Monday, October 7, 2013

Too Many Theorists?

It would seem that a bunch of elementary particle physicists who are theorists are disappointed that with the opening of the new big machine in Geneva, their immediate expectations have not proven out. It may well be that further experiments in the next few years, at higher energies and intensity, will find something sufficiently peculiar to justify their theoretical work.

On the other hand, perhaps too many researchers have devoted their lives to speculation, sophisticated and illuminating and interesting, but in the end it would seem a not so fruitful path. Now, it may be that all this work will turn out to be useful for purposes not otherwise anticipated. But it has struck me that in the twentieth century at least theorists tended to be closer to available data. The justification for the very large particle accelerators is that they enable us to look closer, more intensively, at the deepest features of particles and the forces of nature. It has always proved fruitful to do this, whether we end up finding new particles and phenomena, finding stuff we know must be there but have yet to see, or finding big surprises--probably the last ones were CP-violation by Christianen, Cronin, Fitch, and Turlay in the 1960s and the J/psi in the 1970s.

What seems to have happened is that "Beyond the Standard Model" and the wonders of string theory and topological quantum field theory could not be guided by the data, but the mathematics and the beauty of some of the theories were attractive. There may well be payoffs in condensed matter physics or in mathematics. But for the moment I hear of a great letdown. There is a famous study, When Prophesy Fails. It suggests that believers may well double down on their commitments.

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