Tag Archives: cosmology

When to Trust the Contrarians

One of my colleagues at the NBI had an unusual experience: one of his papers took a full year to get through peer review. This happens often in math, where reviewers will diligently check proofs for errors, but it’s quite rare in physics: usually the path from writing to publication is much shorter. Then again, the delays shouldn’t have been too surprising for him, given what he was arguing.

My colleague Mohamed Rameez, along with Jacques Colin, Roya Mohayaee, and Subir Sarkar, wants to argue against one of the most famous astronomical discoveries of the last few decades: that the expansion of our universe is accelerating, and thus that an unknown “dark energy” fills the universe. They argue that one of the key pieces of evidence used to prove acceleration is mistaken: that a large region of the universe around us is in fact “flowing” in one direction, and that tricked astronomers into thinking its expansion was accelerating. You might remember a paper making a related argument back in 2016. I didn’t like the media reaction to that paper, and my post triggered a response by the authors, one of whom (Sarkar) is on this paper as well.

I’m not an astronomer or an astrophysicist. I’m not qualified to comment on their argument, and I won’t. I’d still like to know whether they’re right, though. And that means figuring out which experts to trust.

Pick anything we know in physics, and you’ll find at least one person who disagrees. I don’t mean a crackpot, though they exist too. I mean an actual expert who is convinced the rest of the field is wrong. A contrarian, if you will.

I used to be very unsympathetic to these people. I was convinced that the big results of a field are rarely wrong, because of how much is built off of them. I thought that even if a field was using dodgy methods or sloppy reasoning, the big results are used in so many different situations that if they were wrong they would have to be noticed. I’d argue that if you want to overturn one of these big claims you have to disprove not just the result itself, but every other success the field has ever made.

I still believe that, somewhat. But there are a lot of contrarians here at the Niels Bohr Institute. And I’ve started to appreciate what drives them.

The thing is, no scientific result is ever as clean as it ought to be. Everything we do is jury-rigged. We’re almost never experts in everything we’re trying to do, so we often don’t know the best method. Instead, we approximate and guess, we find rough shortcuts and don’t check if they make sense. This can take us far sometimes, sure…but it can also backfire spectacularly.

The contrarians I’ve known got their inspiration from one of those backfires. They saw a result, a respected mainstream result, and they found a glaring screw-up. Maybe it was an approximation that didn’t make any sense, or a statistical measure that was totally inappropriate. Whatever it was, it got them to dig deeper, and suddenly they saw screw-ups all over the place. When they pointed out these problems, at best the people they accused didn’t understand. At worst they got offended. Instead of cooperation, the contrarians are told they can’t possibly know what they’re talking about, and ignored. Eventually, they conclude the entire sub-field is broken.

Are they right?

Not always. They can’t be, for every claim you can find a contrarian, believing them all would be a contradiction.

But sometimes?

Often, they’re right about the screw-ups. They’re right that there’s a cleaner, more proper way to do that calculation, a statistical measure more suited to the problem. And often, doing things right raises subtleties, means that the big important result everyone believed looks a bit less impressive.

Still, that’s not the same as ruling out the result entirely. And despite all the screw-ups, the main result is still often correct. Often, it’s justified not by the original, screwed-up argument, but by newer evidence from a different direction. Often, the sub-field has grown to a point that the original screwed-up argument doesn’t really matter anymore.

Often, but again, not always.

I still don’t know whether to trust the contrarians. I still lean towards expecting fields to sort themselves out, to thinking that error alone can’t sustain long-term research. But I’m keeping a more open mind now. I’m waiting to see how far the contrarians go.

Congratulations to James Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz!

The 2019 Physics Nobel Prize was announced this week, awarded to James Peebles for work in cosmology and to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for the first observation of an exoplanet.

Peebles introduced quantitative methods to cosmology. He figured out how to use the Cosmic Microwave Background (light left over from the Big Bang) to understand how matter is distributed in our universe, including the presence of still-mysterious dark matter and dark energy. Mayor and Queloz were the first team to observe a planet outside of our solar system (an “exoplanet”), in 1995. By careful measurement of the spectrum of light coming from a star they were able to find a slight wobble, caused by a Jupiter-esque planet in orbit around it. Their discovery opened the floodgates of observation. Astronomers found many more planets than expected, showing that, far from a rare occurrence, exoplanets are quite common.

It’s a bit strange that this Nobel was awarded to two very different types of research. This isn’t the first time the prize was divided between two different discoveries, but all of the cases I can remember involve discoveries in closely related topics. This one didn’t, and I’m curious about the Nobel committee’s logic. It might have been that neither discovery “merited a Nobel” on its own, but I don’t think we’re supposed to think of shared Nobels as “lesser” than non-shared ones. It would make sense if the Nobel committee thought they had a lot of important results to “get through” and grouped them together to get through them faster, but if anything I have the impression it’s the opposite: that at least in physics, it’s getting harder and harder to find genuinely important discoveries that haven’t been acknowledged. Overall, this seems like a very weird pairing, and the Nobel committee’s citation “for contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos” is a pretty loose justification.

Amplitudes 2019

It’s that time of year again, and I’m at Amplitudes, my field’s big yearly conference. This year we’re in Dublin, hosted by Trinity.

Which also hosts the Book of Kells, and the occasional conference reception just down the hall from the Book of Kells

Increasingly, the organizers of Amplitudes have been setting aside a few slots for talks from people in other fields. This year the “closest” such speaker was Kirill Melnikov, who pointed out some of the hurdles that make it difficult to have useful calculations to compare to the LHC. Many of these hurdles aren’t things that amplitudes-people have traditionally worked on, but are still things that might benefit from our particular expertise. Another such speaker, Maxwell Hansen, is from a field called Lattice QCD. While amplitudeologists typically compute with approximations, order by order in more and more complicated diagrams, Lattice QCD instead simulates particle physics on supercomputers, chopping up their calculations on a grid. This allows them to study much stronger forces, including the messy interactions of quarks inside protons, but they have a harder time with the situations we’re best at, where two particles collide from far away. Apparently, though, they are making progress on that kind of calculation, with some clever tricks to connect it to calculations they know how to do. While I was a bit worried that this would let them fire all the amplitudeologists and replace us with supercomputers, they’re not quite there yet, nonetheless they are doing better than I would have expected. Other speakers from other fields included Leron Borsten, who has been applying the amplitudes concept of the “double copy” to M theory and Andrew Tolley, who uses the kind of “positivity” properties that amplitudeologists find interesting to restrict the kinds of theories used in cosmology.

The biggest set of “non-traditional-amplitudes” talks focused on using amplitudes techniques to calculate the behavior not of particles but of black holes, to predict the gravitational wave patterns detected by LIGO. This year featured a record six talks on the topic, a sixth of the conference. Last year I commented that the research ideas from amplitudeologists on gravitational waves had gotten more robust, with clearer proposals for how to move forward. This year things have developed even further, with several initial results. Even more encouragingly, while there are several groups doing different things they appear to be genuinely listening to each other: there were plenty of references in the talks both to other amplitudes groups and to work by more traditional gravitational physicists. There’s definitely still plenty of lingering confusion that needs to be cleared up, but it looks like the community is robust enough to work through it.

I’m still busy with the conference, but I’ll say more when I’m back next week. Stay tuned for square roots, clusters, and Nima’s travel schedule. And if you’re a regular reader, please fill out last week’s poll if you haven’t already!

Book Review: We Have No Idea

I have no idea how I’m going to review this book.

Ok fine, I have some idea.

Jorge Cham writes Piled Higher and Deeper, a webcomic with possibly the most accurate depiction of grad school available. Daniel Whiteson is a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and a member of the ATLAS collaboration (one of the two big groups that make measurements at the Large Hadron Collider). Together, they’ve written a popular science book covering everything we don’t know about fundamental physics.

Writing a book about what we don’t know is an unusual choice, and there was a real risk it would end up as just a superficial gimmick. The pie chart on the cover presents the most famous “things physicists don’t know”, dark matter and dark energy. If they had just stuck to those this would have been a pretty ordinary popular physics book.

Refreshingly, they don’t do that. After blazing through dark matter and dark energy in the first three chapters, the rest of the book focuses on a variety of other scientific mysteries.

The book contains a mix of problems that get serious research attention (matter-antimatter asymmetry, high-energy cosmic rays) and more blue-sky “what if” questions (does matter have to be made out of particles?). As a theorist, I’m not sure that all of these questions are actually mysterious (we do have some explanation of the weird “1/3” charges of quarks, and I’d like to think we understand why mass includes binding energy), but even in these cases what we really know is that they follow from “sensible assumptions”, and one could just as easily ask “what if” about those assumptions instead. Overall, these “what if” questions make the book unique, and it would be a much weaker book without them.

“We Have No Idea” is strongest when the authors actually have some idea, i.e. when Whiteson is discussing experimental particle physics. It gets weaker on other topics, where the authors seem to rely more on others’ popular treatments (their discussion of “pixels of space-time” motivated me to write this post). Still, they at least seem to have asked the right people, and their accounts are on the more accurate end of typical pop science. (Closer to Quanta than IFLScience.)

The book’s humor really ties it together, often in surprisingly subtle ways. Each chapter has its own running joke, initially a throwaway line that grows into metaphors for everything the chapter discusses. It’s a great way to help the audience visualize without introducing too many new concepts at once. If there’s one thing cartoonists can teach science communicators, it’s the value of repetition.

I liked “We Have No Idea”. It could have been more daring, or more thorough, but it was still charming and honest and fun. If you’re looking for a Christmas present to explain physics to your relatives, you won’t go wrong with this book.

Cosmology, or Cosmic Horror?

Around Halloween, I have a tradition of posting about the “spooky” side of physics. This year, I’ll be comparing two no doubt often confused topics, Cosmic Horror and Cosmology.

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Pro tip: if this guy shows up, it’s probably Cosmic Horror

Cosmic Horror

Cosmology

Started in the 1920’s with the work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft Started in the 1920’s with the work of Alexander Friedmann
Unimaginably ancient universe Precisely imagined ancient universe
In strange ages even death may die Strange ages, what redshift is that?
An expedition to Antarctica uncovers ruins of a terrifying alien civilization An expedition to Antarctica uncovers…actually, never mind, just dust
Alien beings may propagate in hidden dimensions Gravitons may propagate in hidden dimensions
Cultists compete to be last to be eaten by the Elder Gods Grad students compete to be last to realize there are no jobs
Oceanic “deep ones” breed with humans Have you seen daycare costs in a university town? No way.
Variety of inventive and bizarre creatures, inspiring libraries worth of copycat works Fritz Zwicky
Hollywood adaptations are increasingly popular, not very faithful to source material Actually this is exactly the same
Can waste hours on an ultimately fruitless game of Arkham Horror Can waste hours on an ultimately fruitless argument with Paul Steinhardt
No matter what we do, eventually Azathoth will kill us all No matter what we do, eventually vacuum decay will kill us all

Current Themes 2018

I’m at Current Themes in High Energy Physics and Cosmology this week, the yearly conference of the Niels Bohr International Academy. (I talked about their trademark eclectic mix of topics last year.)

This year, the “current theme” was broadly gravitational (though with plenty of exceptions!).

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For example, almost getting kicked out of the Botanical Garden

There were talks on phenomena we observe gravitationally, like dark matter. There were talks on calculating amplitudes in gravity theories, both classical and quantum. There were talks about black holes, and the overall shape of the universe. Subir Sarkar talked about his suspicion that the expansion of the universe isn’t actually accelerating, and while I still think the news coverage of it was overblown I sympathize a bit more with his point. He’s got a fairly specific worry, that we’re in a region that’s moving unusually with respect to the surrounding universe, that hasn’t really been investigated in much detail before. I don’t think he’s found anything definitive yet, but it will be interesting as more data accumulates to see what happens.

Of course, current themes can’t stick to just one theme, so there were non-gravitational talks as well. Nima Arkani-Hamed’s talk covered some results he’s talked about in the past, a geometric picture for constraining various theories, but with an interesting new development: while most of the constraints he found restrict things to be positive, one type of constraint he investigated allowed for a very small negative region, around thirty orders of magnitude smaller than the positive part. The extremely small size of the negative region was the most surprising part of the story, as it’s quite hard to get that kind of extremely small scale out of the math we typically invoke in physics (a similar sense of surprise motivates the idea of “naturalness” in particle physics).

There were other interesting talks, which I might talk about later. They should have slides up online soon in case any of you want to have a look.

Adversarial Collaborations for Physics

Sometimes physics debates get ugly. For the scientists reading this, imagine your worst opponents. Think of the people who always misinterpret your work while using shoddy arguments to prop up their own, where every question at a talk becomes a screaming match until you just stop going to the same conferences at all.

Now, imagine writing a paper with those people.

Adversarial collaborations, subject of a recent a contest on the blog Slate Star Codex, are a proposed method for resolving scientific debates. Two scientists on opposite sides of an argument commit to writing a paper together, describing the overall state of knowledge on the topic. For the paper to get published, both sides have to sign off on it: they both have to agree that everything in the paper is true. This prevents either side from cheating, or from coming back later with made-up objections: if a point in the paper is wrong, one side or the other is bound to catch it.

This won’t work for the most vicious debates, when one (or both) sides isn’t interested in common ground. But for some ongoing debates in physics, I think this approach could actually help.

One advantage of adversarial collaborations is in preventing accusations of bias. The debate between dark matter and MOND-like proposals is filled with these kinds of accusations: claims that one group or another is ignoring important data, being dishonest about the parameters they need to fit, or applying standards of proof they would never require of their own pet theory. Adversarial collaboration prevents these kinds of accusations: whatever comes out of an adversarial collaboration, both sides would make sure the other side didn’t bias it.

Another advantage of adversarial collaborations is that they make it much harder for one side to move the goalposts, or to accuse the other side of moving the goalposts. From the sidelines, one thing that frustrates me watching string theorists debate whether the theory can describe de Sitter space is that they rarely articulate what it would take to decisively show that a particular model gives rise to de Sitter. Any conclusion of an adversarial collaboration between de Sitter skeptics and optimists would at least guarantee that both parties agreed on the criteria. Similarly, I get the impression that many debates about interpretations of quantum mechanics are bogged down by one side claiming they’ve closed off a loophole with a new experiment, only for the other to claim it wasn’t the loophole they were actually using, something that could be avoided if both sides were involved in the experiment from the beginning.

It’s possible, even likely, that no-one will try adversarial collaboration for these debates. Even if they did, it’s quite possible the collaborations wouldn’t be able to agree on anything! Still, I have to hope that someone takes the plunge and tries writing a paper with their enemies. At minimum, it’ll be an interesting read!