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Why converge?

Neil Turok at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (Courtesy: Gabriela Secara)

Neil Turok at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (Courtesy: Gabriela Secara)

By Louise Mayor in Waterloo, Canada

Right now, top physicists from around the world are arriving in Waterloo, Canada, to attend a unique conference. Christened Convergence, the meeting is the brainchild of Neil Turok, director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI) in Waterloo, where the event will be based. I spoke to Turok to find out what motivated him to set up this conference, what makes it so special, and what he hopes it will achieve.

“I had a feeling about the future of physics that at the time few people shared,” says Turok, describing his thoughts around two years ago when he first proposed the idea of the conference to colleagues at PI.

Turok explains that the “large bandwagon” of the last 30 years has not found experimental support. The bandwagon in question is the Standard Model of particle physics established in the 1970s, which, he says, people have been elaborating ever since. “Grand unified theories, supersymmetry, string theory, M-theory, multiverse theory,” he lists. “Each is not particularly radical, but is becoming ever more complex and arbitrary.”

To illustrate the lack of experimental support for these ideas, Turok describes how many people were hoping string theory would represent a radical development; but since string theory – as currently interpreted – leads to the multiverse, Turok describes it as the “least predictive theory ever”.

Indeed, experimental support has not been found for other extensions of the Standard Model either. “We have discovered the Higgs and nothing else,” says Turok, “yet the vast majority of theorists had been confidently predicting WIMPS (weakly interacting massive particles) and supersymmetric particles…Theorists are walking around in a bit of a stunned silence.” He adds that it could turn out to be right that all sorts of other particles are needed along with the Higgs – but that thought seems to be misguided.

“My view is that this has been a kind of catastrophe – we’ve lost our way,” he says. “What we need are ideas as simple and radical as in the start of the 20th century with quantum mechanics.”

So what might these ideas look like? Turok explains how observations have shown that the universe is simpler than we ever expected – in contrast to our theories, which are becoming ever more complex. For example, Planck has mapped the CMB (cosmic microwave background) sky and we have found that only two numbers are needed to describe it. The hydrogen atom is another example of something that can be described with a simple model – only three numbers are required.

“Yet theories about multiverses, et cetera, have all kinds of parameters,” says Turok. “The theories are just way more complicated than the phenomena.”

A non-standard kind of meeting

Turok’s view of standard scientific conferences is that they tend to be rather predictable and unchallenging to established ideas. “You normally know everyone speaking and what they’re going to say,” he says.

So what will Convergence do differently? First, it will bring together all fields that are giving interesting clues, including experiment and theory. Second, invitees are strongly encouraged to come with an open mind. “Convergence,” says Turok, “aims to bring theorists and experimentalists together in humility – acknowledging that other methods haven’t panned out. We need to say in an honest way where we’re stuck.”

The conference programme runs for a week and consists of workshops and talks in equal measures. At the workshops – which kicked off the conference proper today – 11 different round-table groups will discuss 20 questions chosen from 170 suggested by the attendees. “So we’re beginning with challenging people to ask questions and raise doubts,” says Turok. Talks, meanwhile, will be relatively short and not technical, and are running in a single stream rather than parallel sessions; there are only 14 of them, plus two panel discussions.

Turok says he’s finding Convergence is “achieving a great resonance with a great many people.” This reaction contrasts with when he first proposed the idea to colleagues, who at the time, he says, thought he was “off his head”.

I asked Turok what had changed between then and now – what had eventually made the conference happen? “The biggest thing that helped was the BICEP measurement,” he says. “Inflationists came out of the woodwork and said, yay, we were right…then they realised they’d forgotten about dust.” This led people to the realisation, he says, that even though hundreds or thousands of people are working on an idea, it may still be wrong. This episode “made people aware we need to be more objective about what we’re doing,” he says. (This Physics World article describes the BICEP2 episode Turok is referring to.)

Above all, what Turok says he is trying to achieve with Convergence is to inspire young people and people entering the field to come up with new approaches to tackle the big problems. “The hope is that very radical new ideas about space, particles, the field and the cosmos will emerge,” he says. He explains that while we already see the seeds of these ideas, what we need is to encourage young people to be radical and not just follow the same ideas as those before them.

“It’s going to take another Planck, Einstein or Bohr to see through the next big idea.”

To follow the conference as it unfolds you can watch all the talks as they are live-streamed; keep an eye on the Physics World blog where my colleague Hamish Johnston and I will be reporting from, as well as the official PI Convergence blog; and if you use Twitter, you can search for the hashtag #piCONVERGE.

“It should be fun. It’s an experiment,” says Turok. “Let’s see what happens.”

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  1. Trackback: Convergence | Not Even Wrong

  2. Peter Morgan

    ““Yet theories about multiverses, et cetera, have all kinds of parameters,” says Turok. “The theories are just way more complicated than the phenomena.”” And yet, biological phenomena *are* complicated, so often is large-scale physics such as solar or earth weather; both classical and quantum initial conditions are at least very high-dimensional. A low-dimensional model of the dynamics across all scales and all degrees of complexity of structure might be possible, and we can hope so, but it is not necessary and we have no obvious proof that it is so. It seems ambitious to think that we can find simple models that tightly constrain the complexity of initial conditions.

    • Jarod Benowitz

      Perhaps we have all tricked ourselves into believing the universe is complex. What if it is simpler than anyone could have possibly imagined?

  3. Giotis

    The Universe is not simple, the mind of certain physicists is simplistic though.

    And since they are incapable of following the developments of state of the art hep-th physics they are trying to adjust physics to their simplistic mind instead.

    It’s not a coincidence that “Convergence” coincides with Strings 2015 in an obvious attempt to overshadow it.

    • Andrew Thomas

      Too right, because string theory hasn’t proven to be a tragic waste of resources for over 30 years.

  4. W. Pauli, one of most honest physicist of the last century:

    “We will be considered the generation that left behind unsolved such essential problems as the electron self-energy.”

    Self-interaction is a bad idea, it needs “counter-terms” to remove self-action effects. The right idea is an interaction implemented correctly: what is coupled permanently in nature should be implemented so in the new Hamiltonian rather than “coupled perturbatively”. I am trying to demonstrate it in my papers and on my blogs. It is indeed a good approach that solves the old problems conceptually and technically.

    • M. Asghar

      Vladimir,the present radius of re of electron is completely determined by its self-energy due to its charge which amounts to 0.51 MeV and here its intrinsic mass m0 =0. Tell us something about your thoughts about curing this dilemma.

      • M. Asghar, I have already proposed an idea of “electronium” where the charge and its electromagnetic degrees of freedom are coupled permanently (non perturbatively). See my papers on arXiv; for example, Atom as a “Dressed” Nucleus.

      • DavId

        Energy distorts space. The size discrepancy becomes larger as the quantum limits for space are approached IMO.

  5. MJBridger

    The basic principles of things may be simple and reasonable ( complexity here would look contrived and suspect ) but we know out of simplicity mat arise all kinds of variety and complexity – and that’s why a ‘multiverse’ model is reasonable and natural – even if it renders the universe ultimately unfathomable. In my understanding the ‘parameters’ that lead to an infinite multi-cosmos universe are not made up (nor dependent on string theory). They are already existent in the physics of special and general relativity. And in this model it is gravity that simply explains the way a cosmos expands, displacing the need for contrived ‘inflation’ and ‘dark energy’. There’s also a simple underlying concept that can explain the complexity of the standard model of particles along with the possibility of a set of other co-existent models that become dark matter.

  6. Nader

    The universe is simple !!!!…… Really ????
    You might have the right to say that when you can from first principles generate ALL the parameters of the standard model ……then you talk ..
    Fact Free Fantasies are not allowed please .

    • M. Asghar

      Nader, the universe has to be “the least possible complex” – Nature’s own basic rule, but its decipering comes out to be complex.

      • Jack Lee


        Can’t anyone just admit the Universe was created by GOD? Or is that too radical.

        Maybe that’s the problem with all your theories, you are assuming there is no Supreme Being and you’ve cornered yourselves into nonsense.

  7. This conference is by no means a terrible idea, but it is worth drawing attention to the fact that the most significant conferences in the past – and I am thinking in particular of the 1927 Solvay conference and the 1947 Shelter Island one – have been about propagating a recent breakthrough rather than sourcing it. Hopefully some 25-year-old attendee at this one will prove me wrong, though.

    • M. Asghar

      In reality, this Convergence conference is just like most of the international conferences. There will be “nice and complex talks”, but without any breakthrough!

  8. Trackback: Multiverse: Hi, Nonsense, meet Budget | Uncommon Descent

  9. S. N. Tiwary

    Convergence conference is a good and big idea. Nature is simple and beautiful. Phenomenon is also simple but theory is complex. Theory should be simple and radical as in the beginning of 20th century theories developed by Planck, Einstein, Bohr, de Broglie, Compton, etc.

  10. MJBridger

    Re: ” Turok describes how many people were hoping string theory would represent a radical development; but since string theory – as currently interpreted – leads to the multiverse, Turok describes it as the “least predictive theory ever”.”

    Two important points here. 1 String theory may be one of many paths that lead to a multiverse but a multiverse theory does not require or depend on string theory.

    Secondly one simple multiverse theory predicted the apparent accelerating expansion of our cosmos, so rather than being least predictive it might be called the best predictive theory of this era. No other theory predicted (or can yet explain) an accelerating expansion.

    Furthermore, an infinite multiverse, if accepted, is going to be the ultimate theory. Throughout history our ideas of the universe have always tended to underestimate it. It seems pretty obvious and logical that we are heading in the direction of the ultimate realisation, and if that is intrinsically beyond proof it does not mean its not a valid theory. It means we have to accept the fact that the universe may be ultimately unfathomable.

  11. Abed Peerally

    I had the opportunity to follow this live conference and enjoyed several of the lectures in particular two talks:” Experiments big and small” by Dimopoulos and “Exoplanets by Sara Seager”. There was a closing live discussion session, which was quite good but did not address the main concerns of Turok as reported by Louise Mayor in her writing up. On the whole my feeling about the meeting was mixed. What is much more positive about the PI to me has been Turok’s statements as given in the present article by Mayor where he says that several big physics concepts are complex and arbitrary while the world is now appearing simpler than we expected, which I have myself asserted quite a few times.
    After Arkani-Hamed’s PI 21st century QM’s lecture last November I said here that there are physics concepts which are not reflective of our realities. Unfortunately Turok’s views and mine too could not be effectively dealt with at Convergence for obvious reasons. Some ideas are difficult to change. One typical example is a topic on which there was quite a lot of emphasis, gravitational waves. Nergis gave a nice enthusiastic presentation followed by strong support from Patrick Brady in the closing session. But one participant asked how, when you do see something in your interferometer GW work, would you know these are gravitational waves, and some phenomena due to some other natural causes. This kind of situation did occur in the BICEP 2 GW report of last year. In the present work a more advanced LIGO is being conceived which will be 10 times more sensitive than the previous LIGO model. I remember that the ESA/NASA LISA GW project after an ill-fated expensive project from which NASA withdrew in 2011 was recreated as the Lagrande/Lisa, also called SALKS project, in a joint Stanford/KACST/NASA/ LOCKHEED/SRI project. The basic problem, the point I wish to make, is that we need to understand what is gravitation and what is its quantum basis. If that is sorted out we will make an awful lot of progress in terms of gravitation.
    Turok is right and I fully support looking at the universe, theoretically at least, from a new perspective that will not obstinately hold fast to old concepts. We do have a comprehensible universe and it is basically simpler that what the scientific literature seems to describe. The big questions are what is matter and particles and how different is it from energy, what is a wavefunction and how is it different from a particle, what is its basic nature and reality, are they basically only mathematical or understood only mathematically, why information seems to travel superluminally in entangled particles, what is a field and its relation to spacetime, do gravitons exist, maybe they do but are invisible, how leptons are different more deeply and fundamentally from other particles, how to improve the SM, is the Higgs phenomenon really a universal reality throughout the present cosmos, why the universe can possibly become neutral, that is why quarks, when we do not see positrons around very much, what is consciousness and what is its universal importance in the origin of the universe and subsequently. There could be new physics beyond, and experimental work would see new grounds for research than is currently possible.

  12. Mark Wyatt

    The documentary “The Principle” should be played at the conference introduction. It will create the proper context.

  13. Hugh Laue

    Prof J C A Boeyen’s work over the last decade deserves consideration for being the desired breakthrough. See e.g.

    The physics theories of the late Physicist James Paul Wesley move in the direction of being radically less radical in that they reject the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics and much of Relativity and replace these with a causal quantum mechanics and a return to absolute time and space. A great many of the predictions made in his books have been observed subsequent to their publication. He rejects the big bang and postulates a “flat” (infinite) and eternal universe which because it is not closed escapes the 2nd law of thermodynamics as a whole, he postulates a mechanism for life and other ordering processes that is consistent with the laws of thermodynamics, he postulates a means for the continuous creation and destruction of galaxies that is consistent with the new evidence coming in. He predicted quasars would be at the center of galaxies as well as black holes, He predicted galactic superstructures and great voids. The red shift is explained as a gravitational trade off with light, his model requires no dark energy or matter. sometimes the future is found by reexamining the past, the fervor to be on the same page can cause the multitude to miss the pertinent pages to be on, these ideas need to be reexamined in the light of new evidence and new doubts, perhaps that “new Einstein” has already existed and been passed by in the fervor of the march into oblivion.

  15. This is a description of one of Dr J P Wesley’ books “Scientific Physicss”, it shows how radical the role back and restart is:

    Scientific Physics is physics based upon ordinary empirical scientific principles. Traditional orthodox physics has become mired down in mystical ideas, anti-scientific principles, and denials of obvious experimental facts. The evidence reviewed in this book proves space-time is absolute ? no “special relativity” nonsense. A cosmology is presented for an eternal, infinite, uniform in-the-large, steady-state, nonexpanding universe that fits all of the facts ? no impossible “big bang”, no “curved space”, no “expanding universe”, no “bounded universe”, etc. The far-reaching consequences of mass-energy equivalence (known in the 1800?s) are explored, yielding neomechanics in absolute space-time, a new gravitational theory, etc. An electrodynamic field theory is presented that agrees with Ampere?s original force law, with Weber electrodynamics for slowly varying effects, and predicts longitudinal electrodynamic K waves (recently observed), yields the force that drives the Marinov motor and that explains the Aharonov-Bohm effect ? no error-ridden Maxwell theory, no Faraday law of electromagnetic induction, no absurd Biot-Savart law, etc. The conditions for creating thermodynamic order are presented, which indicate why low entropy life exists, why stars are born from high entropy gas and dust, why territorial behavior of all organisms and man, etc. It is shown how quantum particles move along discrete trajectories as explicit function of time to yield all observed wave behavior. The empirically correct Wesley wave, Y = sin [p?(r-vt)/h], for free particles is generalized to yield wave equations for bound particles ? no “wave-particle duality”, no single particle interfering with itself, no single particle going through both slits to produce interference, no “uncertainty principle”, no intrinsic “probability amplitudes”, no superposition of physical states, no “complementarity”, no astrological “nonlocality”, no thoughts affecting experimental results, no “indistinguishable” particles, no “expectation values” as observables, no “operator approach”, etc

  16. Wonderful article, I have personally written about these same topics: “I beg the question: would you be willing to consider the possibility that life actually might be quite simple in its core? If you answered yes, then would you also be willing to consider the possibility that all answers to all possible questions arises effortlessly, if you would only be willing to let the Living Life to teach you more about yourself, and therefore also about life?” – Part 2: Summary of the Trinity: Living Life, Awareness & Consciousness

    “From the very beginning of the human species, people have been trying to understand their own existence, but also their relationship with the Universe. Currently the scientific community holds a view that out of nowhere, for no apparent reason, nothing spontaneously became everything, without any intelligent design whatsoever; this view also holds that human species is nothing special in the context of the cosmos – as if the Earth and its inhabitants were just a big ‘cosmic accident’ of some sort. Because of this widely accepted world view, we, as a collective human species see ourselves as separate from the rest of Living Life – meaningless, purposeless, insignificant biological accident that just happened to evolve from monkeys; an intelligent being, without any greater purpose than just to birth, grow, re-produce and eventually die.” – Part 10: Illusion of Physicality – Energetic & Informational Universe – Infinite Quantum Zen Series

    “To a large degree this inability “to see beyond the box” has prevented us from utilizing everything that we already have discovered in the world of physics in creative and beneficial ways. In a more deeper level, these collective restraints are a product of our own mental programming; our minds run dualistic software, just like our conventional computers – the software of our minds is outdated. We are running old dualistic programs that are based on the linear stories of the past, present and future; either-or choices; 1 or 0; true versus false; you versus me – with this kind of dualistic approach, we can only produce limited, finite solutions – therefore our ability to create is also limited to the confines of our thinking.” – Quantum Connection – Computer Software for Mapping Interconnectedness of Everything




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