Pondering the Brave New Particle Physics

29 March 2021

Wolfgang Smith

Following the epochal discovery of quantum mechanics,1One might date the event by the year 1925, in which Heisenberg and Schrödinger independently discovered the fundamental equation. foundational physics has gradually morphed into the forbidding discipline of “particle physics.” I say “forbidding” in a special sense: for not only is that post-QM physics incomprehensible to laymen, but it turns out ultimately to be incomprehensible to specialists as well.

We are grateful to Alexander Unzicker, that exceptional specialist capable of enlightening us. Besides first-hand familiarity with the workplace and a keen intelligence, he exhibits the rarest qualification of all: the courage, namely, to call things by their right name. My interest was aroused the moment when, upon opening his book,2The Higgs Fake: How Particle Physicists Fooled the Nobel Committee  (2013).  References — given in the form of parenthetical citations — are to this book. I came upon the words: “There is no way to convince an expert that he or she has done nonsense for thirty years” (6). I realized instantly that this person has something to say.

Let me begin with a few facts concerning CERN, the European Center for “Recherche Nucléaire” located near Geneva, which actually plays a pivotal role in Unzicker’s tale. Its fame rests largely on the fact that it houses the Large Hadron Collider, which is doubtless one of the wonders of the contemporary world. Here is what Unzicker tells us about it:

The LHC has a circumference of 27 kilometers, it cost 9 billion dollars, its energy bill is like that of a major city, the protons cross the Swiss-French border, it is being paid for by 88 countries all over the world, the beam size is less than a needle… The underground beam, with the energy of a train, is 100 meters below ground, there are more than 5 million wires, it runs in an evacuated tube, and the temperature there is ‘one of the coldest points in the universe.’ (128)

Let this suffice as an introduction to CERN, which in truth is not simply a “center for nuclear research,” but a formidable force in particle physics: a force to be reckoned with.

One begins already, perhaps, to sense what Unzicker is talking about when he tells us that “physics, after its groundbreaking findings at the beginning of the twentieth century, has undergone a paradigmatic change that has turned it into another science, or better, a high-tech sport, that has little to do with the laws of Nature” (5). But whereas, initially, this may sound excessive, I surmise the reader will concur wholeheartedly with this assessment before he is halfway through the book.

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The central target of Unzicker’s treatise is the “standard model” of particle physics, which to the well-attested “building blocks” consisting of protons, neutrons and electrons, has added a motley collection of so-called particles said to have been detected by means of colliders such as the LHC. As the reader will discover soon enough, Unzicker is no fan of that prestigious theory: a “dumb, messy patchwork” he calls it, and charges not only that it comprises imaginary entities, but that its modus operandi  violates basic scientific norms. In particular, he claims that “over the decades, high energy physicists have been hunting for ever rarer effects, just to declare as a new particle everything they did not understand.” On top of that he charges that the culture associated with CERN “hides the basic problems physics ought to deal with” (6).

Unzicker maintains, first of all, that particle physics à la  CERN fails to satisfy the condition of being “falsifiable” — in the sense of Karl Popper — traditionally regarded as a sine qua non  of scientific methodology.  “Be falsifiable!” he declares: “An hypothesis must predict something and leave the possibility of being rejected  by observation if it is scientific fair-play and not ideology” (14). And he flatly maintains that “there isn’t even a possibility to prove particle physicists wrong today” (36). After alluding to the complexities of the new modus operandi  Unzicker goes on to observe:

It is essential to understand (though high energy physicists never will) that at this point there is no objective interpretation, no unambiguous reality of an ‘observed’ experiment but an inevitable invasion of theoretical assumptions — in this case, of the grubby standard model… Please keep in mind that particle physics has long distanced itself from the experiment that acts as an impartial arbiter to judge theories. People today muddle along and don’t even know anymore what is model and what is fact. (45)

Needless to say, this is no longer physics as understood and practiced right through the glory days of quantum mechanics. It appears that the benefits conferred by CERN have come at a cost greater even than so many billion dollars: the very culture, namely, upon which modern science had been based — the culture that brought forth an Isaac Newton and a Werner Heisenberg — has been effectively destroyed. The prevailing norms of high-tech physics — which one hesitates to call a “culture” at all — are not only different from those that presided over the rise of physics right up to what one can call its golden age, but prove to be indeed inimical. Above all, so far from satisfying the venerable requirement of being “falsifiable,” the new physics exhibits a flagrant “unfalsifiability” as one of its salient characteristics. As Unzicker points out:

With respect to the standard model, particle physicists have developed this ludicrous attitude we are all used to: either we find a wonderful confirmation of our model or — even more exciting — a contradiction. In any case a tremendous success. This is the prototype of a nonfalsifiable model, according to Karl Popper — the opposite of science. (39)

As Popper himself noted long ago: “If we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories.”  An apt description, it appears, of physics à la  CERN.

*   *   *

There are other factors, of course, which likewise enter into play; I am thinking especially of what might be termed the philosophical formation. It appears to me that the old guard — from Planck to Heisenberg and Schrödinger say — derived their philosophical formation from two chief sources: from classical antiquity on the one hand, which in the early decades of the twentieth century was still respected,3I might mention that my father’s generation still read their Homer in Greek and Virgil in Latin in the European counterpart of what we term “high school.” And there can be no doubt that this had its effect, that it made a difference. as well as from contemporary critical schools such as logical positivism. Around the middle of the century, however, a new orientation began to manifest: pragmatism namely, as embodied by that American genius, Richard Feynman. Suffice it to say that Feynman had a major impact upon theoretical physics through his formulation of so-called “quantum electrodynamics” and the technique termed “renormalization” needed to make it work. I am not sure anyone actually understands either QED or renormalization; but the consensus, at least, is that “it works.” For the old school, however, that was not enough.

In the earlier tradition of theoretical physics — as exemplified by the likes of Bohr, Heisenberg, Einstein, or Pauli if you will — there was yet a philosophical culture of some kind, and in the case of Werner Heisenberg, at least, a grounding in classical philosophy, both Platonist and Aristotelian. The point is that, by the second half of the twentieth century, that culture seems to have disappeared. What came to replace philosophy properly so called — from Plato and Aristotle to a rigorous logical positivism — appears to be a kind of pragmatism, as exemplified by the practice of “renormalization.” Here is what Unzicker has to say on this question:

The gradual takeover of that concept [renormalization], seen in a broad context, contributed to the transition from philosophy-based physics to the technical, math-recipe form that had become fashionable in the late 1920s. Paul Dirac, in an early intuitive statement, was particularly skeptical towards the ‘complicated and ugly’ theory called quantum electrodynamics. (75)

And Unzicker goes on to give a quotation from Dirac which, in retrospect, strikes one as prophetic: “Some physicists may be happy to have a set of working rules leading to results in agreement with observations. They may think this is the goal of physics. But it is not enough. One wants to understand how Nature works” (75).

Well, it appears those days are over. One sees that the transition began in the late 1920’s; as Unzicker explains: “Feynman’s era started when physics had to recover from the lack of orientation caused by the quantum revolution” (76). By the time Feynman enters upon the scene the ground had been prepared: by then the emerging generation of physicists were ready to welcome the “complicated and ugly” modus operandi,  which ere long came to dominate the field of particle physics. Here again is Unzicker:

A technical, not to say superficial, way of doing physics gained ground, leading to a complete reorientation of physics in those days. To be blunt, it was at that point that due to the lack of true understanding, the collective displacement activity in the form of feasible but unreflective calculations began to take over. (75)

He then goes on to quote Helge Kragh, the biographer of Paul Dirac, who makes the point with consummate precision:

Improved in its details but not changed in essence — proved to be quite workable after all. The empirical disagreements became less serious, and by the end of the thirties most of the young theorists had learned to live with the theory. They adapted themselves to the new situation without caring much about the theory’s lack of consistency and conceptual clarity… When the modern theory of renormalization was established after the war, the majority of physicists agreed that everything was fine and the long-awaited revolution unnecessary. (74)

To which Unzicker adds: “Kragh’s comment precisely identifies the beginning of the sickness that became today’s intellectual epidemic of particle physics. Back then they blew it” (76).

*   *   *

Unzicker then proceeds to take aim at specific domains of contemporary particle physics, following which little, if anything, remains standing. Having already cast serious doubts upon QED, he turns to what is termed chromodynamics.  Here is what he has to say:

A modern, though weird, variation of quantum electrodynamics is quantum chromodynamics (QCD). Quantum chromodynamics is a paper tiger that by construction is unable to deliver results. The absurdity is usually wrapped in the term ‘perturbative methods don’t work here’ and one needs ‘nonperturbative methods’… But nobody rejects the whole thing as nonsense. (77)

As non-specialists we have of course to take Unzicker’s word on this issue. Yet questions arise: for if fundamental incongruencies can be swept under the carpet in a central domain such as QED, it is hardly surprising that “nonsense happens” in QCD.

Nor is Unzicker any more receptive to the lore of the stipulated quarks:  “The idea of quarks does not explain anything” (89), he declares apodictically. To drive home the ad hoc  nature of the quark hypothesis, he cites the discrepancies it was meant to explain. For example:

Rather than predictions, the history of particle physics is full of unexpected problems. Just one of them was the size of the proton, which was inconsistent with the data of the Stanford Linear Collider (SLAC). As always in such cases, an ad hoc  fix by means of auxiliary assumptions was invented in the form of ‘gluons’ (literally gluing the loose ends of the theory) and quark-antiquark pairs, so-called ‘sea quarks’…  A critic could easily assert that the sea quark and gluon components were simply ad hoc  devices designed to reconcile the expected properties of quarks with experimental findings. (91)

When it comes to that mysterious property called “confinement,” moreover, Unzicker is visibly unimpressed: “The so-called riddle of ‘confinement,’ why the three quarks in a proton cannot be separated, while indeed unexplainable in conventional terms, is just a self-imposed problem indicating that the quark model is baloney” (26).

Yet there is more to the confinement tale, for as Unzicker points out: “In the end, the quark model succeeded by the ironical trick of proving that no quark would ever be directly seen by a physicist. This liberated physicists from any need to demonstrate the existence of quarks in the traditional way” (102). It is likewise fortuitous that “there are no quantitative predictions of the quark model whatsoever” (104). Repeatedly Unzicker hammers the point: “This idea of quarks does not explain anything… It is precisely such fake understanding that, without being testable by a concrete observation, has eroded physics, the gradual spreading of the sickness being justified by the argument ‘we don’t have anything better’” (89).

Thus Popper wins again.

*   *   *

Summarizing the modus operandi  which has engendered the exotic “particle zoo” of the standard model, Unzicker lays bare the underlying logic, if one may call it such. It turns out, namely, that notwithstanding the ad hoc  nature of the new particle physics — which proves to be its essential feature — there is yet a method, a methodology of sorts in play. When you boil it down — as Unzicker most assuredly does — you come upon an underlying strategy which in fact is rather simple. At the risk of speaking incomprehensibly to the uninitiated, here it is:

That’s how the system works: you assign a signal to one particle, A; then you do another experiment at higher energy where you remove all the A particles as background. It turns out that this does not describe the outcome, thus one baptizes the remaining signal as particle B. The next experiment, at higher energy again, removes As and Bs and their combinations as background. Call the remainder C. (114)

To boil it down even further, what cannot be understood in terms of known particles becomes ipso facto  the discovery of a new one:  a winning strategy, if ever there was one!  In retrospect, moreover, one sees how radically counterproductive that erstwhile “principle of falsifiability” turns out to have been.

Adding to the excitement of the new physics are its horrendous magnitudes: the unimaginably small no less than the stupendously large; and both sides of the spectrum offer unprecedented opportunities for the discovery of new particles! To focus on the tiny:

Every little bump in the diagram of cross sections can be interpreted as a particle… However, physicists in that period started to classify particles regardless of their lifetimes — which were incredibly small sometimes, such as 10-25 seconds for the delta particle. This is methodologically absurd, because there is no way to get out of the collision point into any detector — the interactions of such particles remain totally theory inferred. (81)

It needs however to be noted that vital as these technical issues may be, there are social issues at play as well, which have impacted the “brave new physics” to at least a comparable degree. To start with, consider the fact that at the LHC “about 10,000 people are conducting one  experiment,” and that “the analysis as a whole has become impenetrable” (62). One wonders what would happen to the discipline of mathematics if the proof of a theorem, say, were broken into so many pieces, each assigned to a separate “team of experts”:  it does not take too much imagination to recognize that not only does such a “division of labor” engender problems, but more or less guarantees that these will be circumvented rather than solved.

The possibilities of “influencing” the outcome of an experiment are virtually endless, beginning with the fact that “some 99.99988 percent of the data are discarded after the collision because they are considered uninteresting in terms of the model assumptions” (42). As our guide goes on to point out: “If you have dozens of particles with hundreds of assumptions about their properties worked out in millions of impenetrable computer code, then there is plenty of stuff you can fiddle around with to make the outcome agree” (44). We need not belabor the point: the emerging picture proves to be amazingly clear — and so are the immediate consequences to be drawn therefrom.

It hardly needs pointing out that the ambience of contemporary particle physics constitutes an ideal environment for what is colloquially termed “politics” to enter into play: “There is no field that is dominated in a similar way by hierarchical structures,” Unzicker tells us. “It is obvious that opinions in high energy physics are homogenized by social and hierarchical pressure” (55). And in a section entitled “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” he goes on to say:

One never sees divergent opinions published … all the papers are streamlined babble of several-thousand author collaborations… All the evidence suggests that the big detector collaborations are uniform sociological groups, incapable of conducting genuine scientific debate, with individuals incapable of expressing dissent. (56)

By way of ultimate summation, Unzicker turns to Shakespeare for the conclusive words: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

*   *   *

Edging finally towards what he terms “the summit of absurdity” — the alleged discovery, that is, of the Higgs boson — Unzicker points out that this Nobel Prize-winning claim rests upon “the physical reality” of two other particles: the W and Z bosons namely. And to quote Shakespeare once more: “Aye, there’s the rub!” — for it happens that the two antecedent “discoveries” are themselves by no means above suspicion. As Unzicker explains:

The characteristic of the W boson was that it should decay into an electron and an (invisible) neutron after 10-25 seconds… Keep in mind that W bosons — like Z bosons — can never get into a detector, but are supposed to have a ‘signature’ that emits an (invisible) neutrino. Go figure. Thus all you need is the simplest particle in the world coming out of the collision, and something that is missing. This seeing by not-seeing is one of the most absurd developments of scientific methodology. (107)

After cluing us in on some other twists and turns related to the saga of the Higgs boson, Unzicker concludes:

The practice of detection by non-detection had been fully established and automatized. After all, the W had to be there and had to be found sooner or later. Remember that no W would mean that the theory of electroweak interactions for which the Nobel was awarded in 1979 was wrong. (108)

There is some very suggestive material here somewhat reminiscent of a detective novel, which I would not wish to chop up. Suffice it to quote Unzicker’s summary: “Ultimately, the top quark had to exist because the bottom quark needed a partner, as the W’s and Z’s had to exist because otherwise the standard model was wrong” (113).

It may be time for yet another quotation from the Bard: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”  perhaps.

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References
1 One might date the event by the year 1925, in which Heisenberg and Schrödinger independently discovered the fundamental equation.
2 The Higgs Fake: How Particle Physicists Fooled the Nobel Committee  (2013).  References — given in the form of parenthetical citations — are to this book.
3 I might mention that my father’s generation still read their Homer in Greek and Virgil in Latin in the European counterpart of what we term “high school.” And there can be no doubt that this had its effect, that it made a difference.