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Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray

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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.

291 pages, Hardcover

First published June 1, 2018

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About the author

Sabine Hossenfelder

9 books357 followers
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 of Walter Greiner, entitled "Particle Production in Time Dependent Gravitational Fields", which she completed in 2000. Hossenfelder received her doctorate "Black Holes in Large Extra Dimensions" from the same institution in 2003, under the supervision of Horst Stöcker.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 469 reviews
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 29 books13.7k followers
February 11, 2018
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 got a great voice, laid back and detached and deadpan. She reminds me a little bit of Jessica Chastain in Molly's Game. Jessica's talking about poker and Sabine's talking about physics, but the two subjects aren't as far apart as you first think. When you come down to it, they're both high-stakes gambling games.

Physics is on a losing streak. It went all-in with the Large Hadron Collider and bet fifteen billion dollars that it would find supersymmetric particles. (The Higgs was just the consolation prize; Sabine says that was pretty much a given). Most of the experts thought the supersymmetric particles were there, but they didn't show up. Physics tossed in a few billion more to upgrade the LHC to higher energies, and there were still no supersymmetric particles. Now it's sitting hunched over its cards as dawn begins to break, wondering what it's going to say to its wife.

The problem is that the stakes have gotten so high that the physics gambling syndicate can only afford to play a few hands. Most of the time, it has to fold. It needs to be very careful about the hands it does choose to play, the ideas that involve setting up a real experiment. They have an army of experts, the theoreticians, whose job it is to give them advice on which experiments might be worthwhile; Sabine is one of those experts. It's a frustrating life. Usually, you know you're developing an idea which will never be tested. In practice, the theoreticians now present their work mostly to each other. They judge it by aesthetic standards, and fashion also plays a large role. Fundamental physics has entered a decadent period.

The theoreticians deny that anything is wrong. Mathematical beauty is very important, they say. It's our only real guide to what distinguishes a promising theory from an unpromising one. Supersymmetry was so beautiful that it had to be true; Nature has so far refused to agree, but maybe they just need to build a larger collider. In contrast, the Standard Model, which is universally agreed to be hideously ugly, irritates the hell out of everyone by passing all the experimental tests they can throw at it. It is in fact rather confusing when you write it down.

Sabine is suspicious about the cult of beauty. She upsets theoreticians when she suggests that it might not be scientific to work this way. She points out that many ideas now considered brilliant and beautiful were called monstrosities when they first appeared. (Quantum mechanics was a bit of an ugly duckling). She thinks scientists should read more philosophy and sociology, and try to understand their real motivations. In case you're in any doubt, she gives plenty of details about just what isn't working. She tells you where the bodies are buried, with little sketch maps and instructions on how deep to dig. She says people tried to talk her out of writing Lost in Math, and that now she'll never get tenure.

It's pretty interesting to see someone telling the truth, and you realise how seldom that happens. I just couldn't put this book down.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,638 reviews329 followers
October 17, 2021
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. 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 try to improve the Standard Model. Basically, no recent progress. This should be a hint to the physics community. Instead, they’ve doubled down on untestable stuff like String Theory, that, to some physicists’ eyes, is beautiful.

But: “Who gives a fuck what you like or dislike? Nature doesn’t care”— this is hotshot physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nima_Ar... , in a pungent interview with the author. Unlike the author, he’s a tenured physicist at Princeton, and says he’s found his dream job.

My outsider thoughts: just about all the physicists Hossenfelder talked to *hate* the Standard Model, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standar..., mostly because it’s “ugly”, and incomplete. Well, so what? It *works* -- and if it ain’t broke, why fix it? It’s not like there isn’t plenty of other cool stuff for physicists to work on. Such as, current physics only accounts for maybe 5% of the known universe. Dark Energy (68%) and Dark Matter (27%) supposedly are the rest, and we have NO CLUE what they are made of! C’mon, girls and boys, Nobel Prizes await you….

Hossenfelder has written a breezy catch-up text for modern physics, well suited for people like me, whose formal exposure to physics ended decades ago. And I can *almost* understand most of the stuff she’s talking about. This is a Big Deal, and very rare in popular science books. So, read it for that, and her cool interviews with top physicists, and her pungent remarks about her chosen field. I wish her well. It must get *really old* to be an eternal postdoc, which is how she’s spent the last 15 years. She has a new appointment now, but it's another short-term contract. She says she'll be fine when that runs out, https://backreaction.blogspot.com/201.... Go, Sabine!

Here’s a good, long, detailed review of the book by Peter Woit, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Woit , a theoretical physicist who is also critical of String Theory. This is the review to read first. Woit says, “you should get the book and read the whole thing” Indeed.
Lots of links, too.

And here's a Reading Strategy for non-technical readers:
1. Read the first and last chapters
2. Read her end-of-chapter summaries for the rest.
3. Read the interviews! Some of the best stuff is here. Previews at http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wo... Steven Weinberg!
4. Don't worry about the rest.
Profile Image for Jean.
1,710 reviews742 followers
August 13, 2019
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 understand the politics of science and Hossenfelder put her career on the line by writing this book. If you are interested in science/physics, this is a worthwhile book to read.

I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. The book is eight hours and forty minutes. Laura Jennings does a good job narrating the book. Jennings is a voice actor and full-time audiobook narrator.
Profile Image for Prerna.
222 reviews1,319 followers
March 29, 2022
About two years ago, I worked on particle physics phenomenology for my master's thesis. It's a mouthful, I know. It was also handful - if you can call it that. I spent months working on longass codes that I didn't completely understand, yet had to plough through anyway. (Don't come at me with 'nobody really understands codes that are thousands of lines long anyway' please.) It was also brainful (not mindful - DO NOT talk to me about blackhole spirituality or whatever and before you ask, yes, apparently it's a thing) because I essentially spent the whole year going through hundreds of research papers and trying to understand what the hell I was supposed to be doing. So what was I doing? I was trying to theoretically deduce the masses of some particles observed at the large hadron collider. Now here's the thing: there are thousands of ways to go about it, so take your pick like I did, and voila! Thesis subject ready! How and why is it this way you ask? Because:

The most astounding fact about high-energy physics is that you can get away with knowing nothing about it.

Needless to say, I've got no chill for non-falsifiable theories anymore. The energies we need to verify any infamous theory-of-everything (surprise, surpise : there isn't just one. There are actually many, many candidates) are far, far, far, far above anything we could produce in the near future or even before our collective annihilation. So what's the particle physics community doing you ask? This is where the author and I have no chill left. We are pouring billions of dollars into funding research that isn't really going anywhere because, say it with me, they're 'beautiful.' Apparently, beauty standards in physics have always led to fruitful results. Or so they say. The theories we have right now, are 'ugly', 'a mess' and rigorous i.e, not simple. Just google 'standard model Lagrangian.' Nobody wants to deal with that monstrosity.

But as the author extensively writes about in this book, applications of beauty standards in physics that aren't even well-defined (apparently it's just intuitive, but what even is intuition if not repeated encounters that lead to familiarity? We don't find quantum physics intuitive because for evolutionary reasons, we didn't have to deal with it everyday. We exist on the macro-scale) to just particle physics. Studies show that research in physics seem to have actually stagnated while several papers claim to have found something 'ground-breaking' or 'exciting' or 'amazing.' Everyone finds a novelty these days. What a wonderful world.

The author here is tired, sceptical, exasperated and just about done with accepting bullshit from her colleagues, because the said bullshit is leading physics to a dead-end. Look man, she isn't saying that these pursuits are worthless, but she is saying that nobody on our planet has the means to build a particle accelerator the size of jupiter right now and it doesn't seem likely that we'll get closer to building one in the near future either. So maybe it would be worthwhile to check our biases before pouring billions of dollars into funding these research areas? Maybe there are more beautiful laws to be discovered, calculated, verified. But maybe the math is just ugly and we need to grind through it.
Profile Image for Tara.
395 reviews19 followers
January 11, 2019
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 contends that this bias now interferes heavily with objectivity, which, believe it or not, is kind of an essential ingredient to any scientific discipline. This thought-provoking analysis of the limitations of beauty as a guideline is presented alongside several intriguing interviews of current physicists, which are interspersed throughout the text.

Topics examined in depth, or else merely touched on, poked fun at, ogled lasciviously (hey, physics can be pretty sexy!), or otherwise brought to the reader’s attention, include: a brief history of physics, the standard model of particle physics, supersymmetry, the notion of “naturalness,” string theory, the multiverse, quantum mechanics, quantum gravity, grand unification, and issues with the basic structure and methodology of the scientific community which unfortunately tend to discourage innovation.

Pros: I agree wholeheartedly with her main thesis, which is essentially that dogma has no absolutely place in science, and that scientists should be wary of biases which may be coloring their perspective and influencing their methodology. (This is obviously a gross oversimplification of her case, and I would urge anyone interested in her exact arguments and supporting evidence, to read the book themselves. While it isn’t terribly long, it is terribly illuminating and informative.) Also, the interviews were quite fascinating; it was very helpful to hear what various big names in physics had to say on the matter at hand. And lastly, I couldn’t help but enjoy her snarky sense of humor. The book is full of unexpectedly sarcastic remarks, and I found this undeniably refreshing. For instance, here is her (humorous) rationale for studying history:
“While I was in school I hated history, but since then I have come to recognize the usefulness of quoting dead people to support my convictions.”

Very cute.

Cons: At times, it was a bit repetitive, and could have benefited from more rigorous editing and tighter overall organization. It is also heavier on Philosophy of Science than I was expecting it to be, though this is clearly a subjective preference—perhaps you’re a fervid devourer of that kind of thing, in which case the abundance of philosophical material will instead constitute a distinct advantage.

Bottom line: I am not a theoretical physicist, so I can’t really directly address any of the higher level physics Hossenfelder critiques. I will instead content myself here with reiterating what I thought was the strongest aspect of her principal argument: Dogma can be positively insidious. It can creep into areas, such as theoretical physics, you wouldn’t think would stand for it. The most important thing you can do is to be ever vigilant that your own thinking doesn’t become twisted, caged, or otherwise hindered by anything of that sort. Clearly, this is a truth applicable not only to modern physics, but to any field of science, and, more importantly, to life in general. Lost in Math serves as a powerful reminder of this fact, and furthermore discusses quite a few strange and interesting facets of modern physics along the way. As such, it packs a considerable punch, and is well worth reading.
Profile Image for Vladys Kovsky.
119 reviews27 followers
October 4, 2021

An absolute delight for a physicist, this book details deterioration of modern theoretical physics into a metaphysical argument. In a series of interviews with a cohort of famous theoreticians, Sabine Hossenfelder gives an excellent overview of the current state of physics - this pillar of sciences.

Physics as we know it (and science in general) was born out of the premise that theoretical constructs and hypotheses should be evaluated on how well they describe empirical data. What if we reach a point where we cannot even design an experiment that would help choose between conflicting theories? What if a theory is such that no experiment could ever falsify it - a contradiction with data would just lead to a recalibration of parameters of the theory ad infinitum? That would be worrying. What is even more worrying that it is exactly in this state where modern physics finds itself today.

It gets even worse. Having no new experimental data, theoretical physicists of today have turned to other criteria to determine the validity of their mathematical constructs. Such arbitrary criteria include "beauty", "symmetry", "naturalness". All of these have nothing to do with the scientific process as Karl Popper described it.

The author goes back in time to examine one the most successful theories of the past century - quantum mechanics. This theory has proved to be exceptionally accurate in explaining and predicting experimental results. It has given rise to quantum electrodynamics and the standard model of particle physics (Higgs boson - the most successful prediction of the standard model cost about 10 billion Euro to find). Quantum mechanics also made it possible to build nuclear weapons.

Despite the extraordinary success of quantum mechanics the dispute about its meaning rages on. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory is the most widely used one but it appears to be philosophically flawed in its requirement of an "observer". "Is the Moon not there when nobody's looking?" Among other competing interpretations no consensus exists. Thus, if you decide to study physics, you will most likely learn the Copenhagen approach.

In addition to questions relating specifically to theoretical physics Sabine Hossenfelder discusses some bigger issues in the scientific community. There is an excellent description on the conflict of interest between innovative thinking and getting an acceptable result and peer recognition, the need to "market" the results of research and spend significant amount of time in search of funding.

Maybe it's time to go from Lakatos back to Popper after all?

My sincere gratitude to Katia for suggesting that I read this book.
Profile Image for G.R. Reader.
Author 1 book163 followers
June 17, 2018
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.
Profile Image for David Wineberg.
Author 2 books706 followers
May 8, 2018
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 (and let mathematicians sweat the details). She has admitted defeat. Her book, Lost in Math, is all about the blizzard of theories we all hear about. They have not only remained unproven, they are often unprovable. She quotes colleagues who admit “It is not an exaggeration to say that most of the world’s particle physicists believe that supersymmetry must be true,” because it so elegant and easy to work with. And despite the facts.

Hossenfelder says she got into physics because she couldn’t understand people. Physics made sense; people were indecipherable. With no little irony, she wonders if she should get out of physics, because she can’t understand the people. This is a great basis for a book, and Hossenfelder pulls it off with humor, charm, and almost no resorting to math. It makes for a fabulous tale, as she travels the world to meet with the who’s who of physics. She records their near-unanimous dissatisfaction with their field, both because it is not proving beauty wins over ugly, and because ironically, no progress is being made. The book quickly becomes totally informed irreverence from an insider.

Physicists have problems with large numbers. First, they can’t justify or even explain them. Second, when you take the inverse of a large number, it is uncomfortably small, which they also can’t justify or explain. The latest disappointment was the long awaited discovery of the Higgs boson, which seems to have disappointed everyone with its ungainly mass. Physicists like numbers to be as close to 1 as possible. They call those numbers “natural” and they lend themselves to pretty theories and formulas. But the universe repeatedly refuses to co-operate in this matter. With all the components and predictions of the current standard model, a total of one qualifies as natural. Everything else is classified as “fine tuning.” Whole theories that utterly fail claim to have discovered “interesting boundaries.” And all with a straight face.

The later 20th century found physicists chasing three principles: symmetry, unification, and naturalness. These guiding lights have led them far astray. They have invented numerous unproven theories that are far more elegant than what they observe in nature. They are so elegant, physicists insist that nature must employ them, and their quest becomes to prove nature has done so, not whether or not it is valid. Beauty, Hossenfelder says, is a treacherous guide.

In 2018, there remains absolutely no evidence for:
-extra dimensions beyond visible 3D and time
-new elementary particles beyond the 25 fundamental particles known since the 1960s
- vortex theory
-string theory
-multiverse. Even Stephen Hawking got into it. His posthumously published (second to last) paper explores the beauty of multiverses, though no one has ever been able to demonstrate their existence or influence. Or need, other than for mathematical beauty.

Hossenfelder finds some of it comes from sheer boredom. The multibillion dollar Large Hadron Collider has given physicists no new particles or proven any new theories. Physicists are used to rapid advances, dozens yearly, and everyone getting a Nobel Prize sooner than later (most often by age 30 in the 20th century). In the absence of concrete advances, they are trying to fit a cube into a round hole. Or as one string theorist put it – physicists are using a map of the Alps to travel the Himalayas.

It has come to the point where anything that isn’t natural and elegant can simply be assigned to another universe, and the job is done. Hossenfelder interviewed one renowned physics professor who complains that physicists now insist their theories need no proof at all, that they should simply be accepted as true, and developed from there. This is precisely why Hossenfelder got into physics; she couldn’t understand people like this. The professor agrees; he is baffled and worried about the whole field.

One of the many nice things about Hossenfelder’s style is that she doesn’t begin with 50 pages of dreary history and instruction. She gets right to the issue and only then backpedals into origins. She advises that readers can skip this if they know it. But that would be a mistake. She writes so smartly and her perspective is so untainted by the usual academic constraints, it’s even a pleasure to read the history.

She tries to explain the bias that physicists exhibit. But she can’t get past the fact it is about aesthetics and not science. Everyone she speaks with is in favor of it. They admit the pretty theory gains automatic acceptance, while the complicated answer founders. She fears this is precisely why theoretical physics has made no advances in decades. And why she thinks she might be better off leaving it.

Truth be told, many of the sciences foster these same viruses. Biology says it is in crisis. I reviewed the excellent Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans deWaal, in which he comes down hard on social scientists for their totally prejudiced studies unconsciously designed to prove animals don’t measure up to Man. They are basically all invalid, and Hossenfelder thinks the same thing is going on in theoretical physics.

Douglas Adams said that in the whole history of written English, you will never find the combination of words: “as pretty as an airport”. Here’s another I never thought I’d see: a fun theoretical physics book.

David Wineberg

Profile Image for Brian Clegg.
Author 205 books2,574 followers
June 12, 2018
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 near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it's more the case that physicists dream up whole rafts of theory supported only by mathematics, much of which can never be experimentally confirmed, and what can be checked is often so expensive to work on that only a very small number of possibilities can be examined.

It's the maths (if we're talking beauty, I have to confess I find 'math' a very ugly word) that is in the driving seat, which surely is wrong. As Hossenfelder points out, string theory works best if the cosmological constant value that reflects the expansion or contraction of the universe is negative. Unfortunately it's actually positive, but most string theorists spend their time working with a negative cosmological constant. It can make for beautiful mathematics - but has nothing to do with our universe.

It's also the case that the vast majority of theoretical advances in physics were made by individuals, where now most theoreticians work in teams - it's tempting to wonder, if a camel is a horse designed by committee, what is a theory developed by group consensus?

Hossenfelder repeatedly comes back to two measures used to test theories - beauty, which is inevitably a subjective phenomenon, even though there is some agreement of what is required for beauty - and naturalness, which appears more scientific as it involves numbers, but relies on a bizarre confidence that values in nature that are dimensionless (for example ratios of masses) should be Goldilocks-like in not being too big or two small, but should be around the value of 1. The physicists she speaks to through the book (nearly all male), often seem to cling onto these measures without being able to justify them, other than saying that everyone else likes them too. There are some attempts - one suggests the appeal to beauty is an evolutionary response to a successful theory, but that only shows a weak understanding of evolution (though evolutionary developments can, at least, probably explain the physicists' love of symmetry - and it's not because nature has to be that way, but because we find symmetrical faces attractive).

Vast amounts of physicist-hours are being put into theories such as string theory, which seems pretty much incapable of doing the main job it is supposed to (though does have some side benefits), or defending the extension of the standard model of particle physics called supersymmetry, even as more and more evidence suggests it is unlikely to be true. Hossenfelder shows that clinging to theories past their sell-by date is almost inevitable because physicists are people too. If you've spent half your career on a theory, you don't give it up easily, even though scientists are supposed to love falsification. And if hundreds of other people (remember the geese) are working on a particular theory, surely it must have some substance behind it? One thing the book doesn't mention, but may be worth thinking about, is perhaps there are too many theoretical physicists? Hossenfelder points out in a period of about a year when the LHC produced data that looked interesting but turned out to be a statistical fluctuation, 500 papers were published exploring this non-event theoretically, many published in top journals.

Relatively briefly, Hossenfelder also examines the aspects of modern academic scientific life that make it hard to give the amount of time to actually working on theory that should be the case, citing estimates of around 40% going to actual work (another 40% going to grant applications). The processes required to get funding also tend to work against original thinking and deviating from the goose flock - there seems little doubt that this structure makes a large negative contribution to the whole business, though no one seems to have an answer to the problem.

The only negative I have with the book is that Hossenfelder, like many practising physicists, struggles to explain some of the actual physics in a way that conveys any meaning to the general reader. Luckily, this is not essential here - this is not a book to learn about physics, but about the way modern physicists work. Interestingly, Hossenfelder complains that 'popular science books about special relativity are often full of rocket ships and satellites passing each other. But all of this is unnecessary decoration. Special relativity follows from the three symmetries [she lists] above, without twins in spaceships and laser clocks and all that.' While this is true, the way symmetries are used here is an argument that is near-impossible to follow for a non-mathematician. The twins paradox and light clocks make it much easier for the rest of us to get a grip on the subject (and, to be fair, my undergraduate special relativity textbook makes use of both, so it's not just popular science doing it).

Inevitably there will be a widespread negative reaction from the physics community (which has already started) - but this is not surprising when Hossenfelder is attempting to burst a self-reinforcing social bubble just as powerful as those that surround American political parties. The knee-jerk reaction is always to deny there's anything wrong - yet here it seems so obviously a case of the emperor's new clothes.

Some readers may take this book to be an anti-science one - but it really isn't. Hossenfelder is merely pointing out a deep problem in some parts of physics, but she in no way undermines the remarkable scientific discoveries that have come from centuries of physics (and applications we benefit from as a result of some of them). Rather, she is saying that people in her profession need to step back from the coalface and take stock of what they are really doing and whether this particular approach really makes sense. True creativity often requires this - but most of us find it difficult to do. And it's about time a physicist said this.

Highly recommended (and very brave).
Profile Image for Nick Black.
Author 1 book712 followers
February 26, 2021
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 responding to experiment, and the entire physics academic economy seems busted -- but what else is there? Everyone could work on Navier-Stokes, I suppose.
Profile Image for GridGirl.
281 reviews25 followers
January 15, 2023
“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 touched on topics that even physics students only hear about in their third or maybe fourth year. I think she tried to make this book as accessible for the amateur as other popular science books, but it didn’t really work out and I don’t even know if ‘normal people’ care about this topic at all.
On the positive side: If you are in the field of (theoretical) physics, you will probably have a good laugh while reading this. Sabine Hossenfelder is incredibly funny and I have sticky notes all over the book with my favorite quotes. This is one of the most amusing non-fiction books that I have ever read and that helps with the challenging topics. Kudos to the author for that accomplishment and that is the reason why I would definitely pick up other books by her.
Now on to my main issue with the book: Sabine Hossenfelder advocates the hypothesis that modern theoretical physicists are not following the best scientific practices, because they mainly focus on beauty when developing their own and evaluating other’s theories. She’s investigating this theory through interviewing other physicists in the field, who mainly don’t share her opinion, and disproving their stance. Here is something that struck my mind at the halfway point of the book:
I just realized, that she didn’t talk to these people she interviewed because she truly wanted to know whether beauty is a justified measure for the validity of a theory. She talked to them with the intention to write a book about all the reasons why they are wrong. I don’t think anything they could have said would have made her change her opinion on the matter. And by that, is she not ignoring the scientific method herself?

I still stand by this at the end of the book and it’s a huge issue for me.
What accompanies this problem is that she does not present any solutions. She rambles on about how physicists do not do their work properly, but she offers no approachable steps that I as a physics student could take to move towards more meaningful theories that we can actually test and benefit from. And the fact that she forgot to add advice for (aspiring) physicists downgrades her book from “constructive criticism” to “ranting”.

Profile Image for Charlene.
875 reviews505 followers
February 14, 2019
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 her tear apart the arguments of these men who I pretty much worship was shocking but very satisfying. I love having my beliefs challenged. So, Hossenfelder's work was appealing to me, even when she went after my idol Dirac. But, in . my opinion, this book takes the "beauty is not a good guide" argument too far.

I feel unsettled. I also feel less informed that Hossenfelder about many aspects of physics, which made it even more difficult to rate this book.

Is the LHC worth the money since SUSY has not made an appearance? I don't know. It's a concern, and one worth discussing. After all, it's a lot of money. But are all discussions of the multiverse bad science? I think suggesting so goes too far. You can imagine that our tools will only get better and better. Our ability to explain the universe in equations will only get better. Is Everett's Many Worlds the only way to understand our universe? Probably not. Prior to Everett, we could not have conceived of equations that suggest every possibility is real instead of the wave function collapse. It's extremely valuable to keep thinking about bubble universes, warped spacetime, the arrow of time, and other ideas that lead us to think about a multiverse. It seems extremely defeatist to think researchers should not suggest ideas that are untestable. How many testable hypotheses came into existence because people continued to wonder about things that were not testable? In thinking about the untestable, we might come up with certain aspects of the untestable situation that we *can* test.

I just feel like we should fight against people who turn physics into pseudoscience (the laws of attraction, crystal healing, etc) and stop trying to inhibit people who are trying to answer the big questions. Question their methods, their logic, and their findings. Science needs that. This book seems to go beyond that.
Profile Image for Katia N.
585 reviews662 followers
August 4, 2020
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 main message of the book is that the application of those criteria in spite of being very attractive, has lead the modern physics into very difficult situation.

The whole premise is extremely fascinating. But exploring this, the author touches upon quite solid array of topics from the modern physics to the philosophy of science and even the economics of research. And she is doing it in a beautiful, elegant and simple manner (not pan intended or is it?).
Profile Image for Claudia.
954 reviews535 followers
October 5, 2019
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 comments, beliefs and interpretations are the salt and pepper of it.

Not always an easy read, but a very enjoyable one.

>>> ARC received thanks to Perseus Books, Basic Books via NetGalley <<<
Profile Image for Sebastian.
Author 8 books28 followers
July 16, 2018
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 despite having precisely bupkis to show for all their effort except some convoluted math they claim is real dang pretty though it has crap-all to do with the real world and then demand that we loosen up with that pesky scientific method because really what did that old thing ever do for us, and all this when even I, as an at my absolute best enthusiastic amateur can poke holes the size of ocean liners through their reasoning… well, the whole thing starts to look like a rather sad affair.

But then people like Hossenfelder come along and reassure me that yes, there are people with the relevant scientific training able to see beyond the blinkered view offered by the mainstream, people able to step back and do real meta-physics, in the sense of having an outside look at what physics is doing and asking some hard questions about where the whole thing is heading. It also helps that she is a pretty good writer with a sharp sense of humor, not afraid to go around asking some pretty big names about those same hard questions, exposing their faulty reasoning and certainty that, yes, generations before us people were pretty silly and thought that if a theory is beautiful and elegant it must be true, and they were wrong, but that totally can’t happen to us, because now we are real smart and our theory now is waaaay too beautiful and elegant, so it must be true.

Oh, and the reaction – well, just the butthurt incoherent misogynistic spittle-flinging trumpian response from a certain Professor Motl whose whole point seems to boil down to “what a dumb woman-creature, questioning me and my brilliant buddies who are brilliant because we think we are!” was worth the price of admission and serves as a clear double-thumbs-up recommendation for the book.
Profile Image for Radiantflux.
427 reviews409 followers
July 4, 2019
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, almost patronizing tone, which seems associated with her own lack of tenure/status.

More importantly she does a relatively poor job of equipping the lay reader with enough background information to grasp the significance of her critiques. So in the end you are left with a somewhat shallow overview/critique of modern theoretical physics, with little guidance about how things could be done better.

Profile Image for Jose Moa.
519 reviews65 followers
February 4, 2019
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 extradimensions,no new physics is present in the LHC and by that no experimental guidance.This lack of progress has made that some physicists have begun to ask themselves if not there is some wrong in the lines or methods or asumptions that theoretical physics has taken lately and by that some have written a series of books analicing and criticing this subject.
Between this books we have :The Trouble with the Physics by Lee Smolin,The end of Physics by David Lindsey,The end of Science by John Morgan,Farewell to Reality by Jim Baggot,Higher Speculations by Kragh,Not even Wrong by Peter Voit and this last Lost in Math by Sabine Hossenfelder.

The book of Sabine Hossenfelder is not a usual popular science book,it is a book pointed and devoted to the lay person,to the scientific institutions and to the scientifics themselves,it is a book where she makes a analysis and a critic of the phylosofic,psichologic,sociologic ,organizative and economic features of the to day way of make theoretical phisics research,it is a deep,honest,serious and thouhtprovoking about all this subjects,is a dense book,not to be read in a day.

She travel and interview a series of theorists as Steven Weinberg,Garret Lisi,Joe Polchinsky and others about the last guides in the theoretical research that basically are : beauty,naturalness and simplicity .
After all this in the and she thinks that this asumptions or principles that were good gudes in the past it is posible could be wrong in the future as the nature could in the Deep be ugly,unnatural or complex and that first properties be emergent.
As the title says too much search for beauty could lead physics to be lost in maths,in untestable,unfalsifiable models.
Sabine draws three lessons that I textually transcrib:
""First,if you want to solve a problema with math first make sure there is really a problem.

Second,state your asumptions,naturalness is such an asumption and so is simplicity.

Third,obsrvational gudance is nsccesary""

"Physics isnt math.Its chosing the right math."

With regard to the sociologic,psichologic economic problems she points to:

More colaboration:Less single authored papers.
Less time:academic researchers spend only about of the 40 percent of their time in research.
Less long term funding:grat increase in the percentage of researchers non tenured and part time.
Less heterogenity:this means that academics all over the globe now march to the same drum.

And she gives some adwices of what we can do.

As a scientist:learn about social and cognitive biases,prevent social and cognitive biases,beware the influence of media and social networks,build a culture of criticism,say no.

As a science policy maker,journal editor or representative of a funding body:do your own thing,use clear gudelines,make commitments,encourage a change of field,hire full time reviewers,support the publication of criticism and negative results,offer courses on social and cognitive biases,allow a división of labour by specialization in task.

As a science writer or a member of the public :ask questions.

Of course the book is much more tan this and give a lot of information on competing final theories.
and it has many times a touch of sparky acid humor.

A fundamental book to know what is going on in this critical time in the theoretical physics.

Profile Image for Abhishek Kona.
238 reviews6 followers
January 24, 2019
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 understandably quite cynical about the physics academia. But this leaks into the book and makes it a depressing read.
Profile Image for Erik.
338 reviews268 followers
August 19, 2020
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 me understand her point - and why this book's quest ultimately fails - because I immediately thought of the poem, "The Jabberwocky." It's one of my favorites. During university, I would sneak out at night and graffiti lines of the poem all around campus. I would only scrawl a few of the lines, but I would return later to the scene of my crime and be delighted to discover other vandals had completed the rest!

Anyhow, "The Jabberwocky" proves this point that Poetry Isn't English because only half the words even are English. The poem describes the Bandersnatch as "frumious," a delightful portmanteau of "furious" and "fuming." But other words aren't even combinations! They're just made-up, like the hero's "vorpal" sword.

And yet, despite all these made-up words, the poem itself isn't particularly difficult to understand. When I read the first two lines, “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe,” I imagine this dense virgin jungle, pierced by shafts of brilliant sunlight, filled with exotic beasts rooting about. When I read of the hero who "took his vorpal sword in hand; / Long time the manxome foe he sought," I picture this armored hero, shining black blade in hand, stalking through the jungle, hunting for the Jabberwocky, a cockatrice-type beast. And so on and so forth.

It's clear "The Jabberwocky" isn’t JUST its language, but rather what that language refers back to. Without that referent, it truly would be nonsense - and so would all poetry and indeed most language.

That’s what Hossenfelder means when she says, “Physics isn’t math.” The math of physics is supposed to refer back to some underlying physical reality. If it doesn’t - or if it's not possible to determine whether it does - then it’s not really physics, is it? It’s just math.

So the title Lost in Math refers to her worry that the math of modern theoretical physics has lost that connection with an underlying physical reality, that we’ve entered a “post-empirical” - dare I say post-physical? - era of physics. While this has both philosophical and psychological ramifications, her concern is primarily pragmatic. Because experiments grow more costly, while the number of theories is blooming, we’re faced with a daunting conundrum: how do we decide which theories to test and therefore which experiments to run?

Consider the Large Hadron Collider, for example. This project cost over $5bn and, aside from the confirmation of the Higgs boson, has mostly yielded null results. Various commentators look at that price-tag and go, "Wow! That’s a lot of money to spend on something with so little return.” But that’s really missing the point.

Sure, $5bn is no small chunk of change, but it’s not like CERN burned that money. It went to the labs and engineering and construction firms who designed and built it. The money circulated back into the economy. When you’re talking macro-economics, the TRUE cost is opportunity cost. Because they were working on the LHC, all those scientists and engineers weren’t working on designing and running different experiments, ones that might’ve yielded more fruit.

So this question of choosing which experiments to run and which theories to test is a serious one and one with, arguably, a time limit, in the sense that we need new and improved science to combat existential threats like climate change and meteor strikes.

So how do we decide which theories to test? That’s where the book’s sub-title comes in: “How beauty leads physics astray.”

Hossenfelder contends - and this is thoroughly confirmed throughout the many interviews she undertakes - that modern theoretical physicists use aesthetic and sociological considerations (i.e. "beauty") to decide which theories are good and which are bad, and therefore which experiments to run. Unfortunately, this definition of "beauty" is outdated, because it's rooted in human experience even though advances in fundamental physics must now occur in realms decidedly outside of human experience (at quantum and galactic scales).

Thus, Lost in Math: How Beauty leads Physics Astray is most accurately summarized as Hossenfelder’s personal quest to, first, discover the current definition of "beauty" in theoretical physics; second, to probe why physicists think nature will obey such aesthetic considerations; and, third, to explore alternative approaches. I wrote earlier that she fails this quest, and I’m about to explain why, but I first want to emphasize that this failure is in no way a criticism of the book. On the contrary, it is the quest's abject failure that suggests its importance.

By failure, I mean we never get a clear explanation of why top theoretical physicists believe that nature should obey human aesthetic concerns, nor even much of an admission that there's something rotten about such an assumption. Even physicists who explicitly concede the subjective, arbitrary nature of aesthetic standards nevertheless consistently revert to words like ugly and attractive to describe various theories.

Further, I consider the quest a failure because we never get much of a sense of how we'd go about fixing this mess, not in any practical way. Hossenfelder's prescription essentially amounts to a section in which she completely shits on philosophers. She calls them "useless", which made me laugh, since it reminded me of my teenage math students claiming math is "useless." They, like Hossenfelder, entirely miss the point that the study of math - and the study of philosophy - is like Cross-fit for the mind: it makes you better at everything else you do. Nevertheless, despite trashing philosophers, Hossenfelder then goes on to suggest that philosophy of science needs to play a bigger role in science. *sigh*

That's her first major suggestion. Her second is that physicists need to be more mindful of cognitive biases and sociological influences. *second sigh*

That's like if I went to a doctor because I was having persistent headaches and he said, "Well, I think you should probably try to live a healthier life." Gee, thanks Doc.

But if you’d told me the nature of this quest and the means by which Hoessenfelder explores it (interviewing prominent physicists), I could have told you it was going to fail in these ways without even reading the book.

The most obvious issue is that this question of the aesthetics of physical theories isn’t a question of physics but of metaphysics. As I already wrote, it’s an utterly important question for physicists… but they simply aren’t equipped with the tools to answer it. When it comes to physicists, the author's disdain for philosophy is the norm, not the exception. Stephen Hawking famously wrote "philosophy is dead."

As someone who studies both physics and philosophy, I consider this disdain to be incredibly foolish - and Einstein would have agreed with me. Scratch that. Einstein DID agree with me. He himself (rather less famously) credited his reading of philosopher David Hume with his development of relativity.

But that’s the reality: Your average physicist knows jack shit about philosophy. So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that when Hossenfelder went around the world and asked physicists a question of philosophy, they were incapable of answering it.

The more subtle, deeper issue is that she’s coming up against the constraints of human beings. By the end of the book, it becomes obvious that the various physicists' references to the "beauty" or "ugliness" of a theory were shorthand for gut instinct and intuition. Or, more precisely, subconscious assessment.

Human beings tend to pride themselves on their possession of consciousness, but modern psychology and neuroscience have correctly marked human beings as largely creatures of the subconscious. This is nowhere more obvious than language. Consider uttering the phrase, “I am reading a book review.” That phrase, even simple as it is, is essentially entirely constructed in your subconscious. What would would it look like if it were consciously constructed?

First, you’d have to explicitly, consciously consider what pronoun to use: “I” or “me” or even “you" or "he." My experience is that most people don't actually know the explicit difference (subjective vs objective pronoun case) between “I” and “me," so right away they wouldn’t be able to answer why they’re uttering “I am reading” instead of “Me am reading” (except that it “sounds wrong,” an admission that their subconscious chose the pronoun). Then you’d have to decide what verb to use: “am looking at" the book review? "am understanding" the book review? "am consuming" the book review?! Okay no, for non-blind humans, looking at written language with our sense of vision in order to understand is referred to as "reading." But then why is it "I am reading" instead of simply "I read"? And so on and so forth.

Nobody does this. If they did, they’d speak as slowly as Ents.

No human can escape the domination of the subconscious. Certainly not physicists. It would be impossible for them to pursue theory-crafting and theory-assessment without relying on their subconscious, which is essentially the storehouse of all their physics know-how.

This whole line of reasoning imbues the entire book with an accidental comedic air, as the author keeps asking these physicists to explain, “Why is this theory more beautiful than this other theory?” The question, understood in terms of consciousness, becomes, “Consciously summarize, in a couple of sentences, the subconscious sum total of your life’s experience with physics.”

Not really gonna happen, is it?

And indeed it does not, in much the same way that many people can read "The Jabberwocky" and develop a remarkably rich interpretation of it, without having the slightest clue what a portmanteau is.

But I wouldn’t hold that against the book. I've focused on its core thesis, but it's also just a really good exploration of current problems and mysteries with theoretical/foundational physics, as well as an insider’s look into the culture surrounding those who work on said problems. It's all quite fascinating. I read the whole thing while I suffered from an ear/sinus infection, and it did remarkably well in taking my mind off the pain of my face trying to explode. Which, if you ask me, would make for a most excellent promotional blurb to have on your book jacket.
Profile Image for Holly.
1,007 reviews219 followers
May 2, 2019
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 are beginning to panic (seeing the "nightmare scenario" in the lack of evidence) and then reach for unscientific explanations that fit their imagined aesthetic criteria (i.e., it must be beautiful) - perhaps even abandoning the scientific method in the process. But a few contrarians, like Hossenfelder, are daring to suggest that we are being misled by our human ideas of beauty and elegance. Maybe we need to back up and rethink it all sooner rather than later.....

I hadn't realized that physics was in such a state of crisis.

The book is a little disorienting to read because it's a combo of approaches (part overview of the subject, part personal chronicle, part polemic). If Hossenfelder was trying to write a Janna Levin-type book then she was not successful - Hossenfelder is a little surly and angsty, often blunt in her tone, so she is not as convivial a guide as Janna Levin (in Black Hole Blues, for example). But Hossenfelder seems to be truly upset and also fearless in indicting her colleagues , while at the same time willing to question herself and her motivations for being so contrarian:
Maybe I'm just here to find an excuse for leaving academia because I'm disillusioned, unable to stay motivated through all the null results. And what an amazing excuse I have come up with -- blaming a scientific community for misusing the scientific method.
I'm glad I read this. The book is a bit rough-going in the middle chapters for a non-physicist (me), but the final chapters re-summarize the arguments and are quite interesting (esp. an exploration of biases). Hossenfelder made me reconsider a lot of assumptions I had.
Profile Image for Dan.
262 reviews60 followers
May 12, 2021
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 great in showing how past and current theoreticians succeeded or failed by following aesthetic criteria when developing new theories; it also gives a glimpse at the field as it stands now. The book and some of the interviews in it are quite funny.
On the other hand, the author's uncompromising quest for the objectivity of the objects understood as method seems too much. Method in the end should be just an instrument that helps scientific research. Nietzsche stated that “it is not the victory of science that distinguishes our nineteenth century, but the victory of scientific method over science”. Maybe it is good that beauty is still competing with objectivity in the scientific research - even in the highly theoretical field of physics.
Profile Image for Eric.
172 reviews31 followers
December 5, 2018

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 parts replaced, is it the same ship that was originally built or a new one? When looking at modern theoretical physics, I start to wonder if we’re approaching a similar paradox where physics has been replaced by math and philosophy. In Lost in Math, Sabine Hossenfelder seeks to answer a similar question. Her contention is that desire for a beautiful theorem has become too much of a distraction for theoretical physics. Lost in Math journals her investigation.

The State of Theoretical Physics

Ms. Hossenfelder quite clearly lays out the state of theoretical physics, and she approaches the field as a contrarian. In my idealized view of any science, I see the practitioners as deeply skeptical of the status quo. Else how do we surpass our current knowledge? But Ms. Hossenfelder paints a different picture, one in which questioning the mainstream is increasingly difficult. In Lost in Math, she focuses on the failure to find supersymmetric particles to explore whether we’re looking at the wrong theory, simply because symmetry is beautiful. She investigates this through many interviews with working and prominent physicists. Her journey showed a variation of opinion but a united optimism that the scientific method will prevail. It’s encouraging to see that despite the lack of results, the physicists maintain their excitement and passion for their field. But passion isn’t enough when the experimental results are missing. Ms. Hossenfelder continues to hammer home the point that despite bigger and bigger particle colliders, the supersymmetric particles still elude us.

In the course of her investigation, we see that she’s at odds with the mainstream physics community. In this book, she lays out many reasons for why this is so, and I appreciated that she presents a complex picture. Because, like many things in life, no one prime mover exists that we can point to and say, “fix that to make everything better.” But in addition to shining the spotlight on what she believes to be the problem, Ms. Hossenfelder lists potential solutions. These solutions are the appendix, which, at first, I didn’t like. It seemed too safe to exclude them from the text, but upon reflection, I think it was the correct move to place them in the appendix. Instead of highlighting her solutions, Ms. Hossenfelder showcased the problem, which allows room for solutions other than just her own. Though, I recommend serious consideration of her solutions.

The most technical argument in the book pits natural versus fine-tuning. It’s an interesting discussion that takes a bit to understand, but I think Ms. Hossenfelder explains it well. It’s challenging without reaching too far.


This text is a curious mixture of physics lessons, interviews, and travel journal. Sabine writes in an academic style that at times slips into deep philosophical prose. While most of the book was accessible for me, often I had to reread and think hard about the concepts in the text. The challenging parts are important in a book like this. The reader needs to think deeply about the topics and where physics goes from here. But these parts are interspersed enough to give the book a sense of pacing. Lost in Math wasn’t a dull, dry lecture; it’s a story of the current state of physics that ebbs and flows. I think it’s very well done and will be looking for more of Ms. Hossenfelder’s work.

In addition to the physics lessons, this book reads as a person questioning if they’re still in love with their profession. One of the important but rarely discussed differences between college and the workforce is what the work actually entails. The things I loved about studying engineering make up less than half of what I do at my job. What we study and love is just a small part of work, and I wonder if this book is born of Ms. Hossenfelder’s disappointment in that regard. By the close of the book, we see that its her love of physics that clashes with the current orthodoxy. The contrarian occupies a difficult place in a society, especially when pointing out needed improvements. So, is it that Ms. Hossenfelder is questioning her career choice, or does she feel the fatigue of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes? I hope it’s the latter and that she continues to provide a reality check to theoretical physics if not to spur on needed changes.

Physics (My Personal Opinion)

No one would accuse me of being without an opinion, and I try to keep them out of my reviews. BUT around this book gathered many questions that I’ve had over the years about physics. To be clear, I love physics. I read a lot about the field and came close to making it my career path. But ultimately I chose engineering for a number of reasons, high among them the need to see a testable product. Over the years of reading about string theory, the standard model, the multi-verse, I’ve fallen in love with these elegant ideas, but a small tickle always accompanied my studies. How do they know these advanced theories are correct? That is the question that drove Lost in Math and that drove me to engineering. Traditionally, the answer to that question has been an experimental correlation. Theory and experiment twist round each other like the double helix of a DNA strand. But increasingly, physics has branched out into areas currently beyond our experimental capabilities. So, the question becomes how do they know?

But at some point we have to say that we don’t know. There is nothing wrong with this, though. Being able to say I don’t know is an essential part of the scientific method, but it isn’t as sexy as talking about the multi-verse or a reality made from music. One day, it may be possible to conduct experiments into the information loss paradox at blackhole event horizons. One day, we might be able to glimpse into the multi-verse to view inflationary bubbles where everything is made of anti-matter. But until then we must be careful to differentiate between what we believe and what we’ve observed. This is even more true when put in context of the anti-science right here in America. These people condemn the word theory when applied to evolution, and it’s hard to explain that theory doesn’t just mean guess. And when theory is all mathematical, it’s even more difficult.


Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math is a call to action for physics to take a good hard look at itself. It’s a necessary work that will irritate people, which is ultimately the role of a contrarian who loves a subject. Ms. Hossenfelder’s attempts to pull physics back from the borders of pure math and philosophy is admirable. As an anchor to the current realities of the field, this is a must have book for anyone exploring cutting edge theoretical physics.

8 out of 10!
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,923 reviews1,258 followers
July 2, 2018
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 “natural” numbers (by which she means numbers close to 1). Theories that don’t conform to these criteria tend to be unpopular, to receive less funding for experiments and less attention in papers. This, Hossenfelder contends, is a mistake. She fears it reinforces an orthodoxy that threatens theoretical physics with stagnation and, worse, undermines the scientific method. In her view, since theoretical physics is often regarded as the “hardest” of hard sciences, if faith in the foundations of physics goes, so too goes trust in science—right when we need it more than ever.

I guess this book kind of hits the sweet spot for me, because I’m big into the intersections of philosophy and mathematics and science. Thanks to NetGalley and Basic Books for the free eARC!

I love thinking about the limits not just of what we know but also what is knowable. This, to me, is why theoretical physics fascinates me—not just because it explains the foundations of our physical existence, but because it knocks up against literally the limits of our ability to measure and quantify. Each time we want to go looking for heavier and heavier particles, for example, we need bigger and bigger particle accelerators. That’s why we built the LHC, which—in Hossenfelder’s opinion—has been a bit of a bust in terms of new physics. But we’re running up against the limits of what we can do on Earth, or even in orbit … what’s next? Particle accelerators the size of our solar system? I get chills.

Lost in Math is not really about physics in the popular science sense. This is more accurately a philosophy book. Hossenfelder discusses a lot of physics concepts (most of which, to be honest, go way over my head), but ultimately she is more interested in looking at why her colleagues in theoretical physics chase the theories that they do. Unlike some of them, she confesses that she doesn’t seem to have a nose for beauty, that she doesn’t recognize a beautiful theory when she sees it—and she is uneasy about this reliance on ideas of beauty.

So while the book follows the fairly standard approach in popular science texts of doing a brief overview of the history of physics, Hossenfelder is looking at the philosophies that were at work rather than the merits of the actual theories. As familiar names—Bohr and Einstein and Schrodinger and Heisenberg and Dirac et al—move across the page, we learn more about their thinking—insofar as we can know it—than their specific contributions. Hossenfelder isn’t looking to teach physics here. She’s asking us to think critically about why we have the physics we do.

I think this is a really interesting and important point. To laypeople, like myself, it might seem inevitable that we’ve ended up here. After all, there is only one true science, right? We might have made a bunch of false starts, but along the way, as we uncover more and more “facts” and tinker with our theories and run better experiments, we’re narrowing it down and getting closer to “the truth”, right?

Well … it’s complicated. As Hossenfelder explains, it isn’t so much that the physics we have now is The One True Physics as it is Something That Mostly Works. And in the case of quantum physics, there are actually a whole bunch of competing interpretations that explain the same phenomena, just differently, and at the moment they all tend to be valid because no one has figured out a way to test between them. So as much as both philosophers and physicists would like the other camp to stay out of their business, when you get right down to it, the two are entwined at the moment.

Hossenfelder tours the landscape of theoretical physics, interviewing researchers in different fields to help her understand the obsession with naturalness and beauty. Along the way, you will pick up on her clear sense of exasperation with what’s happening in her profession. It isn’t just the naturalness argument: it’s the whole system, the fighting over short-term grants and positions, the tendency to reward people who publish more often, on more accepted topics, over people who spend their time tinkering with more heterodox approaches. And maybe how surprised I am by Hossenfelder’s tone and voice, or even the fact that this book got written, further supports this idea, since we are so used to “gee whiz” pop physics books that emphasize the beauty of the universe and of the theories that explain it. Physicists who write books for popular consumption are generally trying to build a following, and I get the impression Hossenfelder really doesn’t care about that. While I find Hossenfelder’s writing, in general, to be mediocre, her forthright and honest tone is refreshing and interesting.

There’s a fair bit of mathematical concepts in this book too. That probably shouldn’t be surprising, given its title. There aren’t actual equations, but Hossenfelder throws around terms like “groups” fairly generously without really going into what they are (and maybe that’s for the best). As with the physics shop talk, if you don’t have much of a grounding in abstract algebra, you’re going to feel a little out of the loop. This is not a light read. It is, however, enjoyable in the sense that it tickles the part of your brain that really wants to think hard about things.

Lost in Math succeeds, largely, in what it sets out to do. It demonstrates that certain elements of how theoretical physicists theorize right now aren’t the most conducive or productive. It pulls back the curtain for a wider audience, exposing us to some of the philosophical debates and issues that have long been happening within the physics community, which laypeople might wrongly perceive as monolithic in approach, if not in interpretations. Hossenfelder’s writing is a little dry, and the book is full of challenging concepts … but I think it’s worth a try if you want some philosophy in with your science.

Creative Commons BY-NC License
327 reviews7 followers
May 4, 2018
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 for it, that's not so good.

I particularly like the fact that the author brings up the fact of a probability distribution. If one doesn't have a probability distribution, you cannot quantify how "improbable" it is for two numbers to cancel out so well (fine-tuning). It's just not possible. Yet, it seems like physicists are doing this over and over again, without recognizing they are choosing a probability distribution arbitrarily.

The author's views on beauty within physics is also nice to hear. It's fine to say that beauty has been an okay guide in the past, but there's no reason for us to think it's the only guide, or needs to be correct. This has implications, since it affects what kind of experiments are funded (to a certain extent). As such, it's important to acknowledge that we are enchanted by beauty, and this isn't a mathematical necessity.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. I already follow the author's blog, Backreaction, and it's great as well. Read this book. It's important.
Profile Image for Venla.
65 reviews3 followers
April 18, 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. There are not much to observe or experiment on when almost the whole subject is theoretical and not proven in any way. Right now the big thing in particle physics is The Large Hadron Collider which is still yet to be as great of a device as it was promised to be.

Hossenfelder goes through these kind of subjects as well as talks about her own experiences in her field and why she eventually took up physics in the first place. I've been struggling with physics my self for a quite long time in school but still I genuinely enjoyed this books. It kind of made me more interested in the subject and gave me some motivation to tackle down the physics course that I'm currently taking.

Lost in Math was a great summary of the current state of physics and the fact that mathematical beauty has kind of taken control over the fundamentals of physics. Hossenfelder does not leave any stone unturned and goes through many problems that the field is currently facing. It is an eye-opening book and also, makes us rethink our own views.
Profile Image for Chip Huyen.
Author 7 books3,166 followers
April 18, 2020
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.
Profile Image for melina.
17 reviews
February 24, 2023
a very critical take on the current state of theoretical physics, asking questions that very much pertain to modern physics, but that physicists often dismiss as philosophical and therefore a waste of time.
given that new theories are increasingly expensive and difficult to test, bordering on impossible, it is well worth examining the criteria currently used to decide which theories are worthy of experiment.
these often include symmetry, "naturalness" (this one i personally can’t wrap my head around; the idea that dimensionless fundamental constants should necessarily be of order 1 seems to me at odds with the chaotic and often random universe we live in), the absence of fine-tuning, and the overarching elegance of the mathematics involved. hossenfelder also touches upon more systemic issues within academia that have undoubtedly played a part in the stagnation of particle physics over the past 20 years.
overall, this was a fascinating and somewhat frustrating read. definitely recommend, especially for other physics students, as the middle chapters do get quite technical
Profile Image for Koen Crolla.
729 reviews179 followers
April 14, 2021
If, by your own account, the apparent consensus of physicists working on supersymmetry is that it "explains too many things" and "solves too many problems" not to be true, you really need more than hand-waving about cognitive biases and dog-whistles about "social phenomena" to discredit it. And if you think the unscientific pursuit of "beauty" is to blame for its enduring popularity despite its supposed flaws, it's also kind of important to establish that this pursuit is indeed unscientific—Hossenfelder just kind of assumes it must be a purely aesthetic judgement rather than a shorthand for parsimony or whatever, and also that every mention of "beauty" in the past is equivalent to every other (so she can blame e.g. Tycho Brahe's (!) geocentrism on it, which additionally has the advantage that he used the word "symmetry" once, which she can waggle her eyebrows at).
The fact is that physicists' conception of beauty, even if they're very bad at articulating what it actually means in on-the-spot interviews with an unsympathetic interviewer, has produced basically the whole body of work of the field so far (not just the bit at the end), while Hossenfelder's alleged acceptance of ugliness, whether she realises it or not, amounts to sitting down and stopping work entirely, accepting that things are fine the way they are.

What is this book even trying to do? If you genuinely believe Physics Is In A Crisis, how is a popsci book aimed at an audience so lay it needs it explained that 10² = 100 going to accomplish anything except maybe get your funding cut if it reaches a politician? It's too vague—often carefully so—to actually teach anyone anything about any of the physics involved. There's an appendix explaining "what you can do to help", but it's not actually connected to anything she establishes in the book itself (its advice to "make up your own mind" and not to judge scientists by how popular their research is as a "higher ed administrator [or] science policy maker" is so wildly irresponsible I can't believe it survived editing). I guess it's not surprising Lee Smolin is acknowledged in the acknowledgements.

There are legitimate bits and pieces in here—about the way academic funding works now creating perverse incentives for researchers, for instance—but none support or are even particularly related to her thesis.
I hope that the travel allowance she obviously got to write this book went some way to resolving the breakdown or burn-out that inspired it.

(Two stars instead of one partly because it's hard to tell how much of the book is mendacity and how much is just Hossenfelder being German and on the spectrum and genuinely experiencing a breakdown in communication, but mostly because drama in theoretical physics doesn't tend to come around to waste my time the way drama in some other fields does, so it's whatever.)
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