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Generalized frameworks: Structuring searches for new physics


Many areas of frontier physics are confronted with the crisis of a lack of accessible, direct evidence. As a result, direct model building has failed to lead to any new empirical discoveries. In this paper I argue that these areas of frontier physics have developed common methods for turning precision measurements of known quantities into potential evidence for anomalies hinting at new physics. This method of framework generalization has arisen as a sort of model-independent method for generalizing beyond known physics and organizing experimental searches. I argue that this method is well-justified given the current epistemic landscape, and that theory construction in general is much broader than simply building new dynamical models.

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  1. I will define the term ‘dynamical model’ below, in the discussion of theory construction more broadly.

  2. As an illustration of this, think of the flood of papers published after the first suggestion that neutrinos were travelling faster than the speed of light (Brumfiel, 2012). This illustrates how model construction becomes much easier when new anomalies arise, but also how quickly the deluge is culled by contact with evidence.

  3. I will discuss the parallels between principle theories and framework generalization in Section 4 below.

  4. There has been a corresponding increase in attention to precision tests of gravity in the philosophical literature; some have dealt directly with the idea of generalized frameworks (Smeenk, 2019; De Baerdemaeker, 2021), while others are concerned with the boundary between simulation and experiment in gravitational physics (Vanderburgh, 2003; Gueguen, 2020; Abelson, 2022). Here as elsewhere, the target phenomena are far removed from direct manipulability or observation, so there is much theory-mediation between data and phenomena.

  5. The EFT framework will be the subject of increased focus below, in the context of particle physics. Inflation and dark matter are two domains where gravity and particle physics often come together, so there is overlap here with the goal of discovering new physics unifying the two domains.

  6. Often one hears—for both dark matter and dark energy—of competing models that either add new exotic matter or forces, and those that modify the theory of gravity. Martens and Lehmkuhl (2020) argue convincingly that the distinction is at best a blurry one; it would be very difficult to find decisive evidence favouring one over the other. For the case of dark energy, there is a very clear contrast between the current ΛCDM model, in which dark energy is a cosmological constant term, and models for which dark energy is something other than a true cosmological constant.

  7. The PPF framework allows for other further parameterizations beyond this particular relationship, but this is an important one for comparing modified gravity and general relativity on cosmic evolution of perturbations.

  8. There is a significant amount of philosophical controversy; the interpretation of particles (Falkenburg, 2007; Fraser, 2008) and fields (Baker, 2009) in QFT is a contentious matter. The framework of QFT is notoriously “messy”, and there has been debate over whether one should interpret the framework as given (Wallace, 2006), or use a more rigorous axiomatic framework as a proxy (Fraser, 2009). These issues are orthogonal to the discussion here.

  9. See Koberinski and Fraser (2022) for philosophical discussion about the meaning and significance of renormalization and renormalizability in quantum field theory.

  10. The Bechtle et al. (2022) paper is concerned with determining whether the SMEFT is a model or not; they conclude that it lacks certain characteristic features of models. Using my distinctions here, I think that EFT in general provides a generalized framework, and the SMEFT provides a generalized theory space for comparing different dynamical models in the same language. As mentioned above, the model-theory dichotomy is too crude to capture the methods and goals of physicists here.

  11. That doesn’t mean that the EFT framework doesn’t make substantive assumptions that could turn out to be wrong; the next section provides some words of caution for recognizing the inherent limitations of a generalized framework.

  12. Preference for constructive theories may also stem from Einstein’s original examples of principle and constructive theories: thermodynamics and the kinetic theory of gases respectively. For these examples, the constructive theory is thought to be a more fundamental theory that encapsulates all or most of the principle theory.

  13. These are often quite distinct realms. This is because, within the EFT framework, the goal is to increase experimental sensitivity to nonrenormalizable effects to the point that \(\delta \approx \mathcal {O}(\mathcal {E}/{\Lambda })\), where δ is the experimental sensitivity, \(\mathcal {E}\) is the energy scale of the experiment, and Λ is the (unknown) scale for new, beyond standard model physics. There are two ways to do this. The first is to raise the energy scales at which we probe, i.e., increasing \(\mathcal {E}\). This is done by using particle accelerators at very high energies, and has been the primary mode for testing the standard model. Unfortunately, however, experiments are generally less precise at higher energies, and an increase in \(\mathcal {E}\) also results in an increase in δ. The second way is to perform precision tests of the standard model, thereby lowering δ. Precision tests like those mentioned in Section 3.3 try to minimize δ, at the cost of also lowering \(\mathcal {E}\).


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I would like to thank Doreen Fraser, Eleanor Knox, Edouard Machery, Meghan Page, Arnon Levy, Devin Gouvêa, Riet van Bork, Ingo Brigandt, and Laura Gradowski for helpful feedback on a draft of this paper, as well as attendees of the Beyond Models Workshop at University of Bonn. This work was supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellowship.

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Correspondence to Adam Koberinski.

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Koberinski, A. Generalized frameworks: Structuring searches for new physics. Euro Jnl Phil Sci 13, 3 (2023).

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  • Theory construction
  • Methodology of physics
  • Methodology of particle physics
  • Theories and models