SUSY, Feynman, and Plutonium

SUSY where ‘art thou? The University of Melbourne is currently hosting a conference on supersymmetry or SUSY, which is a theory that seeks to address outstanding anomalies in particle physics by positing a new symmetry principle, that is one beyond the standard model, that links fermions (characterised by units of half integer spin) and bosons (characterised by units of integer spin). Each particle of the standard model is accompanied by a supersymmetric partner. Thus far supersymmetry has not been found, and results at the Large Hadron Collider are not encouraging. The LHC is getting close to the upper end of the range at which evidence of supersymmetric particles are expected to be found for natural supersymmetry, that is not fine tuned supersymmetry.

This means that supersymmetry is (probably) wrong. This is pretty good, given that string theory or M-theory is not even wrong. A null result is not a bad thing for science, and it by no means forms a sufficient reason to stop investing in high energy physics experiments. A null result, of course, is bad for string theory as the unification of hadronic strings with supersymmetry formed the basis of string theory’s elimination of the anomalies that bedevilled quantum gravity. This is favourable for the scientific enterprise, as it leads to a desire to open new doors and explore new, more fertile, terrain.

At about the same time that supersymmetry came into vogue inflationary theory took off in cosmology as a means to solve the outstanding anomalies of the hot big bang model. This theory looks to be in the not even wrong category.

This is interesting; we have two theories, developed not that far a part from each other, that sought to sweep away the anomalies of the standard model in particle physics and the standard hot big bang model in cosmology, and they both appear to be dead ends. Lesson. Just because a theory neatly and elegantly sweeps away anomalies doesn’t make it right.

Feynman The magazine Philosophy Now has a nice little article by Bruno Trubody on the philosophy of Richard Feynman, who, of course, had a disdain for philosophy in general and philosophy of science in particular. For some reason scientists are really into the philosophy of Karl Popper, although philosophers themselves have long ago shown that Popper’s view is quite problematical. Why is this? The answer probably can be found in a quote often attributed to Feynman; “the philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” I tend to think that scientists stopped paying attention to philosophy at about the time when the logical positivists and Karl Popper were in their hey day, and the Popperian legacy is just reflective of when time stopped, so to speak.

Trubody distils Feynman’s take on science like so

Feynman describes judgement in science as the skill to “pass on the accumulated wisdom, plus the wisdom that it might not be wisdom… to teach both to accept and reject the past with a kind of balance that takes considerable skill. Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation”

These are wise words. There is a natural anarchist element to science for the only legitimate authority in science is that bestowed by reason.

Plutonium. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has a good article by Fumihiko Yoshida on East Asia’s move toward a type of “plutonium nationalism.” Japan has a latent nuclear weapons capability, and soon may well be separating plutonium from the spent fuel rods of its civil nuclear programme. China has plans to import a plutonium reprocessing plant from France for its civil programme. The Chinese plant would have the same capacity as Japan’s Rokkasho plant. South Korea also retains the right to separate to plutonium.

Such plutonium nationalism has the potential to develop a breakout capability for China, Japan and South Korea should the strategic situation in Northeast Asia continue to deteriorate. For Japan and South Korea it is to surge from a latent to an actual nuclear weapons capability. For China it is to surge to a nuclear weapons capability well beyond that required of minimum deterrence without resuming the separation of spent fuel from military dedicated reactors.

My understanding is that a key concern of the US and Russia is to retain the capability to “surge” to cold war era nuclear force postures should there be a comprehensive breakdown in the structure of world order. Both have significant stockpiles of fissile material. China has much less. A latent surge capability means China would join the club.

Not a pretty picture.

It must be stressed that East Asia’s plutonium nationalism would be fuelled by uranium from Australia, as Canberra exports uranium to Japan, South Korea and China.

To cite Roy and HG; bye now.