Thursday, September 5, 2019

Reflection, self-criticism, and audacity as a scientist

Today, I want to write a bit about me as a scientist, rather than about my research. It is about how I deal with our attitude towards being right.

As I still do particle physics, we are not done with it. Meaning, we have no full understanding. As we try to understand things better, we make progress, and we make both wrong assumptions and actual errors. The latter because we are human, after all. The former because we do not yet know better. Thus, we necessarily know that whatever we do will not be perfect. In fact, especially when we enter unexplored territory, what we do is more likely not the final answer than not. This led to a quite defensive way of how results are presented. In fact, many conclusions of papers read more like an enumeration what all could be wrong with what was written than what has been learned. And because we are not in perfect control of what we are doing, anyone who is trying to twist things in a way they like, they will find a way due to all the cautious presentation. On the other hand, if we would not be so defensive, and act like we think we are right, but we are not - well, this would also be held against us, right?

Thus, as a scientist one is caught in an eternal limbo about actually believing one's own results and thinking that they can only be wrong. If you browse through scientist on, e.g, Twitter, you will see that this is a state which is not easy to endure. This becomes aggravated by a science system which was geared by neoliberalism towards competition and populist movements who need to discredit science to further their own ends, no matter the cost. To deal with both, we need to be audacious, and make our claims bold. At the same time, we know very well that any claims to be right are potentially wrong. Thus enhancing the perpetual cycle of self-doubt on an individual level. On a collective level this means that science gravitates to things which are simple and incremental, as there the chance to being wrong is smaller then when trying to do something more radical or new. Thus, this kind of pressure reduces science from revolutionary to evolutionary, with all the consequences. It also damns us to avoid taking all consequences of our results, because they could be wrong, couldn't they?

In the case of particle physics, this slows us down. One of the reasons, at least in my opinion, why there is no really big vision of how to push forward, is exactly being too afraid of being wrong. We are at a time, where we have too little evidence to do evolutionary steps. But rather than to make the bold step of just go exploring, we try to cover every possible evolutionary direction. Of course, one reason is that because of being in a competitive system, we have no chance of being bold more than once. If we are wrong with this, this will probably create a dead stop for decades. Of course, it other fields of science the consequence can be much more severe. E.g. in climate sciences, this may very well be the difference between extinction of the human species and its survival.

How do I deal with this? Well, I have been far too privileged and in addition was lucky a couple of time. As a consequence, I could weather the consequences to be a bit more revolutionary and bit more audacious than most. However, I also see that if I would not have been, I would probably had an easier career still. But this does not remove my own doubt about my results. After all, what I do has far-reaching consequences. In fact, I am questioning very much conventional wisdom in textbooks, and want to reinterpret the way how the standard model (and beyond) describes the particles of the world we are living in. Once in a while, when I realize what I claim, I can get scared. Other times, I feel empowered by how things seem to fall into place, and I do not see how edges not fit. Thus, I live in my own cycle of doubt.

Is there anything we can do about the nagging self-doubt, the timidity and the feeling of being an imposter? Probably not so much as individuals, except for taking good care of oneself, and working with people with a positive attitude about our common work. Much of the problems are systemic. Some of them could be dealt with by taking the heat of completion out of science, and have a cooperative model. This will only work out, if there is more access to science positions, and more resources to do science. After all, there are right now far too many people wanting a position as a scientist than there are available. No matter what we do, this always creates additional pressure. But even that could be reduced by having controllable career paths, more mentoring, easier transitions out of science, and much more feedback. But this not only requires long-term commitments on behalf of research institutes, but also that scientists themselves acknowledge these problems. I am very happy to see that this consciousness grows, especially with younger people getting into science. Too many scientist I encounter blatantly deny that these problems exist.

However, in the end, also these problems are connected to societal issues at large. The current culture is extremely competitive, and more often than not rewards selfish behavior. Also, there is, both in science and in society, a strong tendency to give those who have already. And such a society shapes also science. It will be necessary that society reshapes itself to a more cooperative model to get a science, which is much more powerful and forward-moving than we have today. On the other hand, existential crises of the world, like the climate crises or the rise of fascism, are also facilitated by a competitive society. And could therefore likely be overcome by having a more cooperative and equal society. Thus, dealing with the big problems will also help solving the problems of scientists today. I think this is worthwhile, and invite any fellow scientist, and anyone, to do so.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Making connections

Over time, it has happened that some solution in one area of physics could also be used in a quite different area. Or, at least, inspired the solution. Unfortunately, this does not always work. Even quite often it happened that when reaching the finer points it turns out that something promising did in the end not work. Thus, it pays off to be always careful with such a transfer, and never believe a hype. Still, in some cases it worked, and even lead to brilliant triumphs. And so it is always worthwhile to try.

Such an attempt is precisely the content of my latest paper. In it, I try to transfer ideas from my research on electroweak physics and the Brout-Englert-Higgs effect to quantum gravity. Quantum gravity is first and foremost still an unsolved issue. We know that mathematical consistency demands that there is some unification of quantum physics and gravity. We expect that this will be by having a quantum theory of gravity. Though we are yet lacking any experimental evidence for this assumption. Still, I also make the assumption for now that quantum gravity exists.

Based on this assumption, I take a candidate for such a quantum gravity theory and pose the question what are its observable consequences. This is a question which has driven me since a long time in particle physics. I think that by now I have an understanding of how it works. But last year, I was challenged whether these ideas can still be right if there is gravity in the game. And this new paper is essentially my first step towards an answerhttps://arxiv.org/abs/1908.02140. Much of this answer is still rough, and especially mathematically will require much work. But at least it provides a first consistent picture. And, as advertised above, it draws from a different field.

The starting point is that the simplest version of quantum gravity currently considered is actually not that different from other theories in particle physics. It is a so-called gauge theory. As such, many of its fundamental objects, like the structure of space and time, are not really observable. Just like most of the elementary particles of the standard model, which is also a gauge theory, are not. Thus, we cannot see them directly in an experiment. In the standard model case, it was possible to construct observable particles by combining the elementary ones. In a sense, the particles we observe are bound states of the elementary particles. However, in electroweak physics one of the bound elementary particles totally dominates the rest, and so the whole object looks very similar to the elementary one, but not quite.

This works, because the Brout-Englert-Higgs effect makes it possible. The reason is that there is a dominating kind of not observable structure, the so-called Higgs condensate, which creates this effect. This is something coincidental. If the parameters of the standard model would be different, it would not work. But, luckily, our standard model has just the right parameter values.

Now, when looking at gravity around us, there is a very similar feature. While we have the powerful theory of general relativity, which describes how matter warps space, we rarely see this. Most of our universe behaves much simpler, because there is so little matter in it. And because the parameters of gravity are such that this warping is very, very small. Thus, we have again a dominating structure: A vacuum which is almost not warped.

Using this analogy and the properties of gauge theories, I figured out the following: We can use something like the Brout-Englert-Higgs effect in quantum gravity. And all observable particles must still be some kind of bound states. But they may now also include gravitons, the elementary particles of quantum gravity. But just like in the standard model, these bound states are dominated by just one of its components. And if there is a standard model component it is this one. Hence, the particles we see at LHC will essentially look like there is no gravity. And this is very consistent with experiment. Detecting the deviations will be so hard in comparison to those which come from the standard model, we can pretty much forget about it for earthbound experiments. At least for the next couple of decades.

However, there are now also some combinations of gravitons without standard model particles involved. Such objects have been long speculated about, and are called geons, or gravity balls. But in contrast to the standard model case, they are not stable classically. But they may be stabilized due to quantum effects. The bound state structure strongly suggests that there is at least one stable one. Still, this is pure speculation at the moment. But if they are, these objects could have dramatic consequences. E.g., they could be part of the dark matter we are searching for. Or, they could make up black holes very much like neutrons make a neutron star. I have no idea, whether any of these speculations could be true. But if there is only a tiny amount of truth in it, this could be spectacular.

Thus, some master students and I will set out to have a look at these ideas. To this end, we will need to some hard calculations. And, eventually, the results should be tested against observation. These will be coming form the universe, and from astronomy. Especially from the astronomy of black holes, where recently there have been many interesting and exciting developments, like observing two black holes merge, or the first direct image of a black hole (obviously just black inside a kind of halo). These are exciting times, and I am looking forward to see whether any of these ideas work out. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Talking about the same thing

In this blog entry I will try to explain my most recent paper. The theme of the paper is rather simply put: You should not compare apple with oranges. The subtlety comes from knowing whether you have an apple or an orange in your hand. This is far less simple than it sounds.

The origin of the problem are once more gauge theories. In gauge theories, we have introduced additional degrees of freedom. And, in fact, we have a choice of how we do this. Of course, our final results will not depend on the choice. However, getting to the final result is not always easy. Thus, ensuring that the intermediate steps are right would be good. But they depend on the choice. But then they are only comparable between two different calculations, if in both calculations the same choice is made.

Now it seems simple at first to make the same choice. Ultimately, it is our choice, right? But this is actually not that easy in such theories, due to their mathematical complexity. Thus, rather than making the choice explicit, the choice is made implicitly. The way how this is done is, again for technical reasons, different for methods. And because of all of these technicalities and the fact that we need to do approximations, figuring out whether the implicit conditions yield the same explicit choice is difficult. This is especially important as the choice modifies the equations describing our auxiliary quantities.

In the paper I test this. If everything is consistent between two particular methods, then the solutions obtained in one method should be a solution to the equations obtained in the other method. Seems a simple enough idea. There had been various arguments in the past which suggested that this should be he case. But there had been more and more pieces of evidence over the last couple of years that led me to think that there was something amiss. So I made this test, and did not rely on the arguments.

And indeed, what I find in the article is that the solution of one method does not solve the equation from the other method. The way how this happens strongly suggests that the implicit choices made are not equivalent. Hence, the intermediate results are different. This does not mean that they are wrong. They are just not comparable. Either method can still yield in itself consistent results. But since neither of the methods are exact, the comparison between both would help reassure that the approximations made make sense. And this is now hindered.

So, what to do now? We would very much like to have the possibility to compare between different methods at the level of the auxiliary quantities. So this needs to be fixed. This can only be achieved if the same choice is made in all the methods. The though question is, in which method we should work on the choice. Should we try to make the same choice as in some fixed of the methods? Should we try to find a new choice in all methods? This is though, because everything is so implicit, and affected by approximations.

At the moment, I think the best way is to get one of the existing choices to work in all methods. Creating an entirely different one for all methods appears to me far too much additional work. And I, admittedly, have no idea what a better starting point would be than the existing ones. But in which method should we start trying to alter the choice? In neither method this seems to be simple. In both cases, fundamental obstructions are there, which need to be resolved. I therefore would currently like to start poking around in both methods. Hoping that there maybe a point in between where the choices of the methods could meet, which is easier than to push all all the way. I have a few ideas, but they will take time. Probably also a lot more than just me.

This investigation also amazes me as the theory where this happens is nothing new. Far from it, it is more than half a century old, older than I am. And it is not something obscure, but rather part of the standard model of particle physics. So a very essential element in our description of nature. It never ceases to baffle me, how little we still know about it. And how unbelievable complex it is at a technical level.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Creativity in physics

One of the most widespread misconceptions about physics, and other natural sciences, is that they are quite the opposite to art: Precise, fact-driven, logical, and systematic. While art is perceived as emotional, open, creative, and inspired.

Of course, physics has experiments, has data, has math. All of that has to be fitted perfectly together, and there is no room for slights. Logical deduction is central in what we do. But this is not all. In fact, these parts are more like the handiwork. Just like a painter needs to be able to draw a line, a writer needs to be able to write coherent sentences, so we need to be able to calculate, build, check, and infer. But just like the act of drawing a line or writing a sentence is not what we recognize already as art, so is not the solving of an equation physics.

We are able to solve an equation, because we learned this during our studies. We learned, what was known before. Thus, this is our tool set. Like people read books before start writing one. But when we actually do research, we face the fact that nobody knows what is going on. In fact, quite often we do not even know what is an adequate question to pose. We just stand there, baffled, before a couple of observations. That is, where the same act of creativity has to set in as when writing a book or painting a picture. We need an idea, need inspiration, on how to start. And then afterwards, just like the writer writes page after page, we add to this idea various pieces, until we have a hypotheses of what is going on. This is like having the first draft of a book. Then, the real grinding starts, where all our education comes to bear. Then we have to calculate and so on. Just like the writer has to go and fix the draft to become a book.

You may now wonder whether this part of creativity is only limited to the great minds, and at the inception of a whole new step in physics? No, far from it. On the one hand, physics is not the work of lone geniuses. Sure, somebody has occasionally the right idea. But this is usually just the one idea, which is in the end correct, and all the other good ideas, which other people had, did just turn out to be incorrect, and you never hear of them because of this. And also, on the other hand, every new idea, as said above, requires eventually all that what was done before. And more than that. Creativity is rarely borne out of being a hermit. It is often by inspiration due to others. Talking to each other, throwing fragments of ideas at each other, and mulling about consequences together is what creates the soil where creativity sprouts. All those, with whom you have interacted, have contributed to the idea you have being born.

This is, why the genuinely big breakthroughs have often resulted from so-called blue-sky research or curiosity-driven research. It is not a coincidence that the freedom of doing whatever kind of research you think is important is an, almost sacred, privilege of hired scientists. Or should be. Fortunately I am privileged enough, especially in the European Union, to have this privilege. In other places, you are often shackled by all kinds of external influences, down to political pressure to only do politically acceptable research. And this can never spark the creativity you need to make something genuine new. If you are afraid about what you say, you start to restrain yourself, and ultimately anything which is not already established to be acceptable becomes unthinkable. This may not always be as obvious as real political pressure. But if whether you being hired, if your job is safe, starts to depend on it, you start going for acceptable research. Because failure with something new would cost you dearly. And with the currently quite common competitive funding prevalent particularly for non-permanently hired people, this starts to become a serious obstruction.

As a consequence, real breakthrough research can be neither planned nor can you do it on purpose. You can only plan the grinding part. And failure will be part of any creative process. Though you actually never really fail. Because you always learn how something does not work. That is one of the reasons why I strongly want that failures become also publicly available. They are as important to progress as success, by reducing the possibilities. Not to mention the amount of life time of researchers wasted because they fail with them same attempt, not knowing that others failed before them.

And then, perhaps, a new scientific insight arises. And, more often than not, some great technology arises along the way. Not intentionally, but because it was necessary to follow one's creativity. And that is actually where most technological leaps came from. So,real progress in physics, in the end, is made from about a third craftsmanship, a third communication, and a third creativity.

So, after all this general stuff, how do I stay creative?

Well, first of all, I was and am sufficiently privileged. I could afford to start out with just following my ideas, and either it will keep me in business, or I will have to find a non-science job. But this only worked out because of my personal background, because I could have afforded to have a couple of months with no income to find a job, and had an education which almost guarantees me a decent job eventually. And the education I could only afford in this quality because of my personal background. Not to mention that as a white male I had no systemic barriers against me. So, yes, privilege plays a major role.

The other part was that I learned more and more that it is not effort what counts, but effect. Took me years. But eventually, I understood that a creative idea cannot be forced by burying myself in work. Time off is for me as important. It took me until close to the end of my PhD to realize that. But not working overtime, enjoying free days and holidays, is for me as important for the creative process as any other condition. Not to mention that I also do all non-creative chores much more efficiently if well rested, which eventually leaves me with more time to ponder creatively and do research.

And the last ingredient is really exchange. I have had now the opportunity, in a sabbatical, to go to different places and exchange ideas with a lot of people. This gave me what I needed to acquire a new field and have already new ideas for it. It is the possibility to sit down with people for some hours, especially in a nicer and more relaxing surrounding than an office, and just discuss ideas. That is also what I like most about conferences. And one of the reasons I think conferences will always be necessary, even though we need to make going there and back ecologically much more viable, and restrict ourselves to sufficiently close ones until this is possible.

Sitting down over a good cup of coffee or a nice meal, and just discuss, is really jump starting my creativity. Even sitting with a cup of good coffee in a nice cafe somewhere and just thinking does wonders for me in solving problems. And with that, it seems not to be so different for me than for artists, after all.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Acquiring a new field

I have recently started to look into a new field: Quantum gravity. In this entry, I would like to write a bit about how this happens, acquiring a new field. Such that you can get an idea what can lead a scientist to do such a thing. Of course, in future entries I will also write more about what I am doing, but it would be a bit early to do so right now.

Acquiring a new field in science is not something done lightly. One has always not enough time for the things one does already. And when you enter a new field, stuff is slow. You have to learn a lot of basics, need to get an overview of what has been done, and what is still open. Not to mention that you have to get used to a different jargon. Thus, one rarely does so lightly.

I have in the past written already one entry about how I came to do Higgs physics. This entry was written after the fact. I was looking back, and discussed my motivation how I saw it at that time. It will be an interesting thing to look back at this entry in a few years, and judge what is left of my original motivation. And how I feel about this knowing what happened since then. But for now, I only know the present. So, lets get to it.

Quantum gravity is the hypothetical quantum version of the ordinary theory of gravity, so-called general relativity. However, it has withstood quantization for a quite a while, though there has been huge progress in the last 25 years or so. If we could quantize it, its combination with the standard model and the simplest version of dark matter would likely be able to explain almost everything we can observe. Though even then a few open questions appear to remain.

But my interest in quantum gravity comes not from the promise of such a possibility. It has rather a quite different motivation. My interest started with the Higgs.

I have written many times that we work on an improvement in the way we look at the Higgs. And, by now, in fact of the standard model. In what we get, we see a clear distinction between two concepts: So-called gauge symmetries and global symmetries. As far as we understand the standard model, it appears that global symmetries determine how many particles of a certain type exists, and into which particles they can decay or be combined. Gauge symmetries, however, seem to be just auxiliary symmetries, which we use to make calculations feasible, and they do not have a direct impact on observations. They have, of course, an indirect impact. After all, in which theory which gauge symmetry can be used to facilitate things is different, and thus the kind of gauge symmetry is more a statement about which theory we work on.

Now, if you add gravity, the distinction between both appears to blur. The reason is that in gravity space itself is different. Especially, you can deform space. Now, the original distinction of global symmetries and gauge symmetries is their relation to space. A global symmetry is something which is the same from point to point. A gauge symmetry allows changes from point to point. Loosely speaking, of course.

In gravity, space is no longer fixed. It can itself be deformed from point to point. But if space itself can be deformed, then nothing can stay the same from point to point. Does then the concept of global symmetry still make sense? Or does all symmetries become just 'like' local symmetries? Or is there still a distinction? And what about general relativity itself? In a particular sense, it can be seen as a theory with a gauge symmetry of space. Makes this everything which lives on space automatically a gauge symmetry? If we want to understand the results of what we did in the standard model, where there is no gravity, in the real world, where there is gravity, then this needs to be resolved. How? Well, my research will hopefully answer this question. But I cannot do it yet.

These questions were already for some time in the back of my mind. A few years, I actually do not know how many exactly. As quantum gravity pops up in particle physics occasionally, and I have contact with several people working on it, I was exposed to this again and again. I knew, eventually, I will need to address it, if nobody else does. So far, nobody did.

But why now? What prompted me to start now with it? As so often in science, it were other scientists.

Last year at the end of November/beginning of December, I took part in a conference in Vienna. I had been invited to talk about our research. The meeting has a quite wide scope, and also present were several people, who work on black holes and quantum physics. In this area, one goes, in a sense, halfway towards quantum gravity: One has quantum particles, but they life in a classical gravity theory, but with strong gravitational effects. Which is usually a black hole. In such a setup, the deformations of space are fixed. And also non-quantum black holes can swallow stuff. This combination appears to make the following thing: Global symmetries appear to become meaningless, because everything associated with them can vanish in the black hole. However, keeping space deformations fixed means that local symmetries are also fixed. So they appear to become real, instead of auxiliary. Thus, this seems to be quite opposite to our result. And this, and the people doing this kind of research, challenged my view of symmetries. In fact, in such a half-way case, this effect seems to be there.

However, in a full quantum gravity theory, the game changes. Then also space deformations become dynamical. At the same time, black holes need no longer to have the characteristic to swallow stuff forever, because they become dynamical, too. They develop. Thus, to answer what happens really requires full quantum gravity. And because of this situation, I decided to start to work actively on quantum gravity. Because I needed to answer whether our picture of symmetries survive, at least approximately, when there is quantum gravity. And to be able to answer such challenges. And so it began.

Within the last six months, I have now worked through a lot of the basic stuff. I have now a rough idea of what is going on, and what needs to be done. And I think, I see a way how everything can be reconciled, and make sense. It will still need a long time to complete this, but I am very optimistic right now. So optimistic, in fact, that a few days back I gave my first talk, in which I discussed this issues including quantum gravity. It will still need time, before I have a first real result. But I am quite happy how thing progress.

And that is the story how I started to look at quantum gravity in earnest. If you want to join me in this endeavor: I am always looking for collaboration partners and, of course, students who want to do their thesis work on this subject 😁

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Why there won't be warp travel in times of global crises

One of the questions I get most often at outreach events is: "What is about warp travel?", or some other wording for faster-than-light travel. Something, which makes interstellar travel possible, or at least viable.

Well, the first thing I can say is that there is nothing which excludes it. Of course, within our well established theories of the world it is not possible. Neither the standard model of particle physics, nor general relativity, when constrained to the matter we know of, allows it. Thus, whatever describes warp travel, it needs to be a theory, which encompasses and enlarges what we know. Can a quantized combination of general relativity and particle physics do this? Perhaps, perhaps not. Many people think about it really hard. Mostly, we run afoul of causality when trying.

But these are theoretical ideas. And even if some clever team comes up with a theory which allows warp travel, this does not say that this theory is actually realized in nature. Just because we can make it mathematical consistent does not guarantee that it is realized. In fact, we have many, many more mathematical consistent theories than are realized in nature. Thus, it is not enough to just construct a theory of warp travel. Which, as noted, we failed so far to do.

No, what we need is to figure out that it really happens in nature. So far, this did not happen. Neither did we observe it in any human-made experiment, nor did we have any observation in nature which unambiguously point to it. And this is what makes it real hard.

You see, the universe is a tremendous place, which is unbelievable large, and essentially three times as old as the whole planet earth. Not to mention humanity. There happen extremely powerful events out there. This starts from quasars, effectively like a whole galactic core on fire, to black hole collisions and supernovas. These events put out an enormous amount of energy. Much, much more than even our sun generates. Hence, anything short of a big bang is happening all the time in the universe. And we see the results. The earth is hit constantly by particles with much, much higher energies than we can produce in any experiment. And this since earth came into being. Incidentally, this also tells us that nothing we can do at a particle accelerator can really be dangerous. Whatever we do there has happened so often in our Earth's atmosphere, it would have killed this planet long before humanity entered the scene. Only bad thing about it, we do never know when and where such an event happens. And the rate is also not that high, it is only that earth existed already so very long. And is big. Hence, we cannot use this to make controlled observations.

Thus, whatever could happen, happens out there. In the universe. We see some things out there, which we cannot explain yet, e.g. dark matter. But by and large a lot works as expected. Especially, we do not see anything which begs warp travel to explain. Or anything else remotely suggesting something happening faster than the speed of light. Hence, if something like faster-than-light travel is possible, it is neither common nor easily happening.

As noted, this does not mean it is impossible. Only that if it is possible, it is very, very hard. Especially, this means it will be very, very hard to make an experiment to demonstrate the phenomenon. Much less to actually make it a technology, rather than a curiosity. This means, a lot of effort will be necessary to get to see it, if it is really possible.

What is a lot? Well, the CERN is a bit. But human, or even robotic, space exploration is an entire different category, some one to two orders of magnitudes more. Probably, we would need to combine such space exploration with particle physics to really get to it. Possible the best example for such an endeavor is the future LISA project to measure gravitational waves in space. It is perhaps even our current best bet to observe any hints of faster-than-light phenomena, aside from bigger particle physics experiments on earth.

Do we have the technology for such a project? Yes, we do. We have it since roughly a decade. But it will likely take at least one more decade to have LISA flying. Why not now? Resources. Or, often put equivalently, costs.

And here comes the catch. I said, it is our best chance. But this does not mean it is a good chance. In fact, even if faster-than-light is possible, I would be very surprised if we would see it with this mission. There is probably a few more generations of technology, and another order of magnitude of resources, needed, before we could see something, given of what I know how well everything currently fits. Of course, there can always be surprises with every little step further. I am sure, we will discover something interesting, possibly spectacular with LISA. But I would not bet anything valuable that it will be having to do with warp travel.

So, you see, we have to scale up, if we want to go to the stars. This means investing resources. A lot of them. But resources are needed to fix things on earth as well. And the more we damage, the more we need to fix, and the less we have to get to the stars. Right now, humanity moves into a state of perpetual crises. The damage wrought by the climate crises will require enormous efforts to mitigate, much more to stop the downhill trajectory. As a consequence of the climate crises, as well as social inequality, more and more conflicts will create further damage. Finally, isolationism, both nationally as well as socially, driven by fear of the oncoming crises, will also soak up tremendous amounts of resources. And, finally, a hostile environment towards diversity and putting individual gains above common gains create a climate which is hostile to anything new and different in general, and to science in particular. Hence, we will not be able to use our resources, or the ingenuity of the human species as a whole, to get to the stars.

Thus, I am not hopeful to see faster-than-light in my lifetime, or those of the next generation. Such a challenge, if it is possible at all, will require a common effort of our species. That would be truly one worthy endeavour to put our minds at. But right now, as a scientist, I am much more occupied with protecting a world in which science is possible, both metaphorically as well as literally.

But, there is always hope. If we rise up, and decide to change fundamentally. When we put the well-being of us as a whole in front. Then, I would be optimistic that we can get out there. Well, at least as fast as nature permits. How fast this ever will be.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Taking your theory seriously

This blog entry is somewhat different than usual. Rather than writing about some particular research project, I will write about a general vibe, directing my research.

As usual, research starts with a 'why?'. Why does something happen, and why does it happen in this way? Being the theoretician that I am, this question often equates with wanting to have mathematical description of both the question and the answer.

Already very early in my studies I ran into peculiar problems with this desire. It usually left me staring at the words '...and then nature made a choice', asking myself, how could it? A simple example of the problem is a magnet. You all know that a magnet has a north pole and a south pole, and that these two are different. So, how does it happen which end of the magnet becomes the north pole and which the south pole? At the beginning you always get to hear that this is a random choice, and it just happens that one particular is made. But this is not really the answer. If you dig deeper than you find that originally the metal of any magnet has been very hot, likely liquid. In this situation, a magnet is not really magnetic. It becomes magnetic when it is cooled down, and becomes solid. At some temperature (the so-called Curie temperature), it becomes magnetic, and the poles emerge. And here this apparent miracle of a 'choice by nature' happens. Only that it does not. The magnet cools down not all by itself, but it has a surrounding. And the surrounding can have magnetic fields as well, e.g. the earth's magnetic field. And the decision what is south and what is north is made by how the magnet forms relative to this field. And thus, there is a reason. We do not see it directly, because magnets have usually moved since then, and thus this correlation is no longer obvious. But if we would heat the magnet again, and let it cool down again, we could observe this.

But this immediately leaves you with the question of where did the Earth's magnetic field comes from, and got its direction? Well, it comes from the liquid metallic core of the Earth, and aligns along or oppositely, more or less, the rotation axis of the Earth. Thus, the question is, how did the rotation axis of the Earth comes about, and why has it a liquid core? Both questions are well understood, and arise from how the Earth has formed billions of years ago. This is due to the mechanics of the rotating disk of dust and gas which formed around our fledgling sun. Which in turns comes from the dynamics on even larger scales. And so on.

As you see, whenever one had the feeling of a random choice, it was actually the outside of what we looked at so far, which made the decision. So, such questions always lead us to include more into what we try to understand.

'Hey', I now can literally hear people say who are a bit more acquainted with physics, 'does not quantum mechanics makes really random choices?'. The answer to this is yes and no in equal measures. This is probably one of the more fundamental problems of modern physics. Yes, our description of quantum mechanics, as we teach it also in courses, has intrinsic randomness. But when does it occur? Yes, exactly, whenever we jump outside of the box we describe in our theory. Real, random choice is encountered in quantum physics only whenever we transcend the system we are considering. E.g. by an external measurement. This is one of the reasons why this is known as the 'measurement problem'. If we stay inside the system, this does not happen. But at the expense that we are loosing the contact to things, like an ordinary magnet, which we are used to. The objects we are describing become obscure, and we talk about wave functions and stuff like this. Whenever we try to extend our description to also include the measurement apparatus, on the other hand, we again get something which is strange, but not as random as it originally looked. Although talking about it becomes almost impossible beyond any mathematical description. And it is not really clear what random means anymore in this context. This problem is one of the big ones in the concept of physics. While there is a relation to what I am talking about here, this question can still be separated.

And in fact, it is not this divide what I want to talk about, at least not today. I just wanted to get away with this type of 'quantum choice'. Rather, I want to get to something else.

If we stay inside the system we describe, then everything becomes calculable. Our mathematical description is closed in the sense that after fixing a theory, we can calculate everything. Well, at least in principle, in practice our technical capabilities may limit this. But this is of no importance for the conceptual point. Once we have fixed the theory, there is no choice anymore. There is no outside. And thus, everything needs to come from inside the theory. Thus, a magnet in isolation will never magnetize, because there is nothing which can make a decision about how. The different possibilities are caught in an eternal balanced struggle, and none can win.

Which makes a lot of sense, if you take physical theories really seriously. After all, one of the basic tenants is that there is no privileged frame of reference: 'Everything is relative'. If there is nothing else, nothing can happen which creates an absolute frame of reference, without violating the very same principles on which we found physics. If we take our own theories seriously, and push them to the bitter end, this is what needs to come about.

And here I come back to my own research. One of the driving principles has been to really push this seriousness. And ask what it implies if one really, really takes it seriously. Of course, this is based on the assumption that the theory is (sufficiently) adequate, but that is everyday uncertainty for a physicist anyhow. This requires me to very, very carefully separate what is really inside, and outside. And this leads to quite surprising results. Essentially most of my research on Brout-Englert-Higgs physics, as described in previous entries, is coming about because of this approach. And leads partly to results quite at odds with common lore, often meaning a lot of work to convince people. Even if the mathematics is valid and correct, interpretation issues are much more open to debate when it comes to implications.

Is this point of view adequate? After all, we know for sure that we are not yet finished, and our theories do not contain all there is, and there is an 'outside'. However it may look. And I agree. But, I think it is very important that we very clearly distinguish what is an outside influence, and what is not. And as a first step to ensure what is outside, and thus, in a sense, is 'new physics', we need to understand what our theories say if they are taken in isolation.