In a popular science book, an interesting objection towards the current direction of particle physics was stated. I tried to search for more on this, but got nowhere.

Since I assume this is not an original idea of the book authors', I want to ask what would be a more formal name of this objection, which I can use as a search keyword.

By analogy, consider a piano, as observed by pianologists: creatures that have great facility with sound, but can’t see a piano or feel what shape it is. How would they find out what this musical instrument is made of?

Let’s allow them the ability to throw things at it. Hurling small stones would be rewarded, from time to time, by a musical note. We know this occurs when a stone hits a key, but pianologists would detect only the music. By collecting data, they would find a range of notes, with a nice mathematical structure. Clearly a piano is made from twangons of various frequencies.

Experiments at higher energy would reveal a new and rather different ‘pianicle’: the slamon. (We understand that you get this by slamming the lid shut.) Now it’s got more complicated. Soon the pianino has joined the list, along with the muano, the tauano and much else.

Instead of making everything simpler, new data at higher energies has just muddied the waters. So how do pianologists propose to resolve the many theoretical issues involved? They obtain large government grants to create collisions of even higher energy. This requires erecting an LHC (Large Hotel Collapser) forty storeys high, and pushing the piano out of a top-floor window in the time-honoured fashion of visiting rock stars. The results are impressive, but hard to interpret. Careful analysis decomposes the resulting sound into a cacophony of a hundred or so different twangons, several variants of the slamon … and a bit left over. This bit, obtained by deducting from the overall sound every known component, is of course the long-sought proof of the existence of the Bigg Bashon – which journalists insist on calling the Thud pianicle, a name given to the sound created when a piano encounters a hypothetical field … or maybe a car park.

This proves that a piano has mass.

Because the procedure that confirms the new pianicle is so complex and error-prone, several billion pianos need to be launched into oblivion before the results become statistically significant. They are, and the discovery is published, months after the first experiment hit the headlines.

The big question here, which is where Ian [Stewart] and Jack tend to differ, though not by a lot, is whether particle physicists are misinterpreting the nature of matter in a similar way to pianologists resolutely failing to understand a piano. Bashing things to see what happens can break them into constituent parts, but it can also excite new modes of behaviour that can’t sensibly be thought of as components. Are particle physicists really finding out what matter is made of, or are they just causing it to behave in ever wilder ways?

T. Pratchett, I. Stewart and J. Cohen, The Science of Discworld IV, quoted from a tumblr blog

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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately, there isn't a name for this except for misunderstanding and oversimplification. For example, the author charges that particle physicists are creating new particles by slamming them together, rather than probing into existing ones. But that is exactly the point. The protons are mangled beyond recognition, but they are just a conduit to get enough energy in one place to make other stuff. $\endgroup$
    – knzhou
    May 25 '19 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ An equally valid and informed objection might be something like... "Programmers believe every bit is either a zero or one. So they believe in absolute truth or falsity, which is why their algorithms will never correct results when faced with uncertainty. Coders just can't understand that all of their problems would be instantly fixed if they switched to ternary logic." It's just grasping at some vague popsci knowledge and fashioning a bludgeon out of it. There really isn't anything to say in response. $\endgroup$
    – knzhou
    May 25 '19 at 20:14
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    $\begingroup$ You should have fun with pop science and scifi and all that, but you shouldn't take anything it says as a real objection. There are many real objections, but this isn't it. $\endgroup$
    – knzhou
    May 25 '19 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ There is nothing particularly “contemporary” about this mode of exploring the structure of matter. Rutherford was doing it more than a century ago. It has been extraordinarily successful. $\endgroup$
    – G. Smith
    May 25 '19 at 20:52
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    $\begingroup$ I mostly enjoyed the Science of Discworld books, but note that none of the authors are physicists. Jack Cohen was a biologist, and Ian Stewart is a mathematician. $\endgroup$
    – PM 2Ring
    May 26 '19 at 0:56

"Pianology" is at heart a metaphor for spectroscopy in a generalized sense, such as, e.g., the inverse problem for Lagrangian mechanics, and Can One Hear the Shape of a Drum?

The criticism seems to question whether it is possible to achieve an underlying theoretical understanding from high-energy accelerator experiments, i.e. essentially a criticism of the search for a theory-of-everything (TOE). The Wikipedia page lists various arguments against a TOE.


I am a great fan of Terry Pratchett diskworld fiction but certainly this is not a name , pianology, used by the people objecting to higher and higher energy studies, who exist. This is a satire, as the whole series of novels is.

As a particle physicist interested in extending the energies of studies I follow the critiques$^+$, and this term has not migrated from fantasy to their vocabulary.

$^+$Google "opposition to higher energy colliders" , or such terms


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