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Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  553 ratings  ·  129 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
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Hardcover, Basic Books, 291 pages
Published June 12th 2018 by Hachette
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4.09  · 
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 ·  553 ratings  ·  129 reviews


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Manny
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
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Peter Tillman
Jun 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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
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Tara
Jan 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: stem
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.
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 (
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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
Sebastian
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
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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 [title: Not Even Wrong]. Hossenfelder makes no 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 ...more
Eric
Jun 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018-reviews
TL;DR

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.

Disclosure

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

Review

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 parts
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Bob Schnapps
The author is someone who rates their own books on Goodreads...
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
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Jeremy
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
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Charlene
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
Ben 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
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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
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David
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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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.
Hind
Aug 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Like Sabine writes and tries to address, physics has worked itself into a state where all our experiments result in null result after another, and our cutting edge theories are mere speculations of science fiction. The way she approaches this problem, trying to figure out how we got here, what we can do to fix it, and whether what we’re doing is justified in the first place, is wonderful. This is an excellent popular work on the cusp of physics and philosophy, but it comes with a little requirem ...more
Gavin
Jul 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
A look at high-energy particle physics* in its present nightmare (of deep inconsistency and vastly expensive new data). Her thesis is that the problem is sociological and aesthetic: in the absence of new data sources, we form cliques and regroup around incompatible, unempirical beauty intuitions.
it leads me to conjecture that the laws of nature are beautiful because physicists constantly tell each other those laws are beautiful.
experimentalists working with a detector developed to catch neut
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Peter Mcloughlin
As a corrective to taking theoretical speculations in physics and cosmology too far this book does a good job. It is a lament that using aesthetics in mathematics as a guide to theory is an unreliable guide to science in general. The conundrum is this. The data at the foundations is getting scarcer and scarcer as we push the limits of experiment. Particle accelerators can't reach high enough energies to probe things the way we'd like. With the scarcity of data at the frontier theoretical physic ...more
Mark Moon
Jun 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
Thematically similar to Smolin's "The Trouble with Physics" but not so similar as to be uninteresting. Contains some brief excerpts from interviews with a variety of physicists with widely differing views on the relevance of aesthetic principles in cooking up new physics. I found the style informal in a pleasant way, and there was enough technical detail (especially in the notes) for my taste as well.
Jo
Apr 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Sabine shares her experience with physics and math inside a chaotic world where beauty can bright up. She brings a fresh and new perspective to classic theories. This book is a most for new science students. It will encourage them to explore unconventional and innovative paths.
Michel Meijer
Oct 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
I am keeping tracking the modern books on theoretical physics, like those of Woit, Green, Carrol and others. The mathematics discussion from Sabine Hossenfelder is one of the newest on the block and a very pleasant read. There are three bascis themes in the book that are quite related. First, the lack of progress towards new enhanced theories of elementary physics in the last 20-30 years is described, and how all new measurments confirm the standard model from last century. Secondly is the way m ...more
David
Aug 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Brilliant, and an absolutely vital read if you are involved in research in the sciences. The critiques and lessons here extend beyond physics, stretching to the ways we fund, the ways we select for publication, the ways we reward thinking. Too long have these issues been ignored. Too long have those involved insisted that they were free of biases and cognitive distortion.

But lest one think such a book must be a slog, let me set the record straight: this is a page-turner. Hossenfelder keeps thing
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Doctor Moss
Oct 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I liked Hossenfelder’s book a lot more than I was expecting. Given my expectations, I’m not sure why I bought it in the first place. I was expecting something along the lines of another physicist complaining that other physicists have abandoned empirical testability as the fundamental criterion by which to evaluate theories, and have gone wild with speculative, untestable theories like multiverse theory, string theory, and anthropic theories. And she does complain about that, but she also accept ...more
Mike
Sep 20, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
As an experimental particle physicist and someone who has taught quantum mechanics at the undergraduate level, I am familiar with many of topics discussed in this book, so I am never sure how the average reader will follow it. Given that caveat, I really enjoyed this book. Hossenfelder has misgivings about how some current theories of particle physics are evaluated. Everyone agrees that the definitive test of a theory is how well it predicts experimental data, but what does one do when the theor ...more
Yzabel Ginsberg
[I received a copy of this book from NetGalley.]

I can’t say for sure that I understood everything in this book, since my knowledge of physics in general is very patchy, but overall, I liked its tone, and its global idea, because I can get why one would be easily led astray by theories that look ‘beautiful’. It’s something that I feel is very human, after all, as we often look for a form of harmony in the world surrounding us, if only to try and make sense of it. Perhaps the fundamental, underlyi
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Steven Burnap
Sep 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Hossenfelder's thesis is that the particular physic community has been led astray by notions of "beauty" and "elegance". She makes a very strong case that regardless of the hardheaded concreteness of the math, the theories that put to the test are theories that physicists explore are chosen by these notions.

The book can get a bit dense...while there is literal or no math, the book involves extremely detailed descriptions of modern physics, particularly in particle physics, so it's not for the fa
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Eric S
Jan 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is a definite 5 in my universe. If it's only a 3 or 4 in
your universe I feel sorry for you. The prose is so symmetric it's
super. Each chapter gains more energy and details all the very interesting bounds that have been found. It is too fine tuned for wimps. The discussion of energy and matter might be a little
dark for some but it doesn't string one along. This book is so natural and beautiful therefore it must be true. /pun

Really this is a good book and a must read for any person serio
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POBL Nonfiction B...: September Book Discussion - Lost in Math 1 1 Jan 07, 2019 08:19AM  
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  • Probably Approximately Correct: Nature's Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World
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  • Emergent Multiverse: Quantum Theory According to the Everett Interpretation
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  • The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve
  • Embodiment and the Inner Life: Cognition and Consciousness in the Space of Possible Minds
“The sense of beauty of a physical theory must be something hardwired in our brain and not a social construct. It is something that touches some internal chord. When you stumble on a beautiful theory you have the same emotional reaction that you feel in front of a piece of art.” 1 likes
“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.” 1 likes
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