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Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  1,863 ratings  ·  347 reviews
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
Hardcover, Basic Books, 291 pages
Published June 12th 2018 by Hachette (first published June 2018)
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 ·  1,863 ratings  ·  347 reviews

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Feb 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone who wants to know how science really works
Sabine Hossenfelder is a theoretical physicist, and she's pretty mad about the way her subject has gone over the last thirty years. She's written this book to tell you why she's mad, and what she's done to try and find out what went wrong. She's talked with a bunch of people, some of them major stars of the physics world. She's asked them questions and she reports their answers. Somehow, even though a fair amount of it is near-incomprehensible physics-speak, she makes it cool and funny. She's go ...more
Manuel Antão
Jun 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018
If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review.

Implausifiability in Physics: “Lost in Math - How Beauty Leads Physics Astray” by Sabine Hossenfelder

“The time it takes to test a new fundamental law of nature can be longer than a scientist’s career. This forces theorists to draw upon criteria other than empirical adequacy to decide which research avenues to pursue. Aesthetic appeal is one of them. In our search for new ideas, beauty plays many roles. It’s a guide, a reward, a motivat
Peter Tillman
I have no way to judge Dr. Hossenfelder’s qualifications as a theoretical physicist, but I can say up front, she’s one hell of a writer.

I have a bunch of notes, but you know what? If you just want a straight review, go to Steven Woit’s, linked below. My first impressions: theoretical physicists are supposed to come up with stuff that can be tested by experiment. If you can’t test the idea, or if it flunks the test, you move on (see Feynman). Physicists have been working away for *30 years* to tr
Aug 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Hossenfelder is a theoretical physicist. This is her first book written for the lay audience. The author is a research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies in Germany. The book is about the abuse of mathematics while pretending to do science. The book is a series of interviews with well-known physicists. She builds a case of how science fails to self-correct itself and set about proving a theory. Hossenfelder does some critical thinking that she outlines in the book. I understa ...more
Jan 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
A quick summary of the book’s contents: Many physicists these days are inclined to believe that beautiful, elegant theories are the only ones truly worth pursuing. Hossenfelder argues that this is the main reason why there hasn’t been a major breakthrough in the foundations of physics for over 40 years. She asserts that this often debilitating aesthetic criteria has become a rigidly adhered-to dogma, and that physicists are in fact beating themselves soundly with their own outworn yardstick. She ...more
G.R. Reader
Jun 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I figured that if Luboš Motl hated the book this much, it had to be worth reading. It's usually a sound principle, and it didn't let me down this time either. ...more
David Wineberg
May 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The universe is unacceptable to physicists

Well back into history, Man has tried to force nature into symmetry. Some of our greatest scientists spent their lives trying to force the solar system and then the universe into spheres, cubes, cones and cylinders. Or to find superpartners for every particle so they fit the (newish) theory of supersymmetry. That it has never worked has deterred no one, it seems.

Sabine Hossenfelder is a theoretical physicist whose very job it is to create new theories (
Brian Clegg
Jun 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere n ...more
Nick Black
Jul 04, 2018 rated it it was ok
Recommended to Nick by: Manny
reads like a Mary Roach book about particle physics -- altogether too many "human interest physics" elements, including descriptions of one interviewee's cats ("Astrokate", apparently a ...twitter authority). Woit already handled a lot of this in 2007 with Not Even Wrong. Hossenfelder makes few useful suggestions, instead just dumping on people when she's not flying to Hawaii. I couldn't disagree with her central thesis -- leaning hard on "beautiful math" is no substitute for testability and re ...more
Katia N
Aug 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I've listened to this. And I definitely plan to read it properly once more on paper. It is a great book. There are a lot of physical theories and hypotheses. At the same time, the experiments are very expensive. So it should be some benchmark that play role in the selection process. It is far from the obvious, but apparently the main criteria that define which perspective physical theories are to be tested are ... beauty, elegance and simplicity. How much I wish it would work smoothly! But the m ...more
Oct 05, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I never heard of Sabine Hossenfelder until I came across this book, but now I even follow her Facebook account. She’s one hell of a writer and her dry humor and down to earth principles made this book a joy to read.

In terms of scientific facts, the book doesn’t bring anything new in the field; there hadn’t been a major discovery in physics for quite some time but the approach on today theories is unique.

The book consists mostly in a series of interviews with today’s major physicists, but her com
Jun 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
It is reassuring to know that there are quite a few people out there not happy with how physics is going these days.

Reading, for example, Krauss’ half-assed pompous non-explanation for why there is something instead of nothing, or reading Tegmark’s incoherent ramblings about his mathematical universe as he pats himself on the back for being oh such a crazy maverick, or basically watching the entire string community pat their collective backs so hard they will break each other’s shoulder blades
Feb 13, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: physics
I honestly don't know how to rate this book. Some arguments were extremely worthwhile and needed a voice. In regard to those arguments, Hossenfelder's voice was razor sharp, clear, unafraid, questioning, critical, and informative. Other times though, it really felt as if she overshot -- a lot, which muddied the waters for her better arguments. Prior to this book, I watched talks given by Hossenfelder in which she picked apart my heroes. She criticized them for being guided by beauty. Watching he ...more
80th book for 2019.

Hossenfelder's central thesis—that physicists are are now obsessed by beauty (i.e., elegant mathematics), to the detriment of truth (i.e., hard data)—is certainly interesting.

The book contains a series of interviews with leading theoretical physicists, where she discusses the role of elegance/beauty/simplicity in theory assessment, but while these discussions are in themselves fascinating—Steve Weinberg's is hilarious—they are often colored by what seems to be a superior, alm
Jose Moa
Feb 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Before all Iwould like guve it six stars.

Since the 60s years in the past century ,when the Higgs machanism was proposed and so completed the standard model and the recent Discovery of the Higgs boson in the LHC giving to the standard model the final confirmation,,there has not been any breakthouht in theoretical physics,this is giving way to a great worry and stress in the theoreticl physicists comunity,more as they are in what they name the nightmare scenario,is to say,no new particle,no extrad
Apr 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
There’s a phrase the author Sabine Hossenfelder uses throughout the book that I found initially mystifying: “Physics isn’t math.”

I found the phrase mystifying not because I didn’t understand its meaning but because I didn’t understand its point. It’d be like my writing, “Poetry isn’t English.” Of course it isn’t. English may be the language with which poetry is crafted, but they are not equivalent. Same relationship between math and physics. But so what?

The "Poetry isn't English" analogy helped
Apr 27, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: owned
“There are other reasons we use math in physics. […] The main reason we use math in physics, however, is because we can.”

This was probably the most demanding non-fiction book that I have ever read in my free time. I personally don’t think that anyone who is not a scientist would much benefit from it, even though the author clearly had the non-professionals included in her target group when she wrote the book, because a lot of trivial things are explained. On the other hand, though, she also tou
May 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019-reads
A good read after Adam Becker's What is Real, and for anyone who might have watched that giddy, over-earnest documentary, Particle Fever about the LHC and CERN and wondered what happened after the Higgs was found .... well: they are still waiting, and as the physics world waits, sitting in their ideological camps (supersymmetry, string theory, etc.), some physicists are entrenching themselves in the theories to which they have devoted their careers, even when there is no evidence. While others a ...more
Jun 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018-reviews

Lost in Math by Sabine Hossenfelder is an important investigation into the current biases shared across the theoretical physics discipline. It asks hard questions about the current orthodoxy. Highly recommended.


Basic Books provided an advanced electronic copy in exchange for an honest review. Review cross-posted at my website: PrimmLife


One thought experiment that I love is the Theseus Paradox, which asks the question that if a ship is repaired and all of its old
Kara Babcock
Is truth beauty and beauty, truth? It can be hard to tell.

In Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, Sabine Hossenfelder argues that these two concepts are not equivalent. As the subtitle implies, Hossenfelder feels that theoretical physicists are too obsessed with creating “beautiful” theories, in the sense that the mathematics that underpins the theories (because these days, theories are basically math, even though, as Hossenfelder stresses, physics isn’t math) must be beautiful and use
Abhishek Kona
Jan 24, 2019 rated it it was ok
I could not finish this book. The overall points in the book make sense to me. Physicists are looking for elegant theories to prove the real world instead of working backwards from the data. This is a problem as it causes us to design expensive experiments in non empirical way. The community has started to rely on elegance as a guiding principle.

But I am convinced there is not about 200 pages worth of stuff to be written about the topic. This book could have a 1000 word article. The author is u
Bob Schnapps
The author is someone who rates their own books on Goodreads...
Dan Raghinaru
Apr 04, 2021 rated it really liked it
In their quest for a theory of everything, the current theoretical physicists are postulating more and more theories. According to the author, the problem is that in the absence of any data (i.e. CERN-like experiments are extremely expensive, rare, and limited in scope) the physicists are falling back to criteria like beauty in mathematics (i.e. symmetry, naturalness, simplicity, and so on) and are demanding a revision and loosening of what counts as proof in science these days.
The book is grea
May 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
Note: I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley.

This was a great book, and one I hope that many people (particularly within physics) choose to read. It's not the most uplifting book, but that's the point. I'm a student within physics, and I'm happy that someone is at least shedding some light on the less appealing aspects of physics at this time. It's great to be hopeful, but if everyone is sharing the same mass delusion about supersymmetry and beauty when there is no experimental evidence f
Apr 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, 2019
Lost in Math is a great and well written summary about the way physics is represented in the modern days. The writer Sabine Hossenfelder is a theoretical physicist whose job is to create new theories and leave the mathematical stuff to the mathematicians. In her book Hossenfelder talks about what has gone wrong with her subject in the last thirty years or so.

Now, especially in particle physics, the whole concept kind of circles around made up theories that are only supported by mathematicians. T
Kam Yung Soh
Oct 24, 2017 marked it as to-read
Shelves: science, physics
Sabine Hossenfelder says the book description was not written by her. For a better idea of what the book is about, see her blog post on it. ...more
Rod Van Meter
Jul 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
A fascinating philosophical take on how philosophical physics has become. Physicists are hooked on various definitions of simplicity, involving fewer mathematical terms and especially fewer "magic constants" or "voodoo constants" (as we would call them computer systems).
The author is having deep existential doubts about how physics will peel back the next layer of reality. Many modern theories not only are not currently being tested, but *cannot* be tested, some because they would involve, oh, s
Dec 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This was one of the funniest, snarkiest, most straight-forward books about what the future of physics is - and isn't - that I've ever read. The chapter headings had me in tears with laughter and I constantly kept reading snippets out loud to my less physics-drama inclined partner, which would then require an intense explanation of the history of the field (no pun intended), which then, of course, would cause the whole thing to cease to be funny, and left him with a "cool story bro" look on his f ...more
Huyen Chip
Apr 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: math-science
For a book on why beauty is a bad criterium, this is such a beautifully written book. I find the part on how to evaluate a scientific hypothesis especially useful as it's applicable in my field as well. ...more
Dec 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
Wow, great book!

My personality tends to distrust the air of broad, settled certainty when I encounter it; too many times it means the person I'm talking with has made a career or lifestyle out of rejecting competing evidences. If they know the deficiencies in their beliefs, they rarely acknowledge them as such. Examples:

- When I hit the vendor floor space at a computer security conference, no vendor will tell me the shortcomings in their systems; I have to ask competing vendors to find out those
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Sabine Hossenfelder is an author and theoretical physicist who researches quantum gravity. She is a Research Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies where she leads the Analog Systems for Gravity Duals group.

Hossenfelder completed her undergraduate degree in 1997 at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt am Main. She remained there for a Masters degree under the supervision

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73 likes · 77 comments
“There are other reasons we use math in physics. Besides keeping us honest, math is also the most economical and unambiguous terminology that we know of. Language is malleable; it depends on context and interpretation. But math doesn’t care about culture or history. If a thousand people read a book, they read a thousand different books. But if a thousand people read an equation, they read the same equation.” 3 likes
“It took twenty-five years from the prediction of the neutrino to its detection, almost fifty years to confirm the Higgs boson, a hundred years to directly detect gravitational waves. Now the time it takes to test a new fundamental law of nature can be longer than a scientist’s full career. This forces theorists to draw upon criteria other than empirical adequacy to decide which research avenues to pursue. Aesthetic appeal is one of them. In our search for new ideas, beauty plays many roles. It’s a guide, a reward, a motivation. It is also a systematic bias.” 1 likes
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