Friday, January 15, 2016

2 Most Dangerous Numbers? Phooey!


This is a report on a TED talk by a CERN physicist Harry Cliff. In it, he discussed the conundrum theoretical physicists are facing with the current knowledge of the Higgs and dark energy.

At the core of Cliff's argument are what he calls the two most dangerous numbers in the universe. These numbers are responsible for all the matter, structure, and life that we witness across the cosmos.

So in the attempt to make this story more "sexy", we of course have to make sound as if we are reaching an apocalyptic problem that will spell "the end of physics" (how many times have you heard that already?). There are several problems with this reporting:

1. The degree of certainty on the validity of ANY of these theories is LOW. Anyone wants to argue that? So while it is certainly important to pursue it, the TED talk can only be seen as being a very quick and superficial snapshot of an ONGOING and still preliminary investigation! Our knowledge of the Higgs and dark energy are still in the extreme infancy when compared to many of the more established areas. This is like groping in the dark and then pronouncing that we're doom because someone  heard something moving.

2. The claim that "getting answers could be impossible" is false. In that section of the report, nothing that was described is impossible. The limit on the energy of the LHC isn't a limitation on the physics or our ability. We can certainly build a bigger, more energetic collider (the Superconducting Supercollider that was supposed to be built in Texas in the 80's would have had a higher energy than the LHC!). New research on advanced acceleration scheme, led by a slew of wakefield-type accelerators, has the potential of boosting particle energy even higher while making the accelerator more compact. So no, there is no ceiling yet, in terms of the physics, in going to higher and higher energies. What is hindering the building of such machines is the economics! This is not a physical impossibility, but rather a social "impossibility".

I am always skeptical whenever someone, or even a scientist, claim of "maybe" we might reach the end of something, or that we'll never get beyond such-and-such. Again, we seem to have never learned what happened when we claim that, with the state of our knowledge of superconductivity in the early 1980's being a prime example. Almost everyone thought that the field was fully matured, and that there's nothing left to discovery there other than refining our knowledge and the production of the material. Then high-Tc superconductors were discovered and all hell broke loose!

Scientists need to be aware that talks like this can be latched on by the public because news reporters like to over-emphasize the "dramatic" parts. Without intending it, something that many of us know to be still very much a "work in progress" becomes a "fact" to many people outside the field.



Douglas Natelson said...

That article physically pained me. How about we don't assume that high energy physics alone sets the bounds on all that is knowable in science; and how about we cut out this kind of absurd "journalism"?

ZapperZ said...

I agree.

BTW, congratulations on your election to DCMP Members-At-Large position. I voted for you! :)


Douglas Natelson said...

Thanks for the congratulations and your support :-)

Claudio Soprano said...

Why is it absurd?

ZapperZ said...

Did you even READ the blog entry?