Manny's Reviews > Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray

Lost in Math by Sabine Hossenfelder
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really liked it
bookshelves: linguistics-and-philosophy, science, well-i-think-its-funny, received-free-copy
Recommended 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 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.
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Reading Progress

February 8, 2018 – Started Reading
February 8, 2018 – Shelved
February 9, 2018 –
page 70
24.05% "Nima isn't happy. "If you're a hard-nosed layperson and your knowledge of physics was based on Brian Greene's book The Elegant Universe - not to pick on Brian, but you could come away with the idea that physicists are just making shit up. This is unfortunate because it's far from reality, the reality of a decent, working physicist.""
February 9, 2018 –
page 120
41.24% "Computational complexity is in principle quantifiable for any theory which can be converted into computer code. We are not computers, however, and therefore computational complexity is not a measure we actually use. The human idea of simplicity is very much based on ease of applicability, which is closely tied to our ability to grasp an idea, hold it in mind, and push it around until a paper falls out."
February 10, 2018 –
page 200
68.73% "If you think there've been more groundbreaking innovations recently than ever before, you're right. In a 2015 study, researchers from the Netherlands counted adjectives used in scientific papers and found that the frequencies of the words "unprecedented", "groundbreaking" and "novel" increased by over 2500% from 1974 to 2014. Runners-up were "innovative", "amazing" and "promising", with increases of over 1000%,"
February 10, 2018 –
page 220
75.6% "Like good psychologists, good philosophers of science succeed by making themselves superfluous. And like good psychologists, they shouldn't be offended if a patient furiously denies needing help."
February 11, 2018 – Shelved as: linguistics-and-philosophy
February 11, 2018 – Shelved as: science
February 11, 2018 – Shelved as: well-i-think-its-funny
February 11, 2018 – Shelved as: received-free-copy
February 11, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-50 of 57 (57 new)


message 1: by David (new)

David Very interesting, Manny. I want to read Sabine's book. I think I have mixed feelings with respect to the fact that beauty should be a guide or not. In my view, beauty can be a great guide in absence of experimental data, and probably there are philosophical reasons for that (although I can't cite them).


notgettingenough Love the poker analogy.


notgettingenough David wrote: " In my view, beauty can be a great guide in absence of experimental data, and probably there are philosophical reasons for that (although I can't cite them). "

My impression from what I've read in this area is that it suffers from the having become dogma. Science needs diversity. If it is compulsory to follow a creed - in this case maybe the cult of beauty - then diversity suffers and that has to be bad.


message 4: by Carmen (new) - added it

Carmen Wow, sounds like you really enjoyed this. Great review!


message 5: by Matt (new) - added it

Matt We need superintelligence to devise particle physics experiments for us to carry out. What can go possibly wrong?


message 6: by David (new)

David @notgettinenough: Yeah, I agree with you. I think there's enough diversity in theoretical physics (probably even wild diversity), but if you need to classify what ideas seem more promising, beauty can be a great criterion. But in the end, yes, beauty can be tricky.

All this reminds me G. H. Hardy quote that in mathematics there is no *permanent* place for ugly mathematics. Perhaps physics is harder in the this respect. Perhaps physicists don't have a candle (beautiful ideas) to guide them, like mathematicians...


message 7: by [deleted user] (new)

Could it be that those supersymmetric particles are just shy creatures?


Manny Carmen wrote: "Wow, sounds like you really enjoyed this. Great review!"

It's impressive that she's managed to create such a fun book out of such apparently unpromising material!


Manny Matt wrote: "We need superintelligence to devise particle physics experiments for us to carry out. What can go possibly wrong?"

In fact, she says people already are starting to use deep learning to design physics experiments. Early stages, but it's not going too badly. I hadn't heard about this before.


message 10: by Manny (last edited Feb 11, 2018 01:40PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny David wrote: "@notgettinenough: Yeah, I agree with you. I think there's enough diversity in theoretical physics (probably even wild diversity), but if you need to classify what ideas seem more promising, beauty ..."

Beauty has worked well as a guide in the past. Or at least, quite a few great physicists (Dirac is a particularly clear example) say they were guided by beauty, and their results look very beautiful. But she says it doesn't seem to be helping so much any more. Supersymmetry has been a huge disappointment, many people are still in denial.


Manny Lenny? wrote: "Could it be that those supersymmetric particles are just shy creatures?"

If their masses are high enough, we wouldn't yet have seen them at the LHC. But the natural and beautiful versions of the theory gave them low masses.


message 12: by John (new)

John Mitchell These are interesting and I can't really respond to comments on the book since I haven't read it. However, I can say with certainty that Physics is far from played out. Particle physics isn't everything. And even there we need to pay attention to the output of cosmic accelerators that exceed earthbound accelerators by over 9 orders of magnitude. Also, experiment and theory aren't the same thing. Regarding superstmmetry, the history of physics is not linear and is littered with good theories that failed in their promise. That is how we learn and progress!


message 13: by Manny (last edited Feb 12, 2018 02:11PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny Oh, I don't think the book in any way suggests that physics is played out. More that we need to consider abandoning methods which don't appear to be delivering any more.

There is a short but interesting section on using AIs to do science (suggest experiments, interpret data). As a chess player, an area where the machines are now far ahead of the humans, I am struck by the fact that they have greatly advanced our knowledge of the game over the last 25 years, while making it much "uglier". Humans like to play beautiful moves, but machines don't care, and it seems that chess beauty can be quite misleading at the top level.


Radiantflux What is Real? by Adam Becker is very good at showing how Bohr and others basically stopped any serious investigations of quantum ontology for decades. I was shocked to find out that the postdoc that first proved Bell's Inequality couldn't get tenure because he hadn't been doing any thing "serious".

Coming from a neuroscience/psychology background, where physicists are always presenting themselves as the one true science, it's shocking to find out how non-scientific the sociology of physics really is.


Manny I hadn't heard of that book, but I've seen several others exploring the same area. Byrne's The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III is a very nice popular historical presentation, which has some withering things to say about the treatment Everett received from the Bohr coterie. Wallace's The Emergent Multiverse is an excellent technical account of how the philosophy of MWI works.


message 16: by Radiantflux (last edited Jun 12, 2018 05:58AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Radiantflux I can definitely recommend the book by Becker. He's an astrophysicist by training, and paints a very vivid account of the ideas behind the Foundations of QM over the last century.

It was remarkable how poorly treated people where who when against the standard model. Or even questioned what the measurement problem was. Even Bell said he only did work on QM foundations on Sundays in his spare time.

According to Becker Quantum Computing comes directly out of Bell's work (something that I didn't quite get from the book), which if so does tend put to rest the idea that contemplating QM foundations is even a practical waste of time.

And I've always been taught that Einstein didn't get QM, but Becker's account suggests he understood it only too well and could see that there were either hidden variables (against the Copenhagen Interpretation) or there was non-locality; and quite reasonable (if ultimately wrongly) sided with hidden variable accounts.


Manny There are still people defending hidden variable accounts, which are apparently not as dead as is popularly believed. Lee Smolin presents the case in Time Reborn.

I'll see if I can get hold of Becker's book, thank you!


message 18: by Radiantflux (last edited Jun 12, 2018 11:00AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Radiantflux (I'm taking outside my pay grade, but) I think hidden variable accounts a la Bohm' s Pilot Wave account are ok because the pilot waves change instantaneously so non-locality is preserved.


Manny I've seen at least a couple of accounts (I think Lewis's Quantum Ontology is one of them) that suggest "pilot wave" doesn't really amount to much more than changing the labels, since the pilot wave ends up doing all the work. I don't think it's taken very seriously nowadays.


message 20: by [deleted user] (new)

Manny wrote; "She's talked with a bunch of people, some of them major stars of the physics world. "

WOW! Did she get autographs? They must be worth a fortune.


Radiantflux I've seen at least a couple of accounts (I think Lewis's Quantum Ontology is one of them) that suggest "pilot wave" doesn't really amount to much more than changing the labels, since the pilot wave ends up doing all the work. I don't think it's taken very seriously nowadays.

Becker seemed to think Pilot Wave theory was worth considering (as did Bell), but I have no opinion myself. I agree it seems a little handwavy. After reading Becker's book I have no idea what is reasonable or not, as a lot of the arguments for/against different interpretations seem guided more by emotional or gut-feel than rational arguments.


Manny Yes, there is the question of what is subject to empirical testing and what is really just terminology.

Tegmark, who's clearly thought about it a lot, claims that the only empirical test you can perform to decide whether MWI is valid is the notorious quantum suicide experiment - and then all you can do is find out for yourself, you can't convince anyone else.


message 23: by Shabbeer (new) - added it

Shabbeer Hassan There's a neat book review too: https://www.nature.com/articles/d4158...


Manny Thank you Shabeer, that is indeed a nice review!


message 25: by Michael (new)

Michael Perkins You mean the old Numb3rs TV show was wrong about this? Damn!


Manny I had never heard of Numb3rs - just looked it up, it sounds like fun! I'm not sure about the connection. I guess there's an opening here for a director to rewrite the search for supersymmetric partners as a heist movie, where the scam is to divert tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer's money into buying superconducting magnets and liquid helium by appealing to a theory which the insiders know is in fact probably incorrect. Should play well in the Age of Fake News...


message 27: by Michael (new)

Michael Perkins It was a fun show. But one of the characters, a physicist, gets to join what he calls "the Higgs project." He also gets to go up and work in he space station.


message 28: by Michael (new)

Michael Perkins Here's the pilot episode....

https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x58...


Manny Maybe I should check out this show. I was involved in a space station project for a few years, and the search for the Higgs was Geneva's largest employer while it was going on...


message 30: by Manny (last edited Jun 15, 2018 11:37AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny OMG, this book has hit a nerve. For extreme examples, look at the very positive review by Woit and the deranged rant by Motl. And put on some more popcorn.


message 31: by Mir (new)

Mir Motl sounds like an incoherent ass. I'm definitely not reading HIS physics books.

(My physicist cousin hasn't read it but read the review and suggested, more moderately, that many problems had not been solved because they were very difficult, not because no one was trying alternate approaches.)


Manny Not spent most of yesterday evening researching Motl. He is evidently not sane, but it's also clear that he's extremely intelligent and knows a huge amount about physics. It's an interesting story. Encourage her to write it up!

No one knows why fundamental physics is stuck at the moment. It seem to me that books like this are valuable, because they at least force us to think about the issues and discuss them more, rather than pretending that everything is fine.


Radiantflux No one knows why fundamental physics is stuck at the moment.

"We'll be saying a big hello to all intelligent lifeforms everywhere and to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys.” - Douglas Adams.


message 34: by Shabbeer (new) - added it

Shabbeer Hassan Whoa Motl's review has the words/phrases "anti-physics", "hasn't done anything", "womansplaining" all in the first 1-2 paragraphs! No need to go further I'd say.


message 35: by Shabbeer (new) - added it

Shabbeer Hassan Also, I saw he wrote a book about the discredited Bogdanov brothers in a laudatory tone: https://www.amazon.fr/L%C3%A9quation-...


Manny Shabbeer wrote: "Whoa Motl's review has the words/phrases "anti-physics", "hasn't done anything", "womansplaining" all in the first 1-2 paragraphs! No need to go further I'd say."

A very wise decision, Shabbeer.


Manny Shabbeer wrote: "Also, I saw he wrote a book about the discredited Bogdanov brothers in a laudatory tone: https://www.amazon.fr/L%C3%A9quation-..."

It hadn't crossed my mind that it might be laudatory. Now I'm curious.


message 38: by Allan (new)

Allan Today YouTube recommended to me a Big Think video by Erik Verlinde (2011) on his theory of entropic gravity, so I watched it. Here Erik says that Newton was dissatisfied by his (merely) descriptive theory. And I think he implied that Einstein's theory, too, remains irritatingly descriptive. Really? What physicists rarely comment upon is the aesthetics halting problem: at what point is does a diet-edition Standard Model become sufficiently elegant? For precisely what integer less than 19 would the motley free parameters of the Standard Model's Lagrangian become sufficiently charismatic to end the cosmetic mole hunt and eyebrow-hair pluck fest?

After watching Erik's clip, I ask myself "what is this entropic gravity thing" and that lead me to a nice Forbes article by Sabine, which lead me to her book, which lead me here, where I find Manny discussing exactly what bugged me about Erik's 2011 musings for Big Think.

My two cents: Accept no aesthetic quest without a predeclared aesthetic halting condition.

And since Manny is on the (big) money here, allow me to unburden a related pet peeve. The multiverse crowd is not shy about brushing aside Popperian falsifiability. Sure, perhaps physics needs to go there. It can be argued. But what these Popperian poopooers seem not to realize is that the reason greater society has been ponying up those multi-billion dollar machines is entirely anchored in the Popperian social contract. Without the social contract of physical-world falsifiability there's little to distinguish physics from religion (albeit a very, very difficult religion with a high internal bar); certainly not enough lingering druid-be-gone to justify any further public investment in these big machines.

Yes, all you multiversers in your aesthetic thrall can jump ship to neo-nonfalsification if you really must—just don't be shocked if or put on a pouty face if the public money doesn't follow you there with nice toys and fat research stipends. (But good news: I hear that patent examination offices the world over are perennially understaffed; surely the work is easy, and the hours lax.)


message 39: by Peter (last edited Nov 12, 2018 01:15PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Peter Tillman "....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."

Very nice review. No wonder it's #1. Thank you!


Manny Thank you Peter! I should say though that I had a first mover advantage here, since my review got posted several weeks ahead of any of the others.


message 41: by Christopher (new) - added it

Christopher How much knowledge about physics is needed to understand/read the book?


message 42: by Manny (last edited Nov 20, 2018 08:47AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny It's not easy to give a straightforward answer to that question. Some parts of it are very technical. But my take, based on reading it myself and discussing with several people who've read it and aren't physics junkies, is that it's accessible even to readers with only a fairly basic knowledge of physics. I know at least one such person who said she really liked it.


message 43: by Christopher (new) - added it

Christopher Thanks! I will give it a try.


Manny Hope you enjoy it! She's quite funny :)


message 45: by Christopher (new) - added it

Christopher I follow her YouTube channel where she talks about MOND and she actually started recently to write for Heise.de as well. Short read I can recommend: https://www.heise.de/newsticker/meldu...


Manny Ah, if you liked that then I think you'll like the book. The article is close to being a German-language teaser trailer.


message 47: by Christopher (new) - added it

Christopher One last question, do you happen to know if it was original written in English or German? I'd like to read the original. Amazon mentions translators on the German edition, so she wrote it in English?


Manny Yes, she says she's been living overseas so long she no longer feels confident enough to write in German! Her English is startlingly good.


message 49: by Brad (new) - added it

Brad Lyerla Ugh. Now I may have to read this book. Your review has called me out. But one question. Does she really say that the standard model is ugly, but passes all the tests? I understood that the problem with the standard model is that it is transparently incomplete in that it cannot be reconciled with other branches of physics. I guess it could be both ugly and incomplete. But the motivation to keep looking is to find a path to unification. Does Hassenfelder disagree with this?


Manny No one has a truly convincing story about how to reconcile QM with gravity (whatever you may hear). But the Standard Model passes all the tests that don't involve gravity, unless something has happened very recently.


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