concerning the End of Science

Is this the end of Science? That is what one scientist connected with CERN was saying in a TED talk in December. Your knee-jerk reaction (and Bettridge’s Law of Headlines) says the answer should be a confused “no”. In reality, the headline is certainly overblown, but the problem being highlighted is a real one.

Let’s start out with what is not being said: Science will not be over. The scientific method isn’t fatally flawed. Our ability to describe the universe with mathematics isn’t starting to fail. (as the physicist Eugene Wigner once asked, why SHOULD mathematics invented by, and understandable by humans be able to describe the universe?) We won’t stop discovering new exoplanets or animals or therapies for cancer or ways to help people live better-adjusted lives. This is a problem, specifically, for physics. At least in the short term.

Harry Cliff is a particle physicist working with the Large Hadron Collider. His concerns relate to a number of problems in physics, which he sums up with just two: the strength of the Higgs Field (that gives particles mass), and the strength of Dark Energy (that’s causing the acceleration of the expansion of the universe). Both are much smaller than theoretical predictions say they should be, which immediately suggests that the theories that predicted them are wrong. The other reason the theories have to be wrong is, if Dark Energy were as strong as predicted, the universe would have ripped itself apart by now and there would be no stars or even atoms; if the Higgs Field was as strong as it was supposed to be, gravity would be so intense that again, there would be no structure to the universe. That is, needless to say, problematic.

Part of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector on the LHC; one of the two detectors involved in the discovery of the Higgs Boson. From Wikipedia user Andrius.v (CC 2.0)

So what do we replace these theories with? There are concepts that would fix this, like supersymmetry, but what Cliff finds so maddening is that the LHC has still not found any evidence that any of those theories are right. All of the LHC’s results (as of December) are consistent with there being nothing beyond the physics we already know. This means the only reasonable theory left is the string theory one, where these critical values are entirely up for grabs – any value is possible. That implies that there are zillions of other universes in the multiverse, with slightly different physical constants. Most of them are empty, formless places; the one we’re living in happens to be one of the very few with parameters that allow life to exist, because otherwise we wouldn’t exist to be asking the question.

This theory is problematic because it suggests there is no way to determine anything about WHY the Universe is the way it is. The theory is kind of an end-point you can’t go beyond, because it doesn’t offer any explanations for anything. The entire Universe – with stars, planets, and the humble platypus – was a luck-of-the-draw event. There isn’t actually any physical problem with this theory; it allows for the existence of the universe we know. It is, however, deeply unsatisfying because it’s unfalsifiable. It says the Universe is the way it is, because it is the way it is, which is by definition true… but in a profoundly unhelpful “because I said so” way that closes off any further attempts to find out more. It suggests a limit to how much we can know about the Universe. An end of science, if you will.

There are, of course, other possibilities. For one thing, the LHC is likely not going to be the be-all-end-all of particle accelerators. As mentioned in the TED video, China is planning a new and bigger collider. The LHC itself is due for further upgrades in 2019 and 2024. Particle accelerators are not the only way to probe physics, either… although the recent discovery of gravitational waves is disappointing along the same lines; it says all General Relativity as we already know it is correct; there are no hanging threads for someone to unravel that might lead to a resolution of the dark energy problem. This is just one significant avenue slowly closing off.

On the other hand, since the TED talk was given, the LHC has apparently discovered an unexpected (and unpredicted) massive particle, exactly the sort of hanging thread that could be used to suss out a new and different theory. An experiment in China, where a neutrino detector is positioned between two nuclear power planets, may be detecting fewer neutrinos than is predicted, which may be the first long-sought proof that neutrinos oscillate between FOUR “flavors” (one “sterile” and basically undetectable), rather than three.

Don’t count conventional physics out yet.

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