Thursday, March 29, 2018

Asking questions leads to a change of mind

In this entry, I would like to digress a bit from my usual discussion of our physics research subject. Rather, I would like to talk a bit about how I do this kind of research. There is a twofold motivation for me to do this.

One is that I am currently teaching, together with somebody from the philosophy department, a course on science philosophy of physics. It cam to me as a surprise that one thing the students of philosophy are interested in is, how I think. What are the objects, or subjects, and how I connect them when doing research. Or even when I just think about a physics theory. The other is the review I have have recently written. Both topics may seem unrelated at first. But there is deep connection. It is less about what I have written in the review, but rather what led me up to this point. This requires some historical digression in my own research.

In the very beginning, I started out with doing research on the strong interactions. One of the features of the strong interactions is that the supposed elementary particles, quarks and gluons, are never seen separately, but only in combinations as hadrons. This is a phenomenon which is called confinement. It always somehow presented as a mystery. And as such, it is interesting. Thus, one question in my early research was how to understand this phenomenon.

Doing that I came across an interesting result from the 1970ies. It appears that a, at first sight completely unrelated, effect is very intimately related to confinement. At least in some theories. This is the Brout-Englert-Higgs effect. However, we seem to observe the particles responsible for and affected by the Higgs effect. And indeed, at that time, I was still thinking that the particles affected by the Brout-Englert-Higgs effect, especially  the Higgs and the W and Z bosons, are just ordinary, observable particles. When one reads my first paper of this time on the Higgs, this is quite obvious. But then there was the results of the 1970ies. It stated that, on a very formal level, there should be no difference between confinement and the Brout-Englert-Higgs effect, in a very definite way.

Now the implications of that serious sparked my interest. But I thought this would help me to understand confinement, as it was still very ingrained into me that confinement is a particular feature of the strong interactions. The mathematical connection I just took as a curiosity. And so I started to do extensive numerical simulations of the situation.

But while trying to do so, things which did not add up started to accumulate. This is probably most evident in a conference proceeding where I tried to put sense into something which, with hindsight, could never be interpreted in the way I did there. I still tried to press the result into the scheme of thinking that the Higgs and the W/Z are physical particles, which we observe in experiment, as this is the standard lore. But the data would not fit this picture, and the more and better data I gathered, the more conflicted the results became. At some point, it was clear that something was amiss.

At that point, I had two options. Either keep with the concepts of confinement and the Brout-Englert-Higgs effect as they have been since the 1960ies. Or to take the data seriously, assuming that these conceptions were wrong. It is probably signifying my difficulties that it took me more than a year to come to terms with the results. In the end, the decisive point was that, as a theoretician, I needed to take my theory seriously, no matter the results. There is no way around it. And it gave a prediction which did not fit my view of the experiments than necessarily either my view was incorrect or the theory. The latter seemed more improbable than the first, as it fits experiment very well. So, finally, I found an explanation, which was consistent. And this explanation accepted the curious mathematical statement from the 1970ies that confinement and the Brout-Englert-Higgs effect are qualitatively the same, but not quantitatively. And thus the conclusion was what we observe are not really the Higgs and the W/Z bosons, but rather some interesting composite objects, just like hadrons, which due to a quirk of the theory just behave almost as if they are the elementary particles.

This was still a very challenging thought to me. After all, this was quite contradictory to usual notions. Thus, it came as a very great relief to me that during a trip a couple months later someone pointed me to a few, almost forgotten by most, papers from the early 1980ies, which gave, for a completely different reason, the same answer. Together with my own observation, this made click, and everything started to fit together - the 1970ies curiosity, the standard notions, my data. That I published in the mid of 2012, even though this still lacked some more systematic stuff. But it required still to shift my thinking from agreement to really understanding. That came then in the years to follow.

The important click was to recognize that confinement and the Brout-Englert-Higgs effect are, just as pointed out in the 1970ies mathematically, really just two faces to the same underlying phenomena. On a very abstract level, essentially all particles which make up the standard model, are really just a means to an end. What we observe are objects which are described by them, but which they are not themselves. They emerge, just like hadrons emerge in the strong interaction, but with very different technical details. This is actually very deeply connected with the concept of gauge symmetry, but this becomes quickly technical. Of course, since this is fundamentally different from the usual way, this required confirmation. So we went, made predictions which could distinguish between the standard way of thinking and this way of thinking, and tested them. And it came out as we predicted. So, seems we are on the right track. And all details, all the if, how, and why, and all the technicalities and math you can find in the review.

To make now full circle to the starting point: That what happened during this decade in my mind was that the way I thought about how the physical theory I tried to describe, the standard model, changed. In the beginning I was thinking in terms of particles and their interactions. Now, very much motivated by gauge symmetry, and, not incidental, by its more deeper conceptual challenges, I think differently. I think no longer in terms of the elementary particles as entities themselves, but rather as auxiliary building blocks of actually experimentally accessible quantities. The standard 'small-ball' analogy went fully away, and there formed, well, hard to say, a new class of entities, which does not necessarily has any analogy. Perhaps the best analogy is that of, no, I really do not know how to phrase it. Perhaps at a later time I will come across something. Right now, it is more math than words.

This also transformed the way how I think about the original problem, confinement. I am curious, where this, and all the rest, will lead to. For now, the next step will be to go ahead from simulations, and see whether we can find some way how to test this actually in experiment. We have some ideas, but in the end, it may be that present experiments will not be sensitive enough. Stay tuned.