Halloween Post: Superstimuli for Physicists

For Halloween, this blog has a tradition of covering “the spooky side” of physics. This year, I’m bringing in a concept from biology to ask a spooky physics “what if?”

In the 1950’s, biologists discovered that birds were susceptible to a worryingly effective trick. By giving them artificial eggs larger and brighter than their actual babies, they found that the birds focused on the new eggs to the exclusion of their own. They couldn’t help trying to hatch the fake eggs, even if they were so large that they would fall off when they tried to sit on them. The effect, since observed in other species, became known as a supernormal stimulus, or superstimulus.

Can this happen to humans? Some think so. They worry about junk food we crave more than actual nutrients, or social media that eclipses our real relationships. Naturally, this idea inspires horror writers, who write about haunting music you can’t stop listening to, or holes in a wall that “fit” so well you’re compelled to climb in.

(And yes, it shows up in porn as well.)

But this is a physics blog, not a biology blog. What kind of superstimulus would work on physicists?

Abstruse goose knows what’s up

Well for one, this sounds a lot like some criticisms of string theory. Instead of a theory that just unifies some forces, why not unify all the forces? Instead of just learning some advanced mathematics, why not learn more, and more? And if you can’t be falsified by any experiment, well, all that would do is spoil the fun, right?

But it’s not just string theory you could apply this logic to. Astrophysicists study not just one world but many. Cosmologists study the birth and death of the entire universe. Particle physicists study the fundamental pieces that make up the fundamental pieces. We all partake in the euphoria of problem-solving, a perpetual rush where each solution leads to yet another question.

Do I actually think that string theory is a superstimulus, that astrophysics or particle physics is a superstimulus? In a word, no. Much as it might look that way from the news coverage, most physicists don’t work on these big, flashy questions. Far from being lured in by irresistible super-scale problems, most physicists work with tabletop experiments and useful materials. For those of us who do look up at the sky or down at the roots of the world, we do it not just because it’s compelling but because it has a good track record: physics wouldn’t exist if Newton hadn’t cared about the orbits of the planets. We study extremes because they advance our understanding of everything else, because they give us steam engines and transistors and change everyone’s lives for the better.

Then again, if I had fallen victim to a superstimulus, I’d say that anyway, right?

*cue spooky music*

6 thoughts on “Halloween Post: Superstimuli for Physicists

  1. Lena Birkenfeld

    Astrophysics and cosmology is in a bit of a crisis at this moment, the current standard model of cosmology with cold dark matter and a cosmological constant is running into experimental astrophysical evidence that contradicts it, like the Hubble constant discrepancy, 21 mm absorption at high redshift, dwarf galaxy dynamics, null results in WIMP experiments, CMB anisotropy, and so on. So I do not think the situation in those two fields is anywhere like the case in string theory, where the problems result primarily from a lack of experimental evidence, rather than from existing experimental evidence that contradicts existing theory.


    1. Madeleine Birchfield

      Well on the contrary, cosmology is full of unfalsifiable theories like string theory for particle physics and quantum gravity. Inflation is a huge part of modern cosmology, and there is really no evidence for inflation at all from the universe except that cosmologists came up with a supposed problem, the flatness problem, which lead them to come up with inflation, in the same way that particle physics came up with the supposed problems, the hierarchy problem and force unification problem, which lead them to supersymmetric string theory in the first place. And both inflation and string theory lead to the unscientific notion of the multiverse.


  2. Pingback: Halloween Post: Superstimuli for Physicists — 4 gravitons – Mysteries of The Universe

  3. duffieldjohn

    I think the HEP community has fallen prey to “super stimulus”. They’re somehow fascinated by collider physics and the “discovery” of short-lived particles that do not exist in the natural world. But they can’t tell you what a photon actually is, or how gamma-gamma pair production works, or what an electron is. They lack the foundations.


    1. Madeleine Birchfield

      The foundations absolutely exist for high energy physics; what people call particles are in fact simply excitations in or quanta of the particular matter field. Unfortunately, the popular media and many high energy physicists love to call high energy physics ‘particle physics’ and the field excitations ‘particles’ which are very misleading in my opinion as they are not point particles or balls in the way we would think particles to be.


      1. duffieldjohn

        I’m sorry Madeleine, but I do not believe there are 24 different fields. Einstein described a field as “a state of space”, Both de Broglie and Schrodinger talked about the electron as being an electromagnetic wave in a closed path. Charles Galton Darwin talked about the electron as a vector wave. Born-Infeld theory says spin is real. So does the round-and-round motion of an electron in a uniform magnetic field – Larmor precession is not unlike gyroscopic precession. There’s a wealth of foundational information out there that is in effect, low-hanging fruit. However HEP physicists generally won’t look at it, and are stuck in an impasse instead.



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