Science Friday

By Sean Carroll | July 6, 2012 9:02 am

Back in Los Angeles, after my brief action-packed jaunt to Geneva. Higgsteria continues, and I’ll be on NPR’s Science Friday later today to talk about it. That’s 2pm Eastern, 11am Pacific time. Hope to do justice to the palpable air of excitement at CERN and around the world.

After that, I think certain parts of my book are going to need some re-writes…

One thing I don’t want to get lost in all the hubbub. Amidst all the many impressive aspects of the work the physicists and machine-builders did to make the LHC happen and achieve this fantastic discovery, I was very struck by how eager people were to give credit to other people. In their main talks, both Fabiola Gianotti and Joe Incandela went out of their way to give credit to the machine builders, the technicians who worked on their experiments, and the thousands of colleagues within each collaboration who contributed to the result. But that eagerness to share credit went well beyond the official announcements — everyone we talked to was quick to point out how far-reaching and international the project really was. The very quintessence of a group effort.

Unfortunately, at least in the sciences, large groups can’t win the Nobel Prize. There will be much discussion in days to come about who deserves a prize for inventing the theory behind the Higgs; I think it’s complicated, and I’m not going to push for any particular set of people. When it comes to the experiments, the matter is easier: there’s no fair way to give it to anyone, really. There was a lot of Nobel-quality effort, without question, but I can’t see how it’s possible to narrow it down to just three people, which is the strict Nobel rule. What we really need to do is change that rule, but the folks in charge are (probably correctly) very conservative about such things, so I don’t see it happening soon.

So let me throw out one name that should at least be in the conversation: Lyn Evans, “the man who built the LHC.” Evans was in charge of the project for many years, and it was his dedication and ability that brought it to successful completion. He is now officially retired as a CERN staff member, although he’s still working as a member of the CMS collaboration and the leader of the effort to build a linear collider. He didn’t play a central role in the actual experimental effort to find the Higgs, but there’s no person who deserves more credit for enabling the conditions under which it could be found. People who are much more informed about the detailed history of the LHC and the ATLAS/CMS experiments will be in a better position that I to render such judgments, but I think the Nobel committee could do a lot worse.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Higgs, Personal, Science, Top Posts
  • romain

    You point at a very important problem of science. We reward too much individuals and not enough groups of people. It is obviously true for such experimental work but it is also for theoretical findings.
    In the end, we are all standing on the shoulders of giants, but we are also standing on a heap of thousands of dedicated scientists whose efforts will never be acknowledged as they should and who will thus not get fundings or positions.
    It seems that there is a fundamental tendency to single out people for somewhat arbitrary reasons. While this may make science appealing to some, it probably also repel some students who strongly believe that science should be a collective effort with no individual rewards.

    Anyway, back to the point, that’s why it’s great to see frontmen acknowledging the work of others when such amazing discoveries are made.

  • Mark M

    In terms of theorists, Frank Close wrote an article arguing for Englert, Higgs, and Kibble.

  • Dan Schroeder

    Good job, Sean! I was a bit surprised at how you described the slight variations from the predicted (SM) branching ratios. Will LHC have enough data by the end of the year to settle whether those are signal or statistical noise?

    • Sean Carroll

      Dan, thanks. I think right now the extra photons don’t quite amount to a 3-sigma discrepancy; extra data will certainly be crucial, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they did clear it up quite a bit, but I’m not sure. The other relevant question is the lack of tau decays in the CMS data, which I’m sure ATLAS will also take a close look at.

  • anon

    There is nothing in Albert Nobel’s will that dictates that no more than 3 people can share a prize. This is an arbitrary rule that the Nobel Foundation made for themselves, and can unmake at any time. They already give the Nobel Peace Prize to groups (Doctors without Borders, anyone?) As a warmup they can start by giving a Nobel Prize for neutrino oscillations jointly to the Super-K and SNO collaborations.

  • JW Mason

    the folks in charge are (probably correctly) very conservative about such things

    I’m glad you said this. Arbitrary rules like this can seem irrational, but the value of something like the Nobel comes precisely from the fact that it is not allocated according to any sort of instrumental, cost-benefit reasoning. If the criteria were frequently adjusted, even for the best of reasons, it would lose its meaning.

  • Phillip Helbig

    Only the Peace prize is given to groups.

    Originally (also in the will, IIRC) it was for work done within the previous year. This hasn’t been true for a long time now.

    Yes, it could be changed, so that more than three could get the prize. But would it be a good idea?

    Yes, many people were involved in the search for the Higgs, but did all of them do Nobel-quality work? In other words, would the result have been different if someone who was hired to, say, calibrate a detector not been hired and someone else hired instead?

    Yes, the world has changed since Nobel’s days and many results in experimental physics are only possible through the work of large teams. But that does not mean that everyone on the team deserves (a portion of) the Nobel Prize.

    Think of a movie. There are various awards for various categories. However, who accepts the award for Best Picture? A best picture is not the best picture because the gaffer or the second second assistant director was crucial to the project.

    What would a Nobel Prize be worth if thousands of people had (a portion of) one?

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  • Jeff

    I wish we didn’t have to talk so much about the Nobel Prize in the context of the discovery of the Higgs. What matters is the discovery itself, not the somewhat arbitrary recognition of three (of many) contributors to the discovery by the trustees of a particular pile of money. The awarding of the prize will be a great benefit to the three people who are selected for the prize, who will be elevated to the pantheon of Nobel laureates. At the same time, the awarding of the prize will be a disservice to the fourth, fifth, … Nth people who contributed significantly to the discovery.

    Focusing on the Prize seems to reduce the scientific effort to a nerd version of “American Idol.” Call it “Physics Idol,” perhaps.

  • meh

    I bet if you were to talk to all those involved, including the original theorists, the only people who would care about the Nobel Prize would be the interns getting coffee for the engineers. I think everyone working on this project probably has a sense that what they did goes above and beyond what the Nobel Prize is capable of rewarding.

    I think what everyone would like is if the Nobel committee made a statue or something with everyone’s name on it and donated the money to the proposed Muon accelerator.

  • Bob F.

    Welcome home, and thanks again for the live blogging. I was switching back-and-forth between your blog and the webcast at 3am on Wednesday.

    Here’s what I want to know: when the LHC shuts down in 2013 and 2014 for its planned upgrade, do you think it will be possible for any advances to be made? It seems that any theories about new physics will have to wait until 2015 for new data. Or are there enough petabytes of data to keep everyone busy for a couple of years?

    • Sean Carroll

      There will plenty of work to do analyzing the existing data, as well as fitting it to theories. There’s so much data, it will take a long time to analyze it in all the interesting ways.

  • Josh

    Hey Sean,

    With all this excitement over Higgs, I think some of the lay readers (i.e. myself) want to join in the basking of the knowledge but may be getting tripped up over something basic. For myself, and a few others of physics interest but not background, we’re a bit perplexed as to how bosons “carry” different forces. Your explanatory posts have been awesome, so any chance you might do a quick one to try and put this in a more intuitive framework of understanding like your post on Higgs?

    Of course bosons in general are old news, but hey, no harm asking.

  • Neal J. King

    It seems to me that Nobel prizes in experimental particle physics have quite often been given to the group leader(s), as being the representative(s) of the group.

    In fact, when I think of a fairly recent prize for which the recipient made the indispensable technical contribution within a big collaboration, the only one that comes to mind is Simon van der Meer, for the invention of the stochastic cooling technique.

    But I’m not involved with the field, so maybe there are other examples as well.

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  • vmarko

    For myself, and a few others of physics interest but not background, we’re a bit perplexed as to how bosons “carry” different forces.

    Let me give it a try… :-)

    The main thing you should keep in mind is that the Standard Model is one particular example of a “quantum field theory”, i.e. a theory of quantized fields. There are two main things in specifying a quantum field theory — the first is to specify which fields (how many and what type) exist in the model, and the second is to specify which fields interact with themselves and other fields (and what are the details of each particular interaction).

    Given that, in the SM there are “matter” fields (fermions, spin 1/2), there are “gauge” fields (bosons, spin 1) and there is the Higgs field (boson, spin 0). The matter fields do not interact directly among themselves. Rather, a fermion field interacts with the gauge field, which then interacts with another matter field.

    So the “force” one sees in nature (say, electromagnetic force) between two charged particles comes about in the following way: one charged particle (a fermion) interacts with a gauge field (a boson), which then interacts with the other charged particle. The net effect is the “force” between two charged particles, and we say that the boson is the “carrier”, since it sits in between the two fermions in the chain of interactions.

    Thus, each gauge field (each boson) is responsible for “carrying” one type of force, between two suitably charged fermions (or other fields). For example the photon carries the electromagnetic force between two (electrically charged) electrons. Or a gluon with — say — red-antiblue charge, carries the strong force between two (suitably color-charged) quarks. And so on, there are a lot of places on the Internet where you can find tabulated all gauge and matter fields which are present in the Standard Model, along with some of their basic properties.

    All this is of course a crude oversimplification, but you can get the idea of how things work inside the SM.

    HTH, :-)

  • Sili

    but I can’t see how it’s possible to narrow it down to just three people, which is the strict Nobel rule. What we really need to do is change that rule, but the folks in charge are (probably correctly) very conservative about such things, so I don’t see it happening soon.

    The Peace Prize is regularly given to institution such as Red Cross, MSF or the IPCC. Why can’t CERN as an institution be awarded the Physics Prize?

  • forester

    I have a couple of questions regarding the LHC and its recent find.

    1. Will the LHC be used to verify or reconfirm other aspects of the Standard Model? In other words, in addition to probing new levels of reality, will the fantastic machine be used to confirm– perhaps on a firmer footing– some of the physics we think we already know?

    2. Will the finding of the “higgs-like” particle give us any clues about how to find out what is the dark matter?

    Those are the questions and below is some additional commentary.

    A few years ago I had a run with a cranky skeptic who was convinced that most of cosmology and particle physics is a jumbled hodgepodge of incorrect ideas built on the “bad science” practiced by a sheep-like scientific community plagued by group-think tendencies. This fellow buttressed his case by pointing to 3 problems.

    1. No Higgs particle found.

    2. No direct detection of dark matter.

    3. No direct detection of gravitational waves.

    Well, my skeptical friend, if you are reading this I guess one third of your tripartite objection scheme has now been demolished. I suspect that the other two will also be demolished probably the grav. wave one before the current decade is out. So, how do like them apples big fella!?

  • Ahab

    Maybe the Nobel committee’ll wait for the remaining 5 to become 3 before giving out the prize.
    Or maybe they’ll semi-arbitrarily choose 3 experimentalists and forget about the theorists, as they did before at the discovery of the CMBR.

    I think that the committee is in a state of denial about the dramatic change that has happened in the way scientific research is conducted. Long gone are the days of the (lone ranger) scientists who worked alone, discovered alone, and rightly took the credit alone. Science has progressed to the point that any substantial achievement (theoretical and/or experimental) must be the outcome of team work. And the number of team members (even after excluding non-essentials) cannot be realistically tailored to fit the committee’s outdated mode of thinking.

  • Tony Cusano

    Sean, a paradox of the human species is that no single individual carries all of the knowledge or thought that they actually use to navigate Your friend Janna Levin humorously wrote on her FB page about her difficulty driving automobiles, yet she gracefully travels all over the world (as well as her home town) using the expertise of the people who operate the mass transit machines or taxicabs she takes. Expand that concept out to the LHC, and really to everything we do. We all link our thoughts and behaviors directly to the minds that we share through our social and cultural network. We are embedded in – individually identifiable but unable to be separated from – the physical, cultural and social environment we inhabit. Our self awareness is real, but it is blind to the reality of our deeper connections.

    In this way of seeing the world, individual achievements are an illusion as much as any enchanted beliefs of angels, gods or ESP. We are all really elements of a much larger entity that carries the intelligence of the human species and whose boundaries we have barely begun to define. Until we begin to act on that understanding, we limit our potential for solving some of the deepest problems we face. The real problem with the Nobel Prize is that it perpetuates the myth of individual achievement, while the behavior you describe at the LHC lays down a path forward. I admire your discussion of this topic, but I think it’s time to take it further. It’s time to start a new way of recognizing human achievement, and of seeing our own identities.

  • Josh


    Thanks for taking up my inquiry. I think the issue of my understanding lies actually when you use the word “interaction.” How do such particles “interact” with others to generate a force? Could I perhaps think of it as an exchange of momentum (crudely like that of one pool ball hitting another which then hits another, the middle being the “force carrier”)?

  • Mephane

    @20. Tony Cusano:

    I fully agree. I believe the tendency to single out individuals (either as scapegoats or heroes, for punishment or reward) is a left-over from prehistoric times, when it was probably beneficial to have a single strong leader for your tribe (which is also why masses of people tend to follow a single enigmatic leader instead of everytime going their own way). As Sagan once said, we’ve got a lot of “evolutionary baggage” with us, some of which appears very anachronistic in our technological society.

    If I were in charge of handing out Nobel Prizes, I would just give it to the machines themselves, and have the various detectors and parts of the LHC argue with each other who deserves the prize more. Because that is exactly how ridiculous it now sounds as we discuss which three individuals should get most credit for this gigantic effort.

    Also, I find it curious that rarely, if ever, the Nobel Prize is given for a non-discovery. If the LHC would have not found the H particle (love the idea to name it just H) and eventually disproven its existence, that would be just as important a scientific insight as its discovery now is, but certainly no one would talk about who’s going to get a medal for it.

  • vmarko


    I think the issue of my understanding lies actually when you use the word “interaction.” How do such particles “interact” with others to generate a force? Could I perhaps think of it as an exchange of momentum (crudely like that of one pool ball hitting another which then hits another, the middle being the “force carrier”)?

    You should not think of interaction as balls hitting each other (despite Feynman diagrams suggesting such an interpretation, it is quite wrong). Keep in mind that the term “particle” is quite often abused in hep-th slang — the elementary particles have nothing to do with balls, but rather plane waves, and interactions like scattering of one plane wave off the other is fuzzy at best, from the intuition point of view.

    What interacts are fields. Mathematically, the interaction is just a cubic (or higher) term in the Lagrangian, which translates to a nontrivial “source” term in equations of motion for the fields (like Maxwell equations with sources). If you want to have an intuitive mental image which corresponds to this, imagine the following (of course, I am again oversimplifying things beyond any decency…):

    Suppose you have a large square sheet of rubber (10×10 meters) floating on the surface of a still water (lake, sea, etc.). The surface of the water is one field (we are talking 2-dimensional field theory here). The rubber sheet is the other field (also 2-dim). Now imagine water waves coming from elsewhere towards that part of the water-rubber system. As soon as the waves hit the covered water, the rubber will start to sway as well. That is “interaction” (more precisely called “contact interaction”) between the water and the rubber. The nonzero magnitude of one field induces the nonzero value of the other field, at the same spacetime point.

    Now, the rubber has its own elasticity properties, different from water. So the water waves will induce the rubber waves, but the rubber waves will influence back on the water waves as well. The end-result are the “changed” waves of the water (as opposed to the situation when there is no rubber), as well as “changed” waves of the rubber (as opposed to the situation when there is no water). Those changes occur due to the contact interaction (pushing and pulling) between water and rubber. We say that water and rubber fields “are interacting”.

    Of course, both water and rubber are made of particles, so you could try to explain their waving and swaying by considering individual particles of water hitting at the particles of rubber and vice versa. However, in a fundamental field theory, fields are not made of any “material”, and their interactions might be too complicated to be explained via pushing and pulling of molecules. Nevertheless, the interaction between fields (the swaying of one field influencing the swaying of the other) is just like the water and rubber, and is quite real.

    As for particles, they are… well… complicated. Each particle is a “wave packet” of a particular field. So particle scattering is the situation when two waves of different fields get together and mix. One water wave crest coming from “east”, with one rubber crest coming from “west”. When they meet, all sorts of stuff may happen, depending on how water and rubber fields interact. For example, the outcome of the “collision” might be several larger and several smaller waves of both types. That is called “particle creation”. That is what they are doing at the LHC — they hit one proton wave with another proton wave, and see what comes out.

    And a caveat: a “proton wave” is not a swarm of protons, it is a wave of the “proton field”, since each particular proton is one particular wave packet of the field. They are colliding a swarm of such proton waves with the the other swarm (coming from the other direction), and hope that at least two waves (i.e. two protons) from each swarm would pass by each other close enough for something nontrivial to happen. And then they catch what comes out of the interaction of the respective fields, hoping that the waves of proton fields will induce waves in other fields, such as the Higgs field. And so on.

    So the interaction happens between fields — a non-localized, distributed entities that fill up all space. Forget particles and balls, this stuff is much different from playing pool. 😉

    HTH, :-)

  • Josh

    Hah, thank you for that Marko. It seems to me that a more intuitive conception isn’t quite possible (or accurate for that matter), and I must partake in the more positivist approach of understanding. Nonetheless, your explanations were quite beneficial. I do wonder someday however if we shall be able to view all these interactions in a way that does make sense to our brains more commonplace. For instance, we say there is no “material” they are made of, but I can’t help but one day hope for a more tangible means of grasping the ideas. But (and thankfully at that) I didn’t write our laws of physics, so beggars can’t be choosers. :)

  • Tintin

    @ #20

    So concisely and well said. Thank you.

  • Christian Takacs

    @Josh Says,
    Be very careful what you buying into Josh. Physics is ‘supposed’ to be about the physical interaction of actual things, like those “particles and balls” Marko is dismissing. Marko would seem to believe (sadly, as most mathematical folks do) that math is physics, or reality. This is not logically or physically true. Math in physics is supposed to try and describe reality (those pesky particles and pool balls) by creating models that can make accurate predictions about what actual particles and pool balls do. When you jettisson the reality of actual particles that have physical extension and mass in favor of abstract virtual point particles that only exist in fields of abstract force carrying math, you are moving further and further away from what physics is supposed to be about. Look around before you discard your rational intuition, there are other possibilities that don’t insult logical causality.
    @Tony Cusano,
    I can’t believe you actually said what you did. Individuals think, reason, learn, discover, and accomplish… or at least they should be able to. Science history is full of individuals who figured this out and went out and changed things when the collective wisdom of the groupthink you prevail were wrong. Please reconsider.

  • Josh


    I would tend agree with you, but I don’t have the evidence or expertise to support that hah! That’s why I mentioned positivist thought, which I think we are kind of pidgeon-holed into at the moment simply because we don’t know enough. There is, however, also the possibility that the way the universe works is complete nonsense (by our reasoning), and I think we should be willing to cede that possibility. But first I do think an extremely stringent and stubborn look for the “rational” explanations should precede the admittance of course. :)

  • Christian Takacs

    @Josh Says,
    What you say is very interesting, because it brings up a very interesting fact that is the crux of all understanding. If you are going to pursue science/physics, honestly, you have to assume the universe is intelligible. All our present understanding of science as we know it comes from this premise or assumption, and it has for the most part worked out quite well…with a few caveats. If you assume the opposite, that the universe is unintelligible, you have painted yourself into a corner logically with regards to any comprehension of reality and have eliminated any chance of escaping the position of nihilism to seek alternatives. Since the second assumption does not and can not bear any fruit whatsoever in its self fulfiling axiom “We can know nothing, reality is beyond our capacity”, I should hope that the first assumption would be preferred…and even hoped for. It is ironic (not a paradox or contradiction) that the basis of science is started with an assumption or act of faith. Don’t ever cede to the position of reality being incomprehensible unless you are trying to not understand.

  • vmarko

    Christian Takacs:

    Physics is ‘supposed’ to be about the physical interaction of actual things, like those “particles and balls” Marko is dismissing. Marko would seem to believe (sadly, as most mathematical folks do) that math is physics, or reality. This is not logically or physically true. Math in physics is supposed to try and describe reality (those pesky particles and pool balls) by creating models that can make accurate predictions about what actual particles and pool balls do. When you jettisson the reality of actual particles that have physical extension and mass in favor of abstract virtual point particles that only exist in fields of abstract force carrying math, you are moving further and further away from what physics is supposed to be about. Look around before you discard your rational intuition, there are other possibilities that don’t insult logical causality.

    What I was explaining to Josh was a theoretical description of elemetary particles and their interactions (that is what he asked for, IIUC). The Standard Model is just that — a mathematical model. Generally, in describing natural phenomena, one is allowed to use whatever math is suitable and available, as long as the description and predictions of the model are consistent with experiments. Physicists never claim that the SM is the true reality, but rather only just a good-enough description of it.

    As for intuition, balls, pool and stuff… Once you see an experiment with the single electron flying through two slits simultaneously, the “particle-is-a-ball” intuition falls on its nose in a very embarassing way, never to reassert itself again. Human intuition about processes happening in nature is tailored to work for low-energy medium-distance observations, and one is forced to abandon it when dealing with high-energy and small- or large-distance phenomena. Physicists do not abandon their intuition light-heartedly. On the contrary, we are quite pushed into it by experiments and observations of nature itself.

    To see an example, consider the “pool balls” scenario for the electrostatic Coulomb force between two electrons. One electron “throws away” a photon, which then “hits into” the other electron. The net effect is that two electrons repel each other, due to the momentum transfer by the photon, just like pool balls. This is ok. But now, consider electron and a proton — the electron throws away the same photon as above, which then goes on to hit the proton. How can the proton now be attracted to the electron, as opposed of being repelled? Momentum transfer cannot explain that — when you play pool, the balls can never get attracted to each other by exchanging the cue-ball between them. The ball-throwing description falls short of describing attractive forces, which are known to exist in nature.

    Of course, you may reconsider that model and substitute ball-throwing with some more complicated mechanism, that can account for attractive forces. But then I would probably find some other argument against your new model, so that you would have to refine it again, and again, and again… After some time of playing this game, you will most probably end up inventing a model which is mostly equivalent to the field theory I described in the previous two posts. :-) That’s how physicists actually ended up with all this abstract-theoretical logically-insulting interacting-fields-description-nonsense stuff. We didn’t introduce all that because we like abstract math, but because we need abstract math, if we are to describe nature precisely enough.

    Best, :-)

  • Christian Takacs

    I am aware of the ‘double slit experiment’, and the data which was interpreted a certain way ( but by no means the only way). I would argue that when you abandon a particle as a something and substitute a non physical math of abstraction in its place, that contradicts its self (particle/wave duality) that you have already removed yourself from reality, physics, and reason, by several layers. I could also state that the sun rises because it is filled with Helium, but as the day progresses, it leaks out so the sun sinks until it drops below the horizon where a cosmic turtle beneath the disk of the world pumps it back up with helium so it can rise again the following day…aha! see, my prediction agrees with my experiment! This kind of circular silliness is why epicycles took so long to overturn.
    Once you convince yourself that a paradox or contradiction in your theory is fine, as long as it allows agreement with the ‘interpretation’ of data from your experiment, you have jettisoned the very concepts of science, logic, and reason from your process that makes understanding possible. No matter how much complex math you cover your logical error with, the error remains waiting for ‘the Space Child oh so Serene to push the button that starts the machine’.

    As for your examples of particle interaction…with all due respect, are you serious? You pose some excellent and very relevant questions, state you don’t know how it’s possible to explain certain interactions logically (attraction/repulsion), and then… you basically throw your hands up and say ‘screw it, I want my answer now, I don’t care how I get it’ then abandon the very things that made you pose the question to begin with, your curiosity and reason. Think carefully about what this means. You don’t want to accept magic or miracles (the incomprehensible) to be the method of understanding… you take up the discipline of science, reason, and logic, encounter something you don’t understand, and then employ such wonderful scientific methods such as paradox, contradiction, imaginary numbers, point particles, renormalization, all the various math fields parading around as physical fields and forces, backwards causality, non-localized whatever, spontaneous ‘anything’,breaking symmetries, and I will stop there… because it keeps going and going … so you employ such methods to your scientific process and believe you are going to “describe nature precisely enough”. Do you see the disconnect? You reject mechanical transfers of momentum and energy as being unworkable with atoms, but favor purely mathematical virtual particles that ‘tell’ other particles to repulse or attract to get the quantum field theories to function? Particles that tell other particales what to do? Come here! Go away, Go left, right, Get down! My goodness, how can you have attraction from such pushy little particles! Why bother with so much inexplicable fudge, just go back to miracles and magic… “God did it.” There, all done, no mystery here, nothing to see…Hey, do NOT look behind that imaginary number! But, as you said , you need abstract maths…lots and lots of endless abstract maths…and now you will also need basically infinite universes to make the endless maths go round and round…like some kind of fractalized descent into Mandelbrot computational hell.

    I’m sorry vmarko, I don’t mean to offend and you have been patient with me, and I respect that, and I respect your obvious intelligence. But I do think you need to consider that something is SERIOUSLY wrong with a scientific process and physics community that has decided that it would rather defy causality or invent new particles or dimensions before it checks its many many premises everytime it can’t explain what is going on (Quantum tunneling anyone?). If you can’t explain some interaction, re-examine your assumptions, especially your maths, especially various previous ‘interpretations’ by crusty old wizards who told you not to look behind their uncertainty curtains and Feynman diagrams, before giving up and spackling over with more abstraction and heuristical fudge. If you want to be the next Einstein or Copernicus, you aren’t going to be able to agree with a lot that you’ve been taught. Whatever else you do, don’t abandon your muses of reason and logic for quick results.

  • Josh


    Although I think the mindset you’re arguing against is held by more modern scientists than it should, I don’t think that was what marko was proposing, nor do I think it necessarily is the “consensus” paradigm. It certainly may seem that way because of how we bolster forward with these ideas written behind us, but I think there’s more complexity than that.

    For instance, the abstract math used are quite different than a explanation-gap filler such as the turtle with the air pump. Both indeed are cases where the prediction agrees with the experiment, but we aren’t using the current models (emphasis on that word) in physics simply because we are satisfied with that fact. We use them because they also have predictive power for other phenomena, and they work! We should continuously put them under scrutiny and try and figure out the whole picture (which physicist indeed do!), but we shouldn’t just say “well, this isn’t the actual [or whole] truth” and just get rid of it. It’s far too useful for that. After all, even if we thought describing a system as a wave was ridiculous, well, wave functions open up new technological insights and advancements.

    I don’t think this is “abandoning the muses of reason and logic for quick results.” I think it’s just pragmatism. If we can develop a mathematical model that works (emphasis), even though we might not understand the full nature of all that is going on, why not? Maybe someday we could look at individual quarks and leptons interacting more directly and describe them so, but the fact is that we are just grasping the truths of our universe lightly, and to do so better, we need technology that we don’t yet have. The mathematical models we have now aren’t giving up, they are making the best with what we are given.

    And at some point though, I believe we are going to have to cede that on some eventual level, things in our universe just won’t sound right to us. After all, either our universe came from nothing, or something before it (or itself) has always existed. Neither of those “make sense,” but one of them must be true. Maybe quantum mechanics is the level where that peculiarity begins. We shall hopefully see.

    Now maybe the ease by which modern physicists talk in such an abstract framework should be unsettling. I think that ease comes from writing the oddity of it all as a caveat would eventually get tiresome and so they get used to the functionality of this means of thinking. That of course is mind-boggling to us, but it doesn’t make it bad. It may be though still, but I can’t peer into all of their minds so easily. I DO think though that we should shy away from even wilder sounding descriptions of our universe when trying to come up with a model with predictive power though until we get more empirical evidence to support them. For instance, quantum mechanics models sounds weird, but it has the empirical backup and an amazing amount of predictive power. Things like string theory though seem too far reaching, without the empiricism or the strong predictive power to back them up.

    I understand your frustration though. It drives me crazy sometimes too, as I definitely think there are some celebrity scientists who think it is ok to not look deeper, or at least to not do so without fighting tooth and nail for a “sensical” diagnosis first. I remind myself though that this is not how it all goes, and pragmatism is often employed.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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