The retirement of a visionary threatens particle physics

The announced retirement of the designer and sole developer of a major particle physics tool is a daunting prospect for researchers.

From our earliest childhood, we all learn the basics of numbers by going through some basic steps. For example, even the greatest minds in the history of mathematics began by counting on their fingers before moving on to addition and multiplication.

When we venture further, we begin to encounter somewhat more abstract notions, such as the equations developed by the Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmi centuries ago. All of these tools have allowed people to study more advanced mathematical concepts.

These developments led to the emergence of revolutionary new tools, starting with computers. Computers are able to swallow very complex math problems and then come up with a reliable answer in less time than it takes a human to read the statement.

Inevitably, this technology has completely changed all work that involves complex calculations. For example, in the 1950s, NASA relied on a veritable army of “human computers” that, among other things, calculated all the rockets’ trajectories using a rudimentary calculator. This profession has become completely obsolete by the rise of computing.

In essence, we can say that the problem of the complexity of the equations has approximately disappeared. After all, in case of trouble, all you have to do is increase the engine power, right? It’s actually more complicated than that. Because the more science advances, the more the demands in terms of computing power increase.

Particle physics, a torture for machines

This is partly the fault of physicists, and especially those working on the smallest scales. In fact, particle physics involves some of the longest equations there is. And above all, their complexity increases at an insane speed as soon as new parameters are included. For the record, in this context, we cannot speak of an exponential increase; specialists speak instead of a factorial increase.

The terrifying Lagrangian equations of the Standard Model, a classic in particle physics. © Wikimedia Commons

Suffice it to say that it is simply an illusion to hope to tame these mathematical monsters with a pencil and paper… and for a long time, even the most powerful processors had all the difficulty in the world to achieve this.

In fact, early computers had ridiculous amounts of RAM compared to modern machines. And that’s a big problem—literally. Because in order to process an equation, a computer must first store it in its RAM; however, the particle physics equations are simply too long to be maintained entirely in RAM!

As a result, they had to be stored on a standard hard disk (HDD). Data therefore has to go back and forth between the hard disk and the RAM. This has the effect of further slowing down the solving of these dauntingly difficult equations.

FORM, a revolution for research…

To avoid finding yourself in a technological dead end while waiting to have access to more RAM, it is therefore necessary to choose another angle of attack: the optimization of the software component. So, in the 1980s, a Dutch physicist named Jos Vermassen gave birth to a program that would radically change the daily lives of researchers.

The program in question, called FORM, makes it possible to avoid this memory problem. Physicist Matt von Hippel explains that it allows you to split these equations into different terms, then assign each of them to a predetermined area of ​​the hard disk.

In other words, it allows the processor to treat the HDD like RAM. Thanks to this reorganization managed by FORM, these very large equations can be treated much faster.

FORM is used to perform work at the cutting edge of physics. In particular, it helps exploit data from particle accelerators. © Samuel Joseph Hertzog – CERN

This method worked so well that FORM quickly established itself as an indispensable tool in particle physics. And its importance has not diminished since then. Even today, several scientific papers based on FORM are still published every week. “ Most of the high-precision results achieved by our group over the past 20 years are largely based on the FORM code. “, explained Thomas Gehrmann, a Swiss physicist interviewed by Quanta Magazine.

And everything indicates that this algorithm will continue to play a decisive role in the future. ” This concept remains relevant no matter how large the memory is, because there is always a physics problem that will be limited by the amount of memory available. “, explained Ben Ruijl, a former student of Vermaseren who was also interviewed by Quanta.

… which threatens to fall into ruins

But this state of affairs can now be questioned. Because even though they are not physical tools, logicians are not eternal. As IT changes, it is also necessary to perform regular maintenance and updates so that they remain compatible with the rest of the ecosystem.

And this is where physicists run into a huge problem.

It is actually a very complex and above all highly specialized software; Understanding the details of how this works requires highly advanced computer knowledge, largely beyond the reach of most particle physicists.

This means that there are not many people who are skilled enough in these two areas to maintain FORM. In fact, there just isonly one person is capable of doing this for now…and that is Vermaseren, the father of software himself.

However, at the age of 73, the person concerned begins to move towards a well-deserved retirement. But he’s still slow to fully back down, and for good reason: no replacement on the horizon!

If no one manages to pick up the torch, the software will gradually become less and less available, then completely obsolete. And knowing its importance, that’s all particle physics research can do pay the price for many years.

One of the many ill effects of the career for publication

The big question is how we got here. How can a leading scientific discipline, in full swing today, depend so much on a software solution mastered by one person in the world? The answer emerges from one of the great problems of modern research, namely the pressure of publication.

In order to access prestigious scientific journals, find funds and aspire to awards such as the Nobel, you first need to gain fame. And of course, that means showing off. For a young researcher, this means publishing a large amount of research papers that are ideally cited by other researchers.

The need for publication is heavy on the development and maintenance of certain scientific tools. © Annie Spratt – Unsplash

Certain themes therefore generate significant visibility. In contrast, other works are barely noticed. Announce the discovery of a new particle after a groundbreaking measurement, and you get a guaranteed scientific scoop! On the other hand, for all the researchers who participated in the development of the necessary tools, the exposure would be much, much less significant.

For a young researcher, the conclusion is therefore clear: today, the royal road is to offer outstanding experimental results. On the contrary, specializing in tool maintenance is often the best way to end your career in academic oblivion, which is tantamount to professional suicide for a very ambitious beginner.

A systemic problem that deserves more attention

So it’s easy to understand why Vermaseren is struggling to find a replacement to keep FORM. True, Ben Ruijl works ” sometimes in the program along with some other former padawans from the creator. But to advance their respective careers, they also need to publish their own work. It is impossible to focus exclusively on FORM. Therefore, the pseudo-retired still take the majority of the work.

Running out of solutions and probably tired, he took the bull by the horns. Next April, he will organize a extensive colloquium with FORM users to discuss his future. With a little luck, this may allow an alternative to emerge. Or at least to find ways to save what Matt von Hippel describes as ” one of the most powerful tools in physics “.

But even if a new kid takes over tomorrow, it will only treat the symptoms of a deeper systemic disease. The real problem is that the current system pushes for universal publication, at the expense of meaningful work that is less be published but just as important in practice.

The FORM case is a particularly glaring example. But there are also many other such software and tools. And the scientific community sometimes tends to take them for granted – wrongly. If this dynamic continues, eventually, other disciplines may therefore find themselves in situations comparable to the one particle physics is going through at the moment. Therefore, it will be interesting to see if the institutions that manage scientific research on a global scale will be able to take them worrying warning signs.

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