Program FAKE: Monte Carlo Event Generators as Tools of Theory in Early High Energy Physics

  • Arianna BorrelliEmail author


The term Monte Carlo method indicates any computer-aided procedure for numerical estimation that combines mathematical calculations with randomly generated numerical input values. Today it is an important tool in high energy physics while physicists and philosophers also often consider it a sort of virtual experiment. The Monte Carlo method was developed in the 1940s, in the context of U.S. American nuclear weapons research, an event often regarded as the origin of both computer simulation and “artificial reality” (Galison 1997). The present paper interrogates this strong claim by focusing on the emergence of Monte Carlo event generators in particle physics in the early 1960s. This historical case study shows how, as Monte Carlo computation became part of the toolbox of particle physicists around 1960, it was neither usually referred to as a “computer simulation” nor was it regarded as a surrogate for experimentation. In revising the history of this method, this paper asks, in what context did particle physicists of the 1960s decide to create FAKE, the first high-energy-physics Monte Carlo event simulator? What was their goal? And what epistemic role did FAKE play? In answering these questions, it is argued that Monte Carlo computations were not introduced into particle physics to simulate experiments, but rather they played the role of theoretical tools. The Monte Carlo method was able to do this thanks to its random component, a property which provided a means of modeling a specific phenomenon, so-called “(particle) resonances”. Indeed, in doing so, event generators even came to mutually assimilate and reshape the notions of particle and resonance, taking up an epistemic function which had previously been confined to physical-mathematical formulae: that of a medium which could express aspects of particle theory.


Monte Carlo method computer simulation high energy physics elementary particles resonances medium of theory 

Programm FAKE: Monte Carlo Eventgeneratoren als Werkzeug der Theorie in der frühen Hochenergiephysik


Als Monte-Carlo-Methode versteht man jedes computergestütztes Verfahren der numerischen Schätzung, das mathematische Berechnungen mit zufallsgenerierten numerischen Eingaben kombiniert. Sie ist ein wichtiges Werkzeug der Hochenergiephysik und gilt bei Physikern und Philosophen oft als eine Art virtuelles Experiment. Die Monte-Carlo-Methode wurde in den 1940ern Jahren im Kontext US-amerikanischer Forschung über Nuklearwaffen entwickelt und ihre Entstehung wird heute oft mit dem Ursprung von Computersimulationen und „künstlicher Wirklichkeit“ (Galison 1997) gleichgesetzt. Der vorliegende Beitrag hinterfragt diese Sicht der Dinge, indem er die Entstehung von Monte-Carlo-Eventgeneratoren in der Teilchenphysik der 1960er Jahre untersucht. Diese historische Fallstudie zeigt, dass Monte-Carlo-Berechnungen, als sie um 1960 dem Werkzeugkasten der Teilchenphysik hinzugefügt wurden, weder „Computersimulationen“ genannt, noch als eine Art Ersatz zum Ausführen von Experimenten betrachtet wurden. Der Aufsatz wirft neues Licht auf diese Ereignisse und untersucht, welcher Kontext Teilchenphysiker der 1960er Jahren dazu veranlasste, FAKE zu entwickeln, den ersten Monte-Carlo-Eventgenerator der Hochenergiephysik. Was war ihr Ziel? Welche epistemische Rolle spielte FAKE? Ergebnis der Untersuchung ist, dass Monte-Carlo-Berechnungen in die Teilchenphysik nicht eingeführt wurden, um Experimente zu simulieren, sondern als Werkzeuge der Theorie und zwar aufgrund der Zufallselemente der Monte-Carlo-Methode, welche die Modellierung eines spezifischen Phänomens erlaubten, die sogenannte „(Teilchen)Resonanz“. Aus dieser Anwendung der Monte-Carlo-Eventgeneratoren ergab sich mit der Zeit sogar eine wechselseitige Assimilation der Begriffe „Teilchen“ und „Resonanz“, die zur Umwandlung beider führte. So nahmen Monte-Carlo-Berechnungen eine epistemische Funktion, die bis dahin nur physikalisch-mathematische Formeln ausgeübt hatten: die eines Mediums, das Aspekte der Teilchentheorie ausdrücken kann.


Monte-Carlo-Methode Computersimulation Hochenergiephysik Elementarteilchen Resonanzen Medium der Theorie 



This research was funded by the Institute for Advanced Study on Media Cultures of Computer Simulation (MECS), Leuphana University Lüneburg (DFG grant KFOR 1927) and by the project “Exploring the ‘dark ages’ of particle physics” (DFG grant BO 4062/2-1).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Media Cultures of Computer Simulation, Institute for Advanced StudyLeuphana University LüneburgLüneburgGermany

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