'Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray' - A Review

David Morton Rintoul

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I have mixed feelings about YouTube. The good news about the video site is that anybody can start a TV channel there. The bad news is that anybody can start a TV channel there.

There’s a tremendous amount of misinformation on the world’s largest video sharing platform. That’s true all over the web, but it seems as though YouTube is more influential than other online cesspools.

There are exceptions, of course, and one of the leading lights I’ve run across on YouTube is Sabine Hossenfelder. A theoretical physicist, she has a knack for explaining the seemingly incomprehensible.

KNACK FOR EXPLAINING THE SEEMINGLY INCOMPREHENSIBLE

Einstein said that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it. By that standard, there’s no question that Sabine Hossenfelder knows physics.

Having become a fanboy of hers on YouTube, I was thrilled to discover that she had published a book. It’s called Lost In Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray

In a sense, this book is a critique of physicists, including Hossenfelder herself. As she explains, “It is my own story, a reflection on the use of what I was taught. But it is also the story of many other physicists who struggle with the same tension; we believe the laws of nature are beautiful but is not believing something a scientist must not do?”

Something is captivating about the mathematical formulas of physics. They have an elegance that gives us an impression that “God’s in His Heaven and all’s right with the world.”

CAPTIVATING MATHEMATICAL FORMULAS OF PHYSICS

It’s satisfying and reassuring when a simple, symmetrical equation predicts and explains all sorts of things we experience every day. Unfortunately, in Hossenfelder’s view, that reassurance can be addictive and interfere with what science is supposed to do for our culture.

The issue, according to Hossenfelder, is this. “Physicists draw upon the concepts of naturalness, simplicity or elegance, and beauty. These hidden rules are ubiquitous in the foundations of physics. They are invaluable. And in utter conflict with the scientific mandate of objectivity.”

If science is unbiased and factual, it shouldn’t cross a scientist’s mind to think about how beautiful a hypothesis may be. They should be defining reality in all its convoluted ugliness, warts and all.

WHY DOES IT ALWAYS BOIL DOWN TO MATH?

Hossenfelder also addresses something that I’ve always been ambivalent about with physics. Why does it always boil down to math?

It’s not that I can’t do the math. For example, when there’s been money involved, I’ve mastered some remarkably complicated concepts, like the time value of money.

However, I’ve always questioned why scientists, especially physicists, insist on making mathematics their common language of choice. There’s nothing that scientists say using math that they can’t express in plain English.

“MATH KEEPS US HONEST”

Hossenfelder describes the role of mathematics like this. “Math keeps us honest–it prevents us from lying to ourselves and to each other. You can be wrong with math, but you can’t lie.”

On the other hand, the author reminds us that math has to correspond with experiments. It has to describe as well as predict what we observe in the natural world.

According to Hossenfelder, when scientists work with the very small or the very large, they can’t make direct observations anymore. In those cases, she believes that physicists fall back on aesthetic criteria for whether a theory is true.

SIMPLICITY, NATURALNESS AND ELEGANCE

These criteria include things like simplicity, naturalness, and elegance. The author’s objection as she progressed was that there was no “mathematical basis for simplicity, naturalness or elegance, each of this, in the end, brought back subjective, human values.”

Hossenfelder argues that these subjective values have led to abstract speculations. One example of this is the existence of a multiverse, of which our Universe is one small part. 

In particular, the seeming improbability of our Universe existing seems unnatural. This has led cosmologists to speculate that it would seem natural if there were many dud galaxies, and ours was a lucky coincidence.

PREFERENCE FOR AN ARBITRARY NATURALNESS

The author’s concern is that none of this speculation about alternative universes is necessary. It’s triggered by our preference for an arbitrary naturalness.

The same sorts of issues arise at the level of the very small. Quantum mechanics explains the behaviour of elementary particles like photons and electrons very accurately.

On the other hand, the laws of quantum mechanics are counterintuitive. That creates a bias against them, according to Hossenfelder, leading to these scientific laws being deemed “ugly.”

WHAT PEOPLE CONSIDER INTUITIVE CHANGES OVER TIME

The issue here is that what people consider to be intuitive changes over time. The idea of a flat earth, for example, is highly intuitive and dead wrong.

Hossenfelder is puzzled about the problem scientists who challenge quantum mechanics are trying to solve. Their motive seems to her to be an arbitrary distaste for probabilistic principles over Isaac Newton’s elegant laws.

Another field of study with which Hossenfelder takes issue is searching for a Grand Unified Theory in particle physics. Once again, she feels that the subjective desire for elegance and simplicity drives the research instead of facts and evidence.

EXPERIENCE MAY NOT LEAD TO NOVEL DISCOVERIES

People who disagree with her claim that the preference for beauty is based on experience. In response, she points out that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that experience may not be the best guide for making novel discoveries.

String theory’s justification based on its consistency raises similar concerns for the author. Hossenfelder agrees that challenging inconsistencies is more scientific than aesthetics but points out that consistency is no substitute for empirical evidence. 

Hossenfelder also takes issue with the countless theoretical particles that physicists keep proposing. These include everything from WIMPs to axions to sterile neutrinos.

COUNTLESS THEORETICAL PARTICLES

Her obvious objection is that nobody has ever seen any of these questionable quanta. She blames the proliferation of proposed particles on academia.

Academic institutions promote ideas that “proliferate quickly and widely,” according to Hossenfelder. Hard-to-test but beautiful theories fit this bill perfectly. She believes that this leads research facilities to pursue invalid ideas.

Hossenfelder also calls for more interaction between scientists and philosophers of science. She believes that input from philosophers would better guide science toward more questions worth asking. Currently, in the author’s view, science fails to self-correct.

CHERISHING BEAUTY AND WANTING TO FIT IN

“Cherishing beauty and wanting to fit in are human traits,” Hossenfelder writes, “but they distort our objectivity.” She argues that the lack of progress by physicists and by institutions results from these distortions.

For the author, these are cognitive biases that go unnoticed and unchecked. And so, “theoreticians proceed entirely undisturbed, happily believing it is possible to intuit the correct laws of nature.”

Toward the end of the book, Hossenfelder returns to her statement that, “Math keeps us honest.” She now qualifies that claim by adding, “it’s true–you can’t lie with math, but it greatly aids obfuscation.”

CONCLUDES HER WORK WITH THREE RECOMMENDATIONS

She concludes her work with three recommendations. First, “If you want to solve a problem with math, first make sure that it’s really a problem.” Second, “State your assumptions.” 

Scientists should state assumptions like naturalness or simplicity upfront so that they can be challenged. Thirdly, “Observational guidance is necessary.”

I’ve appreciated Sabine Hossenfelder’s ever since I first caught a glimpse of her on YouTube. This book is another example of her gift for explaining science in terms to which everyone can relate.

AIDING AND ABETTING THE ISSUES THE AUTHOR RAISES

Those of us hoping to usher in a new cultural cosmology are probably aiding and abetting the issues the author raises. In our enthusiasm for a truth-based story that justifies the awe we feel for the Universe and Nature, we are drawn like moths when a theory’s beauty appeals to our instincts.

Hossenfelder has the opposite temperament. As she relates, “Such a connection between me and the Universe seems very mystical, very romantic, very not me.”

I’m grateful for the author’s skepticism and courage. Still, I was left a bit disappointed because her three brief recommendations for change seemed vague. She offers no plans to put them into practice.

A COMPELLING AND SATISFYING READ

Despite this, it was a compelling and satisfying read. Her technical criticisms of science are interspersed with self-deprecating personal details about her life, like her frequent packing up and moving and homely anecdotes about interviewing various subject matter experts.

Anyone nurturing a healthy skepticism about scientism will appreciate this book. Hossenfelder’s witty and humble writing style will appeal to all readers. 

The author concludes Lost in Math, saying, “I got a new research grant. There’s much work to do. The next breakthrough in physics will be in this century. It will be beautiful.”

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
Lost In Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray
What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists
The 5 Big Questions We Need Cosmology to Answer
The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science – A Review
The View from the Center of the Universe: The New Story Retold

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I’m a freelance writer and professional blogger, providing content marketing stories to select clients in Canada and the United States. I have extensive experience in content writing, technical writing and training and development, working as a consultant with many of Canada’s most successful organizations and later in management roles in both the public and private sectors. Writing has always been my passion and it’s a gift people have recognized in me since childhood. I now have the opportunity to express that part of myself in the service of others. I’m available to deliver creative content marketing stories, web copy blog entries and social media posts for progressive communicators and marketers in the non-profit, public and private sectors.

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