The Field Guide to Particle Physics

Where do we draw the line between Outreach and Clickbait?

Show Notes

Update! Best place to find associated references are linked in our substack essay:

This is an essay that we originally posted on our substack page:

A Bonus Episode for The Field Guide to Particle Physics : Season 3
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A History Lesson

In the film “Einstein’s Big Idea”, French Scientist Antoine Lavoisier is portrayed just as he discovers how to split water into oxygen and hydrogen gas, thereby realizing the conservation of mass in chemical reactions.
Lavoisier is generally credited with disproving the phlogiston theory of combustion and reframing Chemistry as a quantitive science.
This shift from the qualitative is emphasized in a specific scene where Lavoisier meets with an excited young man who is pitching his apparatus for observing heat. Lavoisier assertively dresses down the man for failing to meet the modern, quantitative standards of scientific experiment.
This man is later revealed to be a revolutionary, and Lavoisier’s final act of the film ends with an escort to the guillotine.
While dramatized, the message was clear:
Science needs popular support, and clear communication is not enough. We need to do more than educate. We need to build community with inspiration, excitement and respect for Science. We also need to share with folks how Science works1.
Respect for Science is a value we share as Scientists. But it’s not universal. Whether or not Science is morally entitled to respect is irrelevant. Without constantly striving to earn and refresh that respect from Society, it can be lost.

The Siren Call of the Outsider

Science Communication is a rapidly professionalizing field that encompasses a spectrum from dynamic professional speakers to university department media managers to science-minded journalists. 
From journalists like Natalie Wolchover, to Professors like Tatiana Eurikhamova, there’s a lot of great work being done by people I admire.
The line between #SciComm and marketing is extremely thin, and unfortunately, the internet’s content treadmill incentives their confluence.
Journals and university departments alike publish heroic press-releases about recently accepted scientific publications by department staff as if they were breakthrough results. But more often than not, these results are merely slow, incremental progress.
How is anyone but a specialist supposed to understand the difference?
The SciComm ecosystem, in other words, is full of noise. Especially for the general audience.
Cutting through that noise is tough. But content editors have had a tool for this as long as humans have printed newspapers: headlines.
Here’s a recent one:

No one in physics dares say so, but the race to invent new particles is pointless.

In private, many physicists admit they do not believe the particles they are paid to search for exist – they do it because their colleagues are doing it”Sabine Hossenfelder - the Guardian Opinion (26 Sept 2022)
As a lead generator, this headline and its subtitle are incredible. Given the current intellectual climate around distrusting experts, it hits all the high points: All these experts have no idea what they’re doing, there’s some structural conspiracy and they’re wasting your money.
Taken with the author’s antagonistic, “outsider” persona2, it's direct aim at an established field of study. It's a recipe for clicks, likes and angry shares.
Unfortunately, the piece willfully and violently mischaracterizes the current state of particle physics. It’s so flagrant - and so short - that it’s worth a read

A Reading Guide to Hossenfelder’s Complaint

Here is a highlighted list of rhetorical and factual errors which both discredit the thesis of Hossenfelder’s piece and demonstrates its disservice to the endeavor of Science Communication.
Broadly, high energy or “particle” physics is the study of what constitutes matter and energy, as well as the forces that govern their dynamics. Like any good science, it involves the study of both what particles we see as well as how those forces work.
Hossenfelder’s piece begins with a collection of names of physical models at various stages of generality. As written, it conflates them with concrete models for actual, physical particles. Doing so betrays such a misunderstanding of how Particle Physics works in practice that it was almost certainly an editorial decision.
Let’s consider some examples.

The Sfermion

The sfermion is a very broad class of particle, a collective noun akin to saying “cats” or even “mammals”. They are particles associated to fundamental fermions - particles of matter like the electron, muon or up quark - by a general class of models related to the idea of Supersymmetry3. Whence the name s(uper)fermion.

The Magnetic Monopole

Magnetic monopoles are another broad class of particle. An electric monopole is a particle like an electron, proton or even an alpha particle. It’s something with an electric charge. We have not seen sufficient evidence for the existence of magnetically charged particles4, although we do typically see that electrically charged particles enjoy magnetic diple charges - those with both north and south poles. However, the existence of magnetic monopoles would help us understand why all electric charges seem to exist as discrete multiples of only a single, fundamental charge, which is something we see in nature5 and have no a priori explanation for. Most models of observed particle physics that include magnetic monopoles suggest they should be quite heavy - outside the current reach of collider experiments. If they did exist - and there is no reason to expect that they should not - we’d expect to see more of them on cosmological grounds. The fact that we don’t gave rise to the modern theory of inflation, which has enjoyed tremendous observational success6.


Dyons are simply magnetic monopoles that also carry an electric charge. They are often used in simplified models of particle physics to understand how the nuts and bolts of the mathematical machinery works7.


The WIMP is actually an acronym. It stands for weakly interacting massive particle. That is, a particle with a large mass that interacts exclusively8 with the weak nuclear force. They would be akin to heavy neutrini. Wimpzillas are just an example of kind of WIMP. This class of models has been used to study dark matter, as the observed strength of weak nuclear force appeared to naturally coincide with a parameter needed to explain the production of dark matter particles in the universe9


Finally, Skyrmions are complicated configurations of the fields that define individual particles that are often used to describe phenomena in the physics of solids. And they do exist. And have been observed.
Hossenfelder’s argument that these are worthless particles used to describe some statistical anomaly is a classic fallacy of its own, a straw man. These models - or classes of models - study open problems in physics. They do this either directly - as for the study of dark matter, or indirectly - as for the study of how nuts and bolts of gauge theory works.
This line of straw man argumentation hinges on a factual error in essays’ main thesis:
For example, the currently accepted theory of elementary particles – the Standard Model – doesn’t require new particles; it works just fine the way it is.Sabine Hossenfelder - the Guardian Opinion (26 Sept 2022)
The Standard Model doesn’t work “the way it is”. It works pretty well, but there are holes. It doesn’t explain the mass of the neutrini. It doesn’t explain dark matter10. It doesn’t explain the near absence of antimatter in our universe. Relatedly, and perhaps more pragmatically, it fails to explain the missing electric dipole moment of the neutron, as pointed out by Dan Hooper in his response. It also raises more questions about physics of the Higgs boson.
To say the standard model works “just fine” is antithetical to the aims of particle physics and Science broadly. We’re looking to understand how it works. The work is to improve that understanding.
There are other errors in the piece, for example:
The positron wasn’t proposed by Dirac to solve a problem. If anything, it was a problem with his original work. It wasn’t observed until 1932 after he published his 1928 paper combining special relativity with a model for the electron. His problem was an attempt to factor the Klein-Gordon equation.
The Schrödinger equation describes the electron “just fine”. It’s good enough to still be taught to undergraduate students in physics today. 
Science can progresses both by looking for better precision models as well as happy accidents. Dirac’s pursuit for the former led to the latter. With this historical context in mind, Hossenfelder’s thesis would hold that the positron was the grain for Dirac’s “blind chicken”.
Since we now use “holes” as Dirac original called them in the study of semiconductors or “positrons” more appropriately in medical imaging, perhaps we can dispense with the notion that the act of doing Particle Physics is a waste of time?

On Falsification

All this leads to the main rhetorical failure of the piece:
But I believe the biggest contributor to this trend is a misunderstanding of Karl Popper’s philosophy of science, which, to make a long story short, demands that a good scientific idea has to be falsifiable. Particle physicists seem to have misconstrued this to mean that any falsifiable idea is also good science.Sabine Hossenfelder - the Guardian Opinion (26 Sept 2022)
Hossenfelder fails to offer any insight into what “good science” is. In particular, where is the line between good and bad science? How does “ambulance chasing” and “inventing new particles” cross that line? The entire piece is a rhetorical red herring.
Clickbait, in other words. 

The Trouble with Particle Physics

Particle Physics is a complicated field of study, with little a priori affect on our daily lives. It only gets press when something big happens - like finding the Higgs boson

The excitement around Weak Scale Supersymmetry and the associated dark matter candidates, followed by the absence of evidence at the LHC naturally raises questions about costs and resource allocation.

Weak Scale Supersymmetry was a very good idea that just didn’t pan out. Nature is mysterious! 
This, presumably, is the germ of Hossenfelder’s critique - an imbalance of resources and incentives within particle physics itself. This is a serious conversation that the community has already devoted much effort towards. And continues to.
In this context, we see the seething, unfounded critiques of the particle physics as wasteful by Hossenfelder jumps the line from thoughtful policy criticism as science communication, deep into the realm of internet marketing. 


Particle Physics is doing okay. Our job as Scientists is not only to do Science, but also to communicate it. To teach it. To show the public not only what Science is capable of, but how evidence-based argumentation works. Without focused effort, we risk public support for Science and its ecosystem of technological advancement.
Without that public understanding and support, our budgets - or worse - may soon face the guillotine.

What is The Field Guide to Particle Physics?

This is your informal guide to the subatomic ecosystem we’re all immersed in. In this series, we explore the taxa of particle species and how they interact with one another. Our aim is give us all a better foundation for understanding our place in the universe.

The guide starts with a host of different particle species. We’ll talk about their masses, charges and interactions with other particles. We’ll talk about how they are created, how they decay, and what other particles they might be made of.