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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Physicists Should Have Invested in Super Heroes Rather Than Supersymmetry

A recent article in the New York Times discusses the failure of attempts to find evidence for the physics theory called supersymmetry.

These are difficult times for the theorists,” Gian Giudice, the head of CERN’s theory department, said. “Our hopes seem to have been shattered. We have not found what we wanted.” What the world’s physicists have wanted for almost 30 years is any sign of phenomena called supersymmetry, which has hovered just out of reach like a golden apple, a promise of a hidden mathematical beauty at the core of reality.

The Standard Model of physics has fewer than 30 independent parameters. But according to one scientific web site, supersymmetry has more than 100 independent parameters. According to another page at the same web site, more than 10,000 scientific papers “reference” the theory of supersymmetry.

With all that work by physicists, you would think that there must be some evidence for supersymmetry. But efforts to find evidence for the theory have been a complete failure. The Large Hadron Collider has completely failed to support the theory.

Why have physicists spent so much time on such a theory? It was to try to explain a case in which nature seemed to be extraordinarily fine-tuned. The wikipedia article on supersymmetry states the following:

In the Standard Model, the electroweak scale receives enormous Planck-scale quantum corrections. The observed hierarchy between the electroweak scale and the Planck scale must be achieved with extraordinary fine tuning. In a supersymmetric theory, on the other hand, Planck-scale quantum corrections cancel between partners and superpartners (owing to a minus sign associated with fermionic loops). The hierarchy between the electroweak scale and the Planck scale is achieved in a natural manner, without miraculous fine-tuning.

The “miraculous fine-tuning” being talked about here (what is known as the hierarchy problem) is a kind of matching of two unrelated numbers so that they end up canceling each other out – rather like what you might have if you had to pay on Friday a $5000 payment to save your house from foreclosure, and you coincidentally won $5000 in the lottery on Friday morning.

But this hierarchy problem is actually much more of a coincidence. Because according to this scientific web site, “one has to hypothesize that the several correction terms cancel out to a part in 1034 (a hundred billionths of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth), if one is to make the Higgs mass smaller than a lead brick.” So maybe our analogy should be that you own 6 houses that are each behind $5000 on the mortgage, with Friday being the last day for you to save them; and you coincidentally on Friday morning buy 6 different lottery tickets that each win $5000. That's the kind of fine-tuning that seems to be involved in the case of the hierarchy problem.

Supersymmetry (also known as SUSY) is an attempt to explain away this “miraculous fine-tuning.” But supersymmetry has always been a ridiculously ornate contrivance. For example, it imagines that almost every known type of particle has a corresponding “superpartner.” It would be quite the fantastic coincidence if nature was set up in such a way. So supersymmetry is basically a kind of gigantic case of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” It tries to get rid of one fine-tuned coincidence (the hierarchy problem) by introducing a whole bunch of other fine-tuned coincidences, involving all these cases in which a known type of particle happens to have a matching “superpartner” particle.

It's kind of the same approach taken by a similar theory, the theory of cosmic inflation or exponential expansion. That theory tries to get rid of a case of extreme fine-tuning in the universe's first second, but it does it by making assertions that require their own fine-tuning in numerous ways. So it's just robbing Peter to pay Paul. There is no real net reduction in the amount of fine-tuning required.

For years scientists were hoping that the Large Hadron Collider would produce some evidence for supersymmetry. But no evidence has been produced. The chance of supersymmetry being confirmed in our lifetimes now seems almost zero. That's no surprise. Supersymmetry is a case of trying to explain away an example of cosmic fine-tuning, and there has never been a confirmed success in any effort to explain away any case of cosmic fine-tuning. The cosmic inflation theory (the theory of exponential expansion in the universe's first second) has been sociologically successful, a case of a thought virus that spread widely. But it has not been scientifically successful, because no evidence has been produced for it (and there are many problems with the theory).

Rather than investing so much time and effort on supersymmetry, physicists would have got a lot better return if they had invested instead in super heroes. There are several ways physicists could have done that. The first way would have been to invest in physics technologies that might have given us high-tech gadgets that would allow someone to have the equivalent of a comic super-power. Physicists might have invented some fancy gadget that would give some of the powers of Batman's utility belt. Or they might have invested in some bullet-stopping force field that might have worked kind of like Wonder Woman's bracelets. Or physicists might have invested in some super-strong material that would give someone some of the powers of Spider Man or Iron Man.

Or, physicists could simply have invested in super heroes without doing any research. They could have taken all that money wasted on supersymmetry papers, and invested the money by either buying super hero comic books, or investing in companies such as Marvel that published comic books. Comic books have long been collector's items, and a comic book which sold for 12 cents back in the 1960's may sell for hundreds of dollars today. Disney paid 4 billion dollars for Marvel Entertainment. If physicists had invested in super hero comic books or the companies that published them, the physicists could have made gigantic returns for themselves or for the colleges or universities where they work. 


I must confess that I myself am guilty of failing to see how much money could be made from comic books and from another collector's item: baseball cards. When I lived in a dull Maryland suburb in the early 1960's, I had lots of comic books and many baseball cards. In the suburb I lived, elementary school students were preoccupied with baseball cards. The kids would gamble the cards in various ways, which made a fun pastime. One game worked like this: you would take your stack of cards, and face your friend who also had a stack of cards. After each of you shuffled your stack, both of you would deal them into a common stack. First you would deal a card, then your friend. If your friend dealt a card with one top color bar, and you then dealt a card on top of that stack with the same color bar, you would win the entire stack that had been dealt.

In my suburb it seemed every family with boys had a cardboard box of baseball cards. But when I was eleven I moved to a very different environment: the more sophisticated locale of Washington D.C. Of course, I packed my comic books and baseball cards, and I hoped the kids there would be as interested in these as the kids in my Maryland suburb. But it seemed that none of the Washington children had the slightest interest in baseball cards. And they didn't seem too interested in comic books. I kind of thought to myself: I guess the city kids are too sophisticated for these things – maybe they're just silly suburb things. So not very long after moving to Washington D.C, I threw away all my baseball cards and comic books. What a mistake! I could have made thousands if I had kept them.

Whether children at a particular school gamble with baseball cards is a sociological consideration, a vogue of a particular locale. When groundless theories such as supersymmetry become all the rage among little academic tribes, it seems to be also a sociological consideration, a case of some vogue that went viral when it shouldn't have.