Are Particle Physicists Losing Time Inventing New Particles? No, however It is Sophisticated


Has all the discipline of particle physics collapsed, because of the efforts of a former physicist who’s now talking out? In the event you’ve learn the newest headlines, you is likely to be inclined to suppose so. 

On Sept. 26, 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 clarify a few 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 searching for the inhabitants of the “zoo,” however experiments designed to seek out them have not found something. So, she writes, researchers are losing time searching for made-up particles past the Commonplace Mannequin, which she believes “works simply effective the way in which it’s.” Many particle physicists disagree with that concept, noting particularly that it does not describe darkish matter.

Nonetheless, by “inventing” new particles past the Commonplace Mannequin, Hossenfelder seems to counsel that researchers are solely serving themselves: They’re in a position to 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 fact 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 sphere. “It actually hurts me,” Thomas Van Riet, a physicist at KU Leuven in Belgium, instructed me through electronic mail.

Many view the framing of Hossenfelder’s article as unfair. Some consider it merely incorporates mistruths and false data. The key concern I’ve heard is how Hossenfelder presents particle physicists working “in personal” as if they have been performing conspiratorially, conserving 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 once a particle physicist and has now “left the sphere.” This distance, she writes, renders her “ready and keen to criticize the scenario.” Nevertheless, it might depart readers considering that principally each working particle physicist is one way or the other untrustworthy.

It is sort of like a chef consuming at a restaurant moreover 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,” regardless that there’s an entire avenue of eating places promoting low cost, scrumptious soup simply across the block. Briefly, tarring an entire discipline with a single brush is unjustified and does 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 must be mentioned,” mentioned Van Riet. It is the way in which they’re introduced which may be damaging.


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

In January 2019, she authored an opinion piece in The New York Instances, 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 important success

In October 2020, she uploaded a YouTube video titled “Particle Physicists Proceed Empty Guarantees” in response to a Nature commentary discussing how the sphere deliberate to maneuver past the Giant Hadron Collider experiment. Within the opening minutes of that video, she declares “in the present day 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 Photos

Different YouTube movies, stretching again to 2019, embody “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 typically 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, based on 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 may be useful. However they’re delivered in a approach that is out of the odd for scientists. Debates do not at all times rage on YouTube or Twitter and even within the opinion part of a serious publication — they’re often occurring 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 few 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, identical to they have been for the Higgs boson.

It is necessary for the sphere of particle physics to contemplate the place sources are going and what initiatives are being funded. This course of does not occur in secret. The truth is, in July, the particle physics neighborhood 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 neighborhood — all people 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 must take completely different approaches and conceive new methods to maneuver the sphere ahead. The reality is almost all are attempting to do exactly that. Conceiving new theories or particles might generally finish in failure. That is precisely how science is meant to work. 

Dangerous purpose

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

Nevertheless, the apply of “ambulance chasing” Hossenfelder calls out in her piece is one thing that is value exploring. Ambulance chasing is the thought a brand new end result or anomaly in particle physics evokes dozens of scientific papers attempting to clarify the end result, generally invoking new particles or constructing out new fashions. This definitely does occur and is necessary to name it out, however it’s a lot much less frequent than Hossenfelder suggests.

“Theorists definitely generally choose up experimental outcomes with poor statistical significance, however it’s not 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 regarded on the entrance web page, just one in 25 would classify as a “idea we don’t want.”

The reality is ambulance chasing is not only a problem in particle physics. It is a broader downside with the way in which scientific analysis will get funded. Scientists sometimes purchase grant funding by convincing authorities our bodies or philanthropic establishments they’ve an experiment or thought value backing. One of many figuring out elements is their observe document: Having papers beneath your belt goes a protracted approach to convincing a funding physique you deserve extra funding. (If that sounds ridiculous, effectively, it’s, as the Guardian itself identified in 2017.) 

This places loads of stress 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 stress 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 revealed shortly sufficient as being a possible purpose 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. 

Specializing in points like ambulance chasing misses bigger, systemic points in particle physics. It is a discipline that suffers from issues just like these in different STEM fields, notably on the subject of variety and inclusion, the place girls and PoC are underrepresented. And it erases the flexibility to have sincere, open dialogue about whether or not we should always construct new, costly particle colliders — one in all Hossenfelder’s long-standing gripes. 

Why does this matter?

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

The truth is that a lot of the general public, myself included, aren’t acquainted with the nuances and vagaries of particle physics and the challenges and issues past the Commonplace Mannequin. We’d not absolutely perceive axions or wimps or, maybe, even protons, neutrons and electrons. On this information vacuum, we’re weak 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 is not 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 outdoors Geneva, Switzerland.

View Footage/Getty Photos

Penning opinion items “annihilating” total fields and suggesting they’re working secretively is a harmful sport 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 reasonably than reply elementary 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 important grasp of the ideas and might 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 might encourage constructive change — she must be allowed to push again towards the thought we want massive, new, costly particle colliders. She must be free to be skeptical. All of us ought to be taught from that.

However we must also 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, after all there are occasions scientists will probably be fallacious. In fact there are occasions when their predictions or theoretical new particles do not pan out in a approach they anticipated. The truth is, I might say that is the norm. However a detrimental end result continues to be a end result. It does transfer the sphere ahead, forcing us to rethink in quest of a higher fact. 

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

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