Why falsifiability is a false guide to what is and isn’t science

I had a liberal arts education, which means that I mostly use what I learned to post nonsense on Twitter. However, thanks to my advisor, I got a solid grounding in the philosophy of science. While I’m certainly no philosopher myself, I also (hopefully) have a less simplistic view of how science works and doesn’t work than what is often presented as the “scientific method” and suchlike. For Symmetry, I got a chance to talk a little about how “falsifiability” is widely promoted as a way to tell what is scientific and what is not, and why it’s actually a poor criterion, both from a philosophical and scientific point of view.

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Falsifiability and physics

Can a theory that isn’t completely testable still be useful to physics?

For Symmetry Magazine:

What determines if an idea is legitimately scientific or not? This question has been debated by philosophers and historians of science, working scientists, and lawyers in courts of law. That’s because it’s not merely an abstract notion: What makes something scientific or not determines if it should be taught in classrooms or supported by government grant money.

The answer is relatively straightforward in many cases: Despite conspiracy theories to the contrary, the Earth is not flat. Literally all evidence is in favor of a round and rotating Earth, so statements based on a flat-Earth hypothesis are not scientific.

In other cases, though, people actively debate where and how the demarcation line should be drawn. One such criterion was proposed by philosopher of science Karl Popper (1902-1994), who argued that scientific ideas must be subject to “falsification.”

[Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

The weird new physics of neutrinos

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Already beyond the Standard Model

We already know neutrinos break the mold of the Standard Model. The question is: By how much?

For Symmetry Magazine:

Tested and verified with ever increasing precision, the Standard Model of particle physics is a remarkably elegant way of understanding the relationships between particles and their interactions. But physicists know it’s not the whole story: It provides no answer to some puzzling questions, such as the identity of the invisible dark matter that constitutes most of the mass in the universe.

As a result, in the search for physics beyond the Standard Model, one area of notably keen interest continues to be neutrinos.

In the Standard Model, neutrinos come in three kinds, or flavors: electron neutrinos, muon neutrinos and tau neutrinos. This mirrors the other matter particles in the Standard Model, which each can be organized into three groups. But some experiments have shown hints for a new type of neutrino, one that doesn’t fit neatly into this simple picture.

[Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

When testing gravity, no news is good news

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Looking for nothing to test gravity

When they look for violations of Einstein’s general relativity, physicists deliberately plan experiments to find nothing at all.

For Symmetry Magazine:

In 1887, physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley performed one of physics’ most famous experiments (at Case Western Reserve University, coincidentally, across the street from where this article was written). Unlike other important experiments, they didn’t find what they were looking for, but unexpectedly their “null” result prepared the way for the theory of relativity.

Sometimes researchers deliberately set out to generate null results—while on the lookout for something new. One type of experiment is looking for deviations from Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

“General relativity has been the staple of gravitational understanding for 100 years,” says Katie Chamberlain, a physics student at Montana State University. “We have to rule out the potential for other existing theories to come in and replace [it].”

[Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

Forging dark matter in the Big Bang

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The origins of dark matter

Theorists think dark matter was forged in the hot aftermath of the Big Bang

For Symmetry Magazine:

Transitions are everywhere we look. Water freezes, melts, or boils; chemical bonds break and form to make new substances out of different arrangements of atoms. The universe itself went through major transitions in early times. New particles were created and destroyed continually until things cooled enough to let them survive.

Those particles include ones we know about, such as the Higgs boson or the top quark. But they could also include dark matter, invisible particles which we presently know only because of their gravitational effects.

In cosmic terms, dark matter particles could be a “thermal relic,” forged in the hot early universe and then left behind during the transitions to more moderate later eras. One of these transitions, known as “freeze-out,” changed the nature of the whole universe. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

The search for magnetic monopoles, the truest north

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The hunt for the truest north

Many theories predict the existence of magnetic monopoles, but experiments have yet to see them

For Symmetry Magazine:

If you chop a magnet in half, you end up with two smaller magnets. Both the original and the new magnets have “north” and “south” poles.

But what if single north and south poles exist, just like positive and negative electric charges? These hypothetical beasts, known as “magnetic monopoles,” are an important prediction in several theories.

Like an electron, a magnetic monopole would be a fundamental particle. Nobody has seen one yet, but many—maybe even most—physicists would say monopoles probably exist. (Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine…)

Confused about the Big Bang? Start here

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The Big Bang is the central concept in cosmology — the study of the whole universe — but it can be confusing to a lot of people. In fact, it’s a little unfair: some of the confusion comes from us cosmologists. In my latest for Symmetry, I try to sift out some of the important concepts and hopefully clear up some of the confusion.

Five facts about the Big Bang

It’s the cornerstone of cosmology, but what is it all about?

For Symmetry Magazine:

Astronomers Edwin Hubble and Milton Humason in the early 20th century discovered that galaxies are moving away from the Milky Way. More to the point: Every galaxy is moving away from every other galaxy on average, which means the whole universe is expanding. In the past, then, the whole cosmos must have been much smaller, hotter and denser.

That description, known as the Big Bang model, has stood up against new discoveries and competing theories for the better part of a century. So what is this “Big Bang” thing all about? [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

Information ain’t no good if you can’t get to it

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The most important website in particle physics

The first website to be hosted in the US has grown to be an invaluable hub for open science

For Symmetry Magazine:

With tens of thousands of particle physicists working in the world today, the biggest challenge a researcher can have is keeping track of what everyone else is doing. The articles they write, the collaborations they form, the experiments they run—all of those things are part of being current. After all, high-energy particle physics is a big enterprise, not the province of a few isolated people working out of basement laboratories.

Particle physicists have a tool that helps them with that. The INSPIRE database allows scientists to search for published papers by topic, author, scholarly journal, what previous papers the authors cited and which newer papers have used it as a reference.

“I don’t know any other discipline with such a central tool as INSPIRE,” says Sünje Dallmeier-Tiessen, an information scientist at CERN who manages INSPIRE’s open-access initiative. If you’re a high-energy physicist, “everything that relates to your daily work-life, you can find there.” [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]