Cosmology Turns into Pseudoscience

BICEP2 Collaboration –the Hot Air Merchants from the South Pole

bicep2It is a little suspicious when a discovery is declared worth a Nobel Prize the very same day of the discovery by the discoverers. The BICEP2 claim that gravitational waves have been found was breaking news this week.

Let us have brief a look at gravitational wave detection—since the 1960s, this has always been a tricky business. Its history is beautifully described in Gravity’s Shadow by Harry Collins—this is probably the field with the highest number of retracted claims. Huge efforts were undertaken to prove the existence of gravitational waves directly, but all big sience experiments such as LIGO have been unable to confirm gravitational waves to this day. One may even wonder why none of the various anomalous signals were interpreted as gravitational waves in the meantime.

Ultimately, this is a merit of the very clear methodology and definition of the wave signal in laboratory experiments—it must show up in different places at fixed times, determined by the wave velocity c. This difficulty can hardly be appreciated highly enough—it is an almost unsourmountable barrier for artifacts to be falsely declared as signals. Unfortunately, the cosmic microwave background does not contain such a barrier.

One persisting problem is, as a speaker at the conference “The first billion years” (Garching, 2005) already put it in a nutshell: “The limit of background measurement is foreground.” A considerable amount of filtering and modeling is included in the analysis, rendering it gradually more prone to artifacts. (One would wish the entire anaylsis to be publicly available and transparent.)

This is already a huge problem for the tiny polarization signal seen at the time of the formation of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), assumed to be 380,000 years after the Big Bang, but it renders ridiculous the claims about the first seconds of the universe. How could such subtle information survive in a sizzling hot soup for almost half a million years?

In addition, the signal declared as evidence for gravitational waves, the “B-Mode polarization,” is utterly banal—polarization is (practically) a vector field and every vector field can be decomposed into “div” and “curl” parts. Cosmologists now claim that they cannot explain the origin of the curl part, but so what? Why gravitational waves? A pile of theoretical assumptions enters through the back door of this so-called observation. Hundreds of unknowns, artifacts, or dirt effects could cause such a “B-mode polarization.” To call this ‘direct observation’ (much more indirect as the already inconclusive evidence from the Taylor-Hulse pulsar) is audacious, to put it mildly.

To further the hype, they added the preposterous claim that those gravitational waves constitute evidence for the theory of inflation, an obviously nonsensical assertion that should leap to the eye of any sane researcher. How could an effect of the first 10-32 seconds be tracked over 50 orders of magnitude, to 380,000 years? Utterly absurd.

However, we live in a period in which the borders of science and fairy tale stories are blurring. Laura Mersini-Houghton, in all seriousness, has claimed that a “cold spot” in the CMB chart is evidence for the multiverse. MIT cosmologist Max Tegmark has recently published a book with ridiculous speculations, but he is nevertheless respected for his work on the CMB. I prefer to view it the other way around: whoever spreads such obvious baloney will hardly engage in serious science elsewhere.

The analysis of the CMB, since Penzias and Wilson, gradually became a more complicated issue and is now running for the most intransparent astrophysical business, much alike particle physics. It becomes increasingly harder to separate the hard facts from the tea leaves; thus, I would like to mention the work of Pierre-Marie Robitaille, who is even more skeptical about the CMB than I am. So much nonsense being published about the CMB makes me increasingly suspicious about its very foundations.

Fairy Tale Stories near the Big Bang

stringsYesterday’s claim that gravitational waves have been detected in the cosmic microwave background … I cannot help but posting a subchapter of Bankrupting Physics here (more  comments will follow soon):


If an electron hits its rare, exotic, mirror-image positron, both end their lives in a dramatic gamma-ray flash of pair annihilation. For that reason, particles such as the positron are called “antimatter.” Conversely, particle couples made of matter and antimatter can be generated out of a single photon just as well. Even the much heavier proton-antiproton pairs can be created if, of course, the photon’s energy is high enough to meet Einstein’s formula E = mc2. Antimatter puzzles physicists a lot. It hardly ever appearsin everyday life because it would promptly be annihilated by its counterpartin normal matter, but it is always present when new particles are created. The heavier the particles are the more effort is needed in big colliders to produce them, so it is sometimes speculated that these particles could have been formed cost-free shortly aft er the Big Bang, in the so-called primordial phase of tremendous heat. It’s a wonderful idea, but unfortunately it is also untestable. How could the information about high-energy particle creation and annihilation survive for 380,000 years in a sizzling hot soup?

Notwithstanding this, I have heard conference presentations in which people in all seriousness talk about their hope to detect such “signatures” of pair annihilation in the cosmic microwave background. This is already absurd because of the complexity of what happens to radiation aft er it is released at the end of the plasma era, but especially because we know literally nothing about what happened prior to that. How many physical processes could have superimposed themselves on the radiation and rendered any “signature” void by this point!

You can compare such a data analysis to that of satellite images of the ocean surface. We can ascertain the sea level to the centimeter, and infrared images can tell us the exact temperature. Thus, one can clearly identify the gulf stream of the North Atlantic, maybe even deduce the salinity and the algae percentage from a spectral analysis. And if you’re lucky, you read the wind speed from the ripples on the water. But fi nding primordial particles on the WMAP chart would be as if, by analyzing the movement of the ocean surface, you would identify deep sea fish and classify them zoologically. Th is doesn’t mean, of course, that there aren’t several research groups devoted to doing exactly this.

 Who does not lose one’s mind while reasoning about certain things, has nothing to lose – Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

The Art of Thinking Clearly, (not yet) Applied to Particle Physics


Rolf Dobelli’s collection of cognitive biases, fallacies and wrong decision strategies has become a bestseller because people are becoming more and more aware of the irrational elements of the human mind. The textbook example, of course, is economics, where nobody anticipated the 2008 crash. “Never has a group of experts failed so spectacularly,” Dobelli comments, but it is obvious that our deficiencies in rational decision making can produce bizarre situations elsewhere – particle physics is a field that comes to mind when reading Dobelli’s book.

An obvious concern is social proof or groupthink (Dobelli’s error No. 4). The particle physics community, consisting of more than 10,000 physicists, devotes its entire activity to a model of reality that may well be plain wrong (scientists prefer to call it “incomplete”) – but not a single individual dares to spell out the catastrophic consequences – that eight decades of research might be completely useless for a profound understanding of the laws of nature.

An important contributor at work here is the sunk cost fallacy (No. 5). The excessive funding for particle physics must continue – despite no visible advance either in fundamental questions or in technological applications. Questioning the need for a new particle accelerator would mean admitting that the investments of the past, tens of billions of dollars, would have been spent in vain. It is inconceivable not only for the experts working in the field, but also for those responsible for the funding (even if they happen to coincide frequently).

And when watching the CERN seminar in which the Higgs discovery was celebrated, the following description in the calamity of conformity (No. 25) fits perfectly: “Members of a close-knit group cultivate team spirit… if others are of the same opinion, any dissenting view must be wrong. Nobody wants to be the naysayer who destroys ream unity. Finally, each person is happy to be part of the group. Expressing reservations could mean exclusion from it.” Imagine a dissenting physicist in the seminar asking for more explanations of a certain data analysis… unthinkable.

But even when looking at more technical aspects, the experimenter’s ears should be burning when hearing about the rara sunt cara illusion (No. 27): the rarer the occurrence of today’s elementary particles, the more interesting they are considered – for no good methodological reason.

The deep reason why the standard model of particle physics has not been replaced yet is Dobelli’s illusion No. 11: “Why prefer a wrong map to no map at all. Well, we just have this standard model of particle physics”, which is what you hear everywhere. Many other fallacies could be mentioned:

- How bonuses destroy motivation (No. 56, the abundant funding…)

- Chauffeur knowledge (No. 16), which you hear from the dozens of science polularizers that allegedly `explain’ the Higgs boson…

- Make engineers stand underneath their constructions at their bridge opening ceremonies (No. 18, no way to implement such a policy in particle physics).

- Clear thoughts become clear statements, whereas ambiguous ideas transform into vacant ramblings… (No. 57 – think about it the next time somebody explains what the LHC might discover next).

- Effort justification (No. 60): Think about it when listening to particle physicists who tell you about their 20-year hunt for the Higgs boson.

Finally, there is one point where Dobelli explicitly mentions science, the feature-positive-effect (No. 95): “The falsification of a hypothesis is a lot harder to get published, and as far as I know, there has never been a Nobel Prize awarded for this.” Correct! That’s exactly what Gary Taubes noted in his book Nobel Dreams (about the W and Z boson search) … but this is another story!

In short, Dobelli’s book could well be useful for scientists, but alas, the last place its message is likely to sink in is a big science laboratory such as CERN.

Can Dimensionful Constants Have a Fundamental Meaning?

WhittOf Course!

As with many of the thoughts in this blog, this is contrary to common wisdom, but I think it particularly weird how the perceived wisdom that “only dimensionless constants can have fundamental meaning” has been established. Not only has this idea become representative of a methodology that has replaced thinking by calculating, but the full ignorance of the statement reveals itself only if we look at the history of physics, for example, with the book “A History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity” by Sir E. Whittaker.

First, let’s recall how the idea came to be. It doesn’t require exceptional intelligence to realize that our definitions of the meter and second, etc., are arbitrary, and it is just as evident that dimensionful constants, such as h, c, G, and others, are expressed with such arbitrary units. This discussion has attracted some attention in the debate over theories about the variable speed of light, and it has been claimed (e.g., by Ellis) that every dimensionful quantity can be set to unity using an appropriate reference. While this is a possible mathematical formulation, the question remains whether such a procedure makes sense physically. It doesn’t!

If we think of a temperature map, then according to the above logic, as temperature is a dimensionful quantity, it could be set to unity at every point – the analogy is one-to-one, but the number of people appreciating a forecast with unit temperature would appear limited.

This is probably why Einstein didn’t mind pondering the variation of a dimensionful quantity when he considered a variable speed of light in 1911. Are we to understand from Ellis’ critique that Einstein didn’t have a clue about the basics of his own theory? As one of the few reasonable people discussing the subject, John Duffield, has recently pointed out by reference to original quotes, that Einstein’s attempts around 1911 were a sound approach to describe the phenomenology of general relativity with a variable speed of light. In the meantime, other researchers have shown that even general relativity can be formulated in terms of a variable speed of light.

Today’s physicists are not only ignorant about these ideas, but they are actively distributing the ideology that “only dimensionless constants can have fundamental meaning”, just like three theorists summarizing their discussion in the CERN cafeteria. Oh, had Einstein had the opportunity to listen to their half-assed thoughts, while having a cappuccino there! Surely, he would suddenly have understood how misguided his 1911 attempts on a variable speed of light were. (cf. Whittaker II, p. 153). There is more to tell, but to see the full absurdity of the “only dimensionless constants are fundamental” argument, look at Whittaker’s treatise on the development of electrodynamics. (vol. I, p. 232). Kirchhoff, Weber, and Maxwell would never have discovered the epochal relation ε0 μ0 =1/c2, and had they not assigned a meaning to the above “dimensionful” constants – our civilization would never have been bothered by electromagnetic waves.

The Higgs Fake …


And Why It’s Hard For Particle Physicists to Appreciate it

It is not particlularly surprising that my book will hardly appeal to particle physicists, and not even lay much of a basis they will wish to discuss. There is no way to convince an expert that he or she has done nonsense for thirty years.

Over the decades, high energy physicists have been hunting for ever rarer effects, just to declare as new particles everything they did not understand. Their model has grown to a nonsensical complexity nobody can oversee, thus their convictions about it rely – much more than in any other field of physics – on trust in expert opinions, one might as well say parroting. As a consequence, in any discussion with particle physicists one soon comes to know that everything is done properly and checked by many people. If you still express slight doubts about the complication, they will easily turn stroppy and claim that unless you study their byzantine model thoroughly, you are not qualified to have an opinion. But you don’t have to be an ichthyologist to know when a fish stinks.

It is hard to make somebody understand something when his income is based on not understanding it. – Upton Sinclair

An obvious argument to make is that more than 10,000 physicists, obviously skilled and smart people, would not deal with a theoretical model if it was baloney, and presumably this is the strongest unconscious argument for all of them. It is a flawed argument, however, disproved many times in history. And it is inherently biased because it disregards all other physicists (probably the majority) who intuitively realized at the outset of their careers that a giant experiment involving a huge number of people was not the field where their creative ideas would flourish. Quantum optics, astrophysics and fields like nanotechnology have attracted the most talented in the past decades. No one who had a proper appreciation for the convictions of Einstein, Dirac, Schrödinger, Heisenberg or de Broglie could find satisfaction in post-war particle physics. This does not mean that all high energy physicists are twerps. Religion is said to make good people do evil things. To make intelligent people do stupid things, it takes particle physics. Many scientists, by the way, are busy fighting the religious nonsense that pervades the world’s societies (let some political parties go unnamed). Intellectually, this is a cheap battle, and thus some are blind to the parallels of science and religion: groupthink, relying on authority, and trust to the extent of gullibility.

Though people will accuse me of promoting a conspiracy theory, I deny the charge. Most high energy physicists indeed believe that what they are doing makes sense, but they are unable to disentangle their belief from what they think is evidence. The more thoroughly one examines that evidence, however, the more frail it becomes. But, above all, it is impenetrable. Only the super-specialized understand their small portion of the data analysis, while a superficial babble is delivered to the public. This is a scandal. It is their business, not anyone else’s, to provide a transparent, publicly reproducible kind of evidence that deserves the name.

It is no excuse that, unfortunately, there are other degenerations of the scientific method in the realm of theoretical physics: supersymmetry, and string theory which never predicted anything about anything and never will.1 It is a sign of the rottenness of particle physics that nobody has the guts to declare the nontestable as nonsense, though many know perfectly well that it is. They are all afraid of the collateral damage to their own shaky building, should the string bubble collapse. The continuous flow of public funding they depend so much on requires consensus and appeasement. However, experimental particle physics is somehow more dangerous to science as a whole, because with its observational fig leaves, it continues to beguile everybody that they are doing science instead of just pushing technology to the limits.

I don’t care too much about the public money being wasted. We live in a rotten world where billions of dollars are squandered on bank bailouts, while every ten seconds a child dies of hunger. But the worst thing about the standard model of particle physics is the stalling in the intellectual progress of humankind it has caused. We need to get rid of that junk to evolve further.

 Beware of false knowledge, it is more dangerous than ignorance – George Bernard Shaw

The Higgs Fake

How Particle Physicists Fooled the Nobel CommitteeHFcoverPr

The 2013 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded very soon after the announcement of the discovery of a new particle at a press conference at CERN on July 4, 2012. The breaking news caused excitement worldwide. Yet the message conveyed to the public, as if something had happened like finding a gemstone among pebbles, is, if we take a sober look at the facts, at best an abuse of language, at worst, a lie.

What had been found by the researchers did not resolve a single one of the fundamental problems of physics, yet it was immediately declared the discovery of the century. Whether this claim is fraudulent, charlatanry, or just thoroughly foolish, we may leave aside; that the greatest physicists such as Einstein, Dirac or Schrödinger would have considered the “discovery” of the Higgs particle ridiculous, is sure. They would never have believed such a complicated model with dozens of unexplained parameters to reflect anything fundamental. Though on July 4, 2012, the absurdity of high energy physics reached its culmination, its follyhad begun much earlier.

I shall argue in my book that particle physics, as practiced since 1930, is a futile enterprise in its entirety. Indeed physics, after the groundbreaking findings at the beginning of the twentieth century, has undergone a paradigmatic change that has turned it into another science, or better, a high-tech sport, that has little to do with the laws of Nature. It is not uncommon in history for researchers to follow long dead ends, such as geocentric astronomy or the overlooking of the continental drift. Often, the seemingly necessary solutions to problems, after decades of piling assumptions on top of each other, gradually turn into something that is ludicrous from a sober perspective. A few authors, such as Andrew Pickering and David Lindley, have lucidly pointed out the shortcomings, failures and contradictions in particle physics in much detail, providing, between the lines, a devastating picture. Though their conclusions may not be very different from mine, I cannot take the detached perspective of a science historian. It annoys me too much to see another generation of physicists deterred by the dumb, messy patchwork called the standard model of particle physics that hides the basic problems physics ought to deal with.

Therefore, my opinion is expressed very explicitly in the book. It is written for the young scholar who wants to dig into the big questions of physics, rather than dealing with a blend of mythology and technology. It should demonstrate to the majority of reasonable physicists that the high energy subsidiary is something they would be better getting rid of, because it doesn’t meet their standards. All scientists who maintain a healthy skepticism towards their particle colleagues should be encouraged to express their doubts, and the general public, many of whom intuitively felt that the irrational exuberance of July 4, 2012 had little to do with genuine science, should come to know the facts. Last but not least, it should provide journalists and people responsible for funding decisions with information they need to challenge the omnipresent propaganda.

Read more or have a look at amazon.

Why Physics Needs to Ask Questions

File:Schopenhauer.jpgThe German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said that thequestion “Why?” is the mother of all sciences. In our era of modernity, physics offers a lot of answers, almost every day. These answers however, refer to sophisticated questions that presuppose a lot of “established” concepts. What bothers me is that some more basic problems seem to have been forgotten in this process. I want to illustrate that with two examples from particle physics and astrophysics.

Today’s neutrino experiments deliver data about the so-called mixing angles, which represent the probabilities of the three neutrino flavors (elecron, muon, tau) being transformed into each other. This is an experimental answer on the `top level’, but the underlying question “Why do three types of neutrinos exist?” (once raised by Emilio Segre) is about to fade. Today’s physicists would be even less likely to bother with the question “Why do neutrinos exist at all?”, though one may justifiably wonder why Nature had created such peculiar and elusive objects. To address such questions properly, one has to study a little bit of history (in this case, Wolfgang Pauli’s ideas of around 1930). This would lead to the still more basic question of whether energy has to be conserved during the beta decay – as discussed at the time by Niels Bohr. Also, there is still another fundamental question which seems to have been forgotten by the overwhelming importance of radioactivity in physics (indeed, its discovery triggered its biggest revolution). Why did Nature invent radioactivity after all, and why in different types? Couldn’t one just think of a world with stable nuclei? Is the very existence of radioactivity just a superfluous whim of Nature? Or is there something we still fail to understand?

When one follows the latest news in cosmology, it appears that the acceleration rate of the universe is changing (“How much?” would be the question) – in the jargon, this is called the time dependence of the cosmological constant or of dark energy. However, we have barely digested the very existence of dark energy (2011′s Nobel prize), as it means asking: “Why is the expansion of the universe accelerating?” This is a worthwhile problem to ponder, however, but on a still more basic level we can ask: “Why is the universe expanding?” Of course, Edwin Hubble’s observation of 1930 is now interpreted as indicating such expansion and there is no reason to warm up the `steady state’ model which was popular in the 1960s. However, a good reason for why the universe must expand does not seem to exist (I shall come back later to an idea of Robert Dicke in 1957). Theorists would immediately argue that Einstein’s equations do allow only for contracting or expanding solutions, which is true. But this does not answer the question in terms of a logical necessity, as Einstein used to phrase it: “I want to know if he [the creator] had a choice”.

I do not think that going to ever more sophisticated levels of questions and answers, while leaving behind the important ones, will advance physics in the long run. And surely, the pragmatic approach “Well it is as it is, let’s continue to collect more data” cannot be said to be a wise one.

Antiblog: The Current vs the Relevant

Blogging is largely against my own convictions. Fundamental physics has a slow pace, and there is no need to comment on its progress on a daily basis. Rather I believe that overestimating the news of the day, a habit that was called “arrogance of the presentˮ by the Swiss writer Max Frisch, is a serious problem in physics, if not in all sciences. The danger is that important questions may fall into oblivion, rather than that something fundamental will be overloooked in the stream of news. You probably won’t miss very much if you don’t scan the arXiv for a couple of months.

Secondly, and probably owing to the fact I’ve written three books now, I believe that blogs are on average a superficial kind of text. By definition, they miss the maturation of ideas that comes after several rounds of rewriting and correcting. A book is a much more elaborate and refined piece of work. Somebody has invested to maximize the ouput for you, the reader. The bestselling author Nassim Taleb (The Black Swan, Antifragile) doesn’t read any newspapers or journals (and I infer, no blogs either), just books. He says that the job of a scholar is to ignore insignificant current affairs. So, you may ask, why this blog?

The purpose is to focus on the relevant, not on the current, to dig out the forgotten gems of physics, rather than commenting on fashionable events. Physics is no sport where we have to rush about. Einstein, in his memoir The world as I see it, wrote on the development of general relativity:

“The years of anxious searching in the dark, with their intense longing, alternating between confidence and fatigue, and their eventual breakthrough to truth – only those who have experienced it can understand that.”

Maxwell, Newton and Kepler needed decades to arrive at their revolutional findings. It’s worth looking at how they got there. The history of physics is not boring stuff, you need to deal with if you want to evaluate the current state of affairs. Thus there will be a lot of history, intriguing problems, and hopefully stuff that will get you to reflect on the fundamental questions of physics.