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Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray

af Sabine Hossenfelder

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215896,161 (3.86)6
"Whether pondering black holes or predicting discoveries at CERN, physicists believe the best theories are beautiful, natural, and elegant, and this standard separates popular theories from disposable ones. This is why, Sabine Hossenfelder argues, we have not seen a major breakthrough in the foundations of physics for more than four decades. The belief in beauty has become so dogmatic that it now conflicts with scientific objectivity: observation has been unable to confirm mindboggling theories, like supersymmetry or grand unification, invented by physicists based on aesthetic criteria. Worse, these "too good to not be true" theories are actually untestable and they have left the field in a cul-de-sac. To escape, physicists must rethink their methods. Only by embracing reality as it is can science discover the truth"--… (mere)
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Interesting and thought provoking book. But the author does not define "beauty". And as the author no doubt knows, with indefinite terms, the subject matter are subject to opinion. And in the physical sciences, that can never be.

It is hard to imagine that the "beautiful world" envisioned by a Karl Marx is going to be considered beautiful by the workers it enslaves. Thus what is "beautiful" to one is not necesarily "beautiful" to another. If a scale of beauty-ugly exists, regardless of what is being viewed, two obervers will ultimately have their sliders in different positions!

Put another way: what is beautiful to the duck hunter is hardly beautiful to the duck!

So beauty/ugly, like right/wrong, good/bad are opinion only (judges and moral codes were invented to handle those other things!) and require a viewpoint or an outcome to be defined. The same thing can be both beautiful and ugly to an outside observer.

Surely if physicists were being trained that way, progress would be poor to nonexistent since the physicist would be unable to defend his view.
And equally clearly the author does not find the search for a beautiful truth to be beautiful! Oh well...

But the author does make a rather interesting point: the lack of progress in the physical sciences.

Perhaps the author is really looking for a new simplicity.

If I have been bothered by anything in the physical sciences it is that the basics of natural philosophy have remained undefined. If a universe consists of matter, energy, space and time, a close examination of these terms demonstrates that their definitions are yet dependent on one another. Matter requires space, energy requires space, time demands perception of changes of matter in space. Definitions of these terms are descriptive, associative and disociative but not absolute. We are left with the conundrum "what is space?" and that question has not been answered. We all have an experience of space but that does not mean it is an understood phenomenon. 29 physics texts I have looked at use the word. None define it. Doesn't seem fair..

Yet modern astrophysics says the universe is expanding which I interpret to mean that space is expanding! So space must be being created! Oh, it doesn't mean that? Then what does it mean? See, if you have the right definition, there can be no argument. I chuckle at scientific debates for they really should be about defining terms, not who's right and who is wrong. A debate only implies no one has defined some term and the debate would disappear if the term were yet defined! And a debate only inflames disagreement making it harder to resolve the definition. Time could be better spent!

And would not an expanding universe imply that laws of conservation of energy are incorrect? Surely if this universe emanated from a big bang (the cause of which would not be in this universe but "pre-this universe" and would have occured "before time"), then matter must have been created too! And ultimately the conservation of energy would only be an approximation.

At the bottom of all this must be a simplicity. And the search for that simplicity holds the key to understanding this universe and all in it. Else, why study it? And that simplicity may be beautiful or it may not be. But generally, simplicities may be regarded as being beautiful if they explain phenomenon being seen, having been seen and will be seen. BUt then, that is my own definition of beauty. In this case, beauty would be a consequence, not a cause. If it isn't beautiful, so be it.

The author states that she wanted to understand and this is common to most students who follow the subject of science of their own willingness. The key would be looking for something in this universe which contains neither matter, energy, space nor time but is REAL. Actually it exists. But few physicists can even conceive of it. And it's right there in front of you. And with it the phenomenon described above might be explained, unreal as it may seem. ( )
  nick_fraser | Mar 25, 2021 |
Fascinating overview of the field ( )
  nicdevera | Oct 1, 2020 |
NOTE: I received an Advanced Readers Copy of this book from NetGalley. This review is my honest opinion of the book.

Lost in Math is the story of how aesthetic judgement drives contemporary research; how theoretical physicists produce ideas that are "highly controversial and yet exceedingly popular, speculative yet intriguing, pretty yet useless"; and how these theories are untestable but the physicist believes them to be too good not to be true.

In the past, scientists observed the world around them and performed experiments. Then they developed theories to explain these observations. These theories would then be tested against addition observations and experiments. These days, theoretical physicists (especially in particle physics) concoct theories that are only supported by beautiful mathematics, and which can never be confirmed by experiments or which are unlikely (due to cost and difficulty) to be examined experminentally.

In an effort to find out what went wrong with theoretical physics, Hossenfelder interviews several physicists and takes a look at the current popular physics theories. The author makes a convincing case that this reliance on the beauty/maths-only criteria to determine which theories to study and promote has resulted in a lack of progress in certain physics fields. In the author's own words, "in the end the only way to find out which theory is correct is to check whether it describes nature; non-empirical theory assessment will not do it".

The writing style of this book is conversational and accessible (for the most part - just pretend the physics is Star Trek physics), and the topic covered is important not only for physicists. I did find the physics explanations somewhat baffling but then most of the physicists interviewed state that no-one understands quantum physic. However, this book is a book about how physicists work, not about the physics itself, so it didn't matter much. I found this book to be interesting and informative. ( )
  ElentarriLT | Mar 24, 2020 |
This is the kind of pop science I like. The author is clearly interested in being understood, rather than in dazzling the reader with 'explanations' that at best are destined to go over their head, and at worst are basically meaningless. The style is serious and dryly humorous, with enough interview-travelogue tidbits and personal asides to keep the style breezy without reading like a shitty magazine article.

I would have liked more philosophical detail. The topic of the book is basically applied epistemology, so it would have benefited from greater engagement with the potentially useful nuggets that philosophers have produced, even if only for the sake of explaining why they are unhelpful here.

My other complaint is that occasionally the scientific explanations went off the rails, and/or I was too stupid to follow them. But I didn't get the feeling the author was being deliberately obfuscatory, and theoretical-physics-for-the-layman is basically an impossible needle to thread, so this is easily forgivable. ( )
  matt_ar | Dec 6, 2019 |
Lettura obbligatoria per chiunque si occupi di fondamenti della scienza e di modelli scientifici per capire quello che è in gergo sono chiamati "aesthetic biases". È utile anche per farsi un bel bagno di umiltà, rendendosi conto che le teorie e i modelli che creiamo sono enormemente influenzati da aspetti sociali e culturali. ( )
  Raskolnikov_95 | Jan 20, 2019 |
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"Whether pondering black holes or predicting discoveries at CERN, physicists believe the best theories are beautiful, natural, and elegant, and this standard separates popular theories from disposable ones. This is why, Sabine Hossenfelder argues, we have not seen a major breakthrough in the foundations of physics for more than four decades. The belief in beauty has become so dogmatic that it now conflicts with scientific objectivity: observation has been unable to confirm mindboggling theories, like supersymmetry or grand unification, invented by physicists based on aesthetic criteria. Worse, these "too good to not be true" theories are actually untestable and they have left the field in a cul-de-sac. To escape, physicists must rethink their methods. Only by embracing reality as it is can science discover the truth"--

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