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On physical mathematics, neutrinos and the P5

Editorial

On physical mathematics, neutrinos and the P5

Editorial on the mathematics-physics divide, the P5 report on particle physics, and U.S.’s $1.5 bn project to study neutrinos and neutrino mass in Fermilab.

It has been exactly one week to the day yesterday since Physics Capsule came into being. It was our intention to publish editorials monthly, but this speedy second editorial comes in an effort to maintain the first-day-of-a-month cycle that we have come to fancy. But let me not spend your time with small talk. Keeping in line with the beliefs and aims of this magazine, I think our editorials ought to comment on the scientific community at large.

To each his own opinion, no doubt, but this time it has so happened that there is little room for opinions. If we all want what is good for science, we will all end up agreeing at the end of this article.

Moore maths and physics get-togethers

There are three things I have lined up for today. The first is the wonderful, yet unfairly explored field of physical mathematics. That is not to comment on the number of physical mathematicians around, but to seek a subject where mathematics and physics become one again. In case you have been wondering, there are dark areas of maths that seem completely unrelated to physics. Whether this is human doing or something else is not something we like to judge here.

Physicist Greg Moore, a well-known supporter of string theory, recently spoke at the String 2014 conference. He has also written a pretty lengthy piece on what he calls physical mathematics. It is something I urge all of you to read sometime. (Continued on right column →)

Titled “Physical mathematics and the future“, the text is meant to be in support of Dr Moore’s vision talk at the conference. It revolves around how mathematics was, is and ought to be. These should, unsurprisingly, go down as some pretty important thoughts in recent times.

On the validity and success of physical mathematics, he has this to say — “In the years since this debate broke out there have been many spectacular successes scored by Physical Mathematics, thanks again to the unreasonable effectiveness of Physics in the Mathematical Sciences.”

It is hard to ignore such results or this proposition of tying mathematics closer either. I have, myself, experienced in college mathematics professors pointing towards the physics department should a student wonder about the physical implication of a complex set of equations. Perhaps the foundation of this trouble lies in the fact that mathematicians rarely see the need to make sense of numbers in a real-world scenario, which is pretty much what every physicist tries to do with every theory.

Parts of Dr Moore’s writing are yet to be completed, as of the time of publishing this editorial, so you should probably think of getting back to it at a later date.

Hunting neutrinos

It seems our fuel to build better neutrino detectors will never end — and that is a good thing.


“As a working physicist, I am acutely aware of the fact that the marriage between mathematics and physics, which was so enormously fruitful in past centuries, has recently ended in divorce.”

— Freeman Dyson


Since the 1998 Japanese experiment demonstrated oscillation and hence mass for neutrinos, it has surged physicists’ interest in this strange particle. The fact that neutrinos have mass was more recently confirmed by the OPERA experiment four years ago.

I am a fan of neutrinos myself. And since the Europeans already built the LHC and started working on detecting the Higgs’ boson, (the LHC is being cooled again for a second run scheduled in 2015) it seems that their American counterparts have decided to focus on neutrinos instead.

The Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility (LBNF) is being planned for 2022 at Fermilab, Illinois, with an international $1.5 billion budget.

Although the experiment is not to see construction until 2018, it should turn out to be hugely successful. As physicist Joe Lykken puts it, “Anytime anyone does something with neutrinos, there’s always a surprise.”

The LBNF will use a 34,000-tonne tank of Argon to spot interactions as neutrinos are beamed into it. They may appear as flashes, and these flashes may also be protons decaying into lighter particles, although the latter is extremely rare.

All-in-all, physicists do have something to look forward to as far as six years into the future — not forgetting the fact that the LHC will still be running around then.

The United States Particle Physics Project Prioritisation Panel

This grammatically murderous alliteration of a title refers to an actual, existing group of U.S. physicists, known as the P5, who most recently submitted a proposal titled, “Strategic plan for U.S. particle physics in the global context“. The P5 was key in urging the LBNF project we just spoke of as well.

Funding for particle physics has halved in the last couple of decades. The reasons for this could be many, but what is important in the P5 report are five points summarising what the panel believe are key areas of research that resources need to be spent on:

  1. Using the Higgs boson as a tool for discovery
  2. Study neutrino mass
  3. Identify the “new physics” of dark matter
  4. Understand cosmic acceleration
  5. Explore the unknown (particles, interactions)

What I find somewhat strange is that the panel probably decided to round off the list with five items, because the last one is clearly vague. It is what physics is all about — who needs a panel report to remind us that?

The remaining four points, of course, are valid. With the LHC results, the Higgs boson is probably the most likely candidate to lead further studies into the early stages of the Big Bang as well as general particle physics. Neutrinos need no introductions. As for numbers three and four, they seem to lie more in the jurisdiction (if it can be called that) of cosmology than particle physics, but are worthy inclusions nonetheless.

The P5 calls these points its “five scientific drivers”.  The P5 has a community portal where submission of any form addressed to P5 members are accepted. The report itself is aimed towards correcting the US’s slipping position as world leader in particle physics research. However, as men of science, we probably need to stop talking about national borders altogether.

If the mathematics-physics divide is of concern on one side, patriotism (albeit a good thing once in a while) should probably come second to science. The LBNF for example, not far from where the P5 met to present its report to the US congress, is going to have a third of its budget coming in from countries around the world — from several countries in Europe, from Brazil, from Japan and from India.

Cover image by CTBTO

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V.H. Belvadi is an Assistant Professor of Physics. He teaches postgraduate courses in advanced classical mechanics, astrophysics and general relativity. When he is free he makes photographs and short films, writes on his personal website, makes music, reads voraciously, or plays his violin. He currently serves as the Editor-in-Chief of Physics Capsule.

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