CERN and the Crisis of Big Science

Dennis Overbye has a nice article on the LHC at CERN and the, so far failed, search for supersymmetry at the New York Times. One of the things that Overbye focuses on is what he calls the “nightmare” of the physics community, or better still the physics establishment, namely that the LHC will find neither the LHC nor any new physics beyond the standard model.

“The feeling in the field is at best one of confusion and at worst depression,” Adam Falkowski, a particle physicist at the Laboratoire de Physique Théorique d’Orsay in France, wrote recently in an article for the science journal Inference.
“These are difficult times for the theorists,” Gian Giudice, the head of CERN’s theory department, said. “Our hopes seem to have been shattered. We have not found what we wanted.”

I think more than supersymmetry and the search for physics beyond the standard model is at play. The situation goes to the heart of the way fundamental physics is conducted. It’s not just a matter of knowing nature’s inner most secrets, but how we come to know those secrets.

At issue, therefore, is big science itself. I have become especially interested in big science in the context of my research on nuclear weapons. Steven Weinberg wrote an interesting article on what he referred to as “the crisis of big science,” for the New York Review of Books. The title is a good way of thinking about the Overbye article, and puts its themes into a deeper context. We see here a crisis in the way we conduct science, not just of theory itself.

Now, I should say, you don’t get that sense from Weinberg’s article.

Regarding the development of more complex accelerators Weinberg states,

It was not a matter of setting records for the highest-energy accelerators, or even of collecting more and more exotic species of particles, like orchids. The point of building these accelerators was, by creating new kinds of matter, to learn the laws of nature that govern all forms of matter. Though many physicists preferred small-scale experiments in the style of Rutherford, the logic of discovery forced physics to become big.

That is, it was the logic of discovery, which necessitated reaching higher and higher energies, that provided the impetus to big science. Let’s not quibble with this, although some might, for the sake of argument. Critics of big science have referred to it as “pathological science.”
Weinberg further stated,

But I do not believe that we can make significant progress without also pushing back the frontier of high energy. So in the next decade we may see the search for the laws of nature slow to a halt, not to be resumed again in our lifetimes.

Perhaps the logic of discovery is now pushing away from big science, away from probing the fundamental properties of nature through higher and higher energy experiments, for this is not where nature’s secrets are now to be found.

Recognising this might lead scientists to consider different questions. That is, questions little to do with string theory, supersymmetry, or quantum gravity itself which mandate going to higher and higher energies. For example, experiments on the measurement problem in quantum mechanics have been as fundamental as any other. Indeed, one could argue that Aspect’s experiments on quantum mechanics were of more fundamental import than the discovery of the W and Z bosons at CERN, both roughly at the same time and the latter, ironically, serving as experimental confirmation of Weinberg’s ideas on the weak interactions.

The latter received much more publicity than the former.

Weinberg argues that big science is in crisis because of a lack of social support for ever bigger, and ever more expensive, machines. But it’s possible to argue that the crisis of big science is more fundamental, a crisis which demonstrates the epistemic limitations of a certain mode of inquiry and the theoretical constructs, supersymmetry for example, it has supported.

Subtle is the lord, malicious he is not.