What is “Model Building”?

One thing that makes physics, and especially particle physics, is unique in the sciences is the split between theory and experiment. The role of experimentalists is clear: they build and conduct experiments, take data and analyze it using mathematical, statistical, and numerical techniques to separate signal from background. In short, they seem to do all of the real science!

So what is it that theorists do, besides sipping espresso and scribbling on chalk boards? In this post we describe one type of theoretical work called model building. This usually falls under the umbrella of phenomenology, which in physics refers to making connections between mathematically defined theories (or models) of nature and actual experimental observations of nature.

One common scenario is that one experiment observes something unusual: an anomaly. Two things immediately happen:

  1. Other experiments find ways to cross-check to see if they can confirm the anomaly.
  2. Theorists start figure out the broader implications if the anomaly is real.

#1 is the key step in the scientific method, but in this post we’ll illuminate what #2 actually entails. The scenario looks a little like this:

An unusual experimental result (anomaly) is observed. Is it consistent with other experimental observations?
An unusual experimental result (anomaly) is observed. One thing we would like to know is whether it is consistent with other experimental observations, but these other observations may not be simply related to the anomaly.

Theorists, who have spent plenty of time mulling over the open questions in physics, are ready to apply their favorite models of new physics to see if they fit. These are the models that they know lead to elegant mathematical results, like grand unification or a solution to the Hierarchy problem. Sometimes theorists are more utilitarian, and start with “do it all” Swiss army knife theories called effective theories (or simplified models) and see if they can explain the anomaly in the context of existing constraints.

Here’s what usually happens:

Usually the nicest models of new physics don't fit.
Usually the nicest models of new physics don’t fit! In the explicit example, the minimal supersymmetric Standard Model doesn’t include a good candidate to explain the 750 GeV diphoton bump.

Indeed, usually one needs to get creative and modify the nice-and-elegant theory to make sure it can explain the anomaly while avoiding other experimental constraints. This makes the theory a little less elegant, but sometimes nature isn’t elegant.

Candidate theory extended with a module (in this case, an additional particle). This additional model is “bolted on” to the theory to make it fit the experimental observations.

Now we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves. It can take quite a bit of work to hack the well-motivated original theory in a way that both explains the anomaly and avoids all other known experimental observations. A good theory can do a couple of other things:

  1. It points the way to future experiments that can test it.
  2. It can use the additional structure to explain other anomalies.

The picture for #2 is as follows:

A good hack to a theory can explain multiple anomalies.
A good hack to a theory can explain multiple anomalies. Sometimes that makes the hack a little more cumbersome. Physicists often develop their own sense of ‘taste’ for when a module is elegant enough.

Even at this stage, there can be a lot of really neat physics to be learned. Model-builders can develop a reputation for particularly clever, minimal, or inspired modules. If a module is really successful, then people will start to think about it as part of a pre-packaged deal:

A really successful hack may eventually be added to the list of candidate theories.
A really successful hack may eventually be thought of as it’s own variant of the original theory.

Model-smithing is a craft that blends together a lot of the fun of understanding how physics works—which bits of common wisdom can be bent or broken to accommodate an unexpected experimental result? Is it possible to find a simpler theory that can explain more observations? Are the observations pointing to an even deeper guiding principle?

Of course—we should also say that sometimes, while theorists are having fun developing their favorite models, other experimentalists have gone on to refute the original anomaly.

Sometimes anomalies go away.
Sometimes anomalies go away and the models built to explain them don’t hold together.

But here’s the mark of a really, really good model: even if the anomaly goes away and the particular model falls out of favor, a good model will have taught other physicists something really neat about what can be done within the a given theoretical framework. Physicists get a feel for the kinds of modules that are out in the market (like an app store) and they develop a library of tricks to attack future anomalies. And if one is really fortunate, these insights can point the way to even bigger connections between physical principles.

I cannot help but end this post without one of my favorite physics jokes, courtesy of T. Tait:

A theorist and an experimentalist are having coffee. The theorist is really excited, she tells the experimentalist, “I’ve got it—it’s a model that’s elegant, explains everything, and it’s completely predictive.”

The experimentalist listens to her colleague’s idea and realizes how to test those predictions. She writes several grant applications, hires a team of postdocs and graduate students, trains them,  and builds the new experiment. After years of design, labor, and testing, the machine is ready to take data. They run for several months, and the experimentalist pores over the results.

The experimentalist knocks on the theorist’s door the next day and says, “I’m sorry—the experiment doesn’t find what you were predicting. The theory is dead.”

The theorist frowns a bit: “What a shame. Did you know I spent three whole weeks of my life writing that paper?”

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Flip Tanedo

Assistant Professor at University of California, Riverside
Flip is an assistant professor in theoretical physics at the University of California, Riverside. He previousy completed a Bachelors of Science at Stanford, Masters degrees at Cambridge and the IPPP in Durham, and a Ph.D at Cornell. He has been supported by a Goldwater scholarship, a Marshall scholarship, an NSF Gradaute Research Fellowship, a Paul & Daisy Soros fellowship, and a UCI Chancellor's ADVANCE fellowship. He was a participant in the original Communicating Science 2013 workshop which led to the creation of ParticleBites. His research focuses on models and signatures of physics beyond the Standard Model, including dark matter, supersymmetry, and extra dimensions. Much of his creative thinking is done while swimming or driving along Southern California's freeways.

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