Trump and Kim, Strawmanned

 

Opponents of President Trump have rightfully skewered his performance at the Singapore Summit. But they seem to be attributing his apparent failure to get any meaningful concessions and his brown nosing of a brutal dictator entirely to his many character disorders: he’s too much of a superficial showman, and he has a weird thing for tyrants like Kim and Putin.

No doubt there’s some truth to this, but it’s being used as a convenient excuse to avoid confronting the deeper logic behind the success of Trump and Kim’s relationship.

The truth is, despite the chaos of everything Trump, there’s a pretty clear foreign policy vision once you average everything out. It’s relatively simple, and could be summarized in a few bullet points:

  • Trump views the world through the dual lenses of narrow economic self-interest and the necessity of the perception (though not necessarily the reality) of dominance/submission. On the latter point there’s actually some affinity with some of the more postmodernist aspects of the Bush administration.
  • Trump views the US led postwar order, including free trade agreements and broad military alliances, not as an opportunity for the United States to preserve its central role in world affairs but as means for weaker countries to abuse and subsist off of US successes. This is of course related to the first point, since the benefits the US receives from the postwar order take the form of relatively abstract, behind the scenes soft power, and concrete military hard power, neither of which Trump seems very concerned about.
  • Trump is remarkably consistent in that he respects the self-interest and sovereignty of other countries, frequently commenting that he does not blame other nations for their alleged abuses of the United States. He does not care about human rights in other countries because he does not perceive there being any higher logic to human affairs than the issues in the first bullet point.

When one applies this logic to the situation in the Korean peninsula, the outcome of the summit is not surprising at all. Trump wants to end US military commitments to South Korea, and is happy to obtain an economic partner in the North. The only thing he wants in return for this is the perception of dominance, which he had already obtained by threatening first nuclear war and then later the cancellation of the summit (and the latter for relatively petty reasons). He doesn’t care about the human rights abuses of the Kim regime.

So Trump and Kim’s interests are aligned. They both want to end US military protection of South Korea, they both want economic interconnectedness, and neither of them care about human rights. Kim is happy to allow Trump some degree of status, since Trump (consistent in his respect for other’s self-interest) does not appear to have any need to denigrate Kim in order to feel dominant. In fact, elevating Kim elevates the summit and therefore Trump himself.

The only thing standing in the way of major changes to US foreign policy along these lines is Trump’s opposition in the United States, including in his own executive branch bureaucracy and high level staff.

I am utterly opposed to Trump’s vision of world affairs, as anyone who believes in universal human rights, democracy, or even just a practical perspective on US military defense should be. But defeating what he represents must mean, to some degree, applying the principle of charity, of not simply strawmanning his ideology into narrow ad hominem character assassination (no matter how flagrantly worthy of derision his character is). You can’t win a debate if you’re not addressing the argument being made.

This is a larger issue with the Trump era. His opponents keep falling into making this entirely about Trump’s character, because honestly there’s a lot to hate about it and even modulo policy disagreements there’s a genuine problem there that needs to be dealt with. But there’s also a real ideological challenge being presented alongside that, and the obsession with character to the exclusion of a confrontation on policy can actually provide cover for its success, which we must avoid.

Defeating Trump as a character, and extinguishing the cult of personality surrounding him, is absolutely necessary. But it’s also not sufficient and we shouldn’t let it prevent us from addressing the larger ideological shifts that are occurring.

Advertisements

The Soothing Horror of the American Civil War

2ee58f52a3212c966ab5c8703acb04b3But often conflict first.

About a year ago I developed a fascination with the First World War. Not so much the military aspect, which I had explored thoroughly, if naively, as a child, but its politics. I was struck by how it seemed to be at the root of so many conflicts facing the world today: it was the beginning of America’s reluctant engagement with the world as a global power and its conception of a liberal international order, the origin of the alienation of Russia from the West and the center of gravity of China’s Century of Humiliation, it saw the birth of the modern Middle East and The West’s dysfunctional connection with it, and was the beginning of the end of Europe’s central role in world affairs. In many ways we are today still reckoning with its aftermath.

But more recently I realized that on the contrary it was also arguably the beginning of a cover-up of one of the primary issues we now face: America’s internal struggles and divisions. External enemies in the form of first the Kaiser’s and then Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and more recently Islamic Terrorism have allowed, or more probably compelled, us to forget the conflicted nature of our soul which animated so much of our earlier history and which has never really gone away.

I remember a discussion with my grandmother on the eve of Trump’s election. She told me, to my surprise, that even though she’d lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War and the Cold War and the 1960’s and 9/11, she’d never been more afraid for the country than she is now.

“I wasn’t really worried then, because we were always united. Now we’re so divided, it’s never been like this.”

There was something prophetic about what she said, given what’s happened since our conversation. But of course in a larger sense, it’s not true. We’ve been divided, and it’s been far worse. Not just “Cowboys and Indians”, not just national and ethnic conflicts between America and Mexico, not just Whiskey Rebellions and deadly duels. The most destructive, and arguably the central, conflict of our history was totally internal: The American Civil War. Our modern struggle with ourselves may be less an aberration and more a return to form.

And so I’ve found myself reaching for another bygone era of war in order to reconcile myself with current events. In particular, the antics of the Trump administration these past few weeks seemed to push me to a boiling point, which I found I was only able to dissipate by binge watching Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary on Netflix. It’s been cathartic.

The documentary conveys the horrors of slavery, the conflict that ended it, and the fog of war, panic, anger and confusion that permeated the era, in a way that’s almost paradoxically soothing in the sense of contextualizing our current problems and making them seem trifling in comparison. In being reminded of this history, our current discord seems both less surprising and less insurmountable. The truth is that this is part of who we are, and so while inescapable it’s also something we’ve fought with before and have learned to work through, even if at great cost.

There were a number of smaller lessons.

One aspect of the documentary I find interesting is its focus on the confusion about the meaning of the war during its early years. All were horrified by the crisis that was occurring, and as Lincoln later said “All knew that [slavery] was, somehow,” on some level, “the cause of the war”. But there was no clear consensus on whether or not it was more or less also about states’ rights, or the overzealousness and violence of Northern abolitionists, or some other problem.

And so arguably it was not the military victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in 1863, but the political victory of emancipation in 1862, which was the turning point of the war. With emancipation, Lincoln was able to set the terms of the war in a way that made it simultaneously just, grounded in reality, and (all importantly) winnable. He won the battle for a consensus on what the war was really about, and won it in such a way that the outcome of the conflict was practically assured and purposeful.

There is a parallel here with our own time, and a lesson.

The documentary quotes Herman Melville as calling the fanatic John Brown “the meteor of the war.” Our own crisis was sparked by the meteoric rise of Donald Trump. Just like in 1861, although we are quite sure we are experiencing an existential crisis as a nation of some sort, and we have some vague idea that it involves a reckoning with our history of racism and sexism, but also perhaps economic inequality, and rapid societal changes, and the smugness of liberal coastal elites, and neoliberalism, and various other things, we haven’t settled this. We’re still debating it and on some level we’re still confused. Certain in our horror, perplexed by how and why it’s happened, we’re stuck.

The lesson is that decisively answering the question must be the first step in resolving the crisis. The nature of our current problems must be understood, or perhaps simply decided upon. We have to ascertain, resolve, and build consensus around the meaning of our problems in a way that is truthful but also makes the conflict winnable and meaningful.

I have my own opinion on this, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Another aspect is the nature of Presidential leadership. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln, in an important sense, really was the “first rate second rate man” he was mocked as in his time. But this may also have been what made him great. Arguably a “first rate” man (or woman) cannot be a truly great leader of a democracy, especially in a time of genuine crisis, because a “first rate” man has too much moral certainty and can believe too much in his own abilities. Lincoln had to feel things out, to negotiate personalities that were bigger than his, had to make mistakes and learn from them, and it was precisely these qualities that ensured his eventual successes in leading a conflicted democracy through its greatest crisis. It’s ironic in light of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recent deification of Lincoln (which is nevertheless excellent), and the impact it apparently had on both Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s conception of what might be called the “philosopher king” chief executive. I’m proud of the presidential tenure of the genuinely first rate first rate man Barack Obama, but going forward we may be wise to look for a humbler, more small d-democratic, leader, who can negotiate the complexities of our time with humility and flexibility more than raw talent and carefully honed technocratic skill.

There were other lessons from the documentary, which I’m still chewing on. The war itself may be, like our history, something too big to ever fully be reckoned with in a final way.

After all, to echo Ta-Nehisi Coates, it was this violent forge of Civil War where so much of modern America, and therefore of the whole modern world, was born.

The painful hopeful secret of American society is that the whole nation is and always has been a wild, sometimes violent, laboratory of democracy, one whose results and conclusions impact the whole world around it. America must, and can, solve its own domestic problems before it can play its role in guiding the world through the current era of international crisis. For better and for worse, this is who we are.

Boomers, Millennials, and the American Dream

Guest post by James Judson

Why Millennials May Have a Point

It seems everyone is down on Millennials lately. On a daily basis social media blogs and clever YouTube songs surface to mock the latest generation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZthGh758pYY who, based on their nontraditional viewpoints, seem to deserve such shame. Millennials are branded as idealistic, self-indulgent, narcissistic paradoxes who are slow to reach independence in their lives compared to other generations, especially their Baby Boomer parents.  But if you listen, Millennials have an insightful message, a story to be told.  Every generation is a reflection of the society they experience, and to shame the generation is to shame the society they inherited.

They tell me I am a Baby Boomer.  Born in 1962, I technically meet the criteria. , not one of the cool kids, never really feeling accepted or a part of my generation de jure.  Truth is, I have been riding in the caboose of a very long train ride my entire adult life.  I have watched, backstage, a generation of older brothers, sisters, coworkers and politicians trampled their way to prosperity to seize the very end point of the American Dream.

In no other time in US history, other than the Millennials, have there been more humans in a generation than the Baby Boomers.  They have occupied the workforce, politics, and shaped our institutions.  They may be the last generation to live better than their parents.  Baby boomers grew up believing, witnessing and living the American Dream.  And for most of them, the Dream was a pleasant one.

Pre-Boomers

I am blessed to have a Mother and Mother-in-law still alive and healthy into their 90s.  I can see that growing up in the 1930s shaped them. My Mother recalls her older brother shoveling dust out of the attic of their farm home during the Dust Bowl years.  My Mother-in-law remembers the religious persecution her and her family encountered based on her controversial religious beliefs in this country (she was Catholic).  My Mother and her siblings used to stay after school in high school to use the locker room showers to avoid the weekly Saturday night one-by-one bath ritual. I asked my Mother once if she ever felt poor growing up. She said no.  No one had much of anything, they ate very well because of the farm and everyone seem to be living in the same conditions.  Wealth, it seems, is a relative state of mind.

The point is that generation endured a Depression, widespread poverty, a World War, Christian religious discrimination, Polio and “ketchup is a vegetable” Ronald Reagan.  They also witnessed the emergence of technology spanning from black and white photos using box cameras and shared party line landlines with neighbors, and yet lived long enough own a hand held wireless device and create a Facebook account.  To be fair, both my Mother and Mother-in- law are secure in their older age by the generous steady hand of society’s safety nets for the elderly.  Pensions, Medicare, and Social Security all delivered on their promises.  At an early age in life, despite their struggles, they believed in the American Dream. Both would tell you they had a great life

What is the American Dream?

Briefly, the American Dream is the opportunity to live an economic life whereby each year is potentially better than the ones before it.  It is a set of beliefs that society, social institutions, politicians and humankind are working towards a better future.  Most importantly in my opinion, it is centered in the belief that in the end, at a time where you are the least productive, most vulnerable, that social programs will exist to provide each person a compassionate standard of living.  The American Dream is not void of responsibility nor the requirement to become the best version of oneself, but is a set of promises and dreams shaped by each generation before it.

imgdream

In the above schematic graph, the American Dream is depicted as on steady decline for each generation.  Each generation including the Boomers had the opportunity to believe, pursue and embellish the American Dream.  Each generation after that will encounter a declining version of the American Dream, the hardest hit being the Millennials.

I am in my mid 50s and did not give up on the American Dream until recently. I received an accounting degree from a state university in the 80s at age 21 and was instantly and gainfully employed and on my way to prosperity.  I had no student debt, thanks to my parents and a reasonable price tag for my degree. I got married at age 24, lived in apartments, bought a first time house at age 26 and eventually a bigger house at age 40, and raised 3 millennial children, all of which are amazing human beings.  I was able to get steady employment, promotions, and provide for my family. Over time, however, I watched my Social Security eligibility age be raised to 67 because an actuary in a cube apparently knows me better than my doctor and unilaterally determined I will live a long time so I should not be able to receive the benefits I have paid into for 34 years steadily until the prime years after 67.  Who knows if Medicare will survive the latest tax plan aftershocks? I have worked hard, saved, and lived a responsible life.  But the American Dream my older siblings and parents enjoyed in their older age is gone. It’s like believing in Santa Claus, then scaling back to believing in the concept of Santa Claus, then realizing Santa Claus retired and doesn’t do that gig anymore.   Millennials must see him as a fat old man who is worthless. 

Millennials are Getting a Bad Start

I have several friends who run Marathons and Ultra races.  Through numerous trials, they will tell you the struggles of the first few miles are as important as the last miles.  Push too hard and you will not finish.  Lag and your time and placement will suffer.  Stop believing the race is possible early on and you are finished. Like a race, the defining elements of a generation are not if they endure their share of struggles, it is more the timing of when those struggles occur in their lifetime and the dream of finishing strong.  The American Dream and all of its promises appear broken to Millennials at a very early stage of their journey.  Millennials are generally a very educated, bright bunch of young people.  They understand that our financial institutions were bankrupted by greed and needed a life sustaining bailout.  They comprehend our health care system is broken. They have watched their parents, family and friends become commodities to companies that offer no lasting promise or job security. They painfully understand the rising cost of a college education and the dilution of a college degree.  They are the grand prize winners of paying 1000% more than in the 1980s for an underemployed future. They understand firsthand they are hedging their futures with personal debt to pay for it all and will similarly be left with paying public debt created by politicians who no longer are public servants, but private servants to a party and themselves. They are drawn to politicians who see the world as needing a major overhaul, not just a tune up. They haplessly understand The American Dream does not apply to their generation as it has for every generations before.

The Cure

Millennials are in the inevitable position to make widespread changes to our society, institutions and political processes, if not for any other reason, for the sake of their own livelihood.  Two natural phenomena will aid in their quest.  Baby Boomers will retire and Baby Boomers will die.  If the congressional leadership is an indicator, politicians generally just die.  Millennials are actually positioned the best to fill the huge vacuum left once this occurs in the workplace, institutions, politics and society.  They are inherently equipped for the task.  Millennials are generally a very accepting generation.  They embrace technology, social media, relationships (albeit more virtually), and are very open minded regarding race, religion, sexual preferences and orientation. They are very well positioned for the inevitable moment when whites become a minority in this country and all the other future demographics.  They will have to reconstruct a society and its values based not on paying forward the ills of the version they have witnessed, but rather clear a new path to reconnect to the American Dream trail that has been off course for so many years.

The Scientific Spirit and The Death of Absolute Objectivity

quote-god-is-dead-marx-is-dead-and-i-don-t-feel-so-well-myself-eugene-ionesco-108-42-23

A primary motivation for scientific inquiry has always been the notion that our scientific discoveries offer us transcendence from our subjectivity, that they give us access to absolute objective truths (or at least some approximation of it). Stephen Hawking’s famous line about knowing “the mind of god” captures both the essence and the intellectual history of this idea. Physicists, for example, frequently treat their discoveries as a secular analogue of divine wisdom, with the Einstein equation or Newton’s laws sacred to them just as scripture is to the pious. And this scientific spirit, as opposed as scientific culture currently stands to organized religion, grew out of western theology. It’s not an accident that Newton and Copernicus were devout Christians.

But the philosophers realized long ago that “God is dead.” The failures of centuries of metaphysics to rationalize Christianity failed and were abandoned. Nietzsche pointed out that without God, there was nothing standing in the way of a descent into nihilism. Much of philosophy became devoted either to resolving or confronting this new reality. Nietzche believed that this inconvenient truth was recognized at least subconsciously by all, but that Christians remained in a state of denial out of fear or angst.

The death of God presaged the death of the analogue scientific idol, absolute objectivity, which would come with the advent of Quantum Mechanics. The world can be understood, but, it turns out, according to the most straightforward interpretations of quantum theory this is a matter of being able to establish a consistent intersubjective reality more than one of accessing a single overarching objective one. As Niels Bohr said:

“Physics is to be regarded not so much as the study of something a priori given, but rather as the development of methods of ordering and surveying human experience. In this respect our task must be to account for such experience in a manner independent of individual subjective judgement and therefore objective in the sense that it can be unambiguously communicated in ordinary human language.

“The Unity of Human Knowledge” (October 1960) (emphasis mine)

“There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature…”

As quoted in “The philosophy of Niels Bohr” by Aage Petersen

The Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment makes a lot more sense once you’re willing to demote the wavefunction from a descriptor of some transcendent, objective reality, to an effective bookkeeping device for describing an (information theoretical) relationship that the observer has with the cat. Nowadays, physicists have taken many of these ideas even further, e.g. with Black Hole Complementarity.

This picture of science also resolves another paradox, presented in the first pages of Roger Penrose’s Road to Reality. It goes like this. The physical universe, according to the standard scientific picture, is a subset of all mathematical possibilities. In fact one could say the goal of science is to distinguish which subset is the correct one. Mathematics, on the other hand, is itself a subset of our mental activities. That is, our mind can in principle if not in practice access all of mathematical reality, but also is capable of non-mathematical things like emotions. Finally, our brains are proper subsets of the physical universe. This circular picture is paradoxical. Penrose did not claim to know the resolution.

penrose1

But the paradox dissolves if we embrace the view of science advocated by Bohr and based on the lessons of quantum mechanics. The realm of mathematical possibility is not an independent world, but a collection of methods available for relating our minds to the world. Mathematics is what connects our minds to the world, it isn’t a separate platonic realm of its own, independent of our minds and the physical universe.

One might argue that a careful reading of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason bolsters this framework for science as well. We cannot access things “in and of themselves.” So this philosophy of science far predates quantum theory and was born in the aftermath of the original scientific revolution of Newton and his contemporaries. The quantum nature of the atomic realm merely reinforces it.

Nevertheless many or even most scientists have not accepted this paradigmatic change and properly confronted its implications. Almost all are aware, but like Nietzsche’s Christians many avoid or deny it, lest they fall into a kind of nihilism of the scientific spirit. (for a recent example of this, see the recent awakening of the great Steven Weinberg to the problem)

It may be that this sort of cognitive dissonance is what drives much of the research on alternative interpretations of quantum theory. Many people are drawn to science in general and physics in particular because of the desire to reach for absolute objective truth. It’s a psychological impossibility for them to accept that the findings of their pursuit undermine its original purpose. Famously, even Einstein could not accept these lessons. And how could he? His belief in “Spinoza’s God” had led him to General Relativity, one of the greatest intellectual achievements of human history.

But if we’re honest, we’re faced with a problem. How can we accept some of the more sobering lessons of fundamental physics without losing our sense of purpose in the process? If the moon isn’t there unless we’re looking at it, should we really bother to wonder about it?

There are of course technological reasons to pursue scientific research. The practical value of science is not diminished, and of course that matters. But what of the scientific spirit? Are we left with some form of scientific nihilism? An existential despair of the scientific spirit?

This is worth working through and worth being discussed. But I can offer a personal solution based on my own journey coming to terms with quantum mechanics. I’ve found that, for myself, connection can replace transcendence as a motivation for a scientific life. When I reflect carefully about what’s driven me to study science, it was really a desire to feel connected to the universe, and to broaden and sharpen my experience of reality. None of the revolutions of quantum mechanics need diminish this. I think there was always an unnecessary arrogance in the idea of an absolute objectivity, the belief that we could access a “view from nowhere”, that our minds could be mirrors for the world, that we could reconstruct the universe in totality in our heads. To instead treat science as more about connecting ourselves to the world around us, and about our relationship to it, feels more honest. It doesn’t diminish my motivation while having the added benefit of embodying a humility commensurate with the reverence with the world around us that all scientists feel.

Debaters of the Lost Arc

arc1

President Barack Obama, and the American left generally, have become fond of one of MLK’s more famous quotes:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

It’s developed into a kind of mantra in a year whose electoral outcomes have been easier to square with a quote attributed to the quantum physicist Niels Bohr:

“It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future”

It’s important to resolve the apparent tension between these two assertions. They are both true. If the left fails to appreciate this, they are likely to repeat their recent failures.

The President himself, the day after the election, took a stab at this modern theodicy:

“We zig and zag and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back.”

“History doesn’t move in a straight line. It zigs and zags.”

Evidently we are to interpret the phenomenon of right wing populism as a statistical fluctuation, a temporary setback which will be set right merely by obtaining a larger sample size.

This is the wrong attitude. It’s implicitly founded on an overly literal interpretation of MLK’s quote. It’s true that, in some general sense, humanity succeeds over the long run in creating a world which is a better expression of our basic values. And that’s important. But this includes both liberal values like equality and freedom, alongside conservative values like order and loyalty. More significantly, it does not mean that some particular policy instantiation of these values is destined to be the law of the land, sooner or later.  It does not mean we are destined to have universal government sponsored single payer health care, or a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, more or less along recent liberal proposals, eventually, if we just wait long enough for history to surrender to us.

The reason the arc of history bends towards justice is that there are values that we all share. No one in their right mind, liberal or conservative, wants citizens to lack adequate healthcare, or to break up families by deporting people. But these values we all share have to be squared with one another. Often conservatives resist liberal policy solutions because there are other concerns, like economic efficiency and the rule of law, that need to be addressed as well.

We’re able to resolve these tensions through a commitment to dialogue and a confidence in human ingenuity. We bend the arc of the moral universe precisely BECAUSE we’re willing to be open to the uncertainty of human history. In this uncertainty is the hope we can resolve our conflicts in a creative and therefore a priori unpredictable way that expresses ALL our values.

Commitment to creative and collaborative problem solving is what fuels the fire of the engine of progress. When the left assumes its particular policy proposals are inevitable, or when it assumes opposition political movements like the current right wing populist uprisings are just statistical aberrations rather than an indication that further dialogue and conflict resolution are needed, it shuts down this process. Ironically, liberal faith in the “arc”, when misunderstood, can be its undoing.

It’s worth returning to the actual originator of the idea of the arc, the abolitionist and small d democrat Theodore Parker:

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

Note the humility. We can have faith that in the long run our values will obtain better and better expression in the world. But only if we’re open minded when it comes to the form this expression may take and about the need to reconcile our values with the values of others.

Liberals shouldn’t become less liberal (on the contrary, now more than ever they must stand up for their values), they should become more democratic. And they needn’t lose faith in their philosophy of history, they just need a better understanding of its mechanisms and meaning.

President Obama, at his best, has understood these subtleties. Aspects of his legacy like marriage equality, which were ultimately grounded in conservative values like tradition and order as well as liberal values like tolerance, are likely to survive and become a permanent part of our society. Other accomplishments, like the health care reform law, never achieved widespread support and were implemented with party line votes or by executive orders. It’s no accident these are the most likely to be undone.

On a foundational level, politics, and therefore our ability to bend the arc of the moral universe, isn’t about technocratic ability or skill in parliamentary procedure or being good at campaigning. It’s about building consensus. And achieving that requires flexibility and open mindedness.

Afraid of Nothing

questionnull

The International Conference on High Energy Physics met in Chicago earlier this month, and some heads are exploding in the aftermath. Portions of the particle physics community have gone a bit mental, and not because of any mind-blowing discoveries. On the contrary, the culprit is the seeming perpetuity of “null results” at the Large Hadron Collider, and at smaller experiments searching for dark matter or supersymmetry.

You might say these particle theorists have developed cabin fever.

First of all, some background. For a subject with aims as broad as physics, which seeks a framework of understanding capable of explaining both the large scale structure of the cosmos as well as the microphysics of the atomic nucleus, the current paradigm of empirical exploration has become remarkably linear. In effect, we just bang particles together at higher and higher energies and see what comes popping out.

The full story behind this linearity is complicated and rests on the achievements of 20th century physicists, who were so successful at unifying what was previously known into a single framework that (in an admittedly somewhat oversimplified sense) we only have one variable left to vary.

A short version of the story might go like this. Einstein’s relativity theories relate physics at different velocities, so that if we know how to describe the experience/behaviors of slow moving objects, we know how to describe physics at any other speed as well. They also relate energy directly to mass. On the other hand quantum mechanics unifies the notion of particles and waves in such a way that exploring the universe on short distance scales amounts to doing high energy physics experiments. This is because short wavelengths are needed to probe short distances, and short wavelengths correspond to high energy, just as ultraviolet light is more energetic than infrared.

Assisting this simplicity is what Gell-Mann, the discoverer of quarks, called the totalitarian principle: “Everything that isn’t impossible is mandatory.” Essentially, the inherent randomness of quantum mechanics aides our empirical searches. As long as sufficient energy is present, any possibility is a certainty given enough trials.

So in a (somewhat oversimplified sense), “all” physicists have to do is bang particles together at higher and higher energies and record the results. Particle physicists have become less like explorers of the Earth, with four cardinal directions to head off in and many continents to explore, and more like ocean divers, striving primarily to reach greater depths.

This game has worked for a long time. For the past half century, the deeper into the depths we’ve gone, the more we’ve found, culminating in the well-publicized discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012.

But now it looks like that era may be coming to an end. The only hint of anything new at the LHC since the Higgs discovery ultimately turned out to be a statistical fluke. This while increasing the energy scale from 8 TeV all the way up to 13 TeV. So our best divers have nearly doubled our penetration down into the depths, and in their explorations they have found nothing but nothingness. This “null result” has left many physicists in fear, staring into an emptiness of unknown extent. They’re afraid of the nothing we’ve found.

And so heads are exploding. It’s being called the “nightmare scenario.”

But it’s not a nightmare, it’s just science. And the proper response isn’t panic, its diligence, and also a bit of a return to a broader exploratory framework.

The most important comment here is that this result, and “null results” in general, are not failures. In fact, it’s been widely acknowledged that a major problem with modern science is its refusal to recognize null results for the achievements they are, which has led to destructive research incentives. I would go so far as to say that anyone claiming the recent achievements of the particle physics community are actually “failures” worth lamenting is doing a grave disservice to science. The physicists at the LHC have accomplished one of greatest scientific discoveries of all time. We should celebrate their professionalism, precision, skill, and diligence in exploring deeper into the unknown than anyone who came before them. And we should be proud that our current theories are so stubbornly resisting falsification. It means they’re good theories.

nulldisproved

(Source xkcd)

In fact, there’s even a sense in which this “null result” provides more of a hint for future physics than a normal scientific non-discovery would. This is due to a physics principle called “naturalness.” Our current theories are incredibly successful at predicting experimental results, but their mathematical structure is puzzlingly awkward, “unnatural.” Some physicists have derided the naturalness criterion as philosophical or aesthetic in nature. I’d argue that even if that were true, it’d hardly be grounds for dismissal. Absent guidance from nature, we should look to whatever arbiters we can to help us find our way, as long as we never stop yearning for a final answer from experiment.

But naturalness is not just an arbitrary preference, it’s both a sound logical concept and a very physical insight about general tendencies.

On the simplest level, it’s just a matter of having a reasonable discomfort with improbable results. If a physical theory is able to predict that a variable X must be between 0 and 100, but cannot say anything else, we expect that most likely X will be greater than, say, 10. That’s just probability. If we then measure X, and find that it’s actually .00001, that would be an “unnatural result”: not strictly speaking illogical, but improbable enough to make us think we were missing something when made our prediction for X in the first place.

The mass of the Higgs boson is a little like our variable X. In principle, the Higgs mass could’ve fallen anywhere on the range from the electroweak scale, .2 TeV, to the plank scale (the expected scale of quantum gravity), 10^16 TeV. In fact, it turns out to be .246 TeV. Very unnatural.

On a deeper, and more physical level, the naturalness principle has to do with the relationships that exist between physics at different scales. Just as one would not expect, for example, the viscosity of water to be ultrasensitive to the electron mass, even though water is made up of atoms which include electrons, one does not expect physics at the LHC to depend too dramatically on the details of physics at the plank scale. But, as it turns out, this is precisely the implication of a lightweight Higgs boson.

An analogy with physical distances is useful. The sun, though far away, is very influential for the trajectory of the Earth through space, because it is very massive. But by “very influential” we mean that it determines the general shape of Earth’s orbit, not its every tilt and wobble. Likewise, it is the general form of the structure of the sun that determines the orbit of the earth. We do not worry that weather patterns on the sun may send the Earth suddenly careening into Mars.

Likewise, we expect the Higgs mass to be influenced by plank scale physics, but in a very general sort of way. The awkward issue is that, for reasons too difficult to explain precisely here, if it were influenced by plank scale physics in this generic sort of way, we’d expect the Higgs mass to be close to the plank scale, not the lower bound at electroweak scale. We expect the Higgs mass to be influenced in a large, but not precise, way, by plank scale physics.

It’s sort of like if the Earth’s trajectory were straight rather than circular, despite the existence of the sun. How could that be, given what we know about gravity? Tinkering with our models of solar structure won’t help much, sense as we said the details don’t matter. On the other hand one could speculate that there are other, unseen, massive objects in the solar system, which exactly balance the gravitational influence of the sun and allow the Earth to move unimpeded onward in a nearly straight line. For example we could speculate that the Earth lies at a Lagrangian point of the sun and an unseen black hole. But even though that would be logically sound, it would be an incredibly awkward explanation: how did that unseen massive object get itself into the perfect location to EXACTLY CANCEL the effects of the sun? And given this precise cancellation, the Earth’s trajectory now WOULD depend precisely on the details of the structure of the sun.

This is the issue with the Higgs mass. Its lightness is unexpected given the influence of plank scale physics. We may of course postulate a full circus of effects at the plank scale that could contrive to produce this result, but it is nevertheless unlikely. Unlikely results deserve explanations.

The unnaturalness of our physical theories, then, is fairly interesting in light of their tremendous empirical success. The more we verify these theories, the weirder it gets. All the more reason to continue patiently working.

nullband

(You think Null Result sounds like a good name for a band? You’re too late apparently)

But there’s a larger point here. It might end up being that particle colliders just don’t have much more to offer us for a while. That wouldn’t be unusual. It’s rare that progress is so straightforwardly linear for so long.

Many particle physicists have expressed frustration at the increasing disconnect between theoretical physics and the empirical world it’s meant to explain. They’ve blamed this on some sort of imagined complacency on the part of theoretical physicists, especially string theorists. But it’s been fairly clear to me for a while that this disconnect is not borne of complacency but is just a reality of our time that we must contend with. The disconnect has been forced upon us by nature. We need to encourage an exploratory spirit if we’re going to overcome it. Attacking people studying String Theory or other ambitious attempts to provide a new framework of thinking isn’t helping provide focus, it’s narrowing our ability to innovate our way out of this impasse.

It might be that the immediate future of physics lies in studying condensed matter systems, or early universe cosmology, rather than particle accelerators. String theorists, for example, have had some (limited, but real) success in these areas, and with more abstract issues like relating gravitation and quantum information theory. On another front, observational astronomy is opening up whole new windows into the universe with LIGO, Icecube, etc. Obviously a need to reorient in favor of exploring these possibilities would be a disappointment to particle physicists, but this is just the reality of progress, scientific or otherwise. We don’t know in advance what will work and what won’t.

We should keep calm, keep exploring, and keep an open mind. This isn’t a nightmare, and admittedly it’s not a dream either. It’s the hard work of living and working and moving forward in the real world.

Concerning the Party Poopers

political_party_poopers_6_cm_round_magnet-rac7e65beb20f440790ec1d70d87e3047_x7js9_8byvr_324

A recent politico article argued that our two political parties, being as old and firmly established as they are, perpetuate a kind of ideological or institutional inertia, stifling our political imagination with their resilience. Many voters, dissatisfied with their two presidential choices, lament the lack of a viable third party alternative.

I would advocate a completely opposite view of the political parties: they adapt to, react to, and absorb whatever cultural or ideological realities are playing out in the country. To the extent that they coerce political discourse, it’s in the direction of compromise and synthesis. It’s only stifling insofar as our democratic institutions naturally are, and there’s a strong argument to be made that this is a feature, not a bug, in our system.

For example, why don’t we have a socialist party or a libertarian party? Is it because the parties squash those ideologies or cannot accommodate them? No. They couldn’t stop Trump, or Sanders, or either of the Pauls. As hard as it may be for many Sanders supporters to accept, the people decided the fates of these candidates in the primary elections. The voters, not the party machines, are primarily responsible for our ideological emphases.

Now you could say things like, who says business interests, evangelical Christians, and war hawks should all belong to the same party? Isn’t that artificial and stifling? I’d argue it’s just a compromise formed by a political system doing its job. The only thing it “stifles” is the chaos of having a proliferation of factions. Government, democratic or otherwise, requires consensus building, and our two party system plays an important role in this process.

Right now our political system is unable to resolve some of our political conflicts. The GOP is imploding, and the Democrats arguably only narrowly avoided a similar fate. The result is that some of the absurdities of the compromises that have been made in the past are on prominent display. This is awkward for a lot of people who aren’t used to consciously acknowledging the practical realities underlying a lot of our political discourse, but not really a sign of a problem with the two party system.

Eventually the two parties will reorganize themselves. Their resilience is borne of their adaptability rather than any kind of permanence.  It’s going to be a messy affair. It’s going to involve new compromises, and some unhappiness will result. But that’s ok. Democracy’s not supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to work, and for the most part it does.