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Ken Bloom | USLHC | USA

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Foxes, hedgehogs and particle physicists

I’m just back from a trip to CERN, which was mostly for a week of meetings about how well the computing for the CMS experiment is doing and how it could be done better. But meanwhile, the collaboration was also working through the scrutiny of new measurements that are targeted to be released for the Hadron Collider Physics conference that starts tomorrow (I guess today, given the time zone) in Tokyo. Obviously I can’t discuss these results yet. So instead I’ll spend a little time on philosophy, which I admit makes this a much less interesting post. But bear with me.

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last week, you should know that Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight blog made another successful prediction of a presidential election outcome, state by state. I’ve written about Nate Silver’s work here before, because I admire his adoption of what I think is a particle-physics kind of approach to making predictions.

So, being in a Nate Silver kind of mood as I headed off on my trip, I bought a e-copy of his new book, “The Signal and the Noise,” to read on the plane. I’m not sure that I’d call it a great work of literature, but Silver does have some very interesting things to say about how to make predictions. In one section he reminds us of the classic Isaiah Berlin essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” And in case you have been hiding under a different rock, that refers to a quote from Archilochus, who observed that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Hedgehogs view the world through the prism of a single big conceptual framework, while foxes don’t believe that’s possible and are willing to be more flexible in their approaches. Silver asserts that it’s the foxes of the world who make better predictions. You have to be willing to try many different approaches and integrate many different tactics to make a good prediction, and, perhaps most importantly, to be prepared to adapt to new information and to change your ideas when your current framework isn’t working,

This got me thinking: are particle physicists foxes or hedgehogs? I would say some of both. Our hedgehog-ness is in our belief in physical law. That’s a big idea that is unavoidable. It is true that our knowledge of physics is always subject to revision in the face of new information, but we believe that in circumstances that have already been well-explored through experiment, physical laws hold without question. Certainly the much-revered standard model of particle physics is taken as a given in regimes where it has been thoroughly tested. And at the very least, we believe in physical law as a big, consistent framework at least as an ideal, if not something that we can truly realize.

But in terms of our approaches to experiment, we have to be foxes. I can say this about some of the results that will be shown at the HCP conference — these are hard measurements, and to get them done, we’ve had to use every trick in the book. A huge variety of techniques have been brought to bear to wring every last bit of useful information out of the data, and it has taken a gargantuan effort from a large team of people. I always come out of the detailed presentations of a measurement somewhat stunned by its complexity. We’re also always on the lookout for new and better tricks. No matter how good an idea sounds on paper, if it isn’t effective in making a measurement, or is less effective than other ideas, then you abandon it and find something better. It’s this flexibility and willingness to evolve and change that helps us do this work.

As a younger person, I saw myself as at least an aspiring hedgehog, hoping to find the one big idea that would pull everything together and give me a complete grasp of the world. But I’ve come to realize that life, and science, is more complicated than that, and you have to be a fox just to get through it all.


3 Responses to “Foxes, hedgehogs and particle physicists”

  1. Stephen Brooks says:

    I think the evolution goes something like:

    1. You have no overarching plan at all;
    2. You start fitting things into a plan and become a hedgehog;
    3. You recognise the limits of a single plan and become a fox;
    4. You realise hedgehog and fox are just different modalities that you have to switch between, splitting and combining views of the world as necessary.

  2. Enna says:

    Wondful Analogue… I feel like i am still a hedgehog and will take longggggg time to be a fox lolz…

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