Little over a week after the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) became operational it broke down. As the world's largest particle accelerator isn't working, computer simulations are the only option for a whole generation of researchers. With entire PhD's being based on simulated data, you wonder whether physics is still an empirical science.
Today’s most ambitious scientific instruments are modern-day cathedrals in their size and complexity. Situated as much as 175 meters (570 ft) beneath the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is designed to accelerate protons to near the speed of light and smash them together in four giant detectors spread around its 27-kilometre circumference. Built at a cost of $4.3 billion, making it not only the grandest but also the most expensive scientific instrument ever created by man.
The main argument for the creation of the LHC is to discover the Higgs bosons, an elementary particle predicted to exist by the Standard Model in particle physics, but yet to be observed experimentally – a Nobel price is awaiting the one who makes the discovery.
SIMULATIONS REPLACE EMPIRICAL EXPERIMENTS
Physicists once hoped that the LHC would start its collisions in late 2006, but on 19 September 2008, shortly after the machine was finally switched on, an electrical short caused extensive damage along a sector of the machine. Repairs have taken longer than expected, and the LHC is not scheduled to restart before mid-November 2009.
The long delays have scattered the dreams of LHC Students who had hoped to use fresh data from the machine to use in their studies. According to the renowned Nature journal, LHC Students face data drought: "European graduate students face strict time constraints for completing their PhDs. Most universities require a thesis to be submitted within three to four years, and that means that students cannot wait for their data. Instead, their analyses are being done with data from 'Monte Carlo' simulations — computer programs that replicate what might come out of real collisions.."
THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE
Although simulation experiments are very useful as a prelude to the empirical ones – especially in biological experiments one can save cost, time and energy – at a certain moment you have do actual measurements – at least if your claim is that what you are doing is empirical research.
In fundamental physics it becomes increasingly difficult to conduct such empirical experiments. While early experiments could be done in days by a handful of people, they are now growing into enormous – both in size as well as costs – cathedrals of science that take thousands of researchers years to complete. The relative amount of time researchers spend on building their instruments outbalances the time spent on actual measurements by far.
The situation with the LHC reminds of the story about a anonymous physicist, who shortly after the invent of lenses some centuries ago, thought to have discovered a phenomenon with his microscope, which later turned out to be an artifact of the lens he had used – it wasn't observed in the outer world, but resulted from the pollution in the lens.
Something similar might happen with the thoroughly complex instruments modern physicists are using, in which the role of the simulations becomes so crucial, you start to wonder whether they not merely model, but may also constitute reality, and whether the practitioners are merely studying the artifacts of their instruments, rather than perceiving an external reality with them.
THE END OF PHYSICS
As it becomes practically impossible – whether it be for technical or financial constraints – to construct operational instruments able to actually empirically test existing theoretical assumptions, physics can not longer be called an empirical science.
If their ever comes a day that physicist agree it is no longer feasible to empirically test their theories, their field will no longer be physics. At best it will become a formal science, it might even be categorized as metaphysics: the non-empirical inquiry into the nature of existence. This, of course, would give the field an entirely different status than it has today – people might even perceive it somewhere in the league of homeopathy, palmistry, astrology and what other occult fields of knowledge do you have.
Before such a disaster will take place, we can expect the physics community to ask for further funding for reparations on the current LHC device or the construction of even bigger, better and more expensive cathedrals of modern science. Although with their achievements from the past, they still a have quite some credit from society, at some point the politicians will simply say NO.
Lets hope they find that mysterious Higgs-bosons part before this happens.
Related: 'Atlantis' turns out to be interfacial artefact, World View, A Society of Simulations.