If I had a blank cheque I’d … do what theoretical physics does now, only bigger

We know how to solve some big problems in physics, we just don’t have the power. elvissa

Welcome to If I had a blank cheque … a series in which leading researchers reveal what they could (and would) do in their discipline if money were no object.

Today we hear from Dr Jonathan Carroll, Postdoctoral Research Associate in Theoretical Physics at the University of Adelaide.

Project: Everything we do now, but bigger
Cost: ∞ (solved problems = new problems)
Timeframe: Continuing

What could I do with a blank cheque? Plenty. But first, a quick word about my discipline.

There are two fairly identifiable reasons theoretical physics progresses over time: new ideas, and the ability to test ideas.

One typically leads to the other, but it’s not always obvious where the next step will be.

Sometimes it takes new technologies to be able to test an idea, but sometimes it takes a fresh look at something old.

We already have supercomputers, world-class facilities, and brilliant scientists. So, what could we do with a blank cheque that we can’t do now? We could attack the problems that we already know how to do, but which are limited by technology.

One of the largest computational efforts in theoretical physics at the moment is Lattice Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD) where we produce simulations of particles and interactions, assuming the space-time around them is broken into lots of little pieces.

Doing the calculations for each piece is a lot simpler, but you need to put all the pieces back together.

These calculations take the equivalent of years, spread over many many computers.

With a blank cheque, we could build an even bigger computer and get these times down to hours, allowing us more time to focus on the next step in the problem.

Now, some would argue there are more pressing issues in the world today that computers could help with, but let’s assume for the moment that everyone else got their blank cheques too.

The reason for performing lots of calculations is to find out what our theories predict – do they match what we can see in the real world?

If a theory doesn’t match its corresponding experiment, either there is a flaw in the experiment, the theory doesn’t describe the experiment, or the theory is wrong.

Traditionally, experimental results have been the goal theorists aim to reproduce, but as computations get more and more refined and more precise, certain results are becoming constrained by theories rather than experiments.

With a blank cheque, we could build an experimental facility with a greater ability to determine the results we are trying to reproduce, pushing the limits of precision even further.

There are many problems with our blank cheque scenario, though: it wasn’t merely 4.6 billion Swiss francs that made the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) the facility it is now.

Money alone cannot buy great scientists and engineers needed to make such a facility a source of world-leading physics.

Some scientists have scruples that cannot be purchased. A great example of this was the late physicist Richard Feynman, who agreed to present a talk at a city college on the sole condition that he was not required to sign his name more than 13 times, including the cheque that would pay for his appearance.

After signing releases and contracts to give the talk, the 13th signature required was a form certifying that he gave the talk.

Feynman refused to sign both the form and the cheque and therefore donated his services.

With a blank cheque, however, we could assemble the greatest team of physicists money could buy without worrying about budgets or bottom lines.

So, with great minds and great computing power, how do we do outstanding physics? Just as you can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink, you can lead a physicist to a problem but you can’t make him (or her) think.

Or can you?

I have traditionally thought of myself as a machine for turning coffee into calculations, so with a blank cheque we could hire personal baristas for physicists – the increase in productivity would almost pay itself off anyway.

But then, who wants to hear lectures from someone at the end of a 36 hour coffee-fuelled calculation-spree?

That leads to my next point: what wouldn’t we do with a blank cheque? It’s tempting to think that busy physicists would do away with teaching university students, but that’s not the case (though having enough people to spread the load would be great).

Correctly-educated students are a vital asset to the field, and as such, physicists are usually eager to teach (as long as students are willing to learn).

So, with an ace team of physicists, brilliant students under their wings, great experimental facilities and massive computing power, what would be left to do?

We could solve all the known problems to astounding precision, sure, but then it’s a safe bet that new theories would come to light based on our fine-tuned knowledge, starting the cycle all over again.

That’s a good thing: constantly refining our knowledge of the way the universe works is what physics is all about.

It’s all fantasy for now, but if you’re thinking of signing over a blank cheque to theoretical physics any time soon, rest assured it would be put to good use.

We would even name our next theory after you, if that helps.

Are you an academic or researcher? What could you do with unlimited funds? Contact The Conversation.