Research, Reduction, and Reaching for the Stars

posted by Buck Field on June 7, 2014

BuckField_300dpiSqMedA reaction to the Discovery article by Ian O’Neill entitled “Another Glimpse of ‘New Physics’ at the LHC?

The LHC was built to usher in a new era in quantum cosmology. New eras are by definition the result of a revolutionary paradigm shift, now a long-clichéd term from its use and abuse in everything from business management at the Sloan School, to self-improvement cults. Nevertheless, the most influential historians of revolutions in physics rely on the concept of revolutionary paradigm change, and we may take them to be experts.

Something these historians discovered would seem vitally important to the LHC mission: a special kind of explanation called “reduction”. Examples of reduction explanation occur where we ask “Why and how is it we observe X?” instead of asking “What causes X?” Copernicus’ reduction of the motion of heavenly objects to the rotation of the earth answered an observational question, ushering in modern astronomy. Darwin reduced species to genetic variation over long periods of time relative to the human lifespan, creating the foundation of modern biology. Reduction of mental activity to the processes of neurons is the foundation of modern neuro-psychology. Pick any science we like, and reduction explanations that answer this type of question always seems to accompany the most transformative, important events. It’s explanation from below, rather than from top of existing theory and frameworks. Concepts in the current theory reduce to an example of a more fundamental principle, explaining the concept with something often from another discipline.

While it does appear critical to exactly the kind of change in physics LHC researchers seek, none of the cosmology research programs seem incorporate it. To the contrary, how problems are framed in cosmology research leads to questions very clearly from the “What causes X?” category.

The option pursued is broadly “New Physics”, rather than a reduction that reinterprets current physics. New physics is visualized as something “…beyond the Standard Model”, and “on top of” or “extra” to that model. A question cited by Discovery of “Can we detect such physics?” illustrates an expectation that the revolution lies in one or more additions. New particles, extra dimensions, and other anomalies “await discovery” in physics discussion, but this is not the critical component in scientific transformations, including physics.

In contrast to current research planning, historically informed approaches at the LHC would be more likely to ask “What gives rise to our observation of muons?” or even “What gives rise to our perception of matter?”

From a risk management perspective (my field), if the assumed reality of matter, force, and space-time turn out to be wrong, we will have wasted huge amounts of money and smart researchers’ lives barking up the wrong tree. Asking questions that are slightly more modest yield tremendous reductions in risk. They make it easy to notice and improve on ideas and assumptions that are proving less useful.

Faster than light development requires a rock solid understanding of space-time, making this sort of risk management a priority for the warp drive  and teleportation crowds.

If successful physics and avoiding such costs is our goal, a significant investment is warranted in insuring our foundation assumptions are trustworthy. Based on the most advanced research in physics, this does not seem to be the case, and failure to recognize and manage this risk would seem a horrific mismanagement of our scientific resources.

The communities of interstellar flight, physics, management, philosophers interested in helping improve scientific practice, and policy decision makers will be well served by combining our resources and expertise to help us reach our interrelated goals.

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4 Responses to Research, Reduction, and Reaching for the Stars

  1. There is an area of fundamental physics called “causal set theory,” which has discrete time as its sole parameter. It would reduce physics to formations of sheer temporal succession. As the simplest theory that is logically possible, this would mark the final reduction of physics, to a generic ordering relation and its generic relata. Now the common particles have been constructed as causal set propagations, and their empirical mass-ratios to one another derived from the modeling. Unlike the “God Particle” explanation of mass, this one is readily conceived. I came to the constructions via Russell and Whitehead’s “event ontology.” Their reduction of space-time to time alone is resurrected today by causal set theory. See my website for all the constructions.

  2. Alice Hoffman says:

    What mechanism or forum do you think is best to bring together the communities of interstellar flight, physics, management, philosophers interested in helping improve scientific practice, and policy decision makers? Is that an approprate role for Icarus and other non-profits to play?

    • Buck Field says:

      Hello Alice,

      These groups are pretty disparate now, but some initial bridges are being built. Icarus is one of the best leaders in this. I’m not certain there’s “a” right mechanism or forum simply because the relationships between the communities and their purposes create a lot of complexity. Joining together is a tool, a means to an end, and as Scotty says: we should “use the right tool for the right job.”

      The interstellar crowd includes Icarus Interstellar of course, 100 Year Starship, Starship Century, and online sites like this one, Centauri Dreams & Tau Zero, The Starship Vlog (my program), and others bring in many of the communities you cite, but not all. Mostly they collect participants already aligned with space, and it is the new connections across disparate areas which offer maximal potential.

      These have their own events and don’t show much interest in crossing disciplines, but there are always a few trailblazing souls. There’s the newly formed “society for philosophy of science in practice”, with more than a few members interested in improving science by applying what the study of scientific practice, its successes and failures have revealed.

      Icarus and others can also try to reach out, remembering that this is difficult. It is hard to see that expertise in physics doesn’t equip us to recognize the cognitive processes that underlie scientific creativity, for example. So our interstellar community has a similar problem of failing to reach out, just as those philosophers and policy wonks do relative to us.

      For the time being, I think encouraging greater collaboration and integration within our interstellar community should be coupled with fostering organic connections with other disciplines until clear value and benefits can be identified. These can then tell us which roles and mechanisms are the right tools for the job at hand.

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