This Week at Quanta Magazine

I’ve got an article in Quanta Magazine this week, about a program called FORM.

Quanta has come up a number of times on this blog, they’re a science news outlet set up by the Simons Foundation. Their goal is to enhance the public understanding of science and mathematics. They cover topics other outlets might find too challenging, and they cover the topics others cover with more depth. Most people I know who’ve worked with them have been impressed by their thoroughness: they take fact-checking to a level I haven’t seen with other science journalists. If you’re doing a certain kind of mathematical work, then you hope that Quanta decides to cover it.

A while back, as I was chatting with one of their journalists, I had a startling realization: if I want Quanta to cover something, I can send them a tip, and if they’re interested they’ll write about it. That realization resulted in the article I talked about here. Chatting with the journalist interviewing me for that article, though, I learned something if anything even more startling: if I want Quanta to cover something, and I want to write about it, I can pitch the article to Quanta, and if they’re interested they’ll pay me to write about it.

Around the same time, I happened to talk to a few people in my field, who had a problem they thought Quanta should cover. A software, called FORM, was used in all the most serious collider physics calculations. Despite that, the software wasn’t being supported: its future was unclear. You can read the article to learn more.

One thing I didn’t mention in that article: I hadn’t used FORM before I started writing it. I don’t do those “most serious collider physics calculations”, so I’d never bothered to learn FORM. I mostly use Mathematica, a common choice among physicists who want something easy to learn, even if it’s not the strongest option for many things.

(By the way, it was surprisingly hard to find quotes about FORM that didn’t compare it specifically to Mathematica. In the end I think I included one, but believe me, there could have been a lot more.)

Now, I wonder if I should have been using FORM all along. Many times I’ve pushed to the limits of what Mathematica could comfortable handle, the limits of what my computer’s memory could hold, equations long enough that just expanding them out took complicated work-arounds. If I had learned FORM, maybe I would have breezed through those calculations, and pushed even further.

I’d love it if this article gets FORM more attention, and more support. But also, I’d love it if it gives a window on the nuts and bolts of hard-core particle physics: the things people have to do to turn those T-shirt equations into predictions for actual colliders. It’s a world in between physics and computer science and mathematics, a big part of the infrastructure of how we know what we know that, precisely because it’s infrastructure, often ends up falling through the cracks.

Edit: For researchers interested in learning more about FORM, the workshop I mentioned at the end of the article is now online, with registrations open.

3 thoughts on “This Week at Quanta Magazine

  1. karlshak

    Hey Matt,

    I enjoyed your article (and left a comment on it at Quanta about an old minor league version of the “FORM probkem” that I worked on years ago). But what I liked most about the article was the general commentary on the incentive structures in science. I’m not sure how long science can survive if it keeps heading down the path of progress by press release and allowing tool builders to become more and more marginalized.

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  2. Dimitris Papadimitriou

    The problem with Quanta is the unevenness of the quality of the articles they publish. I will agree that most of them are serious, careful and well thought ( like your article, that was, unfortunately, coincidentally appeared one day after the “other”).
    Another problem is that they seem to use as an excuse their previous reputation ( as “serious” science communicators) for releasing advertising articles with “purportedly” overhyped headlines ( leaving aside the awfully pompous video ..).
    The issue ( that everyone’s talking about especially the last few days) is that they seem to have adopted the “motto” that ” controversy and even negative publicity is the most efficient way to advertise something”.
    Well, I hate to be the “conservative commenter” ( I’m not a conservative person, in any sense of the word…) and I was rather hesitant to comment on your blog post for this controversy ( that has nothing to do with your work whatsoever) just soon after your article was published in quanta, but here we are …

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    1. 4gravitons Post author

      Yeah, I’ll probably have a post about the article you’re probably talking about next week TBH. For what it’s worth I don’t think Quanta is intentionally courting controversy/hype, so much as trusting mainstream experts too much. There’s a dynamic where a non-expert has to rely on some amount of he-said she-said because they can’t evaluate the claims themselves. In those situations, Quanta errs on the side of mainstream prestigious folks, while other outlets err on the side of the dissidents. I think if they did things the other way it would hamper a lot of their non-controversial coverage: the average person in high-energy would respond quite differently to an interview request from Natalie Wolchover than to one from Sabine Hossenfelder, and I suspect that’s still true after this article.

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