Serendipity: “Breakthrough” for supergravity [2019]

This small piece appeared in The Ph-Word when it was a newsletter, back in September ’19; the actual issue can still be read here. “Serendipity” is the category for articles that are not about recent physics news.

It was stated here before that writing about physics should probably also concern itself with debunking fake news science. Unfortunately we are busy with this again, big time.

The Breakthrough Prize, awarded since 2012, is the priciest prize in science, and probably in anything else as it hands 3 million dollars to each winner. It is accompanied by a Hollywood-style ceremony in an effort to make science more attractive. And then it goes and kills everything by rewarding stuff that has nothing to do with it.

I exaggerate, but only a little bit. Three of this year’s Breakthroughs went to the people who developed supergravity, a theory that has exactly zero evidence in its favour forty years now, since it was first proposed. That is, no evidence other than the ton of publications about it, which served in building numerous careers out of thin air. What’s more, the timing of the award is painful, as the latest results from the Large Hadron Collider make it more and more probable that supersymmetry, the theory on which supergravity relies, is false. As a Ph-reader commented, we didn’t know that there are participation prizes for science as well.

Let’s not go on about how the winners work in the usual “prestigious universities” that make one think USA has less than ten universities in total, or about how the prize committee comprises of people working on the same topic. I’ll only mention that theoretical physics is one of the very few fields with no progress in the last half-century, and just link to others who can argue better why a divorce from reality shouldn’t be considered successful science.

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