Perimeter Institute and the crisis in modern physics

Neil Turok talks to Paul Wells about the ever-increasing complexity of theoretical physics

by Paul Wells

In his welcome speech to this year’s Perimeter Scholars International — captured on video and archived online as is every lecture ever delivered at Perimeter Institute — Neil Turok briefly singled out Jacob Barnett as the youngest member of the class. But the bulk of his message was to the whole class, and indeed, to the international physics community beyond it.

“Theoretical physics is at a crossroads right now,” the eternally boyish South African cosmologist who has run Perimeter since 2008 told the students. “In a sense we’ve entered a very deep crisis.”

The crisis Turok claims to see (not all his colleagues agree it’s there) was provoked by fresh results from two of the most ambitious physics experiments in history. The European Space Agency’s Planck Satellite measures background radiation from near the beginning of the universe’s existence. CERN’s Large Hadron Collider is the highest-energy particle accelerator yet built, designed to look for particles and phenomena on a smaller scale than ever before.

Generations of physicists have built elaborate models, basically sets of equations that fit existing observations and that also predicted what should be found at these two very different scales: the vast and ancient landscape of Planck, and the tiny, fleeting phenomena the LHC examines. “You may have heard of some of these models,” Turok told the class. “There’ve been grand unified models, there’ve been super-symmetric models, super-string models, loop quantum gravity models… Well, nature turns out to be simpler than all of these models.”

When the Large Hadron Collider switched on, lots of theorists predicted it would find other phenomena besides a new particle, the Higgs Boson. Instead it found the Higgs and basically nothing else. “I was at CERN at the time,” Turok said. “Experimentalists were very happy. Theorists were very sad, and they still are. If you ask most theorists working on particle physics, they’re in a state of confusion.”

I got a taste of that during my visit to Perimeter when I visited Philip Schuster and Natalia Toro, two faculty members who were fresh recruits the last time I visited in 2010. These days they’re a little flustered. They had expected the LHC results would shine a little light on something called the Hierarchy Problem, which can be summarized as: Why is there a huge difference between the energy of the Planck scale and the energy of the weak scale? “This is kind of a basic thing, by the way,” Schuster told me, “because if that separation weren’t there, there wouldn’t be a macroscopic universe, period. The universe wouldn’t exist.” So the Hierarchy Problem is a fancy way of asking “Why is there stuff?”, which is an important question to be sure, and after a couple years of LHC there’s no visible answer.

“We were expecting to see a mechanism” to explain the Hierarchy Problem, Schuster told me, “and we haven’t seen a mechanism. And so that’s… interesting. Either it means we’re interpreting things incorrectly; or maybe there is a mechanism and it’s harder to find than we thought; or there’s some even much more radical possibilities… Maybe there is no mechanism and this has to do with the multiverse.” I don’t know what the multiverse is, except that it is suggested by string theory, and this is turning into a long blog post anyway, so let’s just keep moving along. “What is unambiguously uncomfortable and bad about the current situation is that we don’t have a decisive answer,” Schuster said. “That’s just bad.”

“Well, it’s uncomfortable,” Toro said.

“Whatever,” Schuster said. “It’s bad. The point of building this machine was that we would get a decisive answer. And we’re going to have to work harder to get a decisive answer.”

This is the kind of talk Turok gets a real kick out of these days. One of the principle tools of the working theoretical physicist is the “standard model,” which is decades old and describes a lot of the interactions among particles and can predict an awful lot of what happens in the universe. But not everything. Efforts to extend the standard model amount to attempts to understand, well, everything. But insights usually bring clarity, and most of the new physics of the past few decades has brought only ever-increasing complexity.

“The extensions of the standard model, like grand unified theories, they were supposed to simplify it. But in fact they made it more complicated. The number of parameters in the standard model is about 18. The number in grand unified theories is typically 100. In super-symmetric theories, the minimum is 120. And as you may have heard, string theory seems to predict 10 to the power of 1,000 different possible laws of physics. It’s called the multiverse. It’s the ultimate catastrophe: that theoretical physics has led to this crazy situation where the physicists are utterly confused and seem not to have any predictions at all.”

During my visit, I had lunch with Turok in Perimeter’s bustling ground-floor bistro, which opened in 2011.  ”The evidence is in. I think, by and large, all the wrong conclusions have been drawn by LHC and Planck,” he said. “The physics world has continued on its merry way, even though I would say the discoveries made really seriously damage conventional viewpoints. I find this really exciting because now it’s time to put up another viewpoint. The hints that are there in the data are, I think, extremely bad for the multiverse picture. They’re bad for super-symmetry, for string theory, and they’re very good for the view that there may be a very simple, powerful theory that will explain all this.”

Golly. If stacks of old theories don’t work, and a new theory is needed, where on earth will somebody come up with some of those new theories?

“The data just fits so perfectly with Perimeter’s mission,” Turok said. “If it had turned out to be complicated and messy — 10 new particles at CERN and all kinds of funny evidence for models of inflation and stuff in the sky — one would have to say the future of theoretical physics does look pretty messy and complicated. Perimeter would be just one of 100 such institutes.

“But given that everything turned out to be very simple, yet extremely puzzling — puzzling in its simplicity — it’s just perfect for what Perimeter’s here to do. We have to get people to try to find the new principles that will explain the simplicity.”

Perimeter Institute has spent part of its 14-year existence establishing its bona fides as a place that can do mainstream physics as well as it gets done at Princeton or Cambridge or Stanford, and part of its time welcoming high-functioning dreamers and visionaries. Lee Smolin, a founding faculty member, wrote a famous book several years ago making fun of string theory’s tendency to get lost in the weeds; his new book argues that time is real, fighting words in some circles in physics. Turok himself grew up as a bit of a trouble-maker. His first book argued that the Big Bang was one in an endless series of expansions, contractions and bangs the universe has gone through. He has lately stepped back from some of his administrative duties at Perimeter to do more thinking and writing, often working with Latham Boyle, a soft-spoken and highly creative young American cosmologist who pops up near the end of my 2010 article on Perimeter.

The spur for Turok’s eager return to the cosmological coalface was the flood of experimental data from Planck and LHC — as well as the CBC’s choice of Turok to deliver the 2012 Massey Lectures, which required that he write a book and deliver a series of lectures from coast to coast on the history of science.

“I was very reluctant to do the Massey lectures because it was so time-consuming,” Turok said. “But it forced me to rethink: What do we do? Where does it fit into the big picture? And that was really fruitful. It made me think, in my own research, I had to focus on the most profound, deep questions, rather than the more routine ones.”


Perimeter Institute and the crisis in modern physics

  1. Woah… There is a radical and new theory in this article – right at the end. Most scientists spend their careers making incremental additions and subtle changes to existing knowledge. Yes, there’s lots of new data (LHC generates billions of data points) but new insight is much rarer and precious. That’s not to say that this “plod” work isn’t necessary, but it’s rarely game-changing. So why do scientists work in this manner? Because they are expected to continuously produce and to do so requires conformity and not too much rocking of the boat. While hard core physics is probably more amenable to fundamental challenges (than, say, biology), it still must fly by the rules of academia. Thank goodness for places like the PI where such mundanity is positively rejected. Given that it now costs in excess of $2.5 billion to build a new and effective drug, that our healthcare systems have become rapacious vampires sucking at government (or insurance payers) revenues, perhaps it would be timely to consider different models in other areas of science? It starts with the funding (expectations). I guess what we need are more people like Michael Lazaridis who have the foresight not to expect immediate returns but also understand that current approaches are lacking. Wither the next RIM?

  2. I caught a good chunk of Turok’s Massey lectures, without realizing who he was. They were simply marvelous… I wish I could say I understood it all.

  3. Forget Schrodinger’s cat. Thankfully, I have couple of feline friends who are not kept in a box as Shrodinger’s theoretical kitty is. Worse, Schrodinger’s cat’s in some weird twilight zone state Schrodinger dreamed up for a cat where maybe it’s alive, maybe it’s dead, maybe it’s both alive & dead. Huh? Hey, I like my cats alive, healthy, & happy, not stuck in some physicist’s dreary, imaginary, animal abusing twilight zone! Why did Schrodinger pick on cats in particular, anyway? I suspect Schrodinger felt more affection for affect-less sub atomic particles than he did for friendly felines. Damn physicists, anyway. May they all be eaten by lions, tigers, cougars, or panthers!

  4. Heh, just recognized him from “Through the Wormhole” with Morgan Freeman, just caught the episode, “what happened before the big bang?”

  5. Bit beyond my comprehension, but I support institutions such as the Perimeter Institute and those engaged in pure science which ultimately contributes to the common good.

  6. I just presented my radical new theory at a conference called SPIE in San Diego. The paper is called “The Mandelbrot Set and the Fractal Nature of Light, the Universe and Everything”. It explains the creation and evolution of the Universe from the perspective of the “fractal”. It models the Universe as a wavefunction generator (or iterated wavefunction system). IN this model, time and all the laws of physics are emergent properties of the iteration process (ie. iterating the wavefunction).

    • Fractal girl,
      You’re right except that there’s absolutely no differentiation between the states. They all use gravity as base function in order to define/occupy field strength. Field strength defines everything.
      I took a look at defining field vectors for extrapolation points. A rather arcane preoccupation but one that had some rather surprising results.

  7. It’s time to get back to the drawing board and the foundations. A good starting point would be to revisit the various QM interpretations and ask if there is a physical relevant way to test them. Bell did it before when ruling out the hidden variable theories. The fact that Copenhagen still reigns supreme, despite now having decade old experiences with ever larger QM systems, points to a profound lack of imagination (

  8. Before reading this article I was just worrying about what to have for lunch.

  9. One day two physicists were caught busy resolving,
    A quantum state which they found to be strange,
    For although a particle had been detected,
    It was suddenly deflected,
    Somewhere out in the immeasurable range,
    So complex calculations were hastily completed,
    In the hopes of following its trail,
    And although the results were quite small,
    It was the asymmetrical sum of them all,
    Which gave weight to the new Holy Grail.

  10. Equally believable is classic oriental “the universe is a kumquat,
    unless it is a persimmon” or “you can never sometimes tell what you
    least expect most”.
    Just as likely is Siegel “Sephirot”(Hebrew:
    “numbers”) cosmology creation scenario “It’s a Jack-in-the-Box Universe”
    [abstract math distorted online] “Known Unknowns Versus Unknown
    Unknowns” wherein:

    (1) starts by hypothesizing(string-theory?) ten-dimensions
    0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9; digit-averaged via “Benford’s-law” 〈P〉=log[1+1/d]=
    log[(d+1)/d] whose algebraic-inversion automatically creates only
    Bose-Einstein quantum-statistics(BEQS)/ bosons photons d≈1/[e^(P) -1] at
    one point which springs into existence as automatic “Big-Bang”/Creation

    (2) Guth exponential inflation is automatic dark-energy because the
    point which came into existence expends exponentially and exponentially
    dilutes this boson-creation “Big-Bang”

    (3) power-spectrum of BEQS/bosons is hyperbolic “1″/(
    e^(ħω/(kT))-1)≈(infra-red limit(ħω<kT)Taylor-expansion)≈
    [1+ħω/(kT)+⋯]-1)≈1/(ħω/(kT))~(kT)/ħω~"1"/ω origin of cosmic microwave

    (4) BEQS/bosons photons Mellin-transform into Fermi-Dirac quantum-statistics/ fermions particles dominating nuclei

    (5) automatic hidden dark-matter via Siegel complex quantum-statistics in (Nottale) fractal/fractional-dimensions

    Einstein's famous anti-QM quote "God does not play dice" might be
    modified by Benford's-law of craps!? Quoting Heinrich Heine "Ich weiss
    nicht was soll es bedeuten"!!!


  12. (3) power-spectrum of BEQS/bosons is hyperbolic “1″/(
    e^(ħω/(kT))-1)≈(infra-red limit(ħω<kT)Taylor-expansion)≈
    [1+ħω/(kT)+⋯]-1)≈1/(ħω/(kT))~(kT)/ħω~"1"/ω origin of cosmic microwave

    (4) BEQS/bosons photons Mellin-transform into Fermi-Dirac quantum-statistics/ fermions particles dominating nuclei

    (5) automatic hidden dark-matter via Siegel complex quantum-statistics in Nottale fractal-dimensions

    Einstein's famous anti-QM quote "God does not play dice" might be
    modified by Benford's-law of craps!? Quoting Heinrich Heine "Ich weiss
    nicht was soll es bedeuten"!!!


  14. (3) power-spectrum of BEQS/bosons is hyperbolic “1″/(
    e^(ħω/(kT))-1)≈(infra-red limit(ħω<kT)Taylor-expansion)≈
    [1+ħω/(kT)+⋯]-1)≈1/(ħω/(kT))~(kT)/ħω~"1"/ω origin of cosmic microwave

  15. 1/(
    [1+ħω/(kT)+⋯]-1)≈1/(ħω/(kT))~(kT)/ħω~”1″/ω origin of cosmic microwave

  16. (4) BEQS/bosons photons Mellin-transform into Fermi-Dirac quantum-statistics/ fermions particles dominating nuclei

    (5) automatic hidden dark-matter via Siegel complex quantum-statistics in Nottale fractal-dimensions

  17. Einstein’s famous anti-QM quote “God does not play dice” might be
    modified by Benford’s-law of craps!? Quoting Heinrich Heine “Ich weiss
    nicht was soll es bedeuten”!!!


    • While your post is a real work of art,
      The boson’s a rather odd quantum fart,
      It seems to work best,
      Just when it’s at rest,
      So it’s mass doesn’t go flying apart.

  18. “cosmological coalface” ? lol … where are you from, Cape Breton?

  19. I think the most significant problem in physics is its treatment of time. We exist as points in space and experience activity as a sequence of events, thus we model time as a progression from past events to future ones. In the broad context though, it is just a sea of activity and this creates change, such that potential becomes actual, ie, it is the future becoming past. For instance, the earth does not travel either Newton’s flow or Einstein’s fourth dimension from yesterday to tomorrow. Rather tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth rotates. So with its philosophy of “Shut up and calculate,” physics only knows time as a measure of duration, but duration doesn’t transcend the present, so is not a vector external to it. It is simply an effect of the processes occurring between the occurrence of the specified events.
    Quantum mechanics uses the external vector of time and ends up with multiworlds, as it goes from determined past into probabilistic future, yet it is the actual occurrences which determine the cat’s fate, as probability collapses into actuality.
    Causality is not due to temporal sequence, but energy transmission. Yesterday didn’t cause today, nor does one wave cause the next. The sun shining on a spinning planet and wind across the waves are cause of these sequences.
    Time then is an effect of action, not the basis for it. Much like temperature arising from quantities of action, time arises from change caused by action. We are just one of those molecules of water, bouncing from one point of contact to another. The narrative effect is what our minds record. Flashes of insight, like a movie camera taking a series of stills and reconstructing reality from them.

    • Your post is an interesting one.

      I also think that the most significant problem in physics is its treatment of time.

      I think a lot of scientists do not understand what Einstein actually told us.

      But the problem about not understanding time is not just happening in physics; not understanding time leads to problems in other fields as well. Biology and the theory of evolution, and the current understanding thereof, also are problematic because the meaning of time is not understood correctly. The theory of evolution is also about time. In fact, it is all about time/space, to be correct.

      I do not believe, however, that we are points in space. Space, too, is not static, and time is neither. Time/space cannot be static.

      You are correct, in my opinion, that time is as action. More precisely, I would say that time/space is as generation, as in: what is generated is as time/space. The act of generating is as fundamental and therefore there is time/space. Change is in the generating and therefore time/space cannot be static.

      I don’t know if you are very interested in this topic but if you are, I have put my thoughts on this on line: under the sub category The Big Picture.

      It is my understanding that there must be a fundamental driving force for Being. Such fundamental force must be applicable to all Being, not just humans or living things, but all Being. And when we consider the fundamental force for Being, then the understanding of time/space, futures turning into histories etc, are of the essence.

  20. The Left brain syndrome can drive logic out of the window. There is no crossroad in Physics except those created by its analysts using sequential logic instead of a holistic approach. The problem lies in not recognizing that space is real and it contains SOMETHING that behaves exactly like anything we deal with in real life. An axiomatic approach will cure the disease of hierarchy confusion. The only parameter that varies in this Universe is TIME or the dynamic interval of change through interactions.. But time has a built in caveat. Two events occurring simultaneously will display a single time count. Hence measuring frequency is a pig in a poke exercise for one cannot decipher how many such identical events are occurring at the same time. The hidden time is termed as mass. Hence because of this single caveat, you have dark, matter and energy, black holes, parapsychological phenomena, quantum entanglement , zero point energy and much more!!! An axiom based approach removes this hidden spectrum and makes it evident through two principles called self similarity and scale in-variance. . The hidden spectrum is not measured but CALCULATED by the self similarity anzats. See web site for a full explanation.

  21. A crisis in theoretical physics might be a good thing. This sometimes means a breakthrough is coming. Reminds me of the famous 19th century speech by Lord Kelvin that physics was almost solved. Just read an article about the hypothesis of gravitons with a tiny mass. Makes me curious.

  22. Yes, I do feel that physics is in crisis. But before giving
    supporting information, let me tell you my academic background, I am a “trained-biochemist-turned-physics-educator”
    and still working in this chosen field due to the inspiration from my Guru, Sir
    John Kendrew – the father of Molecular Biology. Frequently I feel that I can
    understand problems in learning physics in a better way because of my academic

    Problems in Circular Motion: Actually,
    this topic is the most basic topic, known for more than three hundred years.
    But still there are global and chronic problems in learning it and hence
    students give “contrasting” answers to some questions. Read my Letter in
    CHANGE, title: Getting science right,
    especially see points 1 and 2 in the Letter. Also read my unique experience – based
    on responses of teachers, not students – described on 11 April 2009

    My essay in Memory of Prof. Abdus Salam,
    describing some problems in learning Bohr’s theory of hydrogen atom,
    originating in the problems in circular motion, visit:×0026.pdf

    Letter of Prof. A.P. French in American J. of
    Physics, January 1984. Its title: “Did Newton forget his own laws of motion?
    Unfortunately, this Letter has not received adequate attention of physicists as
    well as educators. I think, Newton did give a hint when he was 60+.

    Josie’s reaction to Physics: Josie is a British
    teenager, she learnt Physics for one year, after the celebration of I.Y.P. 2005.
    But, she left it to join Biology, as she did not find Physics useful. So I
    tried to guess what could have motivated her to leave Physics, see my Letter:
    On Josie’s thinking Physics Education, UK, July 2007,

    Above points can give the reader a
    good idea of present situation in Learning Physics and why I am not surprised
    by the above story of Prof. Turok. I am trying leaders of physics to look into
    these problems with the help of a poster, see that poster in photos with two
    leaders, Prof. Martin Perl and Prof. Walter Kohn,
    Feel free to discuss more on this, using

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