The latest (twitter) storm in a teacup on this subject nearly prompted me to return to my soapbox, but now my favoured news source (not the Onion but the Grauniad) has an arcicle attacking particle theorists. Yet again, the usual suspect with books to sell and a career to save is dunking on particle physics, the supposedly finished branch of science that should give up and go home now that we found the Higgs boson because we can't prove there's a new particle just round the corner and isn't the Standard Model great anyway? The problem is, of course, that maverick (Top Gun Maverick!) outsiders revealing the "truth" that elites in an ivory tower are spending oodles of public money on failed ideas, and that we need a whistleblower to expose the fraud, gains such traction with the taxpaying public.
I even see other physicists defending this public anti-vax-style conspiracy-theory propagation as good for the field to rattle peoples cages and get people to question their assumptions. The sociology of this is quite interesting, because there are people within the field who either work on niche theories or just want to take down adjacent fields, and would like to see the popular paradigms brought down a peg or two, presumably naively believing that this will lead to more resources (human, cash or just attention) to be sent in their direction. But of course public disparaging of scientists can only ever lead to a general reduction of public trust and a shrinking of the pie for everyone. There exist so many internal mechanisms for theorists to (re)consider what they are working on, e.g.:
These are all group mechanisms whereby scientists evaluate each other and what they are doing themselves. I am sure someone has studied the game theory of it; indeed as individual researchers trying to succeed in our careers we all have to adopt strategies to "win" and it is a shockingly competitive system at every stage. Of course, promoting a new idea can be difficult -- we are in a constant battle for attention (maybe writing a blog is a good strategy?) -- but if there is something really promising people will not ignore it. Ambulance chasing (where tens or hundreds of papers follow a new result) is a sign that plenty of people are ready to do exactly that. If a maverick outsider really had a great idea there would not be a shortage of people willing to follow. To take an example, if "the foundations of physics" really offered opportunities for rapid important progress, people would vote with their feet. I see examples of this all the time with people trying out Quantum Computing, Machine Learning, etc.
I'll let you in on a secret, therefore: the target of the bile is a straw man. I don't know anyone hired as a BSM model builder in recent years. People became famous for it in the 90s/early 00s because there was no big experiment running and the field was dreaming big. Now we have the LHC and that has focussed imaginations much more. People now hired as phenomenologists may also do some ambulance chasing on the side, but it is not their bread and butter. Inventing models in theory is usually a difficult and imaginative task, aimed at connecting often disparate ideas, but it's not the only task of a phenomenologist: the much bigger ones are understanding existing ones, and trying to connect theory to experiments!
In defence of ambulance chasing (retch)
When an experiment announces something unexpected (as happens quite frequently!) what is the correct response? According to our outsider, presumably we should just wait for it to go away and for the Standard Model to be reaffirmed. People in the field instead take the view that we could be curious and try to explain it; the best ideas come with new features or explain more than one anomaly. What should we do with wrong explanations? Should we be punished for not coming up with proven theories? Do we need external policing of our curiosity? What does ambulance chasing really cost? The attraction for many departments to form a theory group is that they are cheap -- theorists don't need expensive experiments or engineers/technicians/people to wash the test tubes. The reward for coming up with a failed theory is usually nothing; but it costs almost nothing too. So why the bitterness? Of course, we can begrudge people becoming famous for coming up with fanciful science fictions -- the mechanisms for identifying promising ideas are far from perfect -- but usually they have come up with something with at least some degree of novelty.
When looking at CVs, it's very easy to spot and discount 'ambulance citations.' By the way, another phenomenon is to sign 'community papers' where tens or hundreds of authors group-source a white paper on a popular topic; and a third is to write a review of a hot subject. Both of these work very well to generate citations. Should we stop doing them too? In the end, the papers that count are ones with an interesting result or idea and there is no sure mechanism to writing them. In the aftermath of every ambulance-chasing cycle there are almost always papers that have some interesting nugget of an idea in, something that remains that would not have been suggested otherwise or computatations done that would otherwise not have been thought of, and hopefully brings us closer to discoveries.
We have an amazing collider experiment -- the LHC -- which will run for another ten years or so at high luminosities. We can either take the view in advance that it will tell us nothing about the energy frontier, or we can try to make the most of it. The fundamental problems with our understanding of physics have not been solved; I wrote a response to a similar article in 2020 and I stand by my opinion of the state of the field, and you can look there for my laundry list of problems that we are trying to make sense of. What has changed since then? Here are just a few things, biased by my own interests:
Muon g-2The measurement of the muon g-2 by Fermilab confirmed the earlier anomalous measurement. Instead, now we have the problem that a series of lattice QCD groups have a calculation that would imply that the Standard Model prediction is closer to the measurement, in contradiction with the R-ratio method. Someone has underestimated their uncertainties, but we don't know who! This is a problem for theorists working with the experiments; perhaps the new experiment "mu on E" will help resolve it?
CDF measurement of the W massAs reported everywhere, the CDF experiment at the Tevatron (the previous energy frontier collider that shut down ten years ago) analysed its data and found a measurement of the mass of the W boson with an enormous disagreement with the Standard Model of 7 standard deviations. If confirmed, it would signal new physics around the TeV scale. Since the W boson mass is just about the most generic thing that can be modified by new particles near the electroweak scale, there are any number of new theories that can explain it (as the arXiv this year will attest). Here there is a 4 standard deviation tension with a measurement at the LHC which has a much larger uncertainty. Another LHC measurement is now needed to settle the issue, but this may take a long time as it is a difficult measurement to make at the LHC. (Maybe we should just not bother?). Other than lots of fanciful (and dull) model building, this has recentred theory efforts on how to extract information from the W boson mass in new theories, which is a problem of precision calculations and hugely interesting ...
The Xenon-1T anomaly disappearedXenon released new results this summer showing that the anomaly at low recoils they found had disappeared with more data. While this immediately killed many theories to explain it, the lasting effects are that people have given serious thought to low-mass dark matter models that could have explained, and come up with new ways to search for them. Without looking, we don't know if they are there!
An anomaly in extragalactic background light was foundA four standard deviation anomaly was reported in the extra-galactic background light (EBL), i.e. there is too much light coming from outside galaxies in every direction! This would naturally be explained by an axion-like particle decaying -- indeed, measurements of the EBL have long been used as constraints. (Maybe we should never have come up with axions?)
The LHC reported three other anomaliesIn analysing the data of run 2, three different searches reported anomalies of three standard deviations. Explanations for them have been suggested; perhaps we should see if they are correlations with other searches, or new ways of corroborating the possible signals? Or just not bother?
Run 3 has startedRun 3 of the LHC has started with a slightly higher energy and then stopped due to technical problems. It will be some time before significant luminosity is collected and our experimentalists are looking at new types of searches that might lead to discoveries. Their main motivation is that new signatures equals new reach. Our colleagues certaintly need justification or interpretations for their results, but whether the models really offer explanations of other types of new physics (e.g. dark matter) is of course a concern it is not the main one. The reason to do an experiment at the LHC is curiosity based -- experimentalists are not children looking for theorists' latest whims. The point is that we should test the theories every which way we can because we don't know what we will find. A good analogy might be zoologists looking for new species might want to got o a previously unexplored region of the earth, or they might find a new way of looking at ones they've been to before, e.g. by turning over rocks that they would otherwise have stepped over.
Long Lived ParticlesOne of these classes is long lived particles (LLPs)-- that I have written about before on here -- and they have also caught the imagination of theorists. In fact, I'm working with experimentalists with the aim of making their searches more widely applicable.
SMEFTTwo years ago I wrote that I thought the field was less inclined to follow hot topics and that this is healthy. This is still the case. However, some hot topics do exist and one of these is the theory of the Standard Model Effective Field Theory. There is now rapid development of all manner of aspects, from phenomenology to exploration of the higher-order version to matching etc.
Machine LearningAnother example is machine learning, which is becoming more prevalent and interesting, especially its interface between theory and experiments.
Of course, there are many more developments and I'm sure many I'm not aware of. Obviously this is a sign of a field in big trouble!