Science Sundays with John Duffield: Emperor’s New Clothes.

We all know the Hans Christian Anderson story. But what we don’t all know, is that his initial  version didn’t feature the child. The Emperor got away with it. In the old days fat bishops in palaces got away with it too. They used to live a life of ease spouting Latin that people like you didn’t understand, taking their tithe for the ultimate jam-tomorrow promise. If challenged they’d spout platitudes like the grace of God surpasseth all human understanding. If confronted they’d say you are not qualified to speak on theological matters. If cornered they’d declare you a heretic and have you burned at the stake.

Fortunately for us times have changed, at least in our country. But not totally. The bishops have been muscled aside by other people pontificating on the origin of the universe.  Instead of God did it, a quantum fluctuation did it, but it’s still turtles all the way down. Susan Greenfield caused a bit of an upset when she likened the authors of The Grand Design to the Taliban, but she wasn’t far off the mark. Instead of bishops we have particle physicists living a life of ease. They don’t spout Latin that you don’t understand, they spout maths that you don’t understand. If challenged they spout platitudes like quantum physics surpasseth all human standing. If confronted they say you are not qualified to speak on theoretical matters. If cornered they declare you a heretic and have you burned at the stake.

OK, not literally, but that’s kind of what happened to Joy Christian. His surname is like some kind of cosmic joke, but it was no joke that he got kicked out of the Perimeter Institute for daring to challenge quantum spookiness. He’s been called a crackpot, a charlatan and a denier. Which reminds you of the East Anglia Climategate affair, and makes you think it was just the tip of the iceberg. When the mask slips, you see the true face, and it is ugly. Don’t get me wrong, there’s an awful lot of good physicists out there. But physics is like a feudal society, and most physicists are serfs. Or if you like, good Christians in a land of fat bishops, and they aren’t having much joy.

That’s because they’re up against particle physicists peddling mystery. It’s not just the mystery of mass, there’s other things too, like the mystery of gravity. When you know a bit of physics you know that light curves downwards in a gravitational field. You also know about pair production where the electron and its antiparticle the positron are quite literally made from light. You read articles like Heady Collisions where particles are likened to tornados and hurricanes, and you’ve heard about the wave nature of matter. So you think of the electron as light going round and round, then simplify it to light going round a square path. Try drawing it. Make the horizontals curve downwards a little. Without lifting your pen from the paper, draw it again, and again. You soon get the gist of why an electron falls down. And knowing about cyclones and anticyclones, you soon work out that for the positron, you draw the light going round the other way. The horizontals still veer down. You know that this isn’t rocket science, so when you see an article called Does Antimatter Fall Up? you know that somebody is peddling mystery. And you soon work out that they don’t want some child pointing out that there is no mystery at all.

Because when you talk to the good-guy physicists you find out that they can’t get their papers into a journal because the editor is a particle physicist. It’s like they’re up against a magisterium engaged in propaganda and censorship, peddling myth and mystery and standing four-square in the way of scientific progress. That’s why particle physics hasn’t delivered anything useful in the last fifty years. Those “big science” guys don’t tell you  they’re researching the secrets of matter and energy so that one day you don’t have to put petrol in your car. Instead they’re hostile to things like cold fusion, and they’ve never been interested in thorium reactors, even though CERN stands for Council European for Research Nuclear. All they’ve given you is the fabulous Higgs boson, or so they say. What happened? The same thing as what happened to Christianity. It started out with love thy neighbour, but before you know it you’ve got a Vatican.

The problem isn’t just with things like string theory and supersymmetry that have been peddled for nigh on fifty years with no evidential support. It runs deeper than that. The problem is right there in the standard model too. You don’t need to know much physics to know this. Have you ever seen a depiction of a proton? It’s usually drawn as a kind of bag with three balls in it representing the quarks. There’s two “up” quarks and one “down” quark, coloured red green and blue:



The wavy lines represent the gluons and the strong force. They look a bit like springs, wherein it gets harder and harder to pull the quarks apart. Note though that when you smash protons together in a collider the quarks don’t spill out. Nobody has ever seen a free quark. Funny that. It’s a “fundamental” particle, but nobody has ever seen one? Let me let you into the best-kept secret in physics. Ever heard of something called topological quantum field theory? That isn’t the standard model, it’s something different, related to knot theory. The simplest knot is the trivial knot. The next simplest knot is the trefoil knot. Here’s a picture of one:


You really need to “inflate” it like an inner tube, rather like inflating a ring torus into a spindle torus. But for now just start at the bottom left and go round it anticlockwise calling out the crossing-over points. Up down up. Funny that. Imagine it’s made of elastic, wherein it gets harder and harder to pull the loops apart. Imagine this was a proton. When you smash protons together in a collider the quarks don’t spill out. Instead you get other particles like neutral pions which last for a thousandth of a millionth of a millionth of a second before unravelling into gamma photons. That’s light, and those “fundamental” particles have totally disappeared. Like magic. Couldn’t have been very fundamental, could they?


Ever read an article called Tying Light in Knots? Mark Dennis of Bristol University made a rather cryptic comment at the end. He said “The study of knotted vortices was initiated by Lord Kelvin back in 1867 in his quest for an explanation of atoms. This work opens a new chapter in that history.” Mark Dennis was one of the organisers of a conference called ABB50/25 where a guy called Qiu-Hong Hu had a “poster” about the electron being a variant of the trivial knot. He spoke to Sir Michael Atiyah about it. And others. Lots of physicists and mathematicans know about this stuff, but you probably don’t. Funny that. Ever heard of the particle zoo? Ever heard of the knot zoo? Ever wondered why the standard model guys have cold-shouldered topological quantum field theory? Ever wondered why they’ve had jam from you for fifty years, but for you it’s always jam tomorrow and tomorrow never comes? It’s because the Emperor has no clothes. But he isn’t going to get away with it.


12 comments on “Science Sundays with John Duffield: Emperor’s New Clothes.

  1. Tom
    September 1, 2013 at 9:43 am #

    What about the deep inelastic scattering experiments? Didn’t they demonstrate the existence of quarks?

  2. duffieldjohn
    September 1, 2013 at 11:31 am #

    Tom: yes. Quarks do exist. But they aren’t point-particle things inside a proton. The wiki article on deep inelastic scattering includes this: “quarks appear to be point charges, as electrons appear to be”. That’s the wrong inference, and it’s at odds with the wave nature of matter and electron diffraction along with neutron diffraction etc. Somewhere along the line quantum field theory somehow morphed into quantum point-particle theory, and not just in popular media. NB: the word Feynman used was “partons”, which I much prefer.

    • Tom
      September 1, 2013 at 11:54 am #

      How is it at odds with it? The whole point is that the behaviour is somewhat like a wave and somewhat like a particle. Or as Feynman explained, electrons behave like electrons, not particles or waves.

      Also, how do the findings of the DIS experiments support your conclusions? Don’t the scattering experiments demonstrate a point charge?

  3. duffieldjohn
    September 1, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    It’s at odds with it because particles are waves. Take a look at the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle on wiki, where you can read this: “it has since become clear, however, that the uncertainty principle is inherent in the properties of all wave-like systems, and that it arises in quantum mechanics simply due to the matter wave nature of all quantum objects”. A wave can become very localized, whereupon the particle can appear point-like, but it’s still a wave. Yes, electrons behave like electrons, but electrons in an orbital behave like standing waves. The deep inelastic scattering experiments don’t demonstrate a point charge. Go back to Rutherford and elastic scattering, and think of throwing rocks at an elastic band. When one comes right back and hits you in the face, you understand that it catapulted back off the elastic rather than bouncing off some rock inside the target. Then remember that electrons are waves too. That’s why you can diffract them. There aren’t any “point-particle rocks”, just waves. DIS isn’t the same as elastic scattering, but the same principle applies.

  4. James Eadon
    September 1, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

    I think what Tom is saying is that scattering experiments should be able to distinguish three point particles from a composite object shaped like a trefoil.
    I agree.
    So let’s investigate.

  5. James Eadon
    September 1, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

    It is like I mentioned a few days ago, both scattering outcomes should show a three-fold symmetry, but there will be differences in the patterns of the scatter because a loop of a trefoil has a different topology to a point-like particle, or even a spherical one. When particles collide with the “loop” they will react differently to the case of a spherical/point particle, and this should show up in the scattering spectra.
    That’s true even if the “particles” are not solid, but wave-like. The scatter patterns will distinguish between points and a trefoil knot.

  6. duffieldjohn
    September 1, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

    It isn’t so simple, James. See this website for example:

    Note this: “The above image represents of the inner structure of a proton as “seen” at HERA. The purple particles are quarks, the green particles are anti-quarks, and the black spirals are gluons. There are three more quarks than anti-quarks. These are the three quarks we would normally refer to when speaking of the proton (two up, one down). The other pairs of quarks and anti-quarks exist only momentarily; formed from an energetic gluon, they will come back together and annihilate returning once again to a gluon. As we probe to the smallest current ‘visibility’ we can see up to 100 of these quark/anti-quark pairs at any instant”.

    But remember that virtual particles aren’t short-lived real particles at all. The underlying reality behind virtual photons is the evanescent wave aka near-field. It’s similar for the virtual particles within a proton.

  7. James Eadon
    September 1, 2013 at 6:40 pm #

    Hi John,
    Hopefully an experiment can be devised to show which of the two fundamentally different models is the right one (if any).
    Whoever manages to prove the proton-as-photon model correct via experiment will win eternal glorification and have the arduous duty to have a Nobel foisted on them.

  8. duffieldjohn
    September 1, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

    It’s probably better to say “field configuration” or “wavefunction topology” James. The neutrino isn’t a photon, even though it travels at almost c and is virtually massless and chargeless. If some guy or group does make some kind of breakthrough with this, they’ve probably got a bit of a problem re priority, because people have been saying this kind of thing for donkeys years. Amazingly even Ed Witten* is in on the act. Now there’s a guy who will be kicking himself for missing the trick!

    * I didn’t understand a word he said, now he must be REALLY clever! And the title of this piece is…

    • Tom
      September 1, 2013 at 7:33 pm #

      I don’t quite see why you think that the details of the universe should be comprehensible to everyone? If the universe is really very complicated, wouldn’t we expect that some people won’t be able to understand it? Or, to extend your metaphor, if the material of the Emperor’s clothes really is very fine and thin, ought we not expect that some people with poor eyesight will think he is wearing nothing at all?

      Why do you think that the fact that you don’t understand a word Ed Witten says in any way indicates the likeliness of the reality of what he says?

  9. karl
    September 6, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

    I think that attacks on particle physics are difficult since in that area, it is easy to repel borders. I think gravity is more interesting since much if not all its structure is metaphysics based on a simple assumption (1st law of Newton) which is palpably limited in its scope and in no way gets off the ground. As a result, however, we have spacetime as a real fabric and not mass-time, which is far more useful a concept except that all modern concerns (string theory, dark matter, multiverse etc) are shown to be the clothes the emperor is wearing. So much for seeking truth.


  1. Science Sundays with John Duffield: Secret Police | - September 8, 2013

    […] hurling the abuse are the moderators. It’s a bit like what I was saying about Joy Christian last week, and a bit like what I said about peer review. Those moderators like to portray themselves as the […]

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