Ask around what fundamental physics is, where the cutting edge of profound, foundational science is investigated, and you will most likely hear the Large Hadron Collider being mentioned, also referred to as Large Hype Constructor (LHC), which tries to find the so called “God particle” and super-symmetry. String theory will also be mentioned. Very few will tell you about comparatively dirt cheap laser labs that explore quantum entanglement.
What is strange about this? In a certain sense nothing. LHC and high energy particle physics in general are huge budget endeavors* complete with a corresponding PR machine, which is what counts in modern science. Armies of narrow minded technicians and humps-on-bumps chasing statisticians proud of their ignorance about other fields of science fool themselves to be the crème de la crème, believing so because they tell each other so every day. From a physicist’s point of view however, and I mean physicists who know more than just a little subfield, people who are also aware of how physics fits into the bigger picture (and who are last but not least moreover not biased by stake-holding), for them the situation is clearly upside down.
Girl Bands: Lots of money behind it, lots of people like it, flashy, loud, therefore good music. Logic of modern science?
What is Fundamental?
In biology for example, fundamental would be for instance questions concerning basic evolution, say the minimal required complexity of environments that allow emergence of self replicating systems. Whether some long extinct bird had a green or a yellow beak may be important somewhere for some odd reason, but it is hardly foundational. The answer to the former question has important repercussions even far outside of the narrowly defined field of biology, say in astrobiology (where to look for alien life) or in nano-technological design optimization. If fundamental questions are resolved, people also end up changing their views on a deep level. Few have their worldview shattered by a bird’s beak being yellow instead of green.
There is little such relevance to the so called God particle**, and this fact is acknowledged even by many who promote high energy physics. That the standard model of particle physics is actually having the Higgs would not tell us whether the standard model is fundamental or plainly an emergent symmetry, the (relatively) low energy behavior of a more fundamental physics inside of which the Higgs particle is plainly a pseudo particle (which it is anyway, but that is another story).
Physicists and philosophers interested in the very fundaments could not care less about the Higgs. The over enthusiastic high energy particle experimentalists tell you that their work is really important because “the Higgs is what gives the particles mass!” The nature of mass is indeed truly fundamental. However, this reasoning proves that they do not understand the involved physics. Whether the rest mass parameter of fermions inside the standard model is allowed to be nonzero due to the Higgs field breaking the electroweak symmetry (or perhaps even somehow effectively modeled by a Higgs field interaction) tells you nothing about the nature of mass. Mass is inertia against acceleration, the fundamental nature of which is still quite mysterious and the amount of which is overwhelmingly due to Einstein's E = m c2 applied to binding energies that have nothing to do with the Higgs mechanism!
Ask those who claim that LHC research is the most important thing ever in science about what the difference is between super-symmetry (SUSY) being found at the LHC or it not being found there. The answer will astound you, as there is basically no fundamental difference. If SUSY is not found by the LHC, no string theoretician will stop super string theory, although the “super” does indeed refer to super-symmetry. To them, the LHC not finding SUSY equals the bird having a green beak instead of a yellow one, as they will just claim that super-symmetry is at higher energies (and do not be surprised if SUSY is all of a sudden not necessary anymore – long live mathematics.)
Susy is on the top left; according to string theoreticians more relevant to string theory than whether the LHC finds super-symmetry. I wholeheartedly agree.
Another thing that should be noted but will not be further discussed here (it is discussed here) is that all the above, whether Higgs or not, SUSY or no SUSY, and many more, are questions were both answers can be true simultaneously although they are mutually exclusive. This should not be the case for truly fundamental questions.
Without a doubt a Fundamental Question
Compare the just described to the relatively (compared to the LHC) non-funded exploration of the Diósi-Penrose Criterion.
“The Dozi-Pen-Bose what???”
Precisely – people usually don’t even know what that is. Ask random wannabe Einstein’s at the LHC what the Diósi-Penrose Criterion is and you will find that the majority cannot tell you without making gross mistakes of the kind they would ridicule, tar, and feather you for if you had similar misunderstandings about black holes that the LHC may produce, or even just a mistake concerning arbitrary conventions distinguishing 4.8 from 5.1 sigma. (Don’t know what that last one is about? Forget it, it is not fundamental!).
If we had thrown a fraction of the Large Hay Compiler’s money on exploring the Diósi-Penrose criterion and related fundamental quantum physics, we would possibly know by now whether quantum physics stays linear in truly macroscopic systems or not. This would tell us about rock bottom fundamental physics, as fundamental as you can get, involving the very foundation of existence all the way down (or up, if you wish) to the question of how physics and consciousness fit together***. It would even tell us whether string theory is on the right path, because without so called unitarity in macroscopic systems, string theory as it is pursued today is dead as a fundamental description.
So many people involved; must be awesome. (Yes – there are more Western girl bands, I know, but they are not half as pretty.)
Where is the most Fundamental Physics being done?
The Higgs being found, as it apparently is now, will hardly change fundamental research. High energy physics theoreticians are famous for ensuring that their theories stay sellable past the experimental sell-by date. Now as the LHC slowly puts SUSY in doubt by excluding more and more parameter space, you can witness them frantically hedging their bets. This is not so much a character flaw, which it is, as it is more importantly an indication of that these questions are not as fundamental as the large-ticket science machinery’s hype insists on.
Nailing the Diósi-Penrose criterion on the other hand would actually change research quite radically, which proves fundamental relevance, a difference that makes a difference! A gravitationally induced cut-off scale for quantum superposition would change everything, all the way from astrophysics (origin of universe, multiverse structure, black hole physics, role of string theory like proposals), over communication technology (quantum cryptography, quantum computing), to the very question of how to best approach the search for the brain physics supporting the neural correlates of consciousness, since many a ‘quantum-brain’ proposal would fall along with the Diósi-Penrose criterion.***
(Update: I should have also discussed the whole shebang about what I wrote in a comment below, namely "Higher energy did translate automatically into more fundamental before we understood things like IR/UV dualities in string theory and black hole physics, where higher energy means a larger event horizon (the opposite of finer resolution). Today, honest physicists will admit that higher energy may just lead to the emergence of more stuff rather than the resolution of an ultimately fundamental scale, which has perhaps been found long ago (namely the interaction quantum)." This would be interesting stuff worth a separate article.)
* This article does not call for less science funding. It asks for more resources and attention allocated to foundational, fundamental physics, of which the DP-criterion is one example of neglected questions that could be pursued with a tiny fraction of what is collectively wasted by the high energy particle physics community’s insatiable hunger for world domination.
** Stop ranting about the relevance of the Higgs for the standard model and beyond right there – my background is in high energy particle theory, that is where I started and keep working off and on for two decades now – I know the relevance.
*** I do not believe in quantum magic. Half of the pointy point is that there are researchers who look for something that (sometimes actually is, but often you just misunderstand as) quantum magic, and they would alter or abandon their pursuit if given a particular Diósi-Penrose limit; this is the argument pursued here (and the other half of the pointy point involves fundamental quantum mechanics, which is not exhausted by the scattering matrix).