipse that day the delay would have been longer).
      And therein lies the problem. Dr Hossenfelder quite correctly points out that many theoretical predictions made over the last 40 years have been shown to be false. However, there are theories which predict physics beyond the current limits of the LHC and current technology and which we are not able to currently verify experimentally. Dr Hossenfelder argues that these theories being based on the same paradigms as those shown to be false in the past are not a sufficient basis to justify the cost of a new collider. It's not that the theories cannot be tested, they could be given time and technology.

  10. "a prophet is not without honor save in her own country" (country meaning professional field in case that was unclear). Do not be insecure about your convictions! That doesn't mean you will ever have an easy time among your peers, but you do have fans, and there is always philosophy of science at which you Excell!

  11. Perhaps Asch's work on conformity might lend some insights.


  12. And I do not want to live in a world where the best way to make progress in the quest for the meaning of "Life, the Universe and Everything" turns out to be just hitting with the bigger hammer.
    I belive - I want! - such stages of the developement are gone and now we have to start back-re-thinking, even if in vain for some time.
    It is the only hope for Humankind - I dare to say - as the faith in the Bigger Hammer - even if made with highest ingenuity - is too spoiling in the long term.

  13. Obviously I am not here to say you are not crazy, or to say you are right 100%. I confirm that your PoV is rather new for me. However, understanding your PoV is the more useful thing happened to me in recent years, so this helped my research in more than a single way.

  14. The "circle the wagons" metaphor -- defend against "outsiders" -- seems to apply to any organization that gets larger than roughly 100 members, IMO.

    My experience in private enterprise is that overcoming "circle the wagons" death spiral, is it requires a charismatic leader who can inspire almost cult-like devotion to a new vision. The charismatic leader is tough and often not very nice, but being respected is essential.

    Couple companies that turned it around come to mind: Intel in 1980s (Andy Grove) and Apple Computer in 1990s (Steve Jobs). Both companies were close to existential crises.

    Does foundations of physics have anyone analogous to a Grove or Jobs?

    The lemming-like groupthink that seems to pervade theoretical & foundational physics, is not so different from climate science. In the USA, there's big money to made, cronyism, and power to grab, by being an alarmist advocate for "catastrophic climate change".
    It's a pretext for almost any kind of money grab or social engineering.
    Anyone who questions that orthodoxy usually finds themselves subjected to fierce ad hominem attacks.
    About 20 yrs ago, Scientific American and editor-in-chif John Rennie, devoted nearly an entire issue to directly & indirectly attacking Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg for his policy proposals on what was quaintly called "global warming" back then.

    1. Perhaps it wasn't that Bjorn Lomborg was unorthodox, as that he was wrong and misinterpreted papers he was citing:

      I don't see the same errors in Sabine's un-orthodoxy.

    2. I'm not an apologist for Lomborg, but reading the cited paper/articles plus Ward's rebuttal and Lomborg's response does not lead me to believe that Lomborg misrepresented the Hasegawa et al paper. In fact Ward's response is a fairly classic straw man argument.
      I must ask, as someone who is not in the HEP community, why, if it's apparently so superficially facile and so necessary, isn't Sabine able to obtain support/funding for quantum gravity experiments similar to the ones superficially described in the article she posted?

  15. PS, forgot to sign my name on previous post that referenced "circle the wagons"

    -- TomH

  16. The theoretical physicists may have got it wrong but it seems like the experimental physicists have been doing gangbusters work, at the LHC and elsewhere. Maybe we should ask them what to do next?

    1. Do you think that's a good strategy? Serious question. We have to decide where to invest money so we will finally make some progress. It arguably plays a role what is experimentally feasible, so certainly experimentalists must be listened to. But is that what is experimentally and technologically most interesting also what is most likely to move us forward in our understanding of nature? I do not see the relation between the two.

    2. As just a layperson, I can think of better ways to spend $20 billion dollars on science, like on a habitable exoplanet observatory, robot asteroid mining missions, or sequence the genome of most US citizens.

      Sabine has, I think, clearly pointed out that there is little objective reason to anticipate the next collider will find anything interesting. Plenty of other projects might.

  17. "We risk spending $20 billion dollars on more null-results that will not move us forward"

    Bee, barring some unforeseen advances in technology (i.e wakefield accelerator or something similar) or drop in prices, is there a better way to directly test HEP physics than to explore via colliders ever higher energies, above 14 TEV collisions

    besides the HE-LHC proposes to replace 8 tesla magnets in LHC upgraded to 16 tesla magnets is estimated ~$7 billion to explore 28 TEV.

    do you think spending ~7 billion to upgrade LHC magnets to 16 teslas, reusing the same 27km tunnel, to explore the region from 14 TEV of LHC to 28 TEV of this HE-LHC is worthwhile, even if it is only null results? i happen to think so.

    and who knows maybe by the time it is done there will be 32 tesla magnets some 30 years from now for ~$7 billion

    linear ee colliders to do precision measurements of the higgs have price tags i've seen around ~$10 billion, are they worthwhile?

    1. As I said many times before, the best and cleanest way to test short-distance/high energy physics are particle colliders. But that's the wrong question to ask. The question you should ask is why test short-distance/high energy physics if there's currently no reason to think this will deliver any useful insights?

      As I also said previously, the smaller the price tag, the less my discomfort. I can't pull cost-benefit estimates out of my pocked. Tell me why $10 billion to measure the higgs self-coupling are better than, say, more precise weak lensing measurements or better redshift resolution or better sky coverage (or all of the above) that would tell us more about the nature of dark matter. From which we could then learn whether there's something to be found at high energies. (Or maybe instead at low energies.)

    2. The question you should ask is why test short-distance/high energy physics if there's currently no reason to think this will deliver any useful insights?"

      the paper i provided have theoretical BSM proposals that a higher energy collider can test, including still SUSY, hidden sectors, etc. and null results on these proposals is still useful knowledge.

      " Tell me why $10 billion..."

      why can't we have all of the above, if spread out over many nations. the linear ee colliders are proposed by both Japan and USA. 100pp collider by CERN and China.

      in Hawaii there is a proposed telescope that will do exactly what you ask, but the indigenous Hawaiians are opposed on ethnic reasons.

  18. A lot of particle physicists seem to have fallen victim to some of the countless logical fallacies that infect the human mind, and 'moving the goalposts' is certainly one of them.

    The Mormon faith holds that ancient Jews sailed to North America and subsequently built huge cities and conducted wars with advanced technologies that killed millions. When critics claim that no physical or archaeological evidence has ever been found, Mormons say "Keep looking, because it's there."

    Physics and religion seem to be converging on several fronts, including extra dimensions, strings and SUSY. I hope I'm wrong.

  19. I enjoyed reading this Sabine. Insightful but pretty funny. So where do we go from here? What's the alternative?

    1. As I have said many times before, if history is any guide, our best shot at making progress is to focus on those areas where we currently have inconsistencies, either between experiment and theory or internal inconsistencies in the theory. That is currently the case when it comes to dark matter (theory-experiment tension) or in quantum gravity, quantum foundations (internal inconsistency). It is not the case in high energy physics.

  20. I’m not a physicist - I’m sure my opinion doesn’t count much -, but I think you are doing great, considering that all this affair has been a debate of one against a legion.
    Antônio B.

  21. Feynman has an interview where he describes the process of discovery. He talks about how the history of physics is an accident. If any of the methods of the past were going to unlock the next level of discovery we would have gone that route already. Whatever the trick or epiphany that takes us further, it's something no one has thought of yet. Nature is going to come out the way it is.

  22. I think the fact that BTSM physics and quantum gravity have stumped the smartest physicists in the world for decades, confirms how earthshakingly important and deep these problems are. I think your are on the right side of history but I wish we had some theorists pointing us in the right direction.

  23. I've read your book and don't disagree that much with the viewpoint you presented. However you mainly talked to theoretical physicists in the course of writing your book; my question is to you is: What do the HEP experimentalists and engineers think and argue for? Does their collective view matter?

    There have been plenty of times in the history of physics where the experimental results were ahead of the theoretical interpretation needed to explain them - light spectra were being measured for decades before the quantum theory arrived for example. Faraday drove physics (the experimental side at least) forward with a qualitative approach to scientific theory involving some rather vague notions as to the unity of "force".

    In the absence of credible new theory are qualitative approaches from experimentalists now allowed or even possible today?

    Are the experimentalists and engineers at CERN, and other HEP experiments around the world, trained up and ready to drive high energy physics forward in new directions (and be the public face of HEP) for the next decade or more in the absence of credible theoretical guidance as to productive new experimental questions to answer?

    1. Sure their view matters because we need to know what is technically feasible to begin with.

      Having said this, we cannot make all experiments we would like to make, so we have to make a decision. The higher the investment, the better an argument I expect for why to invest in just exactly this and not some other experiment. And for this decision, theoretical predictions matter a big deal. The LHC wasn't build just because bigger is better. It was built to find the Higgs and hopefully more. The Higgs was a good prediction. Not just in hindsight, but it was a methodologically good prediction. But now there isn't any good prediction for something new to find at a larger collider.

      Yes, sure, you could say it's always a good idea to look where no one has looked before, but that's the case for many "frontiers" that physicists push right now.

  24. It's not a question of crazy Sabine, You have a super succesful book, and of course in my opinion you are a fantastic lecturer, and social media celebrity as well.You can only take that super critical line so far, until people start saying, alright, so what have you come up with lately, to take science to the next level ? Your book has raised the conciousness and awareness about science, and we still need the next genius insight though, to ( in one example) get
    us to the next planet.

  25. Hi,


    I cannot believe that the world u guys( the physicists) live in, with the scientific language and data on your fingertips, fall into the section of the " believers": it is a totally different segment of language, for God's sake, who is trying to make us, the public, think we can be fooled? I am telling u, if David Bohm was to be alive now, he would suddenly get another heart attack before the whole scenario you describe. Thank you.

  26. Dr. Hossenfelder, since I am a Christian theist, my idea about the truth at the center of existence probably differs from yours. Nevertheless, I hope (and forgive me, pray) that you continue your advocacy for a real search for that truth in the face of opposition, be that opposition respectful and honest or underhanded and disingenuous.

    I believe that no one who searches for the truth about our universe and our existence in any way offends or opposes the God I serve. If I am right, you and others who look for truth open humanity's eyes about the reality of God and God's creation. If I am wrong, then you and others who look for truth open humanity's eyes about reality. I'm unsure of what's so bad about either of those.

  27. I gave you a shout-out, actually, at The Poetry Foundation as a must-read. The article isn't up yet, but know that this poet here has been reading you regularly and I think you're absolutely brilliant.

  28. You are not crazy. It is hard for people to admit they were wrong when their salaries/livelihoods/reputations are negatively impacted by doing so.

    Sigh. Scientists are no more immune to this than other fallible humans. We are weak creatures.

    On the bright side, some *are* able to gather the intestinal fortitude to do so! And we have people like you more beholden to truth and rationality than to holding on to bad ideas for sake of reputation/job prospects.

    Disappointed we don’t have more of you, but very glad we have some of you.

    Cheer up! Some of us are listening.

  29. Can anyone successfully deny group think (in any discipline, not specifically physics) without feeling like an outsider? I don't believe so.

    Can anyone feel like an outsider without questioning their own sanity? Actually, yes. Some very unbalanced people can exist as outsiders for long periods without asking themselves any hard questions.

    But when a reasonably sane person chooses to become an outsider by denying group think, they are going to be forced to ask themselves difficult introspective questions sometimes. Because it's normal to want acceptance and the respect of one's peers.

    It would be crazy not to feel this way.

  30. It’s, however, crazy to throw away your meal ticket if a good part of your professional life has been invested in it. That’s the option for the majority of particle physicists that Dr. Hossenfelder doesn’t appear to fully appreciate.

    1. I am fully aware of this problem. I explicitly name it in my book as one of the major hurdles in the way of progress.

    2. Protecting your job/reputation is an issue in many fields, but it is limiting and self-defeating in all such cases. As Sabine writes, group-thinking has led to an insular body of academic work and skewed allocation of funds/grants, effectively "railroading" future research. I agree that it would be a brave and independent person to break ranks but that's just a symptom of what Sabine is getting at (IMHO).

    3. For almost everyone, the following is true:

      Ego > Sex > Food > Integrity

  31. Why are these people so smart? They earned a PhD in physics just like you (and me). What else have they done? Nothing.

    It is frustrating to be flamed and ignored. I sympathize!

    1. Are you seriously suggesting our understanding of particle physics has not improved over the last 40 years?
      Advances in any field - not just particle physics - is not a linear development from success to success. It's disjointed with many back alleys and unsuccessful tries. Failure often points the way towards progress. As a simple example Rutherford's view of the atom was a failure. But did Rutherford do nothing?
      Sorry but generic, unsupported statements like yours add little or nothing to the debate. Try adding facts and evidence.

  32. A good essay. A very good essay, Sabine.

  33. Dear Sabine, I'm yet another particle physicists who appreciates your writing very much since at least two years and who can confirm that you are definitely not crazy. Much of what you say about naturalness is not only obvious to you but also to me and other experts.

    I pretty sure that you (we) are not so alone with this point of view. The theoretical particle physics community is quite diverse working on various topics (QCD, precision calculations, QGP, ...) which are not motivated by naturalness ideas. This part of the community is naturally (pun intended) much less attached to naturalness ideas, in particular in view of the LHC results (so far), and is asking questions. Even those who have constructed their careers on the naturalness idea are not blind and will spend a lot of time re-assessing naturalness. Some will change their mind. It's not easy though to admit this.

    Remains the question about the future... I certainly would like to learn more about eletroweak symmetry breaking. This is such a crazy idea that we have a scalar field rolling into the minimum of a potential taking on a non-zero constant value everywhere in the universe. The Higgs particle is the fluctutation of the scalar field around the constant value. It is just the messenger of the entire mechanism. Who would believe this? Unless confirmed with more precision, unless the potential is reconstructed? One could expand on this to better explain the excitement.


  34. I was too young to witness the discovery of the SM first-hand - I was in high school in the mid 70's - but I had the privilege to see real theoretical progress. In the early 80's I entered grad school doing statistical physics, and for various reasons focussed on 2D critical phenomena. A few years later, conformal field theory came along and essentially finished my chosen field. That's how progress smells.

    But the theory of 2D phase transitions ended for the right reason, just as geography ended after Cristofer Columbus and captain Cook: essentially everything worth knowing was known and people knew why it was the final word. Particle physics does not feel complete.

  35. I feel like you’re completely ignoring the fact that we *do* have problems in modern physics that need to be fixed, and our theories are *not* just based on naturalness. The magnetic moment of the muon disagrees with the standard model predictions by 3.5 standard deviations. Dark matter (or something like it) is required to explain both the galaxy rotation curves and the measured CMB power spectrum. Neutrino masses beg explanation. The problem of vacuum energy and the cosmological constant begs explanation.

    These are all some of the most fundamental failures of our current theories of nature, and the new theories proposed by theorists and particle physicists all aim at solving at least a subset (if not all, in the case of supersymmetry) of these problems, and testing these theories (or, at the very least, finding new data to point us in the right direction) will almost necessarily involve looking at higher energies, or with higher luminosity, than we are currently able.

    Finally, the fact that we haven’t found anything yet isn’t the fault of physicists — its the fault of nature. So if you have a problem with the null results from the LHC, take it up with her.

    1. I explicitly stated we do have problems. Do you have trouble reading? Ctrl+ will increase the font size on most platforms.

      Sure we are all waiting for the results from J-PARC. Your point being what? That the existing g-2 discrepancy allows you to predict we should see new particles at the FCC? I do not know of any such argument.

      You badly misrepresent my statement about the null-results. I do not blame physicists for null-results. I blame them for not learning from already exiting null-results. Failure is okay. It's a normal part of science. Failing and not learning from it is no longer science.

    2. “But the problems that theoretical particle physicists currently try to solve do not require solutions. The lack of unification, the absence of naturalness, the seeming arbitrariness of the constants of nature: these are aesthetic problems.”

      These are your own words. I do not have trouble reading, and resorting to claiming that I have a reading problem instead of actually addressing the points I’ve made is quite juvenile.

      The g-2 discrepancy may not imply the existence of particles at the FCC, and I never claimed it did, but it certainly implies that either there is new physics (not necessarily particles) beyond the standard model that is low-energy enough to contribute to the g-2 for the muon, or that we don’t have a complete enough understanding of our current low-energy theoretical framework. Thus, it seems a worthwhile endeavor to search for this new physics as best we can. The same can be said for essentially all of the current problems in theoretical physics (except, maybe, quantum gravity, whose predictions would be so far out of our current experimental reach that no reasonable search for its effects would be likely to yield anything at this point in time).

      Also, I think the difference in your point-of-view versus the point-of-view of the rest of the particle physics community is your belief that the null-results at the LHC (excluding, of course, the Higgs, the possible violation of lepton flavor universality, and the discovery of a plethora of composite particles) constitute failures, and I don’t believe they do. The collider ran spectacularly, gave us incredible data, led to the discovery of a new fundamental particle, and might give us even more magic when it’s up-and-running again.

      Do I personally believe that the FCC is a good investment? I’m not sure. Honestly, it’s not a project I’m particularly well-versed in. But I think that shutting the idea down completely because its lower-energy predecessor didn’t deliver results that meet your standards is short-sighted. Perhaps there is a good argument for not building the FCC, but, as far as I can tell, this is not it.

      (Also, in defense of Lisa Randall, vastly oversimplifying her work to make her sound like a crack-pot and discredit her opinion on this topic is in pretty bad taste. That may not have been what you were trying to do, but it certainly reads that way.)

    3. Bob,

      I wrote explicitly:

      "It’s not like we are done and can just stop here. We know we have not reached the end. The theories we currently have in the foundations are not complete. They have problems that require solutions."

      You seem to have missed that, and missed it again after I pointed out you missed it.

      "your belief that the null-results at the LHC... constitute failures"

      No, that is not correct. As I already said, the failure is the failure to learn from the null-results.

  36. For about 100 years it was a dogma in neuroscience that there is no neurogenesis in adult mammalian brain. A dogma which had based on Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a Spanish neuroscientist and pathologist.
    If somebody claimed otherwise, he was called a crackpot, a crank, a crook. He had have no any prospect in academic life.

    Then there was a rethink, and the academic establishment changes their standpoint quietly and secretly. There are only a few articles witch point that scandal out.


    - Blunders may persevere 100 years, maybe more, in science
    - There must be still many blunders in present science, even in seemingly well-established knowledge
    - Science is unable for self-criticism
    - In fact: science bases structural on self-affirmation and avoids self-criticismón_y_Cajal

    1. Your own example negates your assertions.

      Science is unable for self criticism --- There was a rethink

      Science avoids self criticism --- the academic establishment changes their standpoint

      Do you see the contradictions?

      You make a valid point that group think and the 'establishment' may slow developments and progress. In fact there's been a recent book published on just this point. However as a whole science has progressed through self criticism and a rigorous and robust examination of the status quo and new ideas. It just sometimes takes rather longer than we'd expect.

    2. There was a rethink after how many protests, after how many dismissed claims, after how many frustrated people who had been right while the academic teaching was wrong? And how many people are today right with their points and scientists are unable to see that? How many flaws are still uncorrected?

      No! Your conclusions from the reported fact are wrong!

  37. It is the same in all industry, well paid position are long and hard to secure. You are not paid for your smart skills, but for securing annuities. People get a lot more violent when they have to face their cognitive dissonance, that tells them their are not scientists for the puplic good, but for salary.

  38. I'm a former particle physicist now working in Finance. In Finance we have solved the problem of funding big, uncertain projects, by allocating scarce resources. The solution is called "free market". Instead of bickering over government grants, which is taxpayer's money (i.e. extracted at the threat of imprisonment), seek investors. Seek clients for your product. And offer guarantees, put down your own money and say "if the project doesn't do so and so in N years, I loose X of my own dollars.". That way investors will trust you more. I was reading Lisa Randall's plea for more funding, and I was thinking: She is a wealthy New Yorker, who wants to tax peasants in Ohio to build her a new toy. Why doesn't she put down some of her own money? Let's say, the proceeds from one of her popular books? Or half of her fat salary, or her tenure? Put something on the table, Lisa, and all of you. Risk something. Put your money where your mouths are.

    Now, if you offer guarantees, and you still cannot find enough investors to support your next endeavor, and you cannot thunt of anything useful you can sell to anyone to fund the project, that's an excellent sign that the project shouldn't be done.

    1. Working in finance. You mean the people who could not predict the largest-scale crisis in the last half-century (nor any other crisis, for that matter) and still use models of economic agents that have been shown to be grossly inaccurate (see Khanemann, eg). No lecturing thankyou. Especially that my "fat" physicist salary is probably an order of magnitude smaller than yours.
      Oh, and spare us your sentimental thoughts for poor Ohio farmers who have to pay a few dollars a year to support HEP research. When the same farmers are hit by bad weather and can't repay their mortgage, I'm sure you and your fellow financiers will be just as understanding. Or won't you?

  39. @Grégoire Richard that tells them they are not scientists for the public good, but for salary.

    Not necessarily. I think you are forgetting how easy it is for people to convince themselves, truly, that them holding their well paid position is for the public good.

    To convince themselves that even if they are not yet successful in their search, nobody else could do any better than they have.

    To convince themselves that threats to their research agenda must be dealt with harshly and dismissively.

    They don't have to be in it for the salary, to believe that their mental contributions would be a bargain at ten times the price, thus they are doing humanity a huge favor.

    Ego knows no boundaries.

  40. You're not crazy. In my experience, high-energy physicists are resistant to ideas that come from outside their community and don't agree with their preconceived notions. (Maybe not too surprising ... a lot of these ideas are from cranks and turn out to be worthless.) You're running up against this attitude. So just keep on what you're doing.

  41. Great blog, thanks for posting. Could you please suggest better ways to spend science money instead of a larger collider, or perhaps provide a link to an existing article?

    1. yerpa58,

      As I said, we should focus on areas where we either have existing inconsistencies between data and theory or internal inconsistencies in the theory. Examples of where this is presently the case is dark matter, quantum gravity, quantum foundations. Those are the areas where we are likely to make breakthrough discoveries, those are the areas we should invest in.

      I can't pull proposals for experiments out of my sleeve. It's a task the community must address.

      Let me add that I don't expect other people to just nod to my argument. If they have a better argument for what are the best experiments to invest in to break the current streak of null-results, but all means, let me hear them. Unfortunately, no one seems to have any argument to begin with.

  42. "All truth passes through three stages. First it's ridiculed. Second it's violently opposed. Third it's accepted as self evident." - Arthur Shopenhauer. First stage nearly complete. Second stage starting up. As well you know it's going to be a while. Admire your honesty & candor. Great work. You are not alone.

    1. Your Arthur Schopenhauer quote "All truth passes through three stages. First it's ridiculed. Second, it's violently opposed. Third, it's accepted as self evident." reminded me of a similar quote (in a different context of course) that is variously attributed either to Mahatma Gandhi (most commonly) or (less so) to a USA garment industry union leader:-

      "At first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win”.

      Interestingly enough, even though most people attribute this quote to Mahatma Gandhi, as far as I recall what I had read, the union leader's quote (sometime in the early 20th century) is closer to what is commonly cited as above.

      I wonder what this attribution/mis-attribution says about us as a society? Maybe the Halo Effect is at play here, something like:
      "Gandhi? Great Leader. So must have been great with words too"!

  43. Dear Bee - You're not crazy; keep fighting the good fight. May I modestly suggest that, in your arguments such as in this post you differentiate between theoretical and experimental particle physicist? Or perhaps you see no difference in their opinion...

    1. Experimentalists will tell you what technology can do for you. That matters of course if you want to decide what next experiment to build. But the relevant decision we have to make in the foundations of physics is which frontier to push. Where are we most likely to get results rather than null-results. That's where theory-development becomes relevant.

      Experimentalists are equally, if not more, in denial about the lack of promise of building a larger collider. They stood by and watched as theorists marketed the LHC with wild predictions that did not come true, and now they pretend they had nothing to do with it. While they, once again, stand by and keep their mouth shut as theorists go about and make vague promises (hey, maybe we will finally find those extra dimensions!).

      You cannot trust these people and it's a problem. If you need any evidence for that, it's that what I say is hardly controversial yet no one else wants to publicly say it. People in the community have been discussing the dwindling promise of larger accelerators for decades.

  44. The resistance you're encountering is unsurprising:

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” -- Upton Sinclair

    I predict that you'll get more mileage out of this recommendation: "we should focus on areas where we either have existing inconsistencies between data and theory or internal inconsistencies in the theory." At least you would have the possibility of allies whose research ideas align with this strategy, and hence have a self-interested incentive to support your position.

  45. Sabine is missing the purpose of physics. Modern physics is doing a PERFECT job of finding billion-dollar grants. That's the only purpose of physics. All the other stuff is just tactical weaponry in the competition for grants.

    1. fwiw, I read this as a sarcastic comment, which is why I didn't reply.

  46. Just a little word of advice. Keep a pulse on the anxiety or depression levels here. My brother was a tenure track in molecular biology who got himself out on a limb. He ended up committing suicide.

  47. No, you are not mad, when:
    - you believe in quantum gravity
    - you believe in new particles
    - you believe in naturalness(less)
    - you prefer believe in cosmic inflation to scrutinize Pauli exclusion
    ... or whatever. You are human. Humans are believers.

    Still, I'm hoping the believe stays where nothing can be seen and the science will stay where you can research what you already know something a little bit about - open minded.

    An example: an extra gravity seems to bound stars to galaxies -> let's examine them as bounded states of interactions...

  48. Einstein, from the Mount of Sinai...

  49. You are neither crazy nor alone. From what I see, there exists a few theoretical physicist that think along the lines you do. Notably, David Tong expresses the same idea as you do regarding more promising lines of research in the wake of the absence of new physics found by the LHC towards the end of his talk to the Royal Institution:

    Your field seems to be just as factitious as most other institutionalized fields of study, nothing new there. As an outsider, all I can do is let you folks argue and debate and work out amongst yourselves what is the best way forward and what projects deserve the allocation of limited resources. As a taxpayer and interested scientist (in another field), I certainly agree with your priorities, funding research into other areas of inquiry that do not require colliders. Personally, I would like to see more funding for applied physics research over foundational physics, not that I would cut it off completely. But that's just me.

    Dr. Tong makes the point that if a new collider is going to be built, it will probably be the Chinese who would build it as a matter of prestige, a way to draw foreign scientists into the country, and as a lever to try to establish themselves as leaders in the physics community. If so, then I say let them build the damn thing and we'll spend our money elsewhere.

    1. Thanks for the reference, I'll have a look at this.

    2. Here David Tong resettles CERN to China. Then comes his third response, which is kind of amazing “This is the equation that we know is right.” Now the amazing part “… and start to challenge some of the assumptions and paradigms that we have been holding for the past 30 years”. Wow!
      And as always, I would take gravity out of the path integral. Do we really know that spacetime can be in superposition and gravity needs to be quantized?

  50. There was a rethink after how many protests, after how many dismissed claims, after how many frustrated people who had been right while the academic teaching was wrong? And how many people are today right with their points and scientists are unable to see that? How many flaws are still uncorrected?

    No! Your conclusions from the reported fact are wrong!

  51. You have become a vagabond, Sabine. Beware of the "evil paradigm" which destroys people not based on quality, but on opinion.

    The standard model is a dying beast. It has 4 fundamental forces, the Greeks had 4 elements. Even then they must add dark matter and dark energy when explaining the sky, the Greeks had to add a 5th heavenly element.

    There is no perfect vacuum, and thermodynamics can show us that approaching vacuum is a logarithmic relationsip - in other words we are infinitely far away from perfect vacuum anywhere in space, making Einstein's light postulate somewhat dubious.

    Did you know light uses more time to travel one way around the earth than the other? It is due to something called the Sagnac effect...

    Come with me to the electroneutral charge propagation side, Sabine
    May the electromagnetic force be with you!


  52. Some years ago, I read a thread on the comments section of Richard Dawkins' website.

    I no longer remember what the thread was about. What got my attention was that as the debate meandered here and there, with a number of posters positing this opinion or that opinion, the great man himself weighed in to the discussion with a very pithy remark which the passage of years means I have to paraphrase: "Who gives a damn about your opinion. Who gives a damn about my opinion. Both are worth nothing. We're scientists - the only thing that matters is the evidence."

    I remember being quite impressed by that. Setting aside one's ego, standing etc. is often something that is hard to do but we rely on scientists who can do so. Sabine's evidence-based case should be compelling to the group it is aimed at. It's demoralising that it isn't because it means these very clever people have forgotten what it is to be a scientist.

  53. one of the best online discussions i've seen in a while.

  54. The article is far from constructive criticism. In the end is blaming the general current approach but it does not offer any alternative solution. It's harmful to say 'you are not doing it right' unless you can do it right.
    'be the change you want to see in the world'
    'People Who Say It Cannot Be Done Should Not Interrupt Those Who Are Doing It'

    1. "Another comment-not-a-question I constantly have to endure is that I supposedly only complain but don’t have any better advice for what physicists should do.

      First, it’s a stupid criticism that tells you more about the person criticizing than the person being criticized. Consider I was criticizing not a group of physicists, but a group of architects. If I inform the public that those architects spent 40 years building houses that all fell to pieces, why is it my task to come up with a better way to build houses?

      Second, it’s not true. I have spelled out many times very clearly what theoretical physicists should do differently. It’s just that they don’t like my answer. They should stop trying to solve problems that don’t exist. That a theory isn’t pretty is not a problem. Focus on mathematically well-defined problems, that’s what I am saying. And, for heaven’s sake, stop rewarding scientists for working on what is popular with their colleagues."

      "It is far from my intention to tell anyone what to do. Indeed, if there is any message I tried to get across in my book it’s that I wish physicists would think more for themselves and listen less to their colleagues.

      Having said this, I have gotten a lot of emails from students asking me for advice, and I recall how difficult it was for me as a student to make sense of the recent research trends. For this reason I append below my assessment of some of the currently most popular problems in the foundations of physics. Not because I want you to listen to me, but because I hope that the argument I offered will help you come to your own conclusion."

  55. Sabine,

    you're not crazy. It's more that people barely pay attention to what you say since they think they can easily prove it wrong using "home advantage arguing" - a tactic that has become so common that people don't realize anymore how unscientific it is.

    The first step of the tactic is to judge the favored explanation on its supporting evidence - instead of making sure to consider all evidence. Then when the explanation passes this "test", it is declared to be the truth. And after that, every other explanation is no longer judged on evidence, but on whether it agrees with "the truth".

    A related trick is to deny discussion about details because of this. They'd argue it might work if someone would at least be partially right - but those who reject "the truth" would be completely wrong, and the only option for them is to give up every detail and embrace "the truth" instead.

    This problem arises in fields where a lot of "proofs" depend not directly on comparing mathematical predictions with observations, but use a lot of reasoning instead.

    And then it becomes a problem when by narrative twisting natural assumptions are smuggled in that at first glance look like science or even clear math, but actually break basic rules. This could be found out during closer inspection - but only if such inspection is allowed, not rejected out of hand. (An easy-to-spot example would be having a premise "2x+2x=5x" and arguing the only correct measure to take is dividing by a common factor - and then insisting that while one doesn't like the "2+2=5" this produces, it would be scientifically proven. Unfortunately, it's often not this easy to spot)

    So please continue to demand more evidence, cleaner reasoning and closer inspection.

    (And I wish you'd extend this to GR. I think it's no accident that most areas of GR are nonclassical and whole, while the one in which "natural" classical assumptions are used results in internal inconsistencies. I think if Einstein were alive today, he'd solve this, because he spent about a decade testing what worked and didn't work, and wouldn't be led astray by narrative twisting)

  56. Even by pragmatic standards the LHC was a success, in that we got out of it more than we put in based on advances in technology. Now it's certainly possibly that there is some other apparatus that may be more promising than a higher energy beam, but doing any of these types of things is worth it, even without "successes".

  57. Let's do it like Martin did with his 95 theses in 1517 ... Your story has uncanny parallels with the beginnings of the Reformation. We need a Reformation in physics, away from intuition, beauty... and back to reason. Plus, the institutions you are fighting behave in some ways like the ones Martin Luther was fighting in his time.

  58. Much of Theoretical Physics seems to consist of determining the answer is 42 and asking, "What is 6 multiplied by 9?". Hossenfelder makes a good point that massive funding of the popular research may not yield results as well as exploring other models.

  59. Bee - ICYMI a long comment thread on Hacker News about this post. And no, I'm not the one that keeps submitting your posts there!

    Just started the book last night, I got it from B&N as Amazon didn't have stock when I ordered. Might want to consider putting it as a second link.

    Best and have a safe pothole season!

  60. "(...) The theorist must accomplish this Herculean task with the clear understanding that this effort may only be destined to prepare the way for a death sentence for his theory. One should not reproach the theorist who undertakes such a task by calling him a fantast; instead, one must allow him his fantasizing, since for him there is no other way to his goal whatsoever. Indeed, it is no planless fantasizing, but rather a search for the logically simplest possibilities and their consequences." - Albert Einstein (Ideas and Opinions (1954), pp. 238–239)

  61. Sabine, you are not crazy.

  62. Dr. Hossenfelder,

    I discovered your blog recently and am only now catching up on the various posts in it but may I take this opportunity to jot down a couple of (not all interconnected) points, primarily about the 04 Feb 2019 blog?:-

    Interesting heading (self-deprecating too?) : "Maybe I'm Crazy"! And if I didn't know that you're an accomplished physicist, I would have thought "just another click-bait headline"! That said, let me copy + paste a quote that your headline reminded me of. I couldn't exactly recall the wording so I looked it up via the name of the guy who had said this (so that I could copy/paste it in toto):-

    (Rob Siltanen)
    “Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

    In para 5, you wrote
    "Yes, null-results are also results. But they are not very useful results if you need to develop a new theory. A null-result says: “Let’s not go this way.” A result says: “Let’s go that way.” If there are many ways to go, discarding some of them does not help much. To move on in the foundations of physics, we need results, not null-results"

    May I disagree? At the risk of falling into an "anecdotal evidence" trap -- how about the Michelson Morley experiment? Wasn't it the null result there that directly initiated a process of thinking that led to the Special Theory of Relativity? And I recall having read that Einstein himself said something to the effect that one of the reasons why his Theory of Special Relativity was taken more seriously (than it otherwise would have been) was precisely because of the results of the Michelson Morley experiment's outcome (or lack thereof).

    Interesting blog and I for one would be sorry if ever dissenting voices in science cease to exist and/or find getting access to the public fora difficult.  

    And talking of public fora, I am looking forward to the David Bohm event today -- the screening of the new film on his ideas + the panel discussion and Q&A with a group of physicists and philosophers, with you being one of the panelists.

  63. Maybe you're not crazy, just superarrogant who thinks you're always right and doesn't support someone tells you that you're wrong, keeping citing your own book as if it was the bible.

    1. People who say I am wrong without providing any arguments are unscientific suckers and of course I ignore them. Now fuck off and troll someone else.

  64. Dr. Hossenfelder, I am very impressed by your honesty about your own field of work, and for the depth and variety of your popular postings. As a physics major in college, I have always had various misgivings about how physics has been developing, and you have given wonderful expression to those vague misgivings. (I entered a PhD program in physics and left it several months later when all I was doing was mathematics without gaining any new insights into how Nature works.)

    In my opinion (not fact, now), physics took a major wrong turn in 1927 when it accepted the first new theory, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, that made a virtue of mystery and ignorance. In place of simple measurement, this theory invented mechanisms such as superposition of quantum states that cannot, ever, be directly tested or observed. Even the process of converting such mysterious or hidden states into real measurements was considered to be an axiom, a concept that had to be accepted on faith rather than understood.

    Einstein had never done this, even when explaining the apparent mystery of why the speed of light in a vacuum is the same for observers in all inertial reference frames. And, in fact, Einstein argued with Bohr and his friends about their QM ideas, but to no avail. A set of axioms was firmly adopted and has been taught ever since.

    So, getting back to my opinion, I think that this standardized mysterious interpretation of QM was to blame for physics being turned into an elegance-driven and futile search for new theoretical concepts, with arXiv being today filled with crazy ideas. We can see this, for example, in the continuing efforts of David Deutsch and friends to promote "constructor theory", which reads like pseudoscience (I'm not able to criticize it in depth simply because I have failed to be able to understand any part of it).

    Starting with David Bohm in 1952, physicists with deterministic ideas about how Nature works have been systematically ignored by mainstream physics, with the result that you complain about in this article: ever bigger and more expensive machines that manipulate extraordinarily large energies to probe deeper (and possibly to generate) ever newer tiny particles. In my opinion, there should be more to physics than this kind of futile and unnatural specialization, coupled with growing unsolved problems!


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