I was surprised to learn, last week, that my profession has gone to the dogs. I’d introduced myself to a nonscientist as a theoretical physicist.
“I think,” he said, “that theoretical physics has lost its way in symmetry and beauty and math. It’s too far from experiments to be science.”
The accusation triggered an identity crisis. I lost my faith in my work, bit my nails to the quick, and enrolled in workshops about machine learning and Chinese.
Or I might have, if all theoretical physicists pursued quantum gravity.
Quantum-gravity physicists attempt to reconcile two physical theories, quantum mechanics and general relativity. Quantum theory manifests on small length scales, such as atoms’ and electrons’. General relativity manifests in massive systems, such as the solar system. A few settings unite smallness with massiveness, such as black holes and the universe’s origin. Understanding these settings requires a unification of quantum theory and general relativity.
Try to unify the theories, and you’ll find yourself writing equations that contain infinities. Such infinities can’t describe physical reality, but they’ve withstood decades of onslaughts. For guidance, many quantum-gravity theorists appeal to mathematical symmetries. Symmetries, they reason, helped 20th-century particle theorists predict experimental outcomes with accuracies better than any achieved with any other scientific theory. Perhaps symmetries can extend particle physics to a theory of quantum gravity.
Some physicists have criticized certain approaches to quantum gravity, certain approaches to high-energy physics more generally, and the high-energy community’s philosophy and sociology. Much criticism has centered on string theory, according to which our space-time has up to 26 dimensions, most too small for you to notice. Critics include Lee Smolin, the author of The Trouble with Physics, Peter Woit, who blogs on Not Even Wrong, and Sabine Hossenfelder, who published Lost in Math this year. This article contains no criticism of their crusade. I see merit in arguments of theirs, as in arguments of string theorists.
Science requires criticism to progress. So thank goodness that Smolin, Woit, Hossenfelder, and others are criticizing string theory. Thank goodness that the criticized respond. Thank goodness that debate rages, like the occasional wildfire needed to maintain a forest’s health.
The debate might appear to impugn the integrity of theoretical physics. But quantum gravity constitutes one pot in the greenhouse of theoretical physics. Theoretical physicists study lasers, star formation, atomic clocks, biological cells, gravitational waves, artificial materials, and more. Theoretical physicists are explaining, guiding, and collaborating on experiments. So many successes have piled up recently, I had trouble picking examples for this article.
One example—fluctuation relations—I’ve blogged about before. These equalities generalize the second law of thermodynamics, which illuminates why time flows in just one direction. Fluctuation relations also provide a route to measuring an energetic quantity applied in pharmacology, biology, and chemistry. Experimentalists have shown, over the past 15 years, that fluctuation relations govern RNA, DNA, electronic systems, and trapped ions (artificial atoms).
Second, experimentalists are exercising, over quantum systems, control that physicists didn’t dream of decades ago. Harvard physicists can position over 50 atoms however they please, using tweezers formed from light. Google has built a noisy quantum computer of 72 superconducting qubits, circuits through which charge flows without resistance. Also trapped ions, defects in diamonds, photonics, and topological materials are breaking barriers. These experiments advance partially due to motivation from theorists and partially through collaborations with theorists. In turn, experimental data guide theorists’ explanations and our proposals of experiments.
In one example, theorists teamed with experimentalists to probe quantum correlations spread across space and time. In another example, theorists posited a mechanism by which superconducting qubits interact with a hot environment. Other illustrations from the past five years include discrete time crystals, many–body scars, magic-angle materials, and quantum chaos.
These collaborations even offer hope for steering quantum gravity with experiments. Certain quantum-gravity systems share properties with certain many-particle quantum systems. This similarity, we call “the AdS/CFT duality.” Experimentalists have many-particle quantum systems and are stretching those systems toward the AdS/CFT regime. Experimental results, with the duality, might illuminate where quantum-gravity theorists should and shouldn’t search. Perhaps no such experiments will take place for decades. Perhaps AdS/CFT can’t shed light on our universe. But theorists and experimentalists are partnering to try.
These illustrations demonstrate that theoretical physics, on the whole, remains healthy, grounded, and thriving. This thriving is failing to register with part of the public. Evidence thwacked me in the face last week, as explained at the start of this article. The Wall Street Journal published another example last month: John Horgan wrote that “physics, which should serve as the bedrock of science, is in some respects the most troubled field of” science. The evidence presented consists of one neighborhood in the theoretical fraction of the metropolis of physics: string and multiverse models.
Horgan’s article reflects decades of experience in science journalism, a field I respect. I sympathize, moreover, with those who interface so much with quantum gravity, the subfield appears to eclipse the rest of theoretical physics. Horgan was reviewing books by Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees, who discuss string and multiverse models. Smolin, Woit, Hossenfelder, and others garner much press, which they deserve: They provoke debate and articulate their messages eloquently. Such press can blot out, say, profiles of the theoretical astrophysicists licking their lips over gravitational-wave data.
If any theory bears flaws, those flaws need correcting. But most theoretical physicists don’t pursue quantum gravity, let alone string theory. Any flaws of string theory do not mar all theoretical physics. These points need a megaphone, because misconceptions about theoretical physics endanger society. First, companies need workers who have technical skills and critical reasoning. Both come from training in theoretical physics. Besmirching theoretical physics can divert students from programs that can benefit the economy and nurture thoughtful citizens.1
Second, some nonscientists are attempting to discredit the scientific community for political gain. Misconceptions about theoretical physics can appear to support these nonscientists’ claims. The ensuing confusion can lead astray voters and parents who face choices about vaccination, global health, national security, and budget allocations.
Last week, I heard that my profession has wandered too far from experiments. Hours earlier, I’d skyped with an experimentalist with whom I’m collaborating. A disconnect separates the reality of theoretical physicists from impressions harbored by part of the public. Let’s clear up the misconceptions. Theoretical physics, as a whole, remains healthy, grounded, and thriving.
1Nurturing thoughtful citizens takes also humanities, social-sciences, language, and arts programs.