Particle Physics Is Doing Just Fine

Research is a search through the unknown. If you knew the answer, there would be no need to do the research, and until you do the research, you don’t know the answer. Science is a complex social phenomenon, but certainly its history includes repeated episodes of people having ideas, trying experiments to test those ideas, and using the results to inform the next round of ideas.. When an experimental result indicates that one particular idea is not correct, this is neither a failure of the experiment nor of the original idea itself; it’s an advancement of our understanding of the world around us.

Recently, particle physics has become the target of a strange line of scientific criticism. Articles like Sabine Hossenfelder’s New York Times op-ed questioning the “uncertain future” of particle physics and Vox’s “The $22 Billion Gamble: Why Some Physicists Aren’t Excited About Building a Bigger Particle Collider” raise the specter of failed scientists. To read these articles, you’d think that unless particle physics comes home with a golden ticket in the form of a new particle, it shouldn’t come home at all. Or at least, it shouldn’t get a new shot at exploring the universe’s subatomic terrain. But the proposal that particle physicists are essentially setting money on fire comes with an insidious underlying message: that science is about the glory of discovery, rather than the joy of learning about the world. Finding out that there are no particles where we had hoped tells us about the distance between human imagination and the real world. It can operate as a motivation to expand our vision of what the real world is like at scales that are totally unintuitive. Not finding something is just as informative as finding something.

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