Saturday, October 28, 2017

No, you still cannot probe quantum gravity with quantum optics

Several people asked me to comment on a paper that is hyped by as a test of quantum gravity. I’ll make this brief.

First things first, why are you still following

Second, the paper in question is on the arXiv and is titled “Probing noncommutative theories with quantum optical experiments.” The paper is as wrong as a very similar paper was in 2012.

It is correct that noncommutative geometry plays a role in many approaches to quantum gravity and it’s not an entirely uninteresting idea. However, the variant that the authors want to test in the paper is not of the commonly discussed type. They want the effect to be relevant for the center-of-mass coordinates, so that it scales with the total mass. That assumption has no support from any approach to quantum gravity. It’s made-up. It is also mathematically highly problematic.

Third, I already spelled out in my review several years ago that this is bogus (see section 4.6) and doesn’t follow from anything. Though the academically correct phrase I used there is “should be regarded with caution.”

Fourth, note that the paper appeared on the arxiv two weeks after being accepted for publication. The authors clearly were not keen on any comment by any blogger before they had made it through peer review.

Fifth, let me mention that one of the authors of the paper, Mir Faizal, is not unknown to readers of this blog. We last heard of him when claimed that Loop Quantum Gravity violates the Holographic Principle (it doesn't). Before that, he claimed that the LHC will make contact to parallell universes (it won’t) and that black holes don’t exist (they do).

I rest my case.

And don’t forget to unfollow

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Book Update

As you probably noticed from the uptick in blogposts, I’ve finished writing the book. The publication date is set for June 12, 2018. We have a cover image now:

and we have a webpage, where you can preoder my masterwork.

The publishing business continues to surprise me. I have no idea who wrote the text accompanying the Amazon page and, for all I can tell, the first sentence doesn’t even make sense grammatically. Neither, for that matter, did I have anything to do with the cover image. But well, it’s dark, which is fitting enough.

The book is about the role of arguments from beauty, naturalness, and elegance in the foundations of physics, by which I mean high energy physics, cosmology, quantum gravity, and quantum foundations. Or at least that’s what I thought the book would be about. What the book really is about is how to abuse mathematics while pretending to do science.

The structure I chose is somewhat unusual for a popular science book. It’s a series of interviews I conducted, interlaced with explanations of the subject matter, and a broader narrative for context. Among the people I interviewed are Nima Arkani-Hamed, Frank Wilczek, Steven Weinberg, Garrett Lisi, and George Ellis.

You see, I did everything I could to make sure you really, really had to buy the book.

I also interviewed Gian Francesco Giudice, who is maybe not as well-known as the above-named, but who has been a key figure in the naturalness-movement in high-energy physics. Interestingly, he just yesterday posted a paper on the arXiv on what is also a central theme in the book.

To complete the list of interviewees: I also spoke to Michael Krämer, a SUSY phenomenologist in Aachen who unwittingly set me off on this whole enterprise, Keith Olive (also a high-energy phenomenologist), Joe Polchinski (a string theorist), Gordon Kane (the only person on the planet able to derive predictions from string theory), Katherine Mack (an astrophysicist), Chad Orzel (he who teaches physics to dogs), Xiao Gang-Wen (a condensed matter physicist with a theory of everything) and Doyne Farmer (a physicist turned economist).

I also interviewed Howard Baer and Gerard 't Hooft, but the two didn’t make the final cut and only appear in a short sentence each. I swear, throwing them out was the hardest part of writing the whole book.

While the book focuses on physics, my aim is much more general. The current situation in the foundations of physics is a vivid example for how science fails to self-correct. The reasons for this failure, as I lay out in the book, are unaddressed social and cognitive biases. But this isn't a problem specific to the foundations of physics. It’s a problem that befalls all disciplines, just that in my area the prevalence of not-so-scientific thinking is particularly obvious due to the lack of data.

This isn’t a nice book and sadly it’s foreseeable most of my colleagues will hate it. By writing it, I waived my hopes of ever getting tenure. This didn’t come easily to me. But I have waited two decades for things to change and they didn’t change and I came to conclude at the very least I can point at the problems I see.

If you care about progress in the foundations of physics, please preorder the book. Also follow me on facebook or twitter for further updates. You don’t have to wait for the book’s content to appear on this blog, it won’t happen.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

New gravitational wave detection with optical counterpart rules out some dark matter alternatives

The recently reported gravitational wave detection, GW170817, was accompanied by electromagnetic radiation. Both signals arrived on Earth almost simultaneously, within a time-window of a few seconds. This is a big problem for some alternatives to dark matter as this new paper lays out:

The observation is difficult to explain with some variants of modified gravity because in these models electromagnetic and gravitational radiation travel differently.

In modified gravity, dark matter is not made of particles. Instead, the gravitational pull felt by normal matter comes from a gravitational potential that is not the one predicted by general relativity. In general relativity and its modifications likewise, the gravitational potential is described by the curvature of space-time and encoded in what is called the “metric.” In the versions of modified gravity studied in the new paper, the metric has additional terms which effectively act on normal matter as if there was dark matter, even though there is no dark matter.

However, the metric in general relativity is also what gives rise to gravitational waves, which are small, periodic disturbances of that metric. If dark matter is made of particles, then the gravitational waves themselves travel through the gravitational potential of normal plus dark matter. If dark matter, however, is due to a modification of the gravitational potential, then gravitational waves themselves do not feel the dark matter potential.

This can be probed if you send both types of signals, electromagnetic and gravitational, through a gravitational potential, for example that of the Milky Way. The presence of the gravitational potential increases the run-time of the signal, and the deeper the potential, the longer the run-time. This is known as “Shapiro-delay” and is one of the ways, for example, to probe general relativity in the solar system.

The authors of the paper put in the numbers and find that the difference between the potential with dark matter for electromagnetic radiation and the potential without dark matter for gravitational radiation adds up to about a year for the Milky Way alone. On top come some hundred days more delay if you also take into account galaxies that the signals passed by on the way from the source to Earth. If correct, this means that the almost simultaneous arrival of both signals rules out the modifications of gravity which lead to differences in the travel-time by many orders of magnitude.

The logic of the argument is this. We know that galaxies cause gravitational lensing as if they contain dark matter. This means even if dark matter can be ascribed to modified gravity, its effect on light must be like that of dark matter. The Shapiro-delay isn’t exactly the same as gravitational lensing, but the origin of both effects is mathematically similar. This makes it plausible that the Shapiro-delay for electromagnetic radiation scales with the dark matter mass, regardless of its origin. The authors assume that the delay for the gravitational waves in modified gravity is just due to normal matter. This means that gravitational waves should arrive much sooner than their electromagnetic company because the potential the gravitational waves feel is much shallower.

The Shapiro-delay on the Sun is about 10-4 seconds. If you scale this up to the Milky Way, with a mass of about 1012 times that of the Sun, this gives 108 seconds, which is indeed about a year or so. You gain a little since the dark matter mass is somewhat higher and lose a little because the Milky Way isn’t spherically symmetric. But by order of magnitude this simple estimate explains the constraint.

The paper hence rules out all modified gravity theories that predict gravitational waves which pass differently through the gravitational potential of galaxies than electromagenetic waves do. This does not affect all types of modified gravity, but it does affect, according to the paper, Bekenstein’s TeVeS and Moffat’s Scalar-Vector-Tensor theory.

A word of caution, however, is that the paper does not contain, and I have not seen, an actual calculation for the delay of gravitational waves in the respective modified gravity models. Though the estimate seems good, it’s sketchy on the math.

I think the paper is a big step forward. I am not sold on either modified gravity or particle dark matter and think both have their pros and cons. To me, particle dark matter seems plausible and it works well on all scales, while modified gravity doesn’t work so well on cosmological (super-galactic) scales. On the other hand, we haven’t directly measured any dark matter particles, and some of the observed regularities in galaxies are not well explained by the particle-hypothesis.

But as wonderful as it is to cross some models off the list, ruling out certain types of modified gravity doesn’t make particle dark matter any better. The reason you never hear anyone claim that particle dark matter has been ruled out is that it’s not possible to rule it out. The idea is so flexible and the galactic simulations have so many parameters you can explain everything.

This is why I have lately been intrigued by the idea that dark matter is a kind of superfluid which, in certain approximations, behaves like modified gravity. This can explain the observed regularities while maintaining the benefits of particle dark matter. For all I can tell, the new constraint doesn’t apply to this type of superfluid (one of the authors of the new paper confirmed this to me).

In summary, let me emphasize that this new observation doesn’t rule out modified gravity any more than the no-detection of Weakly Interacting Massive Particles rules out particle dark matter. So please don’t jump to conclusions. It rules out certain types of modified gravity, no more and no less. But this paper gives me hope that a resolution of the dark matter mystery might happen in my lifetime.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Space may not be as immaterial as we thought

Galaxy slime. [Img Src]
Physicists have gathered evidence that space-time can behave like a fluid. Mathematical evidence, that is, but still evidence. If this relation isn’t a coincidence, then space-time – like a fluid – may have substructure.

We shouldn’t speak of space and time as if the two were distant cousins. We have known at least since Einstein that space and time are inseparable, two hemispheres of the same cosmic brain, joined to a single entity: space-time. Einstein also taught us that space-time isn’t flat, like a paper, but bent and wiggly, like a rubber sheet. Space-time curves around mass and energy, and this gives rise to the effect we call gravity.

That’s what Einstein said. But turns out if you write down the equations for small wiggles in a medium – such as soundwaves in a fluid – then the equations look exactly like those of waves in a curved background.

Yes, that’s right. Sometimes, waves in fluids behave like waves in a curved space-time; they behave like waves in a gravitational field. Fluids, therefore, can be used to simulate gravity. And that’s some awesome news because this correspondence between fluids and gravity allows physicists to study situations that are otherwise experimentally inaccessible, for example what happens near a black hole horizon, or during the rapid expansion in the early universe.

This mathematical relation between fluids and gravity is known as “analog gravity.” That’s “analog” as in “analogy” not as opposed to digital. But it’s not just math. The first gravitational analogies have meanwhile been created in a laboratory.

Most amazing is the work by Jeff Steinhauer at Technion, Israel. Steinhauer used a condensate of supercooled atoms that “flows” in a potential of laser beams which simulate the black hole horizon. In his experiment, Steinhauer wanted to test whether black holes emit radiation as Stephen Hawking predicted. The temperature of real, astrophysical, black holes is too small to be measurable. But if Hawking’s calculation is right, then the fluid-analogy of black holes should radiate too.

Black holes trap light behind the “event horizon.” A fluid that simulates a black hole doesn’t trap light, it traps instead the fluid’s soundwaves behind what is called the “acoustic horizon.” Since the fluid analogies of black holes aren’t actually black, Bill Unruh suggested to call them “dumb holes.” The name stuck.

But whether the horizon catches light or sound, Hawking-radiation should be produced regardless, and it should appear in form of fluctuations (in the fluid or quantum matter fields, respectively) that are paired across the horizon.

Steinhauer claims he has measured Hawking-radiation produced by an acoustic black hole. His results are presently somewhat controversial – not everyone is convinced he has really measured what he claims he did – but I am sure sooner or later this will be settled. More interesting is that Steinhauer’s experiment showcases the potential of the method.

Of course fluid-analogies are still different from real gravity. Mathematically the most important difference is that the curved space-time which the fluid mimics has to be designed. It is not, as for real gravity, an automatic reaction to energy and matter; instead, it is part of the experimental setup. However, this is a problem which at least in principle can be overcome with a suitable feedback loop.

The conceptually more revealing difference is that the fluid’s correspondence to a curved space-time breaks down once the experiment starts to resolve the fluid’s atomic structure. Fluids, we know, are made of smaller things. Curved space-time, for all we presently know, isn’t. But how certain are we of this? What if the fluid analogy is more than an analogy? Maybe space-time really behaves like a fluid; maybe it is a fluid. And if so, the experiments with fluid-analogies may reveal how we can find evidence for a substructure of space-time.

Some have pushed the gravity-fluid analogy even further. Gia Dvali from LMU Munich, for example, has proposed that real black holes are condensates of gravitons, the hypothetical quanta of the gravitational field. This simple idea, he claims, explains several features of black holes which have so-far puzzled physicists, notably the question how black holes manage to keep the information that falls into them.

We used to think black holes are almost featureless round spheres. But if they are instead, as Dvali says, condensates of many gravitons, then black holes can take on many slightly different configuration in which information can be stored. Even more interesting, Dvali proposes the analogy could be used to design fluids which are as efficient at storing and distributing information as black holes are. The link between condensed matter and astrophysics, hence, works both ways.

Physicists have looked for evidence of space-time being a medium for some while. For example by studying light from distant sources, such as gamma-ray bursts, they tried to find out whether space has viscosity or whether it causes dispersion (a running apart of frequencies like in a prism). A new line of research is to search for impurities – “space-time defects” – like crystals have them. So far the results have been negative. But the experiments with fluid analogies might point the way forward.

If space-time is made of smaller things, this could solve a major problem: How to describe the quantum behavior of space time. Unlike all the other interactions we know of, gravity is a non-quantum theory. This means it doesn’t fit together with the quantum theories that physicists use for elementary particles. All attempts to quantize gravity so-far have either failed or remained unconfirmed speculations. That space itself isn’t fundamental but made of other things is one way to approach the problem.

Not everyone likes the idea. What irks physicists most about giving substance to space-time is that this breaks Einstein’s bond between space and time which has worked dramatically well – so far. Only further experiment will reveal whether Einstein’s theory holds up.

Time flows, they say. Maybe space does too.

This article previously appeared on

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

I totally mean it: Inflation never solved the flatness problem.

I’ve had many interesting reactions to my recent post about inflation, this idea that the early universe expanded exponentially and thereby flattened and smoothed itself. The maybe most interesting response to my pointing out that inflation doesn’t solve the problems it was invented to solve is a flabbergasted: “But everyone else says it does.”

Not like I don’t know that. But, yes, most people who work on inflation don’t even get the basics right.

Inflation flattens the universe like
photoshop flattens wrinkles. Impressive!
[Img Src]

I’m not sure why that is so. Those who I personally speak with pretty quickly agree that what I say is correct. The math isn’t all that difficult and the situation pretty clar. The puzzle is, why then do so many of them tell a story that is nonsense? And why do they keep teaching it to students, print it in textbooks, and repeat it in popular science books?

I am fascinated by this for the same reason I’m fascinated by the widely-spread and yet utterly wrong idea that the Bullet-cluster rules out modified gravity. As I explained in an earlier blogpost, it doesn’t. Never did. The Bullet-cluster can be explained just fine with modified gravity. It’s difficult to explain with particle dark matter. But, eh, just the other day I met a postdoc who told me the Bullet-cluster rules out modified gravity. Did he ever look at the literature? No.

One reason these stories survive – despite my best efforts to the contrary – is certainly that they are simple and sound superficially plausible. But it doesn’t take much to tear them down. And that it’s so simple to pull away the carpet under what motivates research of thousands of people makes me very distrustful of my colleagues.

Let us return to the claim that inflation solves the flatness problem. Concretely, the problem is that in cosmology there’s a dynamical variable (ie, one that depends on time), called the curvature density parameter. It’s by construction dimensionless (doesn’t have units) and its value today is smaller than 0.1 or so. The exact digits don’t matter all that much.

What’s important is that this variable increases in value over time, meaning it must have been smaller in the past. Indeed, if you roll it back to the Planck epoch or so, it must have been something like 10-60, take or give some orders of magnitude. That’s what they call the flatness problem.

Now you may wonder, what’s problematic about this. How is it surprising that the value of something which increases in time was smaller in the past? It’s an initial value that’s constrained by observation and that’s really all there is to say about it.

It’s here where things get interesting: The reason that cosmologists believe it’s a problem is that they think a likely value for the curvature density at early times should have been close to 1. Not exactly one, but not much smaller and not much larger. Why? I have no idea.

Each time I explain this obsession with numbers close to 1 to someone who is not a physicist, they stare at me like I just showed off my tin foil hat. But, yeah, that’s what they preach down here. Numbers close to 1 are good. Small or large numbers are bad. Therefore, cosmologists and high-energy physicists believe that numbers close to 1 are more likely initial conditions. It’s like a bizarre cult that you’re not allowed to question.

But if you take away one thing from this blogpost it’s that whenever someone talks about likelihood or probability you should ask “What’s the probability distribution and where does it come from?”

The probability distribution is what you need to define just how likely each possible outcome is. For a fair dice, for example, it’s 1/6 for each outcome. For a not-so-fair dice it could be any combination of numbers, so long as the probabilities all add to 1. There are infinitely many probability distributions and without defining one it is not clear what “likely” means.

If you ask physicists, you will quickly notice that neither for inflation nor for theories beyond the standard model does anyone have a probability distribution or ever even mentions a probability distribution for the supposedly likely values.

How does it matter?

The theories that we currently have work with differential equations and inflation is no exception. But the systems that we observe are not described by the differential equations themselves, they are described by solutions to the equation. To select the right solution, we need an initial condition (or several, depending on the type of equation). You know the drill from Newton’s law: You have an equation, but you only can tell where the arrow will fly if you also know the arrow’s starting position and velocity.

The initial conditions are either designed by the experimenter or inferred from observation. Either way, they’re not predictions. They can not be predicted. That would be a logical absurdity. You can’t use a differential equation to predict its own initial conditions. If you want to speak about the probability of initial conditions you need another theory.

What happens if you ignore this and go with the belief that the likely initial value for the curvature density should be about 1? Well, then you do have a problem indeed, because that’s incompatible with data to a high level of significance.

Inflation then “solves” this supposed problem by taking the initial value and shrinking it by, I dunno, 100 or so orders of magnitude. This has the consequence that if you start with something of order 1 and add inflation, the result today is compatible with observation. But of course if you start with some very large value, say 1060, then the result will still be incompatible with data. That is, you really need the assumption that the initial values are likely to be of order 1. Or, to put it differently, you are not allowed to ask why the initial value was not larger than some other number.

This fineprint, that there are still initial values incompatible with data, often gets lost. A typical example is what Jim Baggot writes in his book “Origins” about inflation:
“when inflation was done, flat spacetime was the only result.”
Well, that’s wrong. I checked with Jim and he totally knows the math. It’s not like he doesn’t understand it. He just oversimplifies it maybe a little too much.

But it’s unfair to pick on Jim because this oversimplification is so common. Ethan Siegel, for example, is another offender. He writes:
“if the Universe had any intrinsic curvature to it, it was stretched by inflation to be indistinguishable from “flat” today.”
That’s wrong too. It is not the case for “any” intrinsic curvature that the outcome will be almost flat. It’s correct only for initial values smaller than something. He too, after some back and forth, agreed with me. Will he change his narrative? We will see.

You might say then, but doesn’t inflation at least greatly improve the situation? Isn’t it better because it explains there are more values compatible with observation? No. Because you have to pay a price for this “explanation:” You have to introduce a new field and a potential for that field and then a way to get rid of this field once it’s done its duty.

I am pretty sure if you’d make a Bayesian estimate to quantify the complexity of these assumptions, then inflation would turn out to be more complicated than just picking some initial parameter. Is there really any simpler assumption than just some number?

Some people have accused me of not understanding that science is about explaining things. But I do not say we should not try to find better explanations. I say that inflation is not a better explanation for the present almost-flatness of the universe than just saying the initial value was small.

Shrinking the value of some number by pulling exponential factors out of thin air is not a particularly impressive gimmick. And if you invent exponential factors already, why not put them into the probability distribution instead?

Let me give you an example for why the distinction matters. Suppose you just hatched from an egg and don’t know anything about astrophysics. You brush off a loose feather and look at our solar system for the first time. You notice immediately that the planetary orbits almost lie in the same plane.

Now, if you assume a uniform probability distribution for the initial values of the orbits, that’s an incredibly unlikely thing to happen. You would think, well, that needs explaining. Wouldn’t you?

The inflationary approach to solving this problem would be to say the orbits started with random values but then some so-far unobserved field pulled them all into the same plane. Then the field decayed so we can’t measure it. “Problem solved!” you yell and wait for the Nobel Prize.

But the right explanation is that due to the way the solar system formed, the initial values are likely to lie in a plane to begin with! You got the initial probability distribution wrong. There’s no fancy new field.

In the case of the solar system you could learn to distinguish dynamics from initial conditions by observing more solar systems. You’d find that aligned orbits are the rule not the exception. You’d then conclude that you should look for a mechanism that explains the initial probability distribution and not a dynamical mechanism to change the uniform distribution later.

In the case of inflation, unfortunately, we can’t do such an observation since this would require measuring the initial value of the curvature density in other universes.

While I am at it, it’s interesting to note that the erroneous argument against the heliocentric solar system, that the stars would have to be “unnaturally” far away, was based on the same mistake that the just-hatched chick made. Astronomers back then implicitly assumed a probability distribution for distances between stellar objects that was just wrong. (And, yes, I know they also wrongly estimated the size of the stars.)

In the hope that you’re still with me, let me emphasize that nevertheless I think inflation is a good theory. Even though it does not solve the flatness problem (or monopole problem or horizon problem) it explains certain correlations in the cosmic-microwave-background. (ET anticorrelations for certain scales, shown in the figure below.)
Figure 3.9 from Daniel Baumann’s highly recommendable lecture notes.

In the case of these correlations, adding inflation greatly simplifies the initial condition that gives rise to the observation. I am not aware that someone actually has quantified this simplification but I’m sure it could be done (and it should be done). Therefore, inflation actually is the better explanation. For the curvature, however, that isn’t so because replacing one number with another number times some exponential factor doesn’t explain anything.

I hope that suffices to convince you that it’s not me who is nuts.

I have a lot of sympathy for the need to sometimes oversimplify scientific explanations to make them accessible to non-experts. I really do. But the narrative that inflation solves the flatness problem can be found even in papers and textbooks. In fact, you can find it in the above-mentioned lecture notes! It’s about time this myth vanishes from the academic literature.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Is the inflationary universe a scientific theory? Not anymore.

Living in a Bubble?
[Image: YouTube]
We are made from stretched quantum fluctuations. At least that’s cosmologists’ currently most popular explanation. According to their theory, the history of our existence began some billion years ago with a – now absent – field that propelled the universe into a phase of rapid expansion called “inflation.” When inflation ended, the field decayed and its energy was converted into radiation and particles which are still around today.

Inflation was proposed more than 35 years ago, among others, by Paul Steinhardt. But Steinhardt has become one of the theory’s most fervent critics. In a recent article in Scientific American, Steinhardt together with Anna Ijjas and Avi Loeb, don’t hold back. Most cosmologists, they claim, are uncritical believers:
“[T]he cosmology community has not taken a cold, honest look at the big bang inflationary theory or paid significant attention to critics who question whether inflation happened. Rather cosmologists appear to accept at face value the proponents’ assertion that we must believe the inflationary theory because it offers the only simple explanation of the observed features of the universe.”
And it's even worse, they argue, inflation is not even a scientific theory:
“[I]nflationary cosmology, as we currently understand it, cannot be evaluated using the scientific method.”
As alternative to inflation, Steinhardt et al promote a “big bounce” in which the universe’s expansion was preceded by a phase of contraction, yielding similar benefits to inflation.

The group’s fight against inflation isn’t news. They laid out their arguments in a series of papers during the last years (on which I previously commented here). But the recent SciAm piece called The Defenders Of Inflation onto stage. Lead by David Kaiser, they signed a letter to Scientific American in which they complained that the magazine gave space to the inflationary criticism.

The letter’s list of undersigned is an odd selection of researchers who themselves work on inflation and of physics luminaries who have little if anything to do with inflation. Interestingly, Slava Mukhanov – one of the first to derive predictions from inflation – did not sign. And it’s not because he wasn’t asked. In an energetic talk delivered at Stephen Hawking’s birthday conference two months ago, Mukhanov made it pretty clear that he thinks most of the inflationary model building is but a waste of time.

I agree with Muhkanov’s assessment. The Steinhardt et al article isn’t exactly a masterwork of science writing. It’s also unfortunate they’re using SciAm to promote some other theory of how the universe began rather than sticking to their criticism of inflation. But some criticism is overdue.

The problem with inflation isn’t the idea per se, but the overproduction of useless inflationary models. There are literally hundreds of these models, and they are – as the philosophers say – severely underdetermined. This means if one extrapolates any models that fits current data to a regime which is still untested, the result is ambiguous. Different models lead to very different predictions for not-yet made observations. Presently, is therefore utterly pointless to twiddle with the details of inflation because there are literally infinitely many models one can think up.

Rather than taking on this overproduction problem, however, Steinhardt et al in their SciAm piece focus on inflation’s failure to solve the problems it was meant to solve. But that’s an idiotic criticism because the problems that inflation was meant to solve aren’t problems to begin with. I’m serious. Let’s look at those one by one:

1. The Monopole Problem

Guth invented inflation to solve the “monopole problem.” If the early universe underwent a phase-transition, for example because the symmetry of grand unification was broken – then topological defects, like monopoles, should have been produced abundantly. We do not, however, see any of them. Inflation dilutes the density of monopoles (and other worries) so that it’s unlikely we’ll ever encounter one.

But a plausible explanation for why we don’t see any monopoles is that there aren’t any. We don’t know there is any grand symmetry that was broken in the early universe, or if there is, we don’t know when it was broken, or if the breaking produced any defects. Indeed, all searchers for evidence of grand symmetry – mostly via proton decay – turned out negative. This motivation is interesting today merely for historical reasons.

2. The Flatness Problem

The flatness problem is a finetuning problem. The universe currently seems to be almost flat, or if it has curvature, then that curvature must be very small. The contribution of curvature to the dynamics of the universe however increases in relevance relative to that of matter. This means if the curvature density parameter is small today, it must have been even smaller in the past. Inflation serves to make any initial curvature contribution smaller by something like 100 orders of magnitude or so.

This is supposed to be an explanation, but it doesn’t explain anything, for now you can ask, well, why wasn’t the original curvature larger than some other number? The reason that some physicists believe something is being explained here is that numbers close to 1 are pretty according to current beauty-standards, while numbers much smaller than 1 numbers aren’t. The flatness problem, therefore, is an aesthetic problem, and I don’t think it’s an argument any scientist should take seriously.

3. The Horizon Problem

The Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) has almost at the same temperature in all directions. Problem is, if you trace back the origin the background radiation without inflation, then you find that the radiation that reached us from different directions was never in causal contact with each other. Why then does it have the same temperature in all directions?

To see why this problem isn’t a problem, you have to know how the theories that we currently use in physics work. We have an equation – a “differential equation” – that tells us how a system (eg, the universe) changes from one place to another and one moment to another. To make any use of this equation, however, we also need starting values or “initial conditions.”*

The horizon problem asks “why this initial condition” for the universe. This question is justified if an initial condition is complicated in the sense of requiring a lot of information. But a homogeneous temperature isn’t complicated. It’s dramatically easy. And not only isn’t there much to explain, inflation moreover doesn’t even answer the question “why this initial condition” because it still needs an initial condition. It’s just a different initial condition. It’s not any simpler and it doesn’t explain anything.

Another way to see that this is a non-problem: If you’d go back in time far enough without inflation, you’d eventually get to a period when matter was so dense and curvature so high that quantum gravity was important. And what do we know about the likelihood of initial conditions in a theory of quantum gravity? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

That we’d need quantum gravity to explain the initial condition for the universe, however, is an exceedingly unpopular point of view because nothing can be calculated and no predictions can be made.

Inflation, on the other hand, is a wonderfully productive model that allows cosmologists to churn out papers.

You will find the above three problems religiously repeated as a motivation for inflation, in lectures and textbooks and popular science pages all over the place. But these problems aren’t problems, never were problems, and never required a solution.

Even though inflation was ill-motivated when conceived, however, it later turned out to actually solve some real problems. Yes, sometimes physicists work on the wrong things for the right reasons, and sometimes they work on the right things for the wrong reasons. Inflation is an example for the latter.

The reasons why many physicists today think something like inflation must have happened are not that it supposedly solve the three above problems. It’s that some features of the CMB have correlations (the “TE power spectrum”) which depend on the size of the fluctuations, and implies a dependence on the size of the universe. This correlation, therefore, cannot be easily explained by just choosing an initial condition, since it is data that goes back to different times. It really tells us something about how the universe changed with time, not just where it started from.**

Two more convincing features of inflation are that, under fairly general circumstances, the model also explains the absence of certain correlations in the CMB (the “non-Gaussianities”) and how many CMB fluctuations there are of any size, quantified by what is known as the “scale factor.”

But here is the rub. To make predictions with inflation one cannot just say “there once was exponential expansion and it ended somehow.” No, to be able to calculate something, one needs a mathematical model. The current models for inflation work by introducing a new field – the “inflaton” – and give this field a potential energy. The potential energy depends on various parameters. And these parameters can then be related to observations.

The scientific approach to the situation would be to choose a model, determine the parameters that best fit observations, and then revise the model as necessary – ie, as new data comes in. But that’s not what cosmologists presently do. Instead, they have produced so many variants of models that they can now “predict” pretty much anything that might be measured in the foreseeable future.

It is this abundance of useless models that gives rise to the criticism that inflation is not a scientific theory. And on that account, the criticism is justified. It’s not good scientific practice. It is a practice that, to say it bluntly, has become commonplace because it results in papers, not because it advances science.

I was therefore dismayed to see that the criticism by Steinhardt, Ijas, and Loeb was dismissed so quickly by a community which has become too comfortable with itself. Inflation is useful because it relates existing observations to an underlying mathematical model, yes. But we don’t yet have enough data to make reliable predictions from it. We don’t even have enough data to convincingly rule out alternatives.

There hasn’t been a Nobelprize for inflation, and I think the Nobel committee did well in that decision.

There’s no warning sign you when you cross the border between science and blabla-land. But inflationary model building left behind reasonable scientific speculation long ago. I, for one, am glad that at least some people are speaking out about it. And that’s why I approve of the Steinhardt et al criticism.

* Contrary to what the name suggest, the initial conditions could be at any moment, not necessarily the initial one. We would still call them initial conditions.

** This argument is somewhat circular because extracting the time-dependence for the modes already presumes something like inflation. But at least it’s a strong indicator.

This article was previously published on Starts With A Bang. 

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Yet another year in which you haven’t won a Nobel Prize!

“Do you hope to win a Nobel Prize?” asked an elderly man who had come to shake my hand after the lecture. I laughed, but he was serious. Maybe I had been a little too successful explaining how important quantum gravity is.

No, I don’t hope to win a Nobel Prize. If that’s what I’d been after, I certainly would have chosen a different field. Condensed matter physics, say, or quantum things. At least cosmology. But certainly not quantum gravity.
Nobel Prize medal for physics and chemistry. It shows nature in the form of a goddess emerging from the clouds. The veil which covers her face is held up by the Genius of Science. Srsly, see

But the Nobel Prize is important for science. It’s important not because it singles out a few winners but because in science it’s the one annual event that catches everybody’s attention. On which other day does physics make headlines?

In recent years I heard increasingly louder calls that the Prize-criteria should be amended so that more than three people can win. I am not in favor of that. It doesn’t make sense anyway to hand out exactly one Prize each year regardless of how much progress was made. There is always a long list of people who deserved a Nobel but never got one. Like Vera Rubin, who died last year and who by every reasonable measure should have gotten one. Shame on you, Nobel Committee.

I am particularly opposed to the idea that the Nobel Prize should be awarded to collaborations with members sometimes in the hundreds or even thousands. While the three-people-cutoff is arguably arbitrary, I am not in favor of showering collaboration members with fractional prizes. Things don’t get going because a thousand scientists spontaneously decide to make an experiment. It’s always but a few people who are responsible to make things happen. Those are the ones which the Nobel committee should identify.

So, I am all in favor of the Nobel Prize and like it the way it is. But (leaving aside that many institutions seem to believe Nobel Prize winners lay golden eggs) the Prize has little relevance in research. I definitely know a few people who hope to win it and some even deserve it. But I yet have to meet anyone who deliberately chose their research with that goal in mind.

The Nobel Prize is by construction meant to honor living scientists. This makes sense because otherwise we’d have a backlog of thousands of deceased scientific luminaries and nobody would be interested watching the announcement. But in some research areas we don’t expect to see payoffs in our lifetime. Quantum gravity is one of them.

Personally, I feel less inspired by Nobel Prize winners than by long-dead geniuses like Da Vinci, Leibnitz, or Goethe – masterminds whose intellectual curiosity spanned disciplines. They were ahead of their time and produced writings that not rarely were vague, hard to follow, and sometimes outright wrong. None of them would have won a Nobel Prize had the Prize existed at the time. But their insights laid the basis for centuries of scientific progress.

And so, while we honor those who succeed in the present, let’s not forget that somewhere among us, unrecognized, are the seeds that will grow to next centuries’ discoveries.

Today, as the 2017 Nobel prize is awarded, I want to remind those of you who work in obscure research areas, produce unpopular artworks, or face ridicule for untimely writing, that history will be your final judge, not your contemporaries.

Then again maybe I should just work on those song-lyrics a little harder ;)