When Physics Became a Gigolo: Superprofits For Supergravity.

“Is the end in sight for theoretical physics,” asked Stephen Hawking at his inaugural lecture as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. Hawking defined “the end” of theoretical physics to be the successful development of a complete, consistent, and unified physical theory able to account for all possible observations. Toward the end of the lecture Hawking singles out what he regarded to be a promising candidate for this, namely N=8 supergravity.

The Lucasian Chair is named after Henry Lucas, a powerful and wealthy benefactor whose money led to the establishment of the professorship in 1663. You can read Hawking’s inaugural lecture as published by the CERN Courier in two parts; part 1 linked here and part 2 linked here.

Thus far supergravity has accounted for no observations other than those already accounted for. Rather than describing all possible observations, supergravity describes precisely zero.  This has not prevented the three inventors of supergravity, Sergio Ferrara, Dan Freedman and Peter van Nieuwenhuizen, from being awarded a Special Breakthrough Prize of $3 million ($1 million each) from a foundation funded by Yuri Milner, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Anne Wojcicki all extremely wealthy individuals. Nature has a good article on this, and both Sabine Hossenfelder and Peter Woit have good posts on their respective weblogs.

Supergravity is a theory of quantum gravity, which like most of the species posit a hypothetical spin 2 particle, the graviton, as the carrier of the gravitational force. The standard model does not include gravity, and general relativity is not a quantum theory of gravity. The super in supergravity comes from supersymmetry, which holds that all particles, bosons and fermions, have a supersymmetric partner. A boson has a fermion superpartner, and a fermion a boson superpartner. Bosons are particles with integer spin and obey Bose-Einstein statistics. The carrier particles of the forces of nature, excluding gravity, are bosons. Fermions are particles with half-integer spin, and they obey both Fermi-Dirac statistics and the Pauli exclusion principle. Supergravity holds that the graviton of quantum gravity has a supersymmetric partner known as the spin 3/2 gravitino.

The thing is that supersymmetry has not been observed in nature. The superpartners of natural supersymmetry have not been found at the LHC as was hoped by advocates of the theory. As Woit points out in his post the chances that supersymmetry, the uglier versions thereof, will be found anytime soon, or with equipment remotely on the horizon, look grim indeed. That’s a drag for a theory whose main selling point is beauty through economy of assumptions accompanied by a breadth of explanation.

Hossenfleder concludes her post by writing

“Awarding a scientific prize, especially one accompanied by so much publicity, for an idea that has no evidence speaking for it, sends the message that in the foundations of physics contact to observation is no longer relevant. If you want to be successful in my research area, it seems, what matters is that a large number of people follow your footsteps, not that your work is useful to explain natural phenomena.”

A prize worth its salt, I personally think there shouldn’t be any such prizes, is awarded for intellectual achievements that have a strong, if not overwhelming, degree of warranted assertibility. At the very least we might say that the Breakthrough Prize for supergravity is the type one expects to be awarded in an epistemological era marked by the Trump administration. In the Trump era bullshit rises to the top.

Supergravity was eclipsed as the favoured theory to end theoretical physics, not long after Hawking delivered his inaugural lecture, in what is now known as “the first superstring revolution.” It was largely forgotten. However, it again rose to prominence in the “second superstring revolution” when, in this case N=11, supergravity was shown to be dual with multiple versions of superstring theory and so part of a wider theory called “M theory.” Supersymmetry, however, remains critical to the story. With M theory also came a myriad of solutions each descriptive of a world other than the one we observe, the multiverse as it were, thus moving beyond a description of Hawking’s “all possible” observations.

We might say, then, that supergravity has indeed ushered in the end of theoretical physics for it has heralded a shift from physics to metaphysics. There’s a bit of irony here as metaphysics itself went analytical at about the same time, with Saul Kripke’s “possible worlds” semantics a type of multiverse as it were but at least it had the virtue of speaking of truth values that apply across all possible worlds (no Anthropic Principle needed bwahahaha). Formal and symbolic metaphysics is still metaphysics. The answer to Hawking’s question was YEEEES, but not quite in the way he envisaged it. For another interesting point, look at what the recipients of the Breakthrough Prize say (in the Nature article) about their use of computers to test the theory in the early days and how Hawking concludes at the end of his inaugural lecture.

The Breakthrough Prize award for supergravity tells us little, in fact nothing, about nature, but it does tell us plenty about the oligarchisation of society and the role of science in neoliberal society. As we know inequality, particularly in the United States, has risen significantly over the last 35 to 40 years. That is to say, over a period whose origins coincide with Hawking’s inaugural lecture. By the mid to late 1990s wealth and income had accumulated to the top end of society to such a degree Business Week asked in a headline, “The Problem Now: What To Do With All That Cash.” Hello, supergravity!

The funders of the Breakthrough Prize all hail from the so called “tech economy.” Their businesses would not have been possible bar for investment in basic science and technological inquiry courtesy of the public sector, which means ultimately investment by wage and salary earners. The neoliberal period has seen the burden of taxation shift from corporations, investors, and the super rich to wage earners.  The political economy of state capitalism functions as a type of reverse socialism as the public subsidises basic science and technology, which is then turned over to the corporate sector and the market as it becomes possible to draw profits from new basic and applied systems of knowledge. Socialisation of risk and cost, but privatisation of profits. In turn, the corporate sector constructs a regime of concentrated capital and power that suits its own monopoly interests, hence Microsoft and Apple et al, resulting in skyrocketing super profits and a torrential flow of resources to the top. This all stifles further innovation in the application of the new technologies, as intellectual property is corporatised, and encourages the proliferation of socially harmful effects of the type we are all too familiar with. Whatever profits accrue to the likes of the benefactors of the Breakthrough Prize go far beyond their contribution to the marginal productivity of society, hence superprofits for supergravity. I should stress that this is not an isolated one off phenomena. There are many examples where capital sourced from neoliberalism’s super rich have funded conferences, departments, research institutes and the like.

In a democratic society the proceeds of public investment in scientific and technological innovation do not accrue to the financiers of the Breakthrough Prize but rather are used in collectively determined ways to improve the human condition. As that part of society devoted to the public welfare becomes starved of funds, including the university sector, so science and intellectual endeavour more broadly finds a greater need for alternative sources of capital. During the cold war, what the MIT physicist David Kaiser called physics’ cold war bubble, physics was lavishly supported by the state. A lot of the advances in the basic sciences that made the business activities of the funders of the Breakthrough Prize possible arose in this period, with biology and biotechnology enjoying a similar status thereafter. But that cold war bubble ended at just about the same time Hawking delivered his inaugural Lucasian lecture. We can see similar processes at work in philosophy, where some philosophy departments are being lavishly endowed with the money of oligarchs.

What Paul Krugman has called “the return of the gilded age” has seen a sort of return to earlier times when intellectuals relied on wealthy benefactors, such as, say, the Elector of Hanover or Queen Christina of Sweden or Henry Lucas for that matter. The problem here is that as neoliberalism and the injustices and suffering it entails bites into the social fabric, so science itself, to our great detriment, will become increasingly associated with the system of wealth and power. Neoliberalism encourages a rise in the prevalence of irrational belief, and as scientists become synonymous in the public’s mind with a rapacious and devious elite so parts of society will drift toward a dark ages type mentality. We see this with climate change denialism, a matter of no small moment given the stakes for continued human civilisation. We’ve seen this before, when science was regarded, rightly, as a cog of the military-industrial complex. This encouraged the growth of irrational and arational epistemological doctrines.

There are some holdouts, for example the Russian mathematician Grisha Perelman who refused a $1 million Clay Prize for proving the Poincare conjecture now theorem. Alexander Grothendieck, a premier mathematician of the 20th century, who recently passed away, would without a shadow of a doubt have refused a Breakthrough Prize such was the depth of his anarchist convictions. We see Perelman and Grothendieck as nutters in our midst, yet it is their purity of mind that inspires the intellectual fancy more than Milner and his wads of cash. History may recall, I hope history is given the opportunity, it is we who are nuts not Perelman and Grothendieck.

I have written of this before, for instance in response to this article in The New York Times featuring the work of Stephen Hawking, Matthew Perry and Andrew Strominger on black holes and information loss. The Times informed us that, “Dr. Hawking and his colleagues worked in a hotel by day and were feted at night, including a party at the home of the media baron Rupert Murdoch.” The “considerable expense was covered by Yuri Milner, a Russian philanthropist and entrepreneur, who wanted Dr. Hawking on hand to help announce a new project to see if we can fly iPhone-like spaceships to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star.” Strominger is extensively cited in the Nature article praising supergravity and defending the awarding of the Breakthrough Prize, courtesy of Yuri Milner, by the committee of which he is a member.

Iwan Morus wrote a great book with the title When Physics Became King. In the early 20th century physics was established as the premier intellectual pursuit. Morus holds that by the eve of World War One physics became king. One hundred years later the king has become a perfumed gigolo.

This entry was posted in Philosophy and Science, Politics and Economics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.