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ur-whale said 6 months ago:

I wish a physicist could explain here how the very notion of "diameter" has any meaning for an object whose size (IIUC) belong entirely to the quantum realm.

Is the hydrogen atom two hard little balls of matter orbiting one another, as we were taught in primary school, or are they a probabilistic soup with various, vaguely localized extrema?

If the latter, how do you even define the notion of diameter?

lisper said 6 months ago:

That is an excellent question!

The definition is somewhat arbitrary, but still has some real physical significance. In actual fact, a proton is a field, so it doesn't have sharp boundaries. But the amplitude of the field still dies off very rapidly with distance from the center, so you can pick some arbitrary small value and say "the point at which the amplitude becomes less than this value is the radius of the proton". What matters is not really the number that you get out of this, but the fact that the experimental results of measuring this value appeared to change in the presence of muons. This was a phenomenon that was not predicted by present theory, and if it had held up, would have been a major breakthrough. One of the biggest problems in physics right now is that there are no experiments (except possibly this one) whose results are at odds with the Standard Model. That makes it hard to improve the model!

jemorya said 6 months ago:

There are some really good responses to lisper's post: what about 96% of the universe's mass, neutrino mass, what about gravity for that matter. (zing!)

The thing about those particular questions is that they only tell us that the standard model is incomplete. Gravity exists. The fact that it's not in the standard model doesn't necessarily mean that the model is broken, just that gravity needs to be added somehow.

What we need more of are instances where the standard model makes a precise numeric prediction and it's dead wrong. That puts a spotlight on every piece of the standard model that went into the prediction.

(Edited for the pun I didn't intend.)

pdonis said 6 months ago:

The notion of "size" being referred to here is the charge radius of the proton:


It is one of several distinct possible notions of "size" for a particle.

godelski said 6 months ago:

What the parent is saying is that the field is a continuum. What matters is a certain strength of the field that matches measurable effects.

pdonis said 6 months ago:

> What the parent is saying is that the field is a continuum

Yes, I know that. I am simply giving a link to more detailed information about what lisper was describing.

yyyk said 6 months ago:

"One of the biggest problems in physics right now is that there are no experiments (except possibly this one) whose results are at odds with the Standard Model."

What about Neutrino masses? Or the Muon 'anomalous' magnetic moment?

willis936 said 6 months ago:

Does the magnitude of the field wave drop at some fixed shape (like an exponential)?

Is the wavelength fixed? Is it in meters?

Is it the field of a proton made up of multiple frequencies/modes?

Is a proton’s influence on fields extend to all space or is there a point (within the hubble sphere) at which a proton does not influence fields at all?

marcosdumay said 6 months ago:

- Yes, it's fixed. It's also a complicated function.

- A quantum mechanics wave function does not necessarily have a wave length or a frequency. It is a different concept from waves, although classical waves are a consequence of it.

- In QM all particles influence all of space. It is also too small an influence to make any difference.

moonbug said 6 months ago:

except for an explanation of 96% of the universe's mass

hgoel said 5 months ago:

That's a sign of incompleteness, not of incorrectness.

DoctorOetker said 6 months ago:

> One of the biggest problems in physics right now is that there are no experiments (except possibly this one) whose results are at odds with the Standard Model.

If we say that new physics comes from inconsistencies (either between theory and experiment, or simply within a theory), then there is plenty of new physics to be done, for example the pretense that an electron is a fundamental particle results in the inconsistency with predicted infinite mass. (I claim to have a solution, but I am sitting on it because I believe with a bunch more effort it can explain the dimensionless number that relates planck charge with electron charge, essentially explaining planck's constant and QM in quasiclassical terms...)

timthorn said 6 months ago:

I assume that your solution is too big to fit in the margin of a Web page?

DoctorOetker said 5 months ago:

Hah! Fermat's comment indicated a willingness but lack of space.

My comment indicates unwillingness because I think I can deduce more from the insight. (resolving the infinite mass inconsistency was not in the original scope of my attempt, it just happened to roll out while trying to deduce the dimensionless ratio)

Anyway, the main point I was making was that there is plenty of work to be done, because theres plenty of unresolved problems left.

The usual deadlock picture (that theorists can't proceed if experimentalists don't bring new data, and experimentalists can't proceed if theorists don't bring good discriminative tests) hides either laziness or ignorance.

fdavison said 6 months ago:

DoctorOetker's most recent theorem?

jpmattia said 6 months ago:

> I wish a physicist could explain here how the very notion of "diameter" has any meaning for an object whose size (IIUC) belong entirely to the quantum realm.

Usually these are describing expectation values of radial positions.

For the well-understood example of the hydrogen electronic orbit, the Bohr radius is the expectation value of the radial position of the electron. The electron has a wavefunction Ψ; When you calculate the expectation value of the radius r using Ψ (= \int_0^\infinity Ψ* r Ψ dr ) you find a value of about 0.5 nm.

People will drop the subtlety of the "expectation value" and just say "the hydrogen atom has a radius of about 0.5 nm".

The issue for the proton radius that the article did not delve into: There is currently more than one way to measure the proton radius. One is scattering (pitch another particle at the proton, look at how it "bounces" off), and another is spectroscopically (look at the energy levels of the electron, deduce the proton radius from the interaction of the electron orbit and the proton.) These methods do not give the same answer.

whatshisface said 6 months ago:

Usually the radius of something like a proton or an atom takes the form of a parameter in an equation that just-so-happens to be measured in a unit of length. It's not defined specifically to be an indication of the extent of the particle, it just happens to roughly be about the right size.

This paper[0] says that it is defined in terms of a "probability amplitude that an interaction between a photon of four-momentum q^μ (Q2=−q2) and a charged constituent of the proton can absorb such a momentum with the proton remaining in its ground state." So, not exactly a radius, but "radius" is an okay conceptual mnemonic.

[0] https://arxiv.org/pdf/1812.02714.pdf

doubleunplussed said 6 months ago:

Other answers are either overcomplicated or imprecise: the proton's radius is defined as the RMS radius of its charge distribution. It's the same idea as describing the size of a probability distribution by its standard deviation.

jxdxbx said 6 months ago:

One point that is so basic that physicists often forget to explain it: leptons and quarks don't really have a "size," they are considered point particles. A proton is a configuration of three point particles though whether it makes sense to say that this configuration has some spatial structure is beyond me.

Also, mass has nothing to do with size, or "stuff"-ness. A proton has about 100 times more mass than its quarks (from binding energy), but an atom has less mass than its protons and electrons added up (from the loss of potential energy). A top quark has about as much mass as an atom of gold, but again is just a point particle. And photons have no mass but the energy of photons bouncing around in a confined space does have mass.

thatcherc said 6 months ago:

Depends on the particle! Electrons are considered to be point particles with an infinitesimal radius. A proton, however, is made of three bound quarks, which all whiz around each other within a small but finite region. By bouncing things off the proton, as is done in scattering experiments, a notion of how large that region occupied by the quarks is can be determined.

fdavison said 6 months ago:

That reminded me of this video of NDT describing the size of the electron: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6kjY6ppJRE&t=71

jarfil said 6 months ago:

"Radius" is a distance at which something stops happening, defining a boundary between some "inside" and some "outside".

Interactions between particles, waves, fields, etc. are quantized, which means there is a set of distances at which a given interaction can happen, and a set of distances at which it can't. This creates a boundary, often spherical, which can be described as having some "radius", and thus some "diameter".

Depending on the interactions you choose, a particle might have multiple diameters, or even boundaries with different topologies, but they're usually somehow related to each other for any given particle.

wnoise said 6 months ago:

> Interactions between particles, waves, fields, etc. are quantized,


> which means there is a set of distances at which a given interaction can happen, and a set of distances at which it can't.

... that's not how quantization works. The exact ways in which quantum effects are actually discrete is much subtler than in most popularizations. In fact, sharp effects with distance are more likely to be seen in classical models than in quantum ones because the quantum models often allow for classically forbidden effects to happen with small probability, which decreases as the distances increase. You only really see sharp transitions for "bound states"; for everything else (e.g. scattering experiments) there are wider or narrower peaks of more likely to occur depending on both spatial and other parameters.

The radius really is measuring "over about how much space is this particle spread", and while the exact details of how you define that can give different numbers, they are all measuring interaction widths -- how close something has to be to feel its direct effect. I say direct effect, because obviously the indirect effects such as through the EM field can be felt at great distances.

Note that this measure of spread is distinct from the how the wavefunction of the center of a particle is spread, which in the right states can be highly delocalized, even though the particle hasn't gotten any wider. Electron orbitals, for instance, can have different radii in different states (or topology, as you note, if you pick a cutoff that splits high-density regions in two), but the electron still has the same negligible (usually modeled as zero) radius in comparison to any orbital.

DoctorOetker said 6 months ago:

Consider a perfectly spherical earth, and a vertical tunnel perforating it through the center, with an elevator in the tunnel. suppose you are halfway towards the center, coming from the surface, and you pause the elevator. How strong will the gravitational field be? Can we pretend all of Earth's mass is concentrated in the center? No, let's see why.

Consider a perfectly spherical hollow shell of mass, and an observer inside the shell, will she be attracted to the center of mass of the shell? No, let's see why.

We know that gravitational field falls of with distance squared ( 1 / r^2 ). Consider a random observer position, and a random direction. Now consider a cone tipped at the observer with the random direction as its axis, and also consider a second cone with the same cone angle but the opposite direction as its axis. So the observer position is where the 2 cone tips meet. Then consider the distance between the observer towards each patch of the spherical shell. The area (and thus mass) of this patch will scale with the distance squared, so if one patch is say 3 times further away than the other, it will be 9 times weaker due to 1 / r^2 gravitational fall off, but also 9 times heavier due to geometric scaling of the patch, so gravity due to the patches will cancel, and since the direction of the axis was arbitrary, the gravity of each part of the shell will be balanced by the gravity of a corresponding opposite part of the shell.

So when you are in an elevator halfway down the radius of the hypothetical spherical Earth, all the layers of Earth above you will cancel gravitationally, and the gravitational field will only be due to the mass of the Earth that is contained in the sphere up to your altitute with respect to the center of the Earth.

Similarily, when the electron is far enough from the (assumed spherical) proton, we can somewhat pretend the proton is a point particle. but when the electron is inside the proton, then the effective charge of the proton will be lower because of all the charge of the proton that is farther from the proton's center than the electron is invisible to the electron (since the electric field also falls of like 1 / r^2 ).

I hope that answers the question?

chasd00 said 6 months ago:

forgive my ignorance, but don't you have to assume uniform density in both cases? It seems to me the person in the earth elevator halfway down would feel more gravity toward the center of the earth because there's actually more mass due to the higher density. In a similar way, the proton would have higher mass toward the center because of the higher wave amplitude.

btown said 6 months ago:

Yep, due to non-uniform density it's much more complicated. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravity_of_Earth#Depth includes a graphic that shows how it varies.

DoctorOetker said 6 months ago:

correct, it does assume uniform density, if it didnt, you could say the density was zero throughout the sphere except for a small spherical region, and it would be trivially false then

I was illustrating how in principle radii can be derived in a phenomenological sense.

I didn't read the actual papers by the experimenters of the proton radius determination, but it would probably require a modification of the Hamiltonian for the hydrogen atom, since usually one treats the nuclei as point particles.

blhack said 6 months ago:

This is true for every physical object though. You cannot tell me with perfect certainty the width of a ball of tungsten, because the edges aren’t actually rigidly defined. In fact: it doesn’t really have an “edge” the way you might think of it geometrically. Just a boundary across which forces start interacting with each other.

pbhjpbhj said 6 months ago:

Well if we're going to be pedantic why not do it properly - surely there is no force boundary, instead there is a proximity at which the forces become significant. Significance being determined according to the situation being analysed.

calhoun137 said 6 months ago:

This is a surprisingly hard question to answer! An orthodox point of view says "diameter" is just a word for a physical quantity which can be measured by experiment and plugged into a formula to predict the result of other experiments. In my personal opinion, theoretical physics is not currently capable of providing a satisfactory answer, but if we knew more about the relationship between quantum field theory and general relativity it would probably be possible to say more.

There are plenty of ways to wave your hands about it, and I have been doing this for a long time and could give 100 different explanations. At the end of the day what do I see in my head when I think about the "diameter" of the proton? Basically a probabilistic soup which is confined to a small area.

The "wave function" of a quantum particle can tell you where it is but is not the same as the particle itself. Standard QM assumes particles are infinitesimal points, in QFT this leads to infinities which can be resolved if you assume particles have a "smeared out" radius. This "smeared out" radius is what the proton diameter should be related to when the more complete quantum and gravity theory is discovered.

WhitneyLand said 6 months ago:

It may be simpler to start our not thinking of particles as matter, but instead thinking of them as little energy fields. Like a magnetic field, a particle has properties and interacts with some things and not others. This is why it's a "field theory".

Say you had ten different light bulbs. Could it make sense to talk about their differing light output as "diameters"? It wouldn't be defined in terms of a physically measured length of the bulbs, rather a diameter could be defined to be about properties of a light bulb.

Remember all these words are in some ways arbitrarily chosen by people. If you replaced the word diameter everywhere with "fat content" would all the math still work?

The math would still work fine. The problem would be it's even less understandable than diameter, and it makes it less efficient as an abstraction that you can grok and reason about.

dkersten said 6 months ago:

> It may be simpler to start our not thinking of particles as matter, but instead thinking of them as little energy fields.

I dunno about simpler, but it certainly helps explain many of the weird effects we’ve observed in the universe. I recently went down the Quantum Field Theory rabbit hole (thanks to PBS Space Time on YouTube) and it’s an absolutely fascinating topic (even if the maths is beyond me) and QFT especially both makes sense to me and explains a lot of the “problems” with particle physics as I learned it in school.

fsh said 6 months ago:

As far as atomic physics is concerned (except for hyperfine structure), the proton is simply a blob of charge which can be to first order described by a position-dependent charge density \rho(r). The RMS charge radius r_p is defined by r_p^2 = (\int r² \rho(r) d³r) / (\int \rho(r) d³r).

davrosthedalek said 6 months ago:

Almost, but not quite. The rms radius is defined via the slope of the proton electric form factor G_E. Via a Fourier transform you can connect the form factor to the distribution of charge in some space-like coordinate. That works out to be (very close) to the rest frame space for heavier atoms, because relativistic effects are small. For the proton, this is not true -- the Fourier transform gives a spacial distribution in the so called Brick-wall or Breit-frame, not in the rest frame of the proton. (There are additional complications about waveforms not being the same before and after).

Someone said 6 months ago:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proton_radius_puzzle#Problem (not yet updated with this result, btw) gives 3 methods.

analog31 said 6 months ago:

In addition to the many good answers here, I'd add that whatever parameter represents "diameter" for a proton, probably also represents the classical diameter of something macroscopic like a billiard ball if carried to that extreme.

BurningFrog said 6 months ago:

They're a soup.

I suppose you have to pick a probability criteria for the diameter.

robotresearcher said 6 months ago:

From the article:

> an electron [...] spends part of its time inside the proton (which is a constellation of elementary particles called quarks and gluons, with a lot of empty space).

mncharity said 6 months ago:

Not a physicist, but I spent some time on this, exploring the possibility of a "teach scale down to nuclei, then nuclei up to matter" learning progression for primary school.

Nuclei are quasi-classical little balls. It's electrons that are wacky quantum weirdness.

Which makes the current pedagogical emphasis on electrons, rather nuclei, as a foundation for understanding atoms... perhaps miss some opportunities for greater clarity. And that's even before getting to state standards that require teaching both "atoms are conserved in chemical reactions" and "atoms are electrically neutral, so if charged, they are no longer atoms, but ions". Sigh.

Nucleons overlap (not orbit), but nuclei aren't homogeneous, especially light ones. Light nuclei are well described as clusters of alpha particles, heavier ones as liquid drops. Ground states are generally more or less spherical. Though Neon looks like an old-style wine bottle, with a tetrahedron of alphas in the bowl, and a fifth making a neck. Non-ground states for lights are mostly rearranged alphas, for heavies, variously distorted balls. Fission is droplets stretching and necking apart.

A proton is a mix of odd shapes, but directly measurable properties are spherical. It's just a ball.

Nuclear mass and charge density are, to a good first approximation, colocated. You don't have mass concentrated one place and charge somewhere else. No surprises.

Electrons are a peak with exponential falloff, making choosing a radius quite arbitrary. What's the diameter of a cartoon volcano, that blends seamlessly into plains? Wacky, wacky electrons.

Nuclei have a flat-ish density plateau, then a steep slope, and only then a tiny exponential footlands (Woods–Saxon potential). So it's just a ball with a fuzzy edge, rather than a wacky exponential cloud thing.

Note the narrow range of sizes being discussed. No one is suggesting 10 femtometers, or 0.1 femtometers, or even 1.0 fm or 0.8 fm. "GEOID-Next committee tables discussion and heads to a bar, unable to agree on the shape of the Earth!!! News at 11!!!" But for most everyone, primary school up, that's "a femtometer ball".

A superball can be bounced, and crushed, and burned. You need polymer physics to understand just why it behaves as it does. But you can describe that behavior to a Kindergartener. They don't need polymer physics. Nuclei are just little balls.

Now look at the giant hairy mess of this thread. It's like, we teach "4/3 pi r^3, 4 pi r^2", but not "the volume and area of a ball are half of its box". But dialed way way up. Science education, variously distracted, failing to provide a coherent briefing on the physical world.

If anyone has ideas on how to describe this point, I'd appreciate them, as I've never come up with something nice.

Here's a tiny Neon pic. I just think Neon is cute. https://arxiv.org/abs/1406.2473 page 4. There's a nicer one somewhere...

scriptkiddy said 6 months ago:

From my admittedly entry-level understanding, particles like electrons, quarks and gluons are largely considered to be points with energy fields. So, not exactly "stuff", but the stuff that "stuff" is made out of.

conistonwater said 6 months ago:

> If the discrepancy was real, meaning protons really shrink in the presence of muons, this would imply unknown physical interactions between protons and muons — a fundamental discovery. Hundreds of papers speculating about the possibility have been written in the near-decade since.

This reminds me of a joke. An experimental physicist walks into a theoretical physicist's office with a really cool experimental result, shows the printed out graph to the theoretician. He thinks for a while and says, "this is perfectly in line with theory, let me explain how". The experimentalist looks at the graph, scratches his head, says "uh, this is upside down", and rotates the paper 180 degrees. The theoretician thinks a while more and says, "well this can also be explained".

WhitneyLand said 6 months ago:

The clever thing about these kinds of jokes as when it happens in politics is, they manage to mock two groups of people such that each group reads the joke and tends to laugh because they infer it as poking fun at the other group.

AnthonBerg said 6 months ago:

We laugh even if it is rotated by 180 degrees.

charles_f said 6 months ago:

Reminds me of a person on HN that was telling a joke on a specific group of people, and another person came and said "that can be laughed about", and the initial person said "actually it's about all groups of people", and the other person said "that can also be laughed about".

jpmattia said 6 months ago:

Probably worth noting: The author writes the article as though the latest experiment "solves" the issue.

A more nuanced description (which is not exactly quantamagazine's forte) would note there is a conundrum about the proton size. The article describes a measurement that falls under "spectroscopic methods" in the wiki [1].

Why eg scattering measurements should yield a different value is not at all clear.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proton_radius_puzzle

raldi said 6 months ago:

This was a great writeup. Accessible, yet I feel like I learned some genuine not-dumbed-down science.

FuckButtons said 6 months ago:

Quanta has a lot of good articles like this one, definitely worth looking at every now and then.

fsh said 6 months ago:

The article doesn't mention that since 2010 two more measurements on atomic hydrogen that determine the proton size with similar accuracy have been published. The first one (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/358/6359/79) agrees well with the muonic value, while the second one (https://journals.aps.org/prl/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevLett.12...) disagrees with the muonic value and agrees with the old, larger value.

davrosthedalek said 6 months ago:

Yes, very true. I think it's a shame that some people just declare victory and ignore the discrepancy in these modern experiments. At the same time, a similar split seems to happen using the scattering method, but the data are not published yet.

The results from Hessels were announced as preliminary results more than a year ago -- it's great that they are finally out peer-reviewed. But the community at large didn't stop back then when the results came out, with more experiments planned all over the world, especially but not only in the scattering sector. We made progress, but the puzzle isn't dead yet. There is actually a conference starting next week on this topic: http://ecsac.ictp.it/ecsac19/

It's a rare occasion where nuclear physics and AMO overlap. Another one is the Zemach radius, which also requires knowledge of the proton magnetic form factor.

said 6 months ago:
fastaguy88 said 6 months ago:

One has to wonder why the original "muon" paper, which produced such controversial results, did not include the control of measuring with the same methods conventional ("electron") hydrogen. Doing the control would have cleared things up a lot sooner.

fsh said 5 months ago:

It took Eric Hessel's group eight years of hard work to do the measurement in electronic hydrogen. The experiments are completely different.

dschuetz said 5 months ago:

I don't understand how physicists cannot see the obvious: the size of a proton appears not to have a fixed/natural value. It seems to depend on the quantum state of their system, energy levels, and the coupling partner's quantum state, energy levels and mass. "Physicists finally nail..." sounds like a part of a joke: "Physicists finally nail the coffin with the research funds shut"

vectorEQ said 6 months ago:

so, a failure in measurement sparked a mystery which went on for decades. i wonder how often that happens in science ;P

chrisamiller said 6 months ago:

All the time! People propose hypotheses, supported by some preliminary data, and then they need to be tested. Some problems are easy, some take years or decades to be overturned. It's messy sometimes, but that's how science is supposed to work!

Dylan16807 said 5 months ago:

You're really stretching that 'supposed'.

I think if we were closer to ideal science, we'd work harder to verify numbers as a first step. More replication means stronger foundations and less wasted work.

There will always be some bad results that stick around for a long time before being overturned. But the median lifetime of bad results can change based on how we prioritize research. That statistic might currently be far from optimal.

cpsempek said 6 months ago:

I think the parent was being sarcastic, hence the ;P emoji at the end of the post.

However, I wanted to commend your reply. It seeks to educate without judgement. Cheers.

vectorEQ said 5 months ago:

op here, i was sarcastic. the whole of science is based on best hypothesis is accepted as the ruling one. not as a fact of nature or reality ,but the best hypothesis. people take it often as fact though ,which led me to post a sarcastic comment just to point that out. sorry if it confused or offended someone :')

bsder said 6 months ago:

Millikan's original oil drop experiment had that problem ...

RandomTisk said 6 months ago:

Worse are the "best explanations" that get adopted as if they were real observations with militant fervor, something we're seeing with Dark Matter and Energy today. It's gotta be difficult to make progress sometimes when most of your field insists that their best theory must be the correct one.

cthalupa said 6 months ago:

Please. Millions of dollars are spent every year researching alternative theories and modifications to GR that eliminate the need for Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

The problem is, and has always been, that these alternative theories are never as accurate or precise as GR and their observational evidence is never as good as what we have for DM and DE.

It's not a conspiracy that scientific consensus is that they both exists, and no one is preventing research into alternatives being done. Significantly more money goes into research that accepts their existence, yes, but that's because most scientists do as well. What outcome do you want? To force scientists to work on theories they don't put any stock in? There is still plenty of interest in research papers written by people advancing alternate theories. Good ones are widely read by the entirety of the community, but you make it sound like the scientific community is actively suppressing anyone from researching anything that casts doubt on the existence of dark energy and dark matter, and that's just not true.

RandomTisk said 6 months ago:

It's not a conspiracy per se, but it fits into a realm where virtually every single documentary about space these days are making overt or not-so-overt claims that it's absolutely real and we're not even considering other possibilities. Of course we are, but that's not how it gets presented by the vast majority of "television physicists" and I find most documentaries about space completely unwatchable these days. Usually it's presented with unwavering faith that dark matter and energy exist, if only we could detect it. The more humble approach would be "95% of the universe is Dark Matter and Energy, unless one of our assumptions is wrong and we just don't know which one yet". That's honesty you just don't find much in media for public consumption, and if it's wrong (I'm not saying it is), then millions of bright minds are being led down the wrong path. I'm just hoping for more honesty about what we actually observe or what we desperately want to observe in popular (scientific) culture.

gnaritas said 6 months ago:

DE and DM are not assumptions, there's strong indirect evidence of their existence. You don't have to see a thing directly to deduce it's there. The problem isn't the shows, the problem is you think you know more than the people who actually know and you're bothered by their confidence in something you wrongly think is just an assumption.

earthboundkid said 6 months ago:

DM and DE matching observational data is like a ML model match its training data. Okay sure, that's necessary, but it's not sufficient to actually believing they're a good model.

pavel_lishin said 6 months ago:

What a headline. Should someone talk to the author, make sure they're doing ok?

colechristensen said 6 months ago:

There is a certain philosophical dissatisfaction with the standard model and it just keeps getting confirmed over and over, nobody can seem to find any significant new physics because possible discrepancies keep getting eliminated one by one. Hope dies is maybe a bit florid, but it's a bit real if you don't take it too seriously.

ChuckMcM said 6 months ago:

Yup, pretty much. Now if they could just use the standard model to explain dark matter/energy or the inconsistencies in the cosmic age evidence, or what ever the non-fundamental physics but really interesting problem is.

I wonder if we figure out how to regrow a damaged heart into a healthy heart with a simple injection and 10 weeks of physical therapy if hope will die in all those cardiologists out there who no longer are able to push the boundaries in heart transplant surgery or heart substitutions.

What is the effect on people who have spent their lives becoming an expert in a field or subject which now seems to be "done." I could imagine they might lose hope.

asdfman123 said 6 months ago:

The world runs on clicks now, and you have to make headlines sound at least a little outrageous to keep up.

I mean, I clicked because I thought, "Hope dies? I'm sure that's an exaggeration..."

devb said 6 months ago:

Authors don't always have a final say on what the headline will be. Sometimes they don't have any say at all.

Mathnerd314 said 6 months ago:

The original headline is much more positive: http://yfile.news.yorku.ca/2019/09/06/just-how-big-is-a-prot...

I'd say the writer has a tendency to write gloomy headlines: https://www.quantamagazine.org/famous-experiment-dooms-pilot...

notfashion said 6 months ago:

It's not a case of an "original headline": this is an entirely separate article, not a regurgitation of the press release. Wolchover is a very serious writer.

It's pretty sickening to watch the (sadly predictable) HN sneering and mockery around the topic of someone's (anyone's) mental health. It's such a cruel, distorted and completely non-constructive conversation. Do you guys really not have anything more interesting to say?

Dylan16807 said 5 months ago:






You get all this from "make sure they're doing ok?".

draw_down said 6 months ago:

Feel free! I don't see the problem with it, though.

Bostonian said 6 months ago:

I think in some areas of physics, such as high-energy physics, there is not much left to discover. The Standard Model works. What branches of physics are likely to see progress?

mfoy_ said 6 months ago:

I guess it's hard to say, because we don't know what we don't know. The famous example is Newtonian physics which seemed to perfectly explain everything.... until new tools and methods came out that were capable of showing it break down under extreme circumstances. That's how we ended up with Einsteinian physics, where it accounted for the old model and the new observed discrepancies.

So... how do we know that we will not find some bizarre scenario in the future the throws the Standard Model into a similar existential crisis?

I say keep your mind open.

Merrill said 6 months ago:

Although Einstein apparently knew about the Michelson-Morley experiment, it's unclear how much his development of relativity depended on it. He seems to have moved on to being motivated mainly by rationalist abstraction and the use of gedanken experiments, rather than actual experiments. The predictions of relativity were then confirmed by later observations and experiments.

"On the role of the Michelson-Morley experiment: Einstein in Chicago" http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/4778/1/Einstein_Chicago_Web2...

It seems that the development of quantum mechanics has been much more driven by experimental results, although there are exceptions, such as Dirac's prediction of the positron.

certifiedloud said 6 months ago:

Einstein's theory hasn't yet been reconciled with quantum theory. That's a good place to watch for progress.

Symmetry said 6 months ago:

That may require waiting to become a Kardashev III[1] civilization so we can do experiments where we know General Relativity and the Standard Model give different results. The energies required for the disagreements to show up are really insane.


Filligree said 6 months ago:

More or less. We can hope that something more clever would be possible, like in the novel Schild's Ladder...

Though we'd have to hope that, unlike that novel, we don't accidentally set off a vacuum collapse. That would be unfortunate.

red75prime said 6 months ago:

It will also be a civilization-scale experiment on quantum immortality, where we can't get negative result.

Filligree said 5 months ago:

You'll excuse me for not wanting to test that.

Sharlin said 6 months ago:

Not really sure about that. Physicists are getting really frustrated by the fact that the LHC has found exactly the missing piece that the SM predicted (the Higgs) and zero evidence of any physics beyond that, anything that would get us closer to quantum gravity. No strings, no supersymmetry, not even any hints as to the nature of dark matter. All it has done is give new lower bounds to the energy scales at which something interesting might start to happen. For all we know, we might need a solar system size collider to attain the required energies.

cthalupa said 6 months ago:

>For all we know, we might need a solar system size collider to attain the required energies.

We just need to observe the collisions happening at these energies - we don't necessarily need to produce them ourselves.

Some physicists are starting to think about how we might be able to observe naturally occurring collisions at these energy levels rather than producing them ourselves.

ufmace said 6 months ago:

AIUI, the trick with colliders isn't so much creating high-energy collisions, but creating them exactly inside gigantic detectors that can measure what happens in those collisions, as well as the collisions having a known amount of energy and contents.

cthalupa said 6 months ago:

Well, to the best of my understanding, both are an issue with current colliders. I've not read any of the papers around the idea of observing collisions caused by high energy events elsewhere in the galaxy/universe, but the articles I read made it sound like this would solve a portion of the problem that we otherwise might not be able to without a solar system sized collider. They didn't make it sound like this would be anything we could do anytime soon, however. But potentially sooner than we'd be able to generate the energy needed to cause collisions at those energy levels.

I'm having trouble finding the articles I've read on the subject - I'll follow back up if I do manage to find 'em.

nategri said 6 months ago:

IIRC that only buys you 2-3 orders over LHC energy.

Filligree said 6 months ago:

Considering this would represent a continent-sized collider... I'll take it.

willis936 said 6 months ago:

I wonder if there is a Future Circular Collider that could help expand the standard model into this regime.

gbear605 said 6 months ago:

There unfortunately isn't, at least not at a scale that's feasible right now. [0]

[0]: http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2019/03/nonsense-arguments-...

sousavdouglas said 6 months ago:


brummm said 6 months ago:

There are lots of unexplained things that we already know about that are outside of the standard model. For example:

- The standard model doesn't explain any of the rest masses of the fundamental particles nor any of the coupling constants and a bunch of mixing angles. I think in total there are more than 30 input parameters that are completely unexplained

- Neutrino oscillation/masses are NOT part of the standard model as it predicts them to be massless

- Gravity is just not part of the standard model and currently cannot be combined properly with the other fundamental interactions

qws said 6 months ago:

Someone please help correct my intuition here:

the harder it is to find flaws in the Standard Model, the harder it would be to use such new physics in engineering.

Basically I'm curious whether continuing failures to find new physics can be taken as evidence that, if and when we find the new physics, it will be very difficult to apply.

I'm not against science for its own sake, however. Just more of an engineer than a scientist, myself.

skrebbel said 6 months ago:

Don't forget that our engineering ability grows as well. I guess that when Einstein proposed his relativity theories, it seemed totally inapplicable. But fast forward a few decades, and we got GPS which wouldn't work without them.

adrianN said 6 months ago:

Much more impressive are the gravitational wave detectors.

Ididntdothis said 6 months ago:

I remember that when they discovered electrons they thought that it’s also totally useless.

jarfil said 6 months ago:

Depends on the kind of difficulty. If it's quantitative, as in requiring orders of magnitude more energy, mass or time, then yes.

But it might be just more difficult qualitatively, like some different and non-intuitive way of interpreting everything, which might only require switching a few equations and changing some procedures.

pfdietz said 6 months ago:

If the effects require an accelerator the size of a small country to show up, then it's unlikely they'll be useful in anything small.

I think people have been misled by science fiction. Stories posit all sorts of interesting and exciting physics not because that's plausible, but because it makes interesting stories.

BurningFrog said 6 months ago:

If applying the new physics requires gigantic particle accelerators, sure.

But maybe it's under a completely different rock, that we haven't thought of turning over.

davrosthedalek said 6 months ago:

The nice thing about precision nuclear physics is that often lower energies are enough -- most accelerators actually have too much energy to measure the proton radius for example. And energy recovering linacs for these energies can be build quite small. Think Basketball court.

jerf said 6 months ago:

"the harder it is to find flaws in the Standard Model, the harder it would be to use such new physics in engineering."

I think that is very likely, but not necessarily guaranteed. I use similar logic with regard to FTL and time travel; if physics has not quite entirely ruled it out, the window is getting smaller and smaller, and is already to the point it's entirely plausible that even if it's theoretically possible there may be no conceivable engineering path to get to it, even for a hypothetical civilization that can fling black holes around.

However, we can't entirely rule out the possibility that some new physics will come along that will reveal how to easily "flip" matter into anti-matter (there seems to be no fundamental reason why this is impossible, it's just... too hard to be useful), or enable the creation of some state of matter or energy that may be exceedingly unlikely to be created naturally [1], but once created could be leveraged into something useful, or other such things. Stabilized muon fusion [2]? Relatively & QM fusion will certainly reveal something new about gravity; it can't be entirely ruled out that it will in some way be useful to engineering. (Although in this particular case, remember we can eliminate not just the "scientific" theories, but also observe engineers have yet to blunder into anything that seems to indicate any manipulation of gravity in any sensible way. Every real-world device ever built is also a test that shows that particular device must not be doing large-scale gravity manipulation.) Will quantum computers reveal some limit of reality's ability to calculate, and will that limit somehow itself turn out to be useful? Maybe.

Still, I tend to think that as much fun as flights of fancy about time travel, FTL, or bizarre alien tech can be, that the most likely hypothesis by far is that we are indeed very unlikely to discover anything in particle physics anymore that will be of any engineering value.

But I wouldn't counsel disappointment. There's still a lot of room at the bottom. We're not going to run out of technology in our lifetimes. If particle physics bores you, check out what's going on in materials science. They're making qubits sing and dance on command. It may still not build UFOs, but they're doing weird stuff in there.

[1]: As a sort of example, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strangelet#Dangers (Stranger Danger has nothing on Stranglet Danger.)

[2]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muon-catalyzed_fusion

auntienomen said 6 months ago:

The Standard Model works with two significant asterisks. It is almost certainly not mathematically consistent, due to the presence of Landau poles in the hypercharge and in the Higgs self-coupling. It also does not include gravity. Neither of these caveats is a problem at experimentally accessible energies, but they do indicate that there's something left to discover. It's a bit irritating: We know we're missing something. We just don't know what.

Ididntdothis said 6 months ago:

Gravity, dark energy, dark matter. There is still a lot to discover.

whatshisface said 6 months ago:

The standard model lacks gravity.

striking said 6 months ago:

I would like to believe this is a double entendre.

analog31 said 6 months ago:

There's still physics in every successive new digit of the physical constants. The gravitational constant is only known to roughly 5 digits. Get to work!

adrusi said 6 months ago:

While it is never safe to affirm that the future of Physical Science has no marvels in store even more astonishing than those of the past, it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established and that further advances are to be sought chiefly in the rigorous application of these principles to all the phenomena which come under our notice. It is here that the science of measurement shows its importance — where quantitative work is more to be desired than qualitative work. An eminent physicist remarked that the future truths of physical science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.

Albert A. Michelson, 1894, just 11 years before Einstein first published about special relativity.

analog31 said 6 months ago:

One thing that's always interested me is that the recent history of breakthroughs doesn't tell you when the next one will arrive. For instance reconciling quantum mechanics and gravity, we don't know if we're within 11 years, 110 years, or even 1100 years!

Ididntdothis said 6 months ago:

It seems people like newton or Einstein come around every few hundred years. So another huge leap may take a while.

RosanaAnaDana said 6 months ago:

Seems like a good reason to make sure everyone is given the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential. The more we keep ourselves as a species oppressed by one another, the less likely we are to experience the Newtons and Einsteins condemned to rice fields and coal mines.

Sharlin said 6 months ago:

It may be unlikely to see progress in a subfield even if there are major unsolved problems. Particle physics is one of those branches.

But see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_unsolved_problems_in_p...

adrianN said 6 months ago:

It would be neat if we had a better model for superconduction.

joemag said 6 months ago:

The standard model still doesn’t explain gravity, dark matter, or dark energy. There are still ways to go.

pletnes said 6 months ago:

Complex systems and emergent behavior in these.

said 6 months ago: