Research, Reduction, and Reaching for the Stars

A 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.