In the foundations of physics, we have not seen progress since the mid 1970s when the standard model of particle physics was completed. Ever since then, the theories we use to describe observations have remained unchanged. Sure, some aspects of these theories have only been experimentally confirmed later. The last to-be-confirmed particle was the Higgs-boson, predicted in the 1960s, measured in 2012. But all shortcomings of these theories – the lacking quantization of gravity, dark matter, the quantum measurement problem, and more – have been known for more than 80 years. And they are as unsolved today as they were then.
The major cause of this stagnation is that physics has changed, but physicists have not changed their methods. As physics has progressed, the foundations have become increasingly harder to probe by experiment. Technological advances have not kept size and expenses manageable. This is why, in physics today, we have collaborations of thousands of people operating machines that cost billions of dollars.
With fewer experiments, serendipitous discoveries become increasingly unlikely. And lacking those discoveries, the technological progress that would be needed to keep experiments economically viable never materializes. It’s a vicious cycle: Costly experiments result in lack of progress. Lack of progress increases the costs of further experiment. This cycle must eventually lead into a dead end when experiments become simply too expensive to remain affordable. A $40 billion particle collider is such a dead end.
The only way to avoid being sucked into this vicious cycle is to choose carefully which hypothesis to put to the test. But physicists still operate by the “just look” idea like this was the 19th century. They do not think about which hypotheses are promising because their education has not taught them to do so. Such self-reflection would require knowledge of the philosophy and sociology of science, and those are subjects physicists merely make dismissive jokes about. They believe they are too intelligent to have to think about what they are doing.
The consequence has been that experiments in the foundations of physics past the 1970s have only confirmed the already existing theories. None found evidence of anything beyond what we already know.
But theoretical physicists did not learn the lesson and still ignore the philosophy and sociology of science. I encounter this dismissive behavior personally pretty much every time I try to explain to a cosmologist or particle physicists that we need smarter ways to share information and make decisions in large, like-minded communities. If they react at all, they are insulted if I point out that social reinforcement – aka group-think – befalls us all, unless we actively take measures to prevent it.
Instead of examining the way that they propose hypotheses and revising their methods, theoretical physicists have developed a habit of putting forward entirely baseless speculations. Over and over again I have heard them justifying their mindless production of mathematical fiction as “healthy speculation” – entirely ignoring that this type of speculation has demonstrably not worked for decades and continues to not work. There is nothing healthy about this. It’s sick science. And, embarrassingly enough, that’s plain to see for everyone who does not work in the field.
This behavior is based on the hopelessly naïve, not to mention ill-informed, belief that science always progresses somehow, and that sooner or later certainly someone will stumble over something interesting. But even if that happened – even if someone found a piece of the puzzle – at this point we wouldn’t notice, because today any drop of genuine theoretical progress would drown in an ocean of “healthy speculation”.
And so, what we have here in the foundation of physics is a plain failure of the scientific method. All these wrong predictions should have taught physicists that just because they can write down equations for something does not mean this math is a scientifically promising hypothesis. String theory, supersymmetry, multiverses. There’s math for it, alright. Pretty math, even. But that doesn’t mean this math describes reality.
Physicists need new methods. Better methods. Methods that are appropriate to the present century.
And please spare me the complaints that I supposedly do not have anything better to suggest, because that is a false accusation. I have said many times that looking at the history of physics teaches us that resolving inconsistencies has been a reliable path to breakthroughs, so that’s what we should focus on. I may be on the wrong track with this, of course. But for all I can tell at this moment in history I am the only physicist who has at least come up with an idea for what to do.
Why don’t physicists have a hard look at their history and learn from their failure? Because the existing scientific system does not encourage learning. Physicists today can happily make career by writing papers about things no one has ever observed, and never will observe. This continues to go on because there is nothing and no one that can stop it.
You may want to put this down as a minor worry because – $40 billion dollar collider aside – who really cares about the foundations of physics? Maybe all these string theorists have been wasting tax-money for decades, alright, but in the large scheme of things it’s not all that much money. I grant you that much. Theorists are not expensive.
But even if you don’t care what’s up with strings and multiverses, you should worry about what is happening here. The foundations of physics are the canary in the coal mine. It’s an old discipline and the first to run into this problem. But the same problem will sooner or later surface in other disciplines if experiments become increasingly expensive and recruit large fractions of the scientific community.
Indeed, we see this beginning to happen in medicine and in ecology, too.
Small-scale drug trials have pretty much run their course. These are good only to find in-your-face correlations that are universal across most people. Medicine, therefore, will increasingly have to rely on data collected from large groups over long periods of time to find increasingly personalized diagnoses and prescriptions. The studies which are necessary for this are extremely costly. They must be chosen carefully for not many of them can be made. The study of ecosystems faces a similar challenge, where small, isolated investigations are about to reach their limits.
How physicists handle their crisis will give an example to other disciplines. So watch this space.
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