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Computers were not needed for the discovery of quantum mechanics (1920s) or general relativity (1910s), and the standard model was proposed when computers were much less powerful than today (1970s). My question is how much of fundamental physics was discovered, or hypothetically could have been discovered, without computers. My impression is that the Higgs boson experimental discovery would have been impossible due to the reams of data produced in LHC collisions, but I don't know about most of the other particles. To make things specific here are four related questions, which are partly historical and partly counterfactual.

  1. Which of the fundamental particles of the standard model were detected without assistance from computers?
  2. Which of the fundamental particles of the standard model can in principle be experimentally detected without assistance from computers?
  3. Which of the fundamental particles of the standard model were proposed by theorists without assistance from computers?
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  • $\begingroup$ Your second question is unnecessary as computers so no actual detection in particle experiments. They simply speed up the data processing so that an experiment can be studied in months rather than decades. The experiments themselves however may be infeasible without very fast control circuits, which are the basis of modern computers. $\endgroup$ – Asher Dec 5 '17 at 16:01
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I started in experimental elementary particle physics back in 1965, where we were building a prototype spark chamber for cosmic rays using a magnetic field .

At that time in Greece computers existed in the army and we had to take programs and data to the army station, on punched cards, to be processed. So even those primitive computers were necessary to get at accumulated data.

At the time the standard model was not even a gleam in theorist's eyes.

Which of the fundamental particles of the standard model were detected without assistance from computers?

The experimentally then known particles were protons, neutrons electrons muons gamma rays, and electron neutrinos from decays of the neutron . Of these only muons gammas electron-neutrinos and electrons are fundamental in the standard model. Scattering experiments had started in accelerators and cloud and bubble chambers showed new particles. Already primitive computers were used.

Which of the fundamental particles of the standard model can in principle be experimentally detected without assistance from computers?

elem

The electron, (cathodes) the muon (cosmic rays) and the photon and the electron neutrino, from neutron decays in nuclear physics experiments.

The rest in the table depend on computing their presence by the elaborate standard model of particle physics, mainly by symmetry relations and then validating theory with data through a lot of computer power. In the quantum regime of elementary interactions the predictions are probabilistic and large statistics need a lot of computational power.

Which of the fundamental particles of the standard model were proposed by theorists without assistance from computers?

None, the electron neutrino was postulated from kinematics, not from a standard model theory. Computers were and are necessary for processing the data which will validate the theory.

So the answer is : no computers, no standard model.

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  • $\begingroup$ Neutrinos were proposed in 1930 and confirmed in 56 $\endgroup$ – Slereah Dec 5 '17 at 8:31
  • $\begingroup$ "I started in experimental elementary particle physics back in 1965" respect!! $\endgroup$ – physicopath Dec 5 '17 at 13:23
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I disagree with anna v's answer above (though I deeply respect their experience in experimental particle physics). While it is true that almost from the beginning, computers were used to assist experimentalists in processing data, at no point were they strictly necessary. There is no computation that a computer does that a human could not eventually do.

The operative word in the above is, of course, "eventually." A team of humans looking at bubble chamber data could have eventually processed all of it in the same manner that a computer would. Even the LHC's data could technically be processed by a few hundred thousand people doing arithmetic for a few hundred years. It probably would have taken an impractical amount of time by today's standards, but there's nothing preventing us from collecting and analyzing the required data without computers, as long as you allow enough time.

Even fields which are today heavily computation-driven, such as lattice QCD, are still based on methods which could still be implemented by a human with enough time on their hands. The only advantage computers provide is speed.

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  • $\begingroup$ I do not disagree, but have you tried organizing hundreds of thousands of mathematically trained people? Already the LHC experiments with the 3000 authors per paper so as to motivate people to do drudge work being repayed with the right to use the data for analysis are a difficult sociological experiment. In addition, human error is .o5 , that is why we had to scan twice the bubble chamber pictures, to reduce it to .0025 Computers are much more accurate in calculations. I stand by my statement that due to the high statistics necessary to validated the standard model, computers are necessary. $\endgroup$ – anna v Dec 5 '17 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ @annav You're right; the Standard Model would have been extremely impractical to develop without the aid of computers. My point was mainly that, though tremendously impractical, such a thing is not in principle impossible. $\endgroup$ – probably_someone Dec 5 '17 at 16:39
  • $\begingroup$ "Possible" has a real life meaning of a threshold. Your answer is similar to the argument that, "given enough time", a monkey could randomly type "War and Peace" on a typewriter. In real life though, especially in physics, time is money and "given enough money" is not a real life argument. So Anna is right while your answer is not helpful. $\endgroup$ – safesphere Dec 5 '17 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ @safesphere The OP has not specified which definition of "possible" they adhered to, and as far as I know, there is no consensus that your specific definition is the universally correct one. Dismissing an answer because you have a different definition of a colloquial term than someone else is not helpful indeed. I prefer a definition of "possible" that distinguishes between "impossible" and "impractical." It seems that most lawyers agree with me here: google.com/… $\endgroup$ – probably_someone Dec 5 '17 at 20:08

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