How Research Programs Come Apart: The example of supersymmetry and the disunity of physics

September 5, 2023

A new paper by Lucas Gautheron and our Assistant Professor Elisa Omodei published in Quantitative Science Studies.

ABSTRACT / According to Peter Galison, the coordination of different “subcultures” within a scientific field happens through local exchanges within “trading zones”. In his view, the workability of such trading zones is not guaranteed, and science is not necessarily driven towards further integration. In this paper, we develop and apply quantitative methods (using semantic, authorship, and citation data from scientific literature), inspired by Galison’s framework, to the case of the disunity of high-energy physics. We give prominence to supersymmetry, a concept that has given rise to several major but distinct research programs in the field, such as the formulation of a consistent theory of quantum gravity or the search for new particles. We show that “theory” and “phenomenology” in high-energy physics should be regarded as distinct theoretical subcultures, between which supersymmetry has helped sustain scientific “trades”. However, as we demonstrate using a topic model, the phenomenological component of supersymmetry research has lost traction and the ability of supersymmetry to tie these subcultures together is now compromised. Our work supports that even fields with an initially strong commitment to unity may eventually generate diverging research programs and demonstrates the fruitfulness of the notion of trading zones for informing quantitative approaches to scientific pluralism.

Key words: scientific pluralism, trading zones, topic models, citation networks, high-energy physics

Read the article here.