Are Particle Physicists Inventing New Particles for No Cause? No, however It is Sophisticated


Has the whole area of particle physics collapsed, because of the efforts of a former physicist who’s now talking out? For those who’ve learn the newest headlines, you may be inclined to assume so. 

On Monday, the Guardian’s opinion part ran an article by astrophysicist and YouTuber Sabine Hossenfelder that claimed particle physicists have been harboring a darkish secret: They “don’t consider the particles they’re paid to seek for exist.”

In a nutshell, Hossenfelder says that theoretical particles are being conjured up out of skinny air to elucidate a number of the anomalous findings physicists have seen in particle colliders and high-energy physics experiments. She contends that a whole “zoo” has been invented that includes an array of unusual particles like “wimps,” “axions” and “sterile neutrinos.” 

As she notes in her piece, particle physicists have been on the lookout for the inhabitants of the “zoo,” however experiments designed to search out them have not found something. So, she writes, researchers are losing time on the lookout for made-up particles past the Customary Mannequin, which she believes “works simply advantageous the best way it’s.” Many particle physicists disagree with that concept, noting particularly that it would not describe darkish matter.

Nonetheless, by “inventing” new particles past the Customary Mannequin, Hossenfelder seems to recommend that researchers are solely serving themselves: They’re capable of write extremely theoretical scientific papers, boosting their publication numbers and racking up citations — which have nice worth when attempting to get extra funding. 

Worryingly, this declare impressed different publications to leap on the controversy. One headline screamed “FORMER PARTICLE PHYSICIST ABSOLUTELY ANNIHILATES THE FIELD OF PARTICLE PHYSICS” and urged particle physicists had a “soiled secret.”

However the reality is way much less alarming (and requires far much less Caps Lock.)

Talking to particle physicists during the last week, it is clear Hossenfelder’s claims rankled the sector. “It really hurts me,” Thomas Van Riet, a physicist at KU Leuven in Belgium, instructed me by way of e-mail.

Many view the framing of Hossenfelder’s article as unfair. Some consider it merely incorporates mistruths and false info. The most important concern I’ve heard is how Hossenfelder presents particle physicists working “in personal” as if they have been appearing conspiratorially, preserving the reality about their work from the general public. “What’s most annoying to me are the claims of what’s mentioned behind closed doorways,” tweeted Djuna Croon, a theoretical physicist at Durham College, in response to the article.

Hossenfelder factors out she was a particle physicist and has now “left the sector.” This distance, she writes, renders her “in a position and prepared to criticize the scenario.” Nevertheless, it might go away readers considering that mainly each working particle physicist is someway untrustworthy.

It is sort of like a chef consuming at a restaurant apart from the one they often cook dinner at. The restaurant they go to would possibly serve up bland, boring soup that is approach overpriced. However then the chef says “this complete neighborhood of eating places is horrible and so they cost an excessive amount of for soup,” though there’s an entire avenue of eating places promoting low-cost, scrumptious soup simply across the block. Briefly, tarring an entire area with a single brush is unjustified and would not seize the reality of the scenario. 

That is to not say there aren’t good factors in Hossenfelder’s piece and particle physicists do not dismiss all of her issues. “With none doubt, Sabine touches upon points that needs to be mentioned,” mentioned Van Riet. It is the best way they’re introduced that could be damaging.


Hossenfelder has been rattling cages in physics for a while. She has questioned whether or not large particle colliders, just like the one which will exchange the Giant Hadron Collider, needs to be constructed in any respect as a result of we have not discovered these new particles scientists have been predicting for many years.

In January 2019, she authored an opinion piece in The New York Occasions, which urged “the Giant Hadron Collider has didn’t ship the thrilling discoveries that scientists promised.” The LHC did assist uncover the Higgs boson in 2012 however hasn’t had any luck discovering different new particles. Nonetheless, others have argued it has been an amazing success

In October 2020, she uploaded a YouTube video titled “Particle Physicists Proceed Empty Guarantees” in response to a Nature commentary discussing how the sector deliberate to maneuver past the Giant Hadron Collider experiment. Within the opening minutes of that video, she declares “at the moment I need to let you know how particle physicists are losing your cash.”

A customer takes a cellphone {photograph} of a giant backlit picture of the Giant Hadron Collider on the Science Museum’s “Collider” exhibition on Nov. 12, 2013, in London, England.

Peter Macdiarmid, Getty Pictures

Different YouTube movies, stretching again to 2019, embrace “Have We Actually Measured Gravitational Waves?” (we’ve, as Hossenfelder factors out on the finish of her video) and “Particle Physics Discoveries That Disappeared” (they did not disappear, as evidenced by the flexibility to make a video about them, however newer discoveries helped scientists transfer on to different experiments).

The controversial takes have usually led to unjustified private insults and harassment for Hossenfelder by different scientists. These assaults are what led to her publishing the piece within the Guardian, in keeping with her weblog. I reached out to Hossenfelder for remark however didn’t obtain a response.

Hossenfelder’s skepticism of scientific outcomes and theories is totally warranted. Science is about refining our understanding over time as new outcomes yield new insights. On this approach, Hossenfelder’s critiques of particle physics might be useful. However they’re delivered in a approach that is out of the atypical for scientists. Debates do not at all times rage on YouTube or Twitter and even within the opinion part of a significant publication — they’re often taking place at scientific conferences and within the papers themselves.

“In science, it’s the proof that counts. Not opinions,” Hossenfelder states in her gravitational waves video. It is uncommon, then, to see Hossenfelder write an opinion piece in The Guardian, rehashing a number of the outdated arguments she’s been making on her YouTube channel for years. The proof reveals progress is being made, albeit slowly, as a result of theories are sometimes many years forward of experiments, similar to they have been for the Higgs boson.

It is vital for the sector of particle physics to contemplate the place assets are going and what tasks are being funded. This course of would not occur in secret. In actual fact, in July, the particle physics group got here collectively in Seattle for the Snowmass convention, a long-term planning train exploring the scientific alternatives for the subsequent decade. 

“The emphasis is on group — everyone is welcome to take part — and on exploring the scientific alternatives for the approaching decade,” famous Aida X. El-Khadra, a professor of physics on the College of Illinois. 

So what Hossenfelder is suggesting is appropriate: Particle physicists do have to take completely different approaches and conceive new methods to maneuver the sector ahead. The reality is almost all are attempting to do exactly that. Conceiving new theories or particles might typically finish in failure. That is precisely how science is meant to work. 

Dangerous goal

Hossenfelder’s piece paints the sector of particle physics with one very broad brush, suggesting “hundreds” of tenured professors are “ambulance chasing” and working in secret, some type of shady cabal that exists purely to proceed present and siphoning up analysis cash. Particle physicists I spoke with disagreed with these generalizations. 

Nevertheless, the observe of “ambulance chasing” Hossenfelder calls out in her piece is one thing that is price exploring. Ambulance chasing is the concept a brand new end result or anomaly in particle physics conjures up dozens of scientific papers attempting to elucidate the end result, typically invoking new particles or constructing out new fashions. This definitely does occur and is vital to name it out, however it’s a lot much less widespread than Hossenfelder suggests.

“Theorists definitely typically decide up experimental outcomes with poor statistical significance, however it isn’t a giant downside,” mentioned Ulrik Egede, a particle physicist at Monash College in Australia. Egede factors to the entrance web page of arXiv, a server the place scientists can drop preprint research, and notes when he lately appeared on the entrance web page, just one in 25 would classify as a “principle we don’t want.”

The reality is ambulance chasing isn’t just a difficulty in particle physics. It is a broader downside with the best way scientific analysis will get funded. Scientists usually purchase grant funding by convincing authorities our bodies or philanthropic establishments they’ve an experiment or thought price backing. One of many figuring out components is their monitor document: Having papers below your belt goes an extended method to convincing a funding physique you deserve extra funding. (If that sounds ridiculous, properly, it’s, as the Guardian itself identified in 2017.) 

This places lots of strain on scientists to publish and notably impacts these early of their careers and from numerous backgrounds. Because the funding for scientific analysis dwindles, because it has in locations like Australia, that strain grows. Scientists get caught within the cycle of publishing to remain in a job. They’re preventing one another to outlive. 

That is one thing Hossenfelder herself has expertise with. She tweeted in August that the German Analysis Basis had knocked again her newest funding proposal. She mentions that a number of papers weren’t printed rapidly sufficient as being a possible cause for this. Publishing can imply more cash. So, sure, some particle physicists would possibly “ambulance chase.” So would possibly biologists or astrophysicists or supplies scientists. 

And specializing in points like ambulance chasing misses bigger, systemic points in particle physics. It is a area that suffers from issues much like these in different STEM fields, notably in terms of range and inclusion. It erases the flexibility to have sincere, open dialogue about whether or not we must always construct new, costly particle colliders — one in all Hossenfelder’s gripes. 

Why does this matter?

Forgive me should you’ve stumbled throughout earlier CNET articles in which I say this, however good science communication and good science journalism is constructed on discovering reality in uncertainty. It is about preserving the nuances of a brand new examine and conveying them truthfully. 

The fact is that a lot of the general public, myself included, aren’t aware of the nuances and vagaries of particle physics and the challenges and issues past the Customary Mannequin. We’d not totally perceive axions or wimps or, maybe, even protons, neutrons and electrons. On this data vacuum, we’re susceptible to misinformation and hyperbole. It could not have been her intention, however Hossenfelder’s piece makes it appear as if the whistle has been blown: It isn’t simply the general public that does not perceive particle physics, however the scientists themselves. That is merely not true.

A circular structure in the Large Hadron Collider

The Giant Hadron Collider exterior Geneva, Switzerland.

View Footage/Getty Pictures

Penning opinion items “annihilating” complete fields and suggesting they’re working secretively is a harmful recreation to play. Not solely does it erode belief in particle physics however in science as an entire. It gives the look scientists are willingly scheming behind the scenes in an effort to get more cash moderately than reply basic questions concerning the universe or well being or biology or local weather. My expertise during the last decade has taught me the overwhelming majority of scientists are working insane hours for fairly pathetic pay as a result of they’re pushed to unlock the secrets and techniques of the tiny nook of the cosmos we occupy. 

Hossenfelder clearly has an amazing grasp of the ideas and may clarify them in an interesting and attention-grabbing approach. Do not take it from me. Her YouTube channel has over half one million subscribers. She has actual affect and may encourage constructive change — she needs to be allowed to push again in opposition to the concept we’d like large, new, costly particle colliders. She needs to be free to be skeptical. All of us ought to be taught from that.

However we also needs to watch out we do not stifle curiosity. Theoretical physics pushes on the boundaries of every little thing we all know on the very fringe of our technological capabilities. That is wild. In doing so, in fact there are occasions scientists will likely be unsuitable. In fact there are occasions when their predictions or theoretical new particles do not pan out in a approach they anticipated. In actual fact, I would say that is the norm. However a destructive end result continues to be a end result. It does transfer the sector ahead, forcing us to rethink in quest of a better reality. 

Does the world want — need? — a brand new, costly, mammoth particle collider to seek for that reality? How a lot does it worth the seek for darkish matter? Will we need to know the elemental physics underpinning our actuality? These are questions price asking; conversations price having. However to push particle physics ahead into a brand new and thrilling realm, we must always foster curiosity, spark new concepts, invent new particles when it is sensible and encourage new approaches when it doesn’t.

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