Category Archives: Misc

Of p and sigma

Ask a doctor or a psychologist if they’re sure about something, and they might say “it has p<0.05”. Ask a physicist, and they’ll say it’s a “5 sigma result”. On the surface, they sound like they’re talking about completely different things. As it turns out, they’re not quite that different.

Whether it’s a p-value or a sigma, what scientists are giving you is shorthand for a probability. The p-value is the probability itself, while sigma tells you how many standard deviations something is away from the mean on a normal distribution. For people not used to statistics this might sound very complicated, but it’s not so tricky in the end. There’s a graph, called a normal distribution, and you can look at how much of it is above a certain point, measured in units called standard deviations, or “sigmas”. That gives you your probability.

Give it a try: how much of this graph is past the 1\sigma line? How about 2\sigma?

What are these numbers a probability of? At first, you might think they’re a probability of the scientist being right: of the medicine working, or the Higgs boson being there.

That would be reasonable, but it’s not how it works. Scientists can’t measure the chance they’re right. All they can do is compare models. When a scientist reports a p-value, what they’re doing is comparing to a kind of default model, called a “null hypothesis”. There are different null hypotheses for different experiments, depending on what the scientists want to test. For the Higgs, scientists looked at pairs of photons detected by the LHC. The null hypothesis was that these photons were created by other parts of the Standard Model, like the strong force, and not by a Higgs boson. For medicine, the null hypothesis might be that people get better on their own after a certain amount of time. That’s hard to estimate, which is why medical experiments use a control group: a similar group without the medicine, to see how much they get better on their own.

Once we have a null hypothesis, we can use it to estimate how likely it is that it produced the result of the experiment. If there was no Higgs, and all those photons just came from other particles, what’s the chance there would still be a giant pile of them at one specific energy? If the medicine didn’t do anything, what’s the chance the control group did that much worse than the treatment group?

Ideally, you want a small probability here. In medicine and psychology, you’re looking for a 5% probability, for p<0.05. In physics, you need 5 sigma to make a discovery, which corresponds to a one in 3.5 million probability. If the probability is low, then you can say that it would be quite unlikely for your result to happen if the null hypothesis was true. If you’ve got a better hypothesis (the Higgs exists, the medicine works), then you should pick that instead.

Note that this probability still uses a model: it’s the probability of the result given that the model is true. It isn’t the probability that the model is true, given the result. That probability is more important to know, but trickier to calculate. To get from one to the other, you need to include more assumptions: about how likely your model was to begin with, given everything else you know about the world. Depending on those assumptions, even the tiniest p-value might not show that your null hypothesis is wrong.

In practice, unfortunately, we usually can’t estimate all of those assumptions in detail. The best we can do is guess their effect, in a very broad way. That usually just means accepting a threshold for p-values, declaring some a discovery and others not. That limitation is part of why medicine and psychology demand p-values of 0.05, while physicists demand 5 sigma results. Medicine and psychology have some assumptions they can rely on: that people function like people, that biology and physics keep working. Physicists don’t have those assumptions, so we have to be extra-strict.

Ultimately, though, we’re all asking the same kind of question. And now you know how to understand it when we do.

Congratulations to Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann, and Giorgio Parisi!

The 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics was announced this week, awarded to Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann for climate modeling and Giorgio Parisi for understanding a variety of complex physical systems.

Before this year’s prize was announced, I remember a few “water cooler chats” about who might win. No guess came close, though. The Nobel committee seems to have settled in to a strategy of prizes on a loosely linked “basket” of topics, with half the prize going to a prominent theorist and the other half going to two experimental, observational, or (in this case) computational physicists. It’s still unclear why they’re doing this, but regardless it makes it hard to predict what they’ll do next!

When I read the announcement, my first reaction was, “surely it’s not that Parisi?” Giorgio Parisi is known in my field for the Altarelli-Parisi equations (more properly known as the DGLAP equations, the longer acronym because, as is often the case in physics, the Soviets got there first). These equations are in some sense why the scattering amplitudes I study are ever useful at all. I calculate collisions of individual fundamental particles, like quarks and gluons, but a real particle collider like the LHC collides protons. Protons are messy, interacting combinations of quarks and gluons. When they collide you need not merely the equations describing colliding quarks and gluons, but those that describe their messy dynamics inside the proton, and in particular how those dynamics look different for experiments with different energies. The equation that describes that is the DGLAP equation.

As it turns out, Parisi is known for a lot more than the DGLAP equation. He is best known for his work on “spin glasses”, models of materials where quantum spins try to line up with each other, never quite settling down. He also worked on a variety of other complex systems, including flocks of birds!

I don’t know as much about Manabe and Hasselmann’s work. I’ve only seen a few talks on the details of climate modeling. I’ve seen plenty of talks on other types of computer modeling, though, from people who model stars, galaxies, or black holes. And from those, I can appreciate what Manabe and Hasselmann did. Based on those talks, I recognize the importance of those first one-dimensional models, a single column of air, especially back in the 60’s when computer power was limited. Even more, I recognize how impressive it is for someone to stay on the forefront of that kind of field, upgrading models for forty years to stay relevant into the 2000’s, as Manabe did. Those talks also taught me about the challenge of coupling different scales: how small effects in churning fluids can add up and affect the simulation, and how hard it is to model different scales at once. To use these effects to discover which models are reliable, as Hasselmann did, is a major accomplishment.

Four Gravitons and a…What Exactly Are You Now?

I cleaned up my “Who Am I?” page this week, and some of you might notice my title changed. I’m no longer a Postdoc. As of this month, I’m an Assistant Professor.

Before you start congratulating me too much, saying I’ve made it and so on…to be clear, I’m not that kind of Assistant Professor.

Universities in Europe and the US work a bit differently. The US has the tenure-track system: professors start out tenure-track, and have a fixed amount of time to prove themselves. If they do, they get tenure, and essentially permanent employment. If not, they leave.

Some European countries are starting to introduce a tenure track, sometimes just university by university or job-by-job. For the rest, professors are divided not into tenured and tenure-track, but into permanent and fixed-term. Permanent professors are permanent in the way a normal employee of a company would be: they can still be fired, but if not their contract continues indefinitely. Fixed-term professors, then, have contracts for just a fixed span of time. In some cases this can be quite short. In my case, it’s one year.

Some US readers might be thinking this sounds a bit like an Adjunct. In a very literal sense that’s right, in Danish my title is Adjunkt. But it’s not the type of Adjunct you’re thinking of. US universities employ Adjuncts primarily for teaching. They’re often paid per class, and re-hired each year (though with no guarantees, leading to a lot of stress). That’s not my situation. I’m paid a fixed salary, and my primary responsibility is research, not teaching. I also won’t be re-hired next year, unless I find a totally different source of funding. Practically speaking, my situation is a lot like an extra year of Postdoc.

There are some differences. I’m paid a little more than I was as a Postdoc, and I have a few more perks. I’m getting more pedagogy training in the spring, I don’t know if I would have gotten that opportunity if I was still just a Postdoc. It’s an extra level of responsibility, and that does mean something.

But it does also mean I’m still looking for a job. Once again I find myself in application season: polishing my talks and crossing my fingers, not knowing exactly where I’ll end up.

A Few Advertisements

A couple different things that some of you might like to know about:

Are you an amateur with an idea you think might revolutionize all of physics? If so, absolutely do not contact me about it. Instead, you can talk to these people. Sabine Hossenfelder runs a service that will hook you up with a scientist who will patiently listen to your idea and help you learn what you need to develop it further. They do charge for that service, and they aren’t cheap, so only do this if you can comfortably afford it. If you can’t, then I have some advice in a post here. Try to contact people who are experts in the specific topic you’re working on, ask concrete questions that you expect to give useful answers, and be prepared to do some background reading.

Are you an undergraduate student planning for a career in theoretical physics? If so, consider the Perimeter Scholars International (PSI) master’s program. Located at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada, PSI is an intense one-year boot-camp in theoretical physics, teaching the foundational ideas you’ll need for the rest of your career. It’s something I wish I was aware of when I was applying for schools at that age. Theoretical physics is a hard field, and a big part of what makes it hard is all the background knowledge one needs to take part in it. Starting work on a PhD with that background knowledge already in place can be a tremendous advantage. There are other programs with similar concepts, but I’ve gotten a really good impression of PSI specifically so it’s them I would recommend. Note that applications for the new year aren’t open yet: I always plan to advertise them when they open, and I always forget. So consider this an extremely-early warning.

Are you an amplitudeologist? Registration for Amplitudes 2021 is now live! We’re doing an online conference this year, co-hosted by the Niels Bohr Institute and Penn State. We’ll be doing a virtual poster session, so if you want to contribute to that please include a title and abstract when you register. We also plan to stream on YouTube, and will have a fun online surprise closer to the conference date.

Poll: How Do You Get Here?

I’ve been digging through the WordPress “stats” page for this blog. One thing WordPress tells me is what links people follow to get here. It tells me how many times people come from Google or Facebook or Twitter, and how many come from seeing a link on another blog. One thing that surprised me is that some of the blogs people come here from haven’t updated in years.

The way I see it there are two possible explanations. It could be that new people keep checking the old blogs, see a link on their blogroll, and come on over here to check it out. But it could also be the same people over and over, who find it more convenient to start on an old blog and click on links from there.

WordPress doesn’t tell me the difference. But I realized, I can just ask. So in this post, I’m asking all my readers to tell me how you get here. I’m not asking how you found this blog to begin with, but rather how, on a typical day, you navigate to the site. Do you subscribe by email? Do you google the blog’s name every time? RSS reader? Let me know below! And if you don’t see an option that fits you, let me know in the comments!

Valentine’s Day Physics Poem 2021

It’s Valentine’s Day this weekend, so time for another physics poem. If you’d like to read the poems from past years, they’re archived with the tag Valentine’s Day Physics Poem, accessible here.

Passion Project

Passion is passion.
If you find yourself writing letter after letter,
be they “love”,
or “Physical Review”
Or if you are the quiet sort
and notice only in your mind
those questions, time after time
whenever silence reigns:
“how do I make things right?”
If you look ahead
and your branching,
each so different
still have one
                      in common.
If you could share that desert island, that jail cell,
and count yourself free.
You’ve found your star. Now it’s straight on till morning.

Newtonmas in Uncertain Times

Three hundred and eighty-two years ago today (depending on which calendars you use), Isaac Newton was born. For a scientist, that’s a pretty good reason to celebrate.

Reason’s Greetings Everyone!

Last month, our local nest of science historians at the Niels Bohr Archive hosted a Zoom talk by Jed Z. Buchwald, a Newton scholar at Caltech. Buchwald had a story to tell about experimental uncertainty, one where Newton had an important role.

If you’ve ever had a lab course in school, you know experiments never quite go like they’re supposed to. Set a room of twenty students to find Newton’s constant, and you’ll get forty different answers. Whether you’re reading a ruler or clicking a stopwatch, you can never measure anything with perfect accuracy. Each time you measure, you introduce a little random error.

Textbooks worth of statistical know-how has cropped up over the centuries to compensate for this error and get closer to the truth. The simplest trick though, is just to average over multiple experiments. It’s so obvious a choice, taking a thousand little errors and smoothing them out, that you might think people have been averaging in this way through history.

They haven’t though. As far as Buchwald had found, the first person to average experiments in this way was Isaac Newton.

What did people do before Newton?

Well, what might you do, if you didn’t have a concept of random error? You can still see that each time you measure you get a different result. But you would blame yourself: if you were more careful with the ruler, quicker with the stopwatch, you’d get it right. So you practice, you do the experiment many times, just as you would if you were averaging. But instead of averaging, you just take one result, the one you feel you did carefully enough to count.

Before Newton, this was almost always what scientists did. If you were an astronomer mapping the stars, the positions you published would be the last of a long line of measurements, not an average of the rest. Some other tricks existed. Tycho Brahe for example folded numbers together pair by pair, averaging the first two and then averaging that average with the next one, getting a final result weighted to the later measurements. But, according to Buchwald, Newton was the first to just add everything together.

Even Newton didn’t yet know why this worked. It would take later research, theorems of statistics, to establish the full justification. It seems Newton and his later contemporaries had a vague physics analogy in mind, finding a sort of “center of mass” of different experiments. This doesn’t make much sense – but it worked, well enough for physics as we know it to begin.

So this Newtonmas, let’s thank the scientists of the past. Working piece by piece, concept by concept, they gave use the tools to navigate our uncertain times.

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*

Congratulations to Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel, and Andrea Ghez!

The 2020 Physics Nobel Prize was announced last week, awarded to Roger Penrose for his theorems about black holes and Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for discovering the black hole at the center of our galaxy.

Of the three, I’m most familiar with Penrose’s work. People had studied black holes before Penrose, but only the simplest of situations, like an imaginary perfectly spherical star. Some wondered whether black holes in nature were limited in this way, if they could only exist under perfectly balanced conditions. Penrose showed that wasn’t true: he proved mathematically that black holes not only can form, they must form, in very general situations. He’s also worked on a wide variety of other things. He came up with “twistor space”, an idea intended for a new theory of quantum gravity that ended up as a useful tool for “amplitudeologists” like me to study particle physics. He discovered a set of four types of tiles such that if you tiled a floor with them the pattern would never repeat. And he has some controversial hypotheses about quantum gravity and consciousness.

I’m less familiar with Genzel and Ghez, but by now everyone should be familiar with what they found. Genzel and Ghez led two teams that peered into the center of our galaxy. By carefully measuring the way stars moved deep in the core, they figured out something we now teach children: that our beloved Milky Way has a dark and chewy center, an enormous black hole around which everything else revolves. These appear to be a common feature of galaxies, and many others have been shown to orbit black holes as well.

Like last year, I find it a bit odd that the Nobel committee decided to lump these two prizes together. Both discoveries concern black holes, so they’re more related than last year’s laureates, but the contexts are quite different: it’s not as if Penrose predicted the black hole in the center of our galaxy. Usually the Nobel committee avoids mathematical work like Penrose’s, except when it’s tied to a particular experimental discovery. It doesn’t look like anyone has gotten a Nobel prize for discovering that black holes exist, so maybe that’s the intent of this one…but Genzel and Ghez were not the first people to find evidence of a black hole. So overall I’m confused. I’d say that Penrose deserved a Nobel Prize, and that Genzel and Ghez did as well, but I’m not sure why they needed to split one with each other.

Pseudonymity Matters. I Stand With Slate Star Codex.

Slate Star Codex is one of the best blogs on the net. Written under the pseudonym Scott Alexander, the blog covers a wide variety of topics with a level of curiosity and humility that the rest of us bloggers can only aspire to.

Recently, this has all been jeopardized. A reporter at the New York Times, writing an otherwise positive article, told Scott he was going to reveal his real name publicly. In a last-ditch effort to stop this, Scott deleted his blog.

I trust Scott. When he says that revealing his identity would endanger his psychiatric practice, not to mention the safety of friends and loved ones, I believe him. What’s more, I think working under a pseudonym makes him a better blogger: some of his best insights have come from talking to people who don’t think of him as “the Slate Star Codex guy”.

I don’t know why the Times thinks revealing Scott’s name is a good idea. I do know that there are people out there who view anyone under a pseudonym with suspicion. Compared to Scott, my pseudonym is paper-thin: it’s very easy to find who I am. Still, I have met people who are irked just by that, by the bare fact that I don’t print my real name on this blog.

I think this might be a generational thing. My generation grew up alongside the internet. We’re used to the idea that very little is truly private, that anything made public somewhere risks becoming public everywhere. In that world, writing under a pseudonym is like putting curtains on a house. It doesn’t make us unaccountable: if you break the law behind your curtains the police can get a warrant, similarly Scott’s pseudonym wouldn’t stop a lawyer from tracking him down. All it is, is a filter: a way to have a life of our own, shielded just a little from the whirlwind of the web.

I know there are journalists who follow this blog. If you have contacts in the Times tech section, or know someone who does, please reach out. I want to hope that someone there is misunderstanding the situation, that when things are fully explained they will back down. We have to try.