Tag Archives: philosophy of science

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.

Don’t Trust the Experiments, Trust the Science

I was chatting with an astronomer recently, and this quote by Arthur Eddington came up:

“Never trust an experimental result until it has been confirmed by theory.”

Arthur Eddington

At first, this sounds like just typical theorist arrogance, thinking we’re better than all those experimentalists. It’s not that, though, or at least not just that. Instead, it’s commenting on a trend that shows up again and again in science, but rarely makes the history books. Again and again an experiment or observation comes through with something fantastical, something that seems like it breaks the laws of physics or throws our best models into disarray. And after a few months, when everyone has checked, it turns out there was a mistake, and the experiment agrees with existing theories after all.

You might remember a recent example, when a lab claimed to have measured neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light, only for it to turn out to be due to a loose cable. Experiments like this aren’t just a result of modern hype: as Eddington’s quote shows, they were also common in his day. In general, Eddington’s advice is good: when an experiment contradicts theory, theory tends to win in the end.

This may sound unscientific: surely we should care only about what we actually observe? If we defer to theory, aren’t we putting dogma ahead of the evidence of our senses? Isn’t that the opposite of good science?

To understand what’s going on here, we can use an old philosophical argument: David Hume’s argument against miracles. David Hume wanted to understand how we use evidence to reason about the world. He argued that, for miracles in particular, we can never have good evidence. In Hume’s definition, a miracle was something that broke the established laws of science. Hume argued that, if you believe you observed a miracle, there are two possibilities: either the laws of science really were broken, or you made a mistake. The thing is, laws of science don’t just come from a textbook: they come from observations as well, many many observations in many different conditions over a long period of time. Some of those observations establish the laws in the first place, others come from the communities that successfully apply them again and again over the years. If your miracle was real, then it would throw into doubt many, if not all, of those observations. So the question you have to ask is: it it more likely those observations were wrong? Or that you made a mistake? Put another way, your evidence is only good enough for a miracle if it would be a bigger miracle if you were wrong.

Hume’s argument always struck me as a little bit too strict: if you rule out miracles like this, you also rule out new theories of science! A more modern approach would use numbers and statistics, weighing the past evidence for a theory against the precision of the new result. Most of the time you’d reach the same conclusion, but sometimes an experiment can be good enough to overthrow a theory.

Still, theory should always sit in the background, a kind of safety net for when your experiments screw up. It does mean that when you don’t have that safety net you need to be extra-careful. Physics is an interesting case of this: while we have “the laws of physics”, we don’t have any established theory that tells us what kinds of particles should exist. That puts physics in an unusual position, and it’s probably part of why we have such strict standards of statistical proof. If you’re going to be operating without the safety net of theory, you need that kind of proof.

This post was also inspired by some biological examples. The examples are politically controversial, so since this is a no-politics blog I won’t discuss them in detail. (I’ll also moderate out any comments that do.) All I’ll say is that I wonder if in that case the right heuristic is this kind of thing: not to “trust scientists” or “trust experts” or even “trust statisticians”, but just to trust the basic, cartoon-level biological theory.

Facts About Math Are Facts About Us

Each year, the Niels Bohr International Academy has a series of public talks. Part of Copenhagen’s Folkeuniversitet (“people’s university”), they attract a mix of older people who want to keep up with modern developments and young students looking for inspiration. I gave a talk a few days ago, as part of this year’s program. The last time I participated, back in 2017, I covered a topic that comes up a lot on this blog: “The Quest for Quantum Gravity”. This year, I was asked to cover something more unusual: “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”.

Some of you might notice that title is already taken: it’s a famous lecture by the physicist Wigner, from 1959. Wigner posed an interesting question: why is advanced mathematics so useful in physics? Time and time again, mathematicians develop an idea purely for its own sake, only for physicists to find it absolutely indispensable to describe some part of the physical world. Should we be surprised that this keeps working? Suspicious?

I talked a bit about this: some of the answers people have suggested over the years, and my own opinion. But like most public talks, the premise was mostly a vehicle for cool examples: physicists through history bringing in new math, and surprising mathematical facts like the ones I talked about a few weeks back at Culture Night. Because of that, I was actually a bit unprepared to dive into the philosophical side of the topic (despite it being in principle a very philosophical topic!) When one of the audience members brought up mathematical Platonism, I floundered a bit, not wanting to say something that was too philosophically naive.

Well, if there’s anywhere I can be naive, it’s my own blog. I even have a label for Amateur Philosophy posts. So let’s do one.

Mathematical Platonism is the idea that mathematical truths “exist”: that they’re somewhere “out there” being discovered. On the other side, one might believe that mathematics is not discovered, but invented. For some reason, a lot of people with the latter opinion seem to think this has something to do with describing nature (for example, an essay a few years back by Lee Smolin defines mathematics as “the study of systems of evoked relationships inspired by observations of nature”).

I’m not a mathematical Platonist. I don’t even like to talk about which things do or don’t “exist”. But I also think that describing mathematics in terms of nature is missing the point. Mathematicians aren’t physicists. While there may have been a time when geometers argued over lines in the sand, these days mathematicians’ inspiration isn’t usually the natural world, at least not in the normal sense.

Instead, I think you can’t describe mathematics without describing mathematicians. A mathematical fact is, deep down, something a mathematician can say without other mathematicians shouting them down. It’s an allowed move in what my hazy secondhand memory of Wittgenstein wants to call a “language game”: something that gets its truth from a context of people interpreting and reacting to it, in the same way a move in chess matters only when everyone is playing by its rules.

This makes mathematics sound very subjective, and we’re used to the opposite: the idea that a mathematical fact is as objective as they come. The important thing to remember is that even with this kind of description, mathematics still ends up vastly less subjective than any other field. We care about subjectivity between different people: if a fact is “true” for Brits and “false” for Germans, then it’s a pretty limited fact. Mathematics is special because the “rules of its game” aren’t rules of one group or another. They’re rules that are in some sense our birthright. Any human who can read and write, or even just act and perceive, can act as a Turing Machine, a universal computer. With enough patience and paper, anything that you can prove to one person you can prove to another: you just have to give them the rules and let them follow them. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or what you care about most: if something is mathematically true for others, it is mathematically true for you.

Some would argue that this is evidence for mathematical Platonism, that if something is a universal truth it should “exist”. Even if it does, though, I don’t think it’s useful to think of it in that way. Once you believe that mathematical truth is “out there”, you want to try to characterize it, to say something about it besides that it’s “out there”. You’ll be tempted to have an opinion on the Axiom of Choice, or the Continuum Hypothesis. And the whole point is that those aren’t sensible things to have opinions on, that having an opinion about them means denying the mathematical proofs that they are, in the “standard” axioms, undecidable. Whatever is “out there”, it has to include everything you can prove with every axiom system, whichever non-standard ones you can cook up, because mathematicians will happily work on any of them. The whole point of mathematics, the thing that makes it as close to objective as anything can be, is that openness: the idea that as long as an argument is good enough, as long as it can convince anyone prepared to wade through the pages, then it is mathematics. Nothing, so long as it can convince in the long-run, is excluded.

If we take this definition seriously, there are some awkward consequences. You could imagine a future in which every mind, everyone you might be able to do mathematics with, is crushed under some tyrant, forced to agree to something false. A real philosopher would dig in to this corner case, try to salvage the definition or throw it out. I’m not a real philosopher though. So all I can say is that while I don’t think that tyrant gets to define mathematics, I also don’t think there are good alternatives to my argument. Our only access to mathematics, and to truth in general, is through the people who pursue it. I don’t think we can define one without the other.

Of Cows and Razors

Last week’s post came up on Reddit, where a commenter made a good point. I said that one of the mysteries of neutrinos is that they might not get their mass from the Higgs boson. This is true, but the commenter rightly points out it’s true of other particles too: electrons might not get their mass from the Higgs. We aren’t sure. The lighter quarks might not get their mass from the Higgs either.

When talking physics with the public, we usually say that electrons and quarks all get their mass from the Higgs. That’s how it works in our Standard Model, after all. But even though we’ve found the Higgs boson, we can’t be 100% sure that it functions the way our model says. That’s because there are aspects of the Higgs we haven’t been able to measure directly. We’ve measured how it affects the heaviest quark, the top quark, but measuring its interactions with other particles will require a bigger collider. Until we have those measurements, the possibility remains open that electrons and quarks get their mass another way. It would be a more complicated way: we know the Higgs does a lot of what the model says, so if it deviates in another way we’d have to add more details, maybe even more undiscovered particles. But it’s possible.

If I wanted to defend the idea that neutrinos are special here, I would point out that neutrino masses, unlike electron masses, are not part of the Standard Model. For electrons, we have a clear “default” way for them to get mass, and that default is in a meaningful way simpler than the alternatives. For neutrinos, every alternative is complicated in some fashion: either adding undiscovered particles, or unusual properties. If we were to invoke Occam’s Razor, the principle that we should always choose the simplest explanation, then for electrons and quarks there is a clear winner. Not so for neutrinos.

I’m not actually going to make this argument. That’s because I’m a bit wary of using Occam’s Razor when it comes to questions of fundamental physics. Occam’s Razor is a good principle to use, if you have a good idea of what’s “normal”. In physics, you don’t.

To illustrate, I’ll tell an old joke about cows and trains. Here’s the version from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time:

There are three men on a train. One of them is an economist and one of them is a logician and one of them is a mathematician. And they have just crossed the border into Scotland (I don’t know why they are going to Scotland) and they see a brown cow standing in a field from the window of the train (and the cow is standing parallel to the train). And the economist says, ‘Look, the cows in Scotland are brown.’ And the logician says, ‘No. There are cows in Scotland of which at least one is brown.’ And the mathematician says, ‘No. There is at least one cow in Scotland, of which one side appears to be brown.’

One side of this cow appears to be very fluffy.

If we want to be as careful as possible, the mathematician’s answer is best. But we expect not to have to be so careful. Maybe the economist’s answer, that Scottish cows are brown, is too broad. But we could imagine an agronomist who states “There is a breed of cows in Scotland that is brown”. And I suggest we should find that pretty reasonable. Essentially, we’re using Occam’s Razor: if we want to explain seeing a brown half-cow from a train, the simplest explanation would be that it’s a member of a breed of cows that are brown. It would be less simple if the cow were unique, a brown mutant in a breed of black and white cows. It would be even less simple if only one side of the cow were brown, and the other were another color.

When we use Occam’s Razor in this way, we’re drawing from our experience of cows. Most of the cows we meet are members of some breed or other, with similar characteristics. We don’t meet many mutant cows, or half-colored cows, so we think of those options as less simple, and less likely.

But what kind of experience tells us which option is simpler for electrons, or neutrinos?

The Standard Model is a type of theory called a Quantum Field Theory. We have experience with other Quantum Field Theories: we use them to describe materials, metals and fluids and so forth. Still, it seems a bit odd to say that if something is typical of these materials, it should also be typical of the universe. As another physicists in my sub-field, Nima Arkani-Hamed, likes to say, “the universe is not a crappy metal!”

We could also draw on our experience from other theories in physics. This is a bit more productive, but has other problems. Our other theories are invariably incomplete, that’s why we come up with new theories in the first place…and with so few theories, compared to breeds of cows, it’s unclear that we really have a good basis for experience.

Physicists like to brag that we study the most fundamental laws of nature. Ordinarily, this doesn’t matter as much as we pretend: there’s a lot to discover in the rest of science too, after all. But here, it really makes a difference. Unlike other fields, we don’t know what’s “normal”, so we can’t really tell which theories are “simpler” than others. We can make aesthetic judgements, on the simplicity of the math or the number of fields or the quality of the stories we can tell. If we want to be principled and forego all of that, then we’re left on an abyss, a world of bare observations and parameter soup.

If a physicist looks out a train window, will they say that all the electrons they see get their mass from the Higgs? Maybe, still. But they should be careful about it.

Digging for Buried Insight

The scientific method, as we usually learn it, starts with a hypothesis. The scientist begins with a guess, and asks a question with a clear answer: true, or false? That guess lets them design an experiment, observe the consequences, and improve our knowledge of the world.

But where did the scientist get the hypothesis in the first place? Often, through some form of exploratory research.

Exploratory research is research done, not to answer a precise question, but to find interesting questions to ask. Each field has their own approach to exploration. A psychologist might start with interviews, asking broad questions to find narrower questions for a future survey. An ecologist might film an animal, looking for changes in its behavior. A chemist might measure many properties of a new material, seeing if any stand out. Each approach is like digging for treasure, not sure of exactly what you will find.

Mathematicians and theoretical physicists don’t do experiments, but we still need hypotheses. We need an idea of what we plan to prove, or what kind of theory we want to build: like other scientists, we want to ask a question with a clear, true/false answer. And to find those questions, we still do exploratory research.

What does exploratory research look like, in the theoretical world? Often, it begins with examples and calculations. We can start with a known method, or a guess at a new one, a recipe for doing some specific kind of calculation. Recipe in hand, we proceed to do the same kind of calculation for a few different examples, covering different sorts of situation. Along the way, we notice patterns: maybe the same steps happen over and over, or the result always has some feature.

We can then ask, do those same steps always happen? Does the result really always have that feature? We have our guess, our hypothesis, and our attempt to prove it is much like an experiment. If we find a proof, our hypothesis was true. On the other hand, we might not be able to find a proof. Instead, exploring, we might find a counterexample – one where the steps don’t occur, the feature doesn’t show up. That’s one way to learn that our hypothesis was false.

This kind of exploration is essential to discovery. As scientists, we all have to eventually ask clear yes/no questions, to submit our beliefs to clear tests. But we can’t start with those questions. We have to dig around first, to observe the world without a clear plan, to get to a point where we have a good question to ask.

Who Is, and Isn’t, Counting Angels on a Pinhead

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

It’s a question famous for its sheer pointlessness. While probably no-one ever had that exact debate, “how many angels fit on a pin” has become a metaphor, first for a host of old theology debates that went nowhere, and later for any academic study that seems like a waste of time. Occasionally, physicists get accused of doing this: typically string theorists, but also people who debate interpretations of quantum mechanics.

Are those accusations fair? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. In order to tell the difference, we should think about what’s wrong, exactly, with counting angels on the head of a pin.

One obvious answer is that knowing the number of angels that fit on a needle’s point is useless. Wikipedia suggests that was the origin of the metaphor in the first place, a pun on “needle’s point” and “needless point”. But this answer is a little too simple, because this would still be a useful debate if angels were real and we could interact with them. “How many angels fit on the head of a pin” is really a question about whether angels take up space, whether two angels can be at the same place at the same time. Asking that question about particles led physicists to bosons and fermions, which among other things led us to invent the laser. If angelology worked, perhaps we would have angel lasers as well.

Be not afraid of my angel laser

“If angelology worked” is key here, though. Angelology didn’t work, it didn’t lead to angel-based technology. And while Medieval people couldn’t have known that for certain, maybe they could have guessed. When people accuse academics of “counting angels on the head of a pin”, they’re saying they should be able to guess that their work is destined for uselessness.

How do you guess something like that?

Well, one problem with counting angels is that nobody doing the counting had ever seen an angel. Counting angels on the head of a pin implies debating something you can’t test or observe. That can steer you off-course pretty easily, into conclusions that are either useless or just plain wrong.

This can’t be the whole of the problem though, because of mathematics. We rarely accuse mathematicians of counting angels on the head of a pin, but the whole point of math is to proceed by pure logic, without an experiment in sight. Mathematical conclusions can sometimes be useless (though we can never be sure, some ideas are just ahead of their time), but we don’t expect them to be wrong.

The key difference is that mathematics has clear rules. When two mathematicians disagree, they can look at the details of their arguments, make sure every definition is as clear as possible, and discover which one made a mistake. Working this way, what they build is reliable. Even if it isn’t useful yet, the result is still true, and so may well be useful later.

In contrast, when you imagine Medieval monks debating angels, you probably don’t imagine them with clear rules. They might quote contradictory bible passages, argue everyday meanings of words, and win based more on who was poetic and authoritative than who really won the argument. Picturing a debate over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, it seems more like Calvinball than like mathematics.

This then, is the heart of the accusation. Saying someone is just debating how many angels can dance on a pin isn’t merely saying they’re debating the invisible. It’s saying they’re debating in a way that won’t go anywhere, a debate without solid basis or reliable conclusions. It’s saying, not just that the debate is useless now, but that it will likely always be useless.

As an outsider, you can’t just dismiss a field because it can’t do experiments. What you can and should do, is dismiss a field that can’t produce reliable knowledge. This can be hard to judge, but a key sign is to look for these kinds of Calvinball-style debates. Do people in the field seem to argue the same things with each other, over and over? Or do they make progress and open up new questions? Do the people talking seem to be just the famous ones? Or are there cases of young and unknown researchers who happen upon something important enough to make an impact? Do people just list prior work in order to state their counter-arguments? Or do they build on it, finding consequences of others’ trusted conclusions?

A few corners of string theory do have this Calvinball feel, as do a few of the debates about the fundamentals of quantum mechanics. But if you look past the headlines and blogs, most of each of these fields seems more reliable. Rather than interminable back-and-forth about angels and pinheads, these fields are quietly accumulating results that, one way or another, will give people something to build on.

Theoretical Uncertainty and Uncertain Theory

Yesterday, Fermilab’s Muon g-2 experiment announced a new measurement of the magnetic moment of the muon, a number which describes how muons interact with magnetic fields. For what might seem like a small technical detail, physicists have been very excited about this measurement because it’s a small technical detail that the Standard Model seems to get wrong, making it a potential hint of new undiscovered particles. Quanta magazine has a great piece on the announcement, which explains more than I will here, but the upshot is that there are two different calculations on the market that attempt to predict the magnetic moment of the muon. One of them, using older methods, disagrees with the experiment. The other, with a new approach, agrees. The question then becomes, which calculation was wrong? And why?

What does it mean for a prediction to match an experimental result? The simple, wrong, answer is that the numbers must be equal: if you predict “3”, the experiment has to measure “3”. The reason why this is wrong is that in practice, every experiment and every prediction has some uncertainty. If you’ve taken a college physics class, you’ve run into this kind of uncertainty in one of its simplest forms, measurement uncertainty. Measure with a ruler, and you can only confidently measure down to the smallest divisions on the ruler. If you measure 3cm, but your ruler has ticks only down to a millimeter, then what you’re measuring might be as large as 3.1cm or as small as 2.9 cm. You just don’t know.

This uncertainty doesn’t mean you throw up your hands and give up. Instead, you estimate the effect it can have. You report, not a measurement of 3cm, but of 3cm plus or minus 1mm. If the prediction was 2.9cm, then you’re fine: it falls within your measurement uncertainty.

Measurements aren’t the only thing that can be uncertain. Predictions have uncertainty too, theoretical uncertainty. Sometimes, this comes from uncertainty on a previous measurement: if you make a prediction based on that experiment that measured 3cm plus or minus 1mm, you have to take that plus or minus into account and estimate its effect (we call this propagation of errors). Sometimes, the uncertainty comes instead from an approximation you’re making. In particle physics, we sometimes approximate interactions between different particles with diagrams, beginning with the simplest diagrams and adding on more complicated ones as we go. To estimate the uncertainty there, we estimate the size of the diagrams we left out, the more complicated ones we haven’t calculated yet. Other times, that approximation doesn’t work, and we need to use a different approximation, treating space and time as a finite grid where we can do computer simulations. In that case, you can estimate your uncertainty based on how small you made your grid. The new approach to predicting the muon magnetic moment uses that kind of approximation.

There’s a common thread in all of these uncertainty estimates: you don’t expect to be too far off on average. Your measurements won’t be perfect, but they won’t all be screwed up in the same way either: chances are, they will randomly be a little below or a little above the truth. Your calculations are similar: whether you’re ignoring complicated particle physics diagrams or the spacing in a simulated grid, you can treat the difference as something small and random. That randomness means you can use statistics to talk about your errors: you have statistical uncertainty. When you have statistical uncertainty, you can estimate, not just how far off you might get, but how likely it is you ended up that far off. In particle physics, we have very strict standards for this kind of thing: to call something new a discovery, we demand that it is so unlikely that it would only show up randomly under the old theory roughly one in a million times. The muon magnetic moment isn’t quite up to our standards for a discovery yet, but the new measurement brought it closer.

The two dueling predictions for the muon’s magnetic moment both estimate some amount of statistical uncertainty. It’s possible that the two calculations just disagree due to chance, and that better measurements or a tighter simulation grid would make them agree. Given their estimates, though, that’s unlikely. That takes us from the realm of theoretical uncertainty, and into uncertainty about the theoretical. The two calculations use very different approaches. The new calculation tries to compute things from first principles, using the Standard Model directly. The risk is that such a calculation needs to make assumptions, ignoring some effects that are too difficult to calculate, and one of those assumptions may be wrong. The older calculation is based more on experimental results, using different experiments to estimate effects that are hard to calculate but that should be similar between different situations. The risk is that the situations may be less similar than expected, their assumptions breaking down in a way that the bottom-up calculation could catch.

None of these risks are easy to estimate. They’re “unknown unknowns”, or rather, “uncertain uncertainties”. And until some of them are resolved, it won’t be clear whether Fermilab’s new measurement is a sign of undiscovered particles, or just a (challenging!) confirmation of the Standard Model.

Reality as an Algebra of Observables

Listen to a physicist talk about quantum mechanics, and you’ll hear the word “observable”. Observables are, intuitively enough, things that can be observed. They’re properties that, in principle, one could measure in an experiment, like the position of a particle or its momentum. They’re the kinds of things linked by uncertainty principles, where the better you know one, the worse you know the other.

Some physicists get frustrated by this focus on measurements alone. They think we ought to treat quantum mechanics, not like a black box that produces results, but as information about some underlying reality. Instead of just observables, they want us to look for “beables“: not just things that can be observed, but things that something can be. From their perspective, the way other physicists focus on observables feels like giving up, like those physicists are abandoning their sacred duty to understand the world. Others, like the Quantum Bayesians or QBists, disagree, arguing that quantum mechanics really is, and ought to be, a theory of how individuals get evidence about the world.

I’m not really going to weigh in on that debate, I still don’t feel like I know enough to even write a decent summary. But I do think that one of the instincts on the “beables” side is wrong. If we focus on observables in quantum mechanics, I don’t think we’re doing anything all that unusual. Even in other parts of physics, we can think about reality purely in terms of observations. Doing so isn’t a dereliction of duty: often, it’s the most useful way to understand the world.

When we try to comprehend the world, we always start alone. From our time in the womb, we have only our senses and emotions to go on. With a combination of instinct and inference we start assembling a consistent picture of reality. Philosophers called phenomenologists (not to be confused with the physicists called phenomenologists) study this process in detail, trying to characterize how different things present themselves to an individual consciousness.

For my point here, these details don’t matter so much. That’s because in practice, we aren’t alone in understanding the world. Based on what others say about the world, we conclude they perceive much like we do, and we learn by their observations just as we learn by our own. We can make things abstract: instead of the specifics of how individuals perceive, we think about groups of scientists making measurements. At the end of this train lie observables: things that we as a community could in principle learn, and share with each other, ignoring the details of how exactly we measure them.

If each of these observables was unrelated, just scattered points of data, then we couldn’t learn much. Luckily, they are related. In quantum mechanics, some of these relationships are the uncertainty principles I mentioned earlier. Others relate measurements at different places, or at different times. The fancy way to refer to all these relationships is as an algebra: loosely, it’s something you can “do algebra with”, like you did with numbers and variables in high school. When physicists and mathematicians want to do quantum mechanics or quantum field theory seriously, they often talk about an “algebra of observables”, a formal way of thinking about all of these relationships.

Focusing on those two things, observables and how they are related, isn’t just useful in the quantum world. It’s an important way to think in other areas of physics too. If you’ve heard people talk about relativity, the focus on measurement screams out, in thought experiments full of abstract clocks and abstract yardsticks. Without this discipline, you find paradoxes, only to resolve them when you carefully track what each person can observe. More recently, physicists in my field have had success computing the chance particles collide by focusing on the end result, the actual measurements people can make, ignoring what might happen in between to cause that measurement. We can then break measurements down into simpler measurements, or use the structure of simpler measurements to guess more complicated ones. While we typically have done this in quantum theories, that’s not really a limitation: the same techniques make sense for problems in classical physics, like computing the gravitational waves emitted by colliding black holes.

With this in mind, we really can think of reality in those terms: not as a set of beable objects, but as a set of observable facts, linked together in an algebra of observables. Paring things down to what we can know in this way is more honest, and it’s also more powerful and useful. Far from a betrayal of physics, it’s the best advantage we physicists have in our quest to understand the world.

Inevitably Arbitrary

Physics is universal…or at least, it aspires to be. Drop an apple anywhere on Earth, at any point in history, and it will accelerate at roughly the same rate. When we call something a law of physics, we expect it to hold everywhere in the universe. It shouldn’t depend on anything arbitrary.

Sometimes, though, something arbitrary manages to sneak in. Even if the laws of physics are universal, the questions we want to answer are not: they depend on our situation, on what we want to know.

The simplest example is when we have to use units. The mass of an electron is the same here as it is on Alpha Centauri, the same now as it was when the first galaxies formed. But what is that mass? We could write it as 9.1093837015×10−31 kilograms, if we wanted to, but kilograms aren’t exactly universal. Their modern definition is at least based on physical constants, but with some pretty arbitrary numbers. It defines the Planck constant as 6.62607015×10−34 Joule-seconds. Chase that number back, and you’ll find references to the Earth’s circumference and the time it takes to turn round on its axis. The mass of the electron may be the same on Alpha Centauri, but they’d never write it as 9.1093837015×10−31 kilograms.

Units aren’t the only time physics includes something arbitrary. Sometimes, like with units, we make a choice of how we measure or calculate something. We choose coordinates for a plot, a reference frame for relativity, a zero for potential energy, a gauge for gauge theories and regularization and subtraction schemes for quantum field theory. Sometimes, the choice we make is instead what we measure. To do thermodynamics we must choose what we mean by a state, to call two substances water even if their atoms are in different places. Some argue a perspective like this is the best way to think about quantum mechanics. In a different context, I’d argue it’s why we say coupling constants vary with energy.

So what do we do, when something arbitrary sneaks in? We have a few options. I’ll illustrate each with the mass of the electron:

  • Make an arbitrary choice, and stick with it: There’s nothing wrong with measuring an electron in kilograms, if you’re consistent about it. You could even use ounces. You just have to make sure that everyone else you compare with is using the same units, or be careful to convert.
  • Make a “natural” choice: Why not set the speed of light and Planck’s constant to one? They come up a lot in particle physics, and all they do is convert between length and time, or time and energy. That way you can use the same units for all of them, and use something convenient, like electron-Volts. They even have electron in the name! Of course they also have “Volt” in the name, and Volts are as arbitrary as any other metric unit. A “natural” choice might make your life easier, but you should always remember it’s still arbitrary.
  • Make an efficient choice: This isn’t always the same as the “natural” choice. The units you choose have an effect on how difficult your calculation is. Sometimes, the best choice for the mass of an electron is “one electron-mass”, because it lets you calculate something else more easily. This is easier to illustrate with other choices: for example, if you have to pick a reference frame for a collision, picking one in which one of the objects is at rest, or where they move symmetrically, might make your job easier.
  • Stick to questions that aren’t arbitrary: No matter what units we use, the electron’s mass will be arbitrary. Its ratios to other masses won’t be though. No matter where we measure, dimensionless ratios like the mass of the muon divided by the mass of the electron, or the mass of the electron divided by the value of the Higgs field, will be the same. If we can make sure to ask only this kind of question, we can avoid arbitrariness. Note that we can think of even a mass in “kilograms” as this kind of question: what’s the ratio of the mass of the electron to “this arbitrary thing we’ve chosen”? In practice though, you want to compare things in the same theory, without the historical baggage of metric.

This problem may seem silly, and if we just cared about units it might be. But at the cutting-edge of physics there are still areas where the arbitrary shows up. Our choices of how to handle it, or how to avoid it, can be crucial to further progress.

Which Things Exist in Quantum Field Theory

If you ever think metaphysics is easy, learn a little quantum field theory.

Someone asked me recently about virtual particles. When talking to the public, physicists sometimes explain the behavior of quantum fields with what they call “virtual particles”. They’ll describe forces coming from virtual particles going back and forth, or a bubbling sea of virtual particles and anti-particles popping out of empty space.

The thing is, this is a metaphor. What’s more, it’s a metaphor for an approximation. As physicists, when we draw diagrams with more and more virtual particles, we’re trying to use something we know how to calculate with (particles) to understand something tougher to handle (interacting quantum fields). Virtual particles, at least as you’re probably picturing them, don’t really exist.

I don’t really blame physicists for talking like that, though. Virtual particles are a metaphor, sure, a way to talk about a particular calculation. But so is basically anything we can say about quantum field theory. In quantum field theory, it’s pretty tough to say which things “really exist”.

I’ll start with an example, neutrino oscillation.

You might have heard that there are three types of neutrinos, corresponding to the three “generations” of the Standard Model: electron-neutrinos, muon-neutrinos, and tau-neutrinos. Each is produced in particular kinds of reactions: electron-neutrinos, for example, get produced by beta-plus decay, when a proton turns into a neutron, an anti-electron, and an electron-neutrino.

Leave these neutrinos alone though, and something strange happens. Detect what you expect to be an electron-neutrino, and it might have changed into a muon-neutrino or a tau-neutrino. The neutrino oscillated.

Why does this happen?

One way to explain it is to say that electron-neutrinos, muon-neutrinos, and tau-neutrinos don’t “really exist”. Instead, what really exists are neutrinos with specific masses. These don’t have catchy names, so let’s just call them neutrino-one, neutrino-two, and neutrino-three. What we think of as electron-neutrinos, muon-neutrinos, and tau-neutrinos are each some mix (a quantum superposition) of these “really existing” neutrinos, specifically the mixes that interact nicely with electrons, muons, and tau leptons respectively. When you let them travel, it’s these neutrinos that do the traveling, and due to quantum effects that I’m not explaining here you end up with a different mix than you started with.

This probably seems like a perfectly reasonable explanation. But it shouldn’t. Because if you take one of these mass-neutrinos, and interact with an electron, or a muon, or a tau, then suddenly it behaves like a mix of the old electron-neutrinos, muon-neutrinos, and tau-neutrinos.

That’s because both explanations are trying to chop the world up in a way that can’t be done consistently. There aren’t electron-neutrinos, muon-neutrinos, and tau-neutrinos, and there aren’t neutrino-ones, neutrino-twos, and neutrino-threes. There’s a mathematical object (a vector space) that can look like either.

Whether you’re comfortable with that depends on whether you think of mathematical objects as “things that exist”. If you aren’t, you’re going to have trouble thinking about the quantum world. Maybe you want to take a step back, and say that at least “fields” should exist. But that still won’t do: we can redefine fields, add them together or even use more complicated functions, and still get the same physics. The kinds of things that exist can’t be like this. Instead you end up invoking another kind of mathematical object, equivalence classes.

If you want to be totally rigorous, you have to go a step further. You end up thinking of physics in a very bare-bones way, as the set of all observations you could perform. Instead of describing the world in terms of “these things” or “those things”, the world is a black box, and all you’re doing is finding patterns in that black box.

Is there a way around this? Maybe. But it requires thought, and serious philosophy. It’s not intuitive, it’s not easy, and it doesn’t lend itself well to 3d animations in documentaries. So in practice, whenever anyone tells you about something in physics, you can be pretty sure it’s a metaphor. Nice describable, non-mathematical things typically don’t exist.