Power and particles

Power and particles

For decades, high-energy physicists have built the basis for the glow of a theory that can clearly do no wrong. Prosaic Although the ‘Standard Model’ may seem, each experimental observation from the accelerator has fulfilled its predictions, often to exceptional accuracy.

It is also false, in that it predicts particles that should be observed in new experimental regimes to be discovered by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN since 2007 or 2008. And it’s conceptually sweet, exploiting mathematical symmetry to integrate the three fundamental forces – electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces – within a single framework.

However, it has its weaknesses and embarrassment. It does not predict particle mass: these and many other observed parameters have to be plugged in by hand. Furthermore, it has infinities, due to the fact that its fundamental particles are point-like. A technique (‘renormalization’) that revolves around these infinities was a great piece of invention and enabled the model to have its widespread success, yet it seems like a sleight of hand.

Now imagine a theory that incorporates the Standard Model within itself, which includes just one arbitrary parameter rather than many, which includes a fourth fundamental force – gravity – within its framework, removing the need for renormalization, Allows us to describe the earliest extreme conditions.

The moment of the Big Bang and also resolves the long-disappointing mismatch between quantum mechanics and relativity. Imagine also that such a model requires new types of mathematics to progress, and work on it repeatedly reveals a level of order that was not previously appreciated or suspected.

There is no such theory as above, but string theory is the closest to us. Fundamental entities are no longer point-like, but they have a limited range. The vibrations of these features of space-time should theoretically give rise to the observed particles. Even current embryo theory suggests observable features – for example, the quark-gluon arises in collisions of nuclei of liquid gold rather than the gaseous nature of the ‘porridge’. They also suggest fascinating insights into the controversies surrounding the thermodynamics of black holes.

These are nothing more than suggestions, and along with new opportunities come great new uncertainties. It seems that there are a large number of possible universes in such theories. Such embarrassment can prove fatal. But pursuing them is equally likely to lead to insights that make the theory seem more inescapable.

Two recent books have attacked the dominance of string theory among the high-energy theoretical community (see pages 491 and 507). He alleges that string theory should have proven itself by now and made testable predictions. They also claim that string theorists have exercised an intellectual hegemony over a field that has downright arrogance, which has discouraged the pursuit of alternatives.

Complaints of undue influence and arrogance are not without basis. And string theory is far from experimental. There is no point in making predictions ahead of time, but some theorists positively take pleasure in their lack. A major goal should be to eventually turn this project into a testable science.

This farsightedness from experiment shows the magnitude of the task. This does not justify any suggestion that string theory is played out. Many theorists excited by string theory (perhaps ten times more than those excited by a competing idea, to be judged by meetings) are going where they think the most innovative and interesting possibilities are to be found.

What drives them? There may be enigmatic beauties for some string cognoscenti. But much more compelling is the wide scope of which string theory is involved. Such power, as expressed in the community, has attracted resentment and bitterness. But this power provides insights of unmatched depth and breadth, and the development of its mathematical foundations is fraught with tantric phenomena.

Critical-mindedness is integral to all scientific endeavor, but the discovery of string power deserves no encouragement.

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