Sabine Hossenfelder – Lost in Math

A contrarian argues that modern physicists’ obsession with beauty has given us wonderful math but bad science

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.

Author: Sabine Hossenfelder
Narrator: Laura Jennings
Duration: 8 hours 40 minutes
Released: 18 Apr 2012
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Language: English

User Review:

running modernist

There are two ways to approach this book: to engage with it as an argument, or to accept it as an historical document. The first approach is feasible only for a subset of physicists, a tiny fraction of potential readers. Taking myself as typical of the larger group of non-physicist readers, I could follow only the broad outlines of her arguments. Smarter readers may get more out of it, but dont ask me what gauge symmetry is. On this level my overall reaction to Lost in Math is the same as my reaction to other popular books by living physicists, which is to wonder whether what these people mean by doing science has anything in common with what I do as a chemist and biologist. The parts of Lost in Math that I really understood were those that deal with the organizational and institutional aspects of physics. If I get lost in the epistemology of particle physics, I feel completely at home when Hossenfelder describes the canalization of research and the corrupting influence of competition for external funding. Perhaps the term science has become uselessly broad as a description of method, and retains meaning only as a sociological term, to describe organized investigations of the world that are embedded in modern academic institutions. Hossenfelder probably would reject this social definition of science, and its to her credit that she has written with enough candor that her book can support positions that she might oppose.

And the real value of Lost in Math is in its honesty. Hossefelders descriptions of debates in physics are no more lucid than those of other contemporary physicists, but she has given us something better: a candid description of her own reaction to those debates, and the mind of a physicist. This candor, which is rare and demands courage, makes Lost in Math a document in the history of science that should remain useful long after the controversies it describes have faded, a category of books that also includes Darwins Voyage of the Beagle, Jungs Memories, Dreams, Reflections, and Freuds The Interpretation of Dreams. Someone viewing contemporary physics from the outside and wondering what makes physicists tick is in a position analogous to a physicist investigating the deep structure of matter. In both cases the object can be understood only indirectly. Lost in Math is like a particle ejected from the core of physics, revealing information about an otherwise opaque world. The picture of that world that emerges in Lost in Math is not pretty. At times Hossenfelder displays an ignorance of what non-physicists do and think as profound as its reciprocal. But her book is only the more valuable for such ugliness, for if physicists have been seduced by beauty in their search for natural law, the wider world has been seduced by beauty in their search for understanding of how science works. The physicists in Lost in Math are human beings, not heroes.