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Where is Physics Headed (and How Soon Do We Get There)?

Two leading scientists discuss the future of their field.

The future belongs to those who prepare for it, as scientists who petition federal agencies like NASA and the Department of Energy for research funds know all too well. The price of big-ticket instruments like a space telescope or particle accelerator can be as high as $10 billion.

And so this past June, the physics community began to consider what they want to do next, and why.

Recently The Times met with the two scientists to discuss the group’s progress, the disappointments of the last 20 years and the challenges ahead. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

But what’s the grand vision? What is so exciting about this field? I was so excited in 1980 about the idea of grand unification, and that now looks small compared to the possibilities ahead.

But the quest for the fundamental rules is not over. Why two different kinds of building blocks? Why so many “elementary” particles? Why four forces? How do dark matter, dark energy, gravity and space-time fit in? Answering these questions is the work of elementary particle physics.

When we discovered the Higgs, the first thing we expected was to find these other new supersymmetric particles, because the mass we measured was unstable without their presence, but we haven’t found them yet. (If the Higgs field collapsed, we could bubble out into a different universe — and of course that hasn’t happened yet.)

That has been a little bit crushing; for 20 years I’ve been chasing the supersymmetrical particles. So we’re like deer in the headlights: We didn’t find supersymmetry, we didn’t find dark matter as a particle.

From the perspective of cosmology, the Big Bang is the origin of space and time, at least from the point of view of Einstein’s general relativity. So the origin of the universe, space and time are all connected. And does the universe have an end? Is there a multiverse? How many spaces and times are there? Does that question even make sense?

But we have not reached the God scale in our particle accelerators. So possibly we have to reframe the question. In my view the ultimate law remains a persistent puzzle, and the way we solve it is going to be through new thinking.

That is the hallmark of great science: You ask a question, and often it turns out to be the wrong question, but you have to ask a question just to find out it’s the wrong one. If it is, you ask a new one.

The Big Bang looks like the origin of space and time, and so we can ask, What are space and time really? Einstein showed us that they’re not just the place where things happen, as Newton said. They’re dynamical: space can bend and time can warp. But now we’re ready to answer the question: Where did they come from?

We are creatures of time, so we think the universe is all about time. And that may be the wrong way to look at the universe.

We have to keep in mind what you said earlier. Many of the tools in particle physics take a very long time to develop and are very expensive. These investments always pay off, often with big surprises that change the course of science.

And that makes progress challenging. But I am bullish on particle physics because the opportunities have never been bigger and the field has been at the bleeding edge of science for years. Particle physics invented big, global science, and national and now global facilities. If history is any guide, nothing will prevent them from answering the big questions!

Category: Science

Source: NYTimes Science

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