Really fascinating Op-Ed that raises a lot of interesting questions about the nature of the field, the relevance of (big) experiments, the role of models and predictions in sciences, as well as the role of government to pay for these types of projects.
This connects to a earlier post about what makes knowledge worth pursuing.
Knowledge Questions: What are the roles of models and predictions in the natural sciences? What should society’s priorities be in promoting advancement in the natural sciences? Who should decide what these priorities should be? How do we decide whether advancements in the natural sciences are worth pursuing? What is the purpose of scientific research?
The trouble is, a “prediction” in particle physics is today little more than guesswork. (In case you were wondering, yes, that’s exactly why I left the field.) In the past 30 years, particle physicists have produced thousands of theories whose mathematics they can design to “predict” pretty much anything. For example, in 2015 when a statistical fluctuation in the L.H.C. data looked like it might be a new particle, physicists produced more than 500 papers in eight months to explain what later turned out to be merely noise. The same has happened many other times for similar fluctuations, demonstrating how worthless those predictions are…
It is correct that some technological developments, like strong magnets, benefit from these particle colliders and that particle physics positively contributes to scientific education in general. These are worthy investments, but if that’s what you want to spend money on, you don’t also need to dig a tunnel.
And there are other avenues to pursue. For example, the astrophysical observations pointing toward dark matter should be explored further; better understanding those observations would help us make more reliable predictions about whether a larger collider can produce the dark matter particle — if it even is a particle.
Particle Physics Is Doing Just Fine
In science, lack of discovery can be just as instructive as discovery.
To read these articles, you’d think that unless particle physics comes home with a golden ticket in the form of a new particle, it shouldn’t come home at all. Or at least, it shouldn’t get a new shot at exploring the universe’s subatomic terrain. But the proposal that particle physicists are essentially setting money on fire comes with an insidious underlying message: that science is about the glory of discovery, rather than the joy of learning about the world. Finding out that there are no particles where we had hoped tells us about the distance between human imagination and the real world. It can operate as a motivation to expand our vision of what the real world is like at scales that are totally unintuitive. Not finding something is just as informative as finding something.