How to Be a Scientist

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Science is an unsettling enterprise. This is much of what makes it different from law, or politics, or art, or religion, or other noble and worthwhile pursuits. Science is not interested in conveying fundamental truths, or in ensuring people’s safety, or in improving lives, or telling stories, although it has played a role in all these endeavors and will continue to do so. It is first and foremost a commitment to the unknown and a desire to transform it into something tractable; as Galileo put it, “to measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.” This quote offends some of my friends as dehumanizing, and rightly so. The fact of the matter is that science often tells us things we don’t want to hear, in ways that are hard to understand unless you have a PhD, and for reasons that are opaque to outsiders. Insiders spend most of their time either doing experiments that don’t produce publishable findings or throwing out bad ideas. Even successful papers are boring. We do acknowledge all this kerfuffle as worthwhile and meaningful, and we certainly depend on science’s discoveries. But science, pound for pound, is a mercurial idol, and we haven’t learned how to worship it in a way that feels collectively satisfying.

If we instead look to pop culture, and consider what most people who are looking for intellectual fulfillment or affirmation find exciting and stimulating, it seems that philosophy wins out. Western thinking, after all, was inaugurated by a troll. Socrates’ metaphor of the cave in The Republic remains an acceptable and accessible metaphor for how almost everyone lives their lives and, in the figure of those who escape to the sunlight, the image of what we all strive to achieve. Never mind that most people don’t actually try to do this; the idea is a beautiful one, and pleasing to think about. It is much easier to imagine yourself as someone striving to reach for ultimate, real, uncompromised Truth than as a scientist, trying to make out shadows on the wall in ever greater and verifiable detail. It is true that modern people have a drive for distinction, but in almost all cases this is expressed as a drive for consumption rather than self-expression—the shows we watch, food we eat, people we elect to hang out with, etc. Perhaps out of laziness or wishful thinking, we like to have our own perspectives be regularly affirmed. We allow ourselves to expect some easy alchemy from our ties and associations even though we know that lead and gold are atomically independent elements.

This game of social tautology has its limits. We watch Neil DeGrasse Tyson and expect some kind of realization from his descriptions of the cosmos. We watch The Big Bang Theory not exclusively because we like to make fun of nerds, but because Sheldon Cooper reminds us of Buster Keaton. Bill Nye is kind of sexy. There is an insecurity in this that needs to be unpacked. Why do we sometimes expect science to speak to ourselves in ways that it demonstrably cannot? What task can it perform for our own spiritual, cultural, or libidinal fulfillment?

I am not trying to level an attack on science as a professional endeavor. Nor is my focus to vouchsafe the idea, which already lies at the foundation of Western philosophy, of living scientifically, even as I recognize that idea’s importance in my own life. Instead, I am suggesting that the vocation of science and the idea of living scientifically are even more wondrous when they are brought together—that Constructed Truth and Absolute Truth should be one and the same. This may be impossible to achieve, but it can at least act as a principle that guides our actions. It is not that science is our way of understanding the True, or that the True is an object of endless inward search, but that science can and should be approached as a vehicle for self-discovery, just as that process of discovery can only be called a scientific one.

There is a tradition of American thinking that is attuned to this. Thoreau’s grand experiment in Walden expresses the sentiment well: “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day — that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.” Religion and art may more often serve this purpose, and they are less cognitively demanding, but our insecurity can be explained by our collective sense that scientists, however boring and self-contained their machinations are, are tapping into the “quality of the day” and embodying it in a register that other cultural luminaries cannot. Slavoj Zizek can convince me that capitalism monetizes my fetishes, the Dalai Lama can help me be more mindful, but science allows me to read them on my smartphone. Science takes the inner reality of nature and somehow makes it into a vehicle for our own self-affirmations. All four physical forces must have been accounted for and operationalized for me use my laptop to watch Rachel Maddow remind me I am not dreaming even though Donald Trump is now President-elect.

I could also cite Emerson: “There are always sunsets, and there is always genius; but only a few hours so serene that we can relish nature or criticism.” The problem here is that the relation of genius to the world is not just expressed in a shortage of time but in the multiple ways of appreciating that world. If how we experience the world determines how we interpret it, then a vast division of interpretive labor is necessary for its richness to be available to each of us. We crave a unity from this manifold, but we have a thirst that the very shape of our mouths makes impossible to quench.

Is it possible, then, to do science both professionally and existentially? To be both heroes at once? It’s a tall order. In my experience, many who pursue science as a vocation fail to live scientifically. Doing science is hard enough—being it is a whole other level. In fact, these two forms of science seem to actively oppose each other. I have studied at some of the world’s best universities, and I have interviewed some of the best scientists at those universities, and within a few moments of conversation it would often become clear that I was speaking with a person whose fundamental worldview became entrenched the moment an authority figure complemented their ability to intelligently transpose some trusted pattern of thought. The cultural values that accrue in the wake of this pivotal moment of ego reinforcement—among them the laudable traits of independent thinking and critical reflection—are distressing for not themselves embodying a hypothesized and systematically tested relation to the person’s life. They were adopted by force of habit, and crystallized as a person excelled at creating what he or she was told would be recognized by one’s elective community as honorable and good and worthwhile insofar as it would set up others to skillfully create in a likewise recognizable way. In this way, the existential foundations of science, and especially the most reproducible science, are almost always dogmatic in spirit.

The vocation of science encourages and even depends on deliberation. But it is almost antithetical to living deliberately. The school of Romanticism—willfulness, subjectivity, free expression, poeticizing, seduction—was itself formed in opposition to the pretention of science to discover the fundamental nature of reality. Having studied the intellectual history of that movement, I have always found it ironic and even tragic that this body of beliefs is essentially just a hypothesized instance of counterfactual reasoning: if the values of science are basically wrong, then the opposite ones might be better. Many of the modern world’s most brilliant artists and storytellers have been moved to rage against the spiritual “disenchantment” that science has caused, and told wonderful stories as a result, and in doing so they were living scientifically. The deliberate refusal of Schlegel, Kierkegaard, Shelley, and Novalis to see life singularly, and instead to see it as a playful and experimental domain for their own fantasies—what is more scientific than that?

We have here two models of heroism. The former is dependable, analytical, reproducible, and black box-able. Scientists train themselves into compartmentalizing Truth, and we gladly buy up their Truth-furniture, and use it to furnish our lives. The latter is protean, brave, original, daring, and intense. Artists paint experience in their own image, and we let these paintings color our own dreams and aspirations beyond the lives we now live. These two cultures, and their temperaments, seem utterly orthogonal. What might it mean to bring them together?

As you get older you realize that who you distinctively are is defined more and more by the breadth of your experiences than the field of your opportunities. People treat you more as a product of where you’ve been than what you could potentially become. What Thoreau and Emerson are getting at is that it is desirable, if not to reverse this process, then at least to operationalize it into a controllable variable. It need not just be “a part of life” or a force of nature. To make oneself into something that could be falsified, but nevertheless seems to be true—to transform the world into a laboratory for one’s own exposition—that is the scientific calling in the fullest sense of the term. Life must be lived forwards, but it can also be understood forwards, if understanding is elevated to a principle of vitality rather than reflection.

This all sounds very postmodern. David Foster Wallace, in his brilliant commencement address at Kenyon College, spoke of a liberal arts education similarly as empowering us to choose what we pay attention to and to choose how we make meaning from experience. But I would go a step farther and assert that the scientific life has not just an aesthetic but also a moral and even religious wind at its back. It is a lifestyle choice, but also a vocation, and even more fundamentally a kind of calling. The goal is not to escape boredom or to become happy with one’s own station but to reorient the logic of one’s relation to the world into something testable. We cannot escape the expectations of others, but we can willfully subject those expectations to a court of fair play where the result, i.e. ourselves, is more than arbitrary. To be fulfilled, rather than simply happy, means your happiness passes a test of statistical significance with the reality you have had a hand in constructing.

So to be a scientist, and to also live scientifically, would be to make the entirety of oneself into something tractable and fungible. Even as I write this, it sounds abhorrent and gross. And yet we know from the biographies of great writers and artists, who went out of their way to accumulate interesting and unprecedented life experiences and then tell new kinds of stories out of them, that they were much better at living scientifically than many so-called scientists themselves. We need not make this compromise so long as the truth that you want to discover and make understandable is the latent truth of yourself, something that is itself made in the course of your search for it. The maxim here is to make this process into something more than something that just happens. To be a scientist means to master the conditions of oneself.

Let my lovers be case studies, let my days be data points, let me sleep under the covering-laws of my own Procrustean bed.

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Afraid of Nothing

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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.

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(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.

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(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.