On Dorigo's Anomaly! and the Social Psychology of Professional Discourse in Physics, by Alex Durig
To the best of my knowledge there is no book quite like Tommaso Dorigo’s Anomaly! Collider Physics and the Quest for New Phenomena at Fermilab. It is the first of its kind. Why? Because it accomplishes something I have yearned for all my life. It pulls back the curtain and shows us how physicists actually talk about their work at top levels. It shows us the behind-the-scenes view of how they talk, argue, fuss, and fight with one another. It demonstrates that physics is just as much a science fashioned out of professional discourse as experiments. You cannot separate the experimental research, from the talk about the experiments, before, during, and after the experiments.
The fact that a book about the professional discourse of physicists working at cutting-edge particle accelerators, written by a physicist working at that level, is now out, shows that a change is taking place in the paradigm. It is almost like a physicist writing a book about the sociology, and the social psychology, of physics at a cutting-edge particle accelerator. One can only hope this book itself is not just an anomaly. It may well be a sign that physics, as a group of scientists in dialogue with one another, recognizes that it needs to pay attention to its own scientific discourse, and needs to allow other people to witness at least some of its professional discourse.
I think Dorigo represents a big part of the hope of particle physics, because he seems to be among the first to recognize, to refuse to take for granted, that the linguistic symbols his colleagues use to communicate with each other are every bit as important, if not more so, than the mathematical symbols they use to make their models of the universe.
The future of particle physics may reside, in many ways, in its recognition of the need (a) to analyze its own discourse, (b) to publicize its discourse, and (c) to allow other scientists - sociologists, sociolinguists, linguists - to have access to these data from behind the scenes professional discourse, and to analyze it, as well. This is all-important because the critical defining characteristic of science as systematic investigation is for it to be unbound, or not beholden to dogma, for it to have an open discourse, and for it to be shared in a collegial, as well as a competitive spirit.
Physics, as we know it, has been through a lot of changes. Arguably, something very strange happened to physics, and it may have taken the entire 20th century to go through it. Along this line of thinking, we may only now be coming out on the other side, in a new century, and maybe on the way to a new paradigm. Dorigo’s Anomaly! may be anomalous against the backdrop of physics literature, yet that is a sure sign that something is happening in the world of science.
In this blog post, I would like to explain the difference between living in the world before and after Anomaly! was published. Let me begin by specifically addressing what we have gained from Anomaly! being published. Then, for the sake of contrast, I will address what we had before Anomaly! was published. For me, the difference is quite significant.
What We Have Gained from Anomaly! Being Published
Allow me to explain why Dorigo’s Anomaly! is important, from my perspective, as a social psychologist. In terms of how individuals as members of groups, navigate their paths, and negotiate their destinies, there is something fundamental to the human experience that is worth noting here. This is depicted in Fig. 1 (see below). The idea is that when we lived in an age of common sense, the way we talked was a function of the way we knew the world. Also, vice versa, the way we knew the world was a function of the way we talked. Now that we live in an advanced age of science, and we are not reliant on common sense alone to gain knowledge, what is critical to note, is that this truth is still the same. The way we talk is a function of the way we know the world. At the same time, the way we know the world is a function of the way we talk. If our scientific knowledge is a function of our talk and, specifically, a function of our professional discourse, then we can say that our scientific knowledge is a function of our talk, once we have accounted for all of our professional discourse, notated as Knowledge=f(Talk|PD).
Whether in the most primitive human society, or in our advanced society today, this is fundamentally true. However, I would contend, that for the better part of the 20th century, especially in physics, we have neglected the aspect of talk and focused more on knowledge. The fact that Dorigo is the first physicist, that I can locate, to write a book chronicling the way physicists talk in their professional discourse is significant. This treatment of the professional discourse in physics, by a professional physicist, has been missing.
There have been plenty of social scientists analyzing physics from all angles, but that is hardly the same. Anomaly! is unique for the way a world class physicist has allowed anyone interested to enter into the world of professional discourse among physicists as they argue and disagree about the interpretations of their research. This is like being at the fount. This is real science in action, real physics in action.
It was a mercurial turn that physics took in the 20th century, which obfuscated transparency of the professional discourse. I would argue that we have been without any emphasis on the way our scientific knowledge in physics is a function of the way physicists talk. We have been without this insight for at least 50 years.
Yet, we all started in the world of common sense. Our ancestors started there, and even as children today, we all still start there. We can say that the probability of finding a new truth value in the world of common sense is 50%. Our ancestors living in primitive societies had a 50/50 chance of learning something new at any given time.
We can imagine our primitive ancestors moving through the world, using trial and error to make their way. This life was not totally unlike the formal work of a scientist, yet it existed on a completely informal level. In the world of common sense, people go through the world, moving from one event to another, making informal hypotheses about what is going on here, gathering evidence in support of their hypotheses, and so on, in a trial and error form.
When we formalized our informal, trial and error way of making it through the world, we created science. Yet, whether in a primitive world of common sense, or an advanced scientific world, it is extremely important to recognize that the way we talk and the way we know the world, each exist in terms of the other, mutually and explicitly.
Next, we began to wonder if we could improve upon the 50/50 probability of gaining knowledge in the world of common sense. A discourse began concerning ways to improve our odds of discovering new truth values in the world. We began to systematize how we investigated the world, and we developed repeatable methods for investigating the world, which could be replicated by others. In this way, we achieved a professional discourse about a systematic way of gaining knowledge, and we called it science.
Even when the first scientific ideas occurred to people, their first theoretical ideas still only had a 50/50 probability of being true. But, as soon as the data started rolling in from systematic observations, then we began to work out more reliable ways of assuring ourselves that we had indeed learned something about the world. A statistical method can ensure 80% reliability in a robust fashion, which in turn makes the theorists even more confident.
Indeed, when the data starts to come in, that is when we start to make some serious progress. We can actually begin to ratchet up our levels of knowledge with a fair amount of logic and precision. We can now begin doing data analysis and believing we might have a better than 50% probability of discovering truth or just learning something new.
Once the theorists looked at the data, they could revise the original theories, and claim 80% chance of being on the right track due to new methods and observations. At that point, theorists begin to claim to be very confident of their newest theories, sometimes 99% confident. In a brave new scientific world, ceterus paribus, scientists generally occupy lofty realms of knowledge in a range of 80% to 99% percent accuracy and reliability. The scientists are not always right, but they are certainly a far cry from the 50/50 probability of discovering truth and learning something new about the world, which is all our ancestors could claim.
The way people have talked about physics and physicists is a function of what physicists have learned and claim to know about the world. Generally, we have been told that physicists say they feel confident that their new knowledge has a probability of being extremely accurate. This is all very impressive, and we are no longer in the world of common sense.
But, there is one thing missing from the depiction we have been given of physics. What is there for all to see, is the fact that our talk is a function of our knowledge. But, what is missing, conversely, is something we knew in the world of common sense, but it is something we forgot about, somehow, lately. We forgot about the simple fact that our knowledge, our precious scientific knowledge, is and can only ever be, a function of our talk. This, in fact, is the missing link that was delivered back in the form of Dorigo’s Anomaly!. Now we can make the correction, and depict science in action as it really is. From the lowest level of common sense knowledge to the highest levels of scientific knowledge (a) our talk is a function of our knowledge, and (b) our knowledge is a function of our talk.
What We Endured Before Anomaly! Was Published
Now, I can argue by negation. What happened when we lived in a world where there was no clear expression of the professional discourse in physics? What happened when, for whatever reasons, physicists were not writing books like Anomaly! and there was no direct communication between the professional discourse among physicists and the presentation of physics to the world? What happened is that individuals began to take liberties with the knowledge of physics, and they began to create their own discourse about the ways and means of physics. The most notable example is the now-legendary presentation of the double-slit experiment with a single electron.
Slit and double-slit experiments have been a tradition in physics going back for centuries to 1801 when Thomas Young first described it. In 1909, Sir Geoffrey Ingram Taylor performed a double-slit experiment with the smallest, weakest beam of light he could manage to manipulate, and published "Interference Fringes with Feeble Light." But after that, between 1909 and 1961 no double-slit experiment was performed. Moreover, and specifically to the point, between 1900 and 1963 not one famous quantum physicist actually performed such an experiment using an isolated electron and getting the results we have all heard about so much. It was not even until 1964 that Richard Feynman merely predicted someone would one day be able to do it.
From that time until today there have appeared various fantastic claims associated with, for example, Wheeler’s delayed choice experiments, or so-called quantum eraser experiments.
It is common knowledge that the double-slit experiment was a favorite thought experiment of pioneer quantum physicists who routinely resorted to it to think out points and argue for different ideas. But, none of the famous quantum physicists of the first sixty years of classical quantum physics ever performed a double-slit experiment in which they fired a single, isolated electron.
Consider this timeline of major events in the history of the famous double-slit experiment with a single electron, as it relates to quantum physics. Observe the timeline of research with gaping holes, and notice the promotion of this thought experiment as if it represented real research, with nearly everyone performing their version of it, claiming to be the first, along with the contradictions of fact and fancy throughout its history.
These are some of the biggest highlights in the history of double-slit research. To this day, the actual Feynman double-slit experiment with a single electron has never been performed in its entirety.
The first recorded attempt claiming to pull off the experiment with a stream of electrons took place in 1961. In 1965, Feynman suggested they might be able to one day fire off single electrons in such an experiment. Only a handful of double-slit experiments have been conducted since then. It is not the kind of thing that pops up in Dorigo’s Anomaly!, because physicists at top levels do not perform it and talk about it repeatedly, as one is led to believe in the more casual discourse of documentaries and books about physics for lay people who know little or nothing about physics.
Give Us Truth, The Whole Truth, And Nothing But The Truth
What Dorigo’s Anomaly! represents is the first true installment in decades on the professional discourse of physicists. Instead of listening to people talking about the professional discourse, we get to witness and hear the professional discourse itself. There is no filter or middle man presenting us the watered-down version for public consumption. This book conveys the real professional discourse of world class physicists, deciding and arguing on the developments in their field. Without it, all we had was the didactic teaching of physics to students, or the documentarian wowing of physics audiences, but these are distinctly different from the professional discourse itself.
There is no substitute for the professional discourse, because that is the red thread running through the beginning, middle, and end of the science. There are documentaries about physics, but physics is not about documentaries. There are textbooks about physics, but physics is not about school books. Physics is essentially the professional discourse of physicists. It is the professional discourse, performed on the level of talk, that envisions, adjudicates, and manages the development of the science, and that is the be-all and the end-all of physics.
The real problem is that there is an inescapable interrelationship between knowledge and talk, and when we only focus on our knowledge, we get imbalanced. Without the real professional discourse acting as a correction or a balance, the talk about physics knowledge becomes farther and farther removed from the professional discourse itself. This hypothesis is borne out by Anomaly!, in which no part of the dramatic lore from any physics documentary made in the last 50 years shows up or is even hinted at. To finally get the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, about what top level physicists talk about when they do their science is like finding an oasis after wandering in the desert for years.
In all likelihood, the best and brightest physicists will always engage furtive arguments about what they are doing and how to interpret the data. Furthermore, their professional discourse is always destined to be decidedly more sane and balanced than the documentarian view, which has essentially bordered as much on science fiction drama, as science.
I strongly suspect that for many of us it will be exciting to open Dorigo’s Anomaly!, and learn how particle physicists really talk about their work, and to confirm something many of us could only have suspected before: namely, that there is a big difference between physicists arguing about their own work, with each other, as professionals engaged in a scientific discourse, and the way isolated individuals will conspire to talk about physics, when not held accountable to the professional discourse.
In closing, a big Thank you, Tommaso Dorigo, for having the insight to know that what the world of science needed was Anomaly!, because more than anything, we need to know what physicists are actually talking about when they do their work, whether we understand it all or not. Because you did that, I do not feel so crazy anymore, and I know that common sense still has a vital place in science, which almost sounds like a revolutionary concept, after surviving the 20th century.
We can only hope physicists choose to keep open dialogue and communication going, and above all, let Dorigo’s Anomaly! stand as a reflexive milestone in the professional discourse of physics, and never stop recording, analyzing, and publishing the professional discourse of physics - it is extremely important to the rest of us, and to that extent, to the entire project of the tower of science, which is premised on the democracy of talking and arguing, for staying vital and vibrant, full of life and promise.
The spirit of science is not just about facts, truth, and what we think we know, after all, it’s about how we look up at the night sky, and just talk - talking about how small we must be, pointing out stars, wondering how big infinity is, talking about how we always want to go as far as we can go, and know all we can know, because that’s where all the fun is.
Tommaso Dorigo is an experimental particle physicist, who works for the INFN at the University of Padova, and collaborates with the CMS experiment at the CERN LHC. He coordinates the European network AMVA4NewPhysics as well as research in accelerator-based physics for INFN-Padova, and is an editor of the journal Reviews in Physics. In 2016 Dorigo published the book “Anomaly! Collider physics and the quest for new phenomena at Fermilab”. You can purchase a copy of the book by clicking on the book cover in the column on the right.