[I received a copy of this book from NetGalley.]
I can’t say for sure that I understood everything in this book, since my knowledge of physics in general is very patchy, but overall, I liked its tone, and its global idea, because I can get why one would be easily led astray by theories that look ‘beautiful’. It’s something that I feel is very human, after all, as we often look for a form of harmony in the world surrounding us, if only to try and make sense of it. Perhaps the fundamental, underlying laws of nature don’t make that much sense, or don’t always look like they do, and so we try to understand them in ways that would reconcile us with an apparent lack of… meaning, maybe? But what if the theories we pursue, albeit ‘pretty’ and nicely wrapped, turn out to be wrong? Shall we keep pursuing those, in the hopes that we just haven’t seen proof yet due to technological limitations, for instance? It seems that the answer to this isn’t so clear-cut. (The LHC being a good example. I’m tremendously excited by the LHC, and what it allowed to prove so far… but while we got the Higgs boson, we still haven’t gotten supersymmetry.)
The book also gave me pointers about things of which I clearly don’t know enough, especially in order to understand where the author comes from, so I know I’ll have to focus on those at some point in order to learn more.
As a side note, I don’t know, but I don’t feel particularly bothered by the ‘ugliness’ of the Standard Model. It may be in part because all I know about it, I learnt on my own, without following the regular cursus, so I never approached it with any specific idea in mind? We’ll see once I’ve studied more.
Conclusion: Definitely interesting, although don’t approach it if you know next to nothing to physics, since some ideas won’t make sense otherwise.
TITLE: Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray
AUTHOR: Sabine Hossenfelder
PUBLICATION DATE: 12 June 2018
FORMAT: ARC ebook
NOTE: I received an Advanced Readers Copy of this book from NetGalley. This review is my honest opinion of the book.
"Most physicists think of beauty as the royal road to discovery; a leading critic shows it is instead the road to nowhere.
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."
Lost in Math is the story of how aesthetic judgement drives contemporary research; how theoretical physicists produce ideas that are "highly controversial and yet exceedingly popular, speculative yet intriguing, pretty yet useless"; and how these theories are untestable but the physicist believes them to be too good not to be true.
In the past, scientists observed the world around them and performed experiments. Then they developed theories to explain these observations. These theories would then be tested against addition observations and experiments. These days, theoretical physicists (especially in particle physics) concoct theories that are only supported by beautiful mathematics, and which can never be confirmed by experiments or which are unlikely (due to cost and difficulty) to be examined experminentally.
In an effort to find out what went wrong with theoretical physics, Hossenfelder interviews several physicists and takes a look at the current popular physics theories. The author makes a convincing case that this reliance on the beauty/maths-only criteria to determine which theories to study and promote has resulted in a lack of progress in certain physics fields. In the author's own words, "in the end the only way to find out which theory is correct is to check whether it describes nature; non-empirical theory assessment will not do it".
The writing style of this book is conversational and accessible (for the most part - just pretend the physics is Star Trek physics), and the topic covered is important not only for physicists. I did find the physics explanations somewhat baffling but then most of the physicists interviewed state that no-one understands quantum physic. However, this book is a book about how physicists work, not about the physics itself, so it didn't matter much. I found this book to be interesting and informative.
“The time it takes to test a new fundamental law of nature can be longer than a scientist’s career. This forces theorists to draw upon criteria other than empirical adequacy to decide which research avenues to pursue. Aesthetic appeal is one of them. In our search for new ideas, beauty plays many roles. It’s a guide, a reward, a motivation. It is also a systematic bias“
In “Lost in Math - How Beauty Leads Physics Astray” by Sabine Hossenfelder
One of the most obnoxious notions I’ve ever read in Physics is the one that purports that we’re a simulation. If it's all a simulation, why wouldn't the world that simulated us be a simulation too? This is the turtles all the way down idea. This doesn't mean it isn't true but it's also the same question as, if God created the universe and us, who created God? The answer I sometimes get when I say it’s all hogwash, is that the theory is aesthetically pleasing. Where is the evidence? And more importantly, is it “implausifiable” (I’m borrowing here Hossenfelder’s term)? The supposed evidence for our universe being a simulation seems to largely include the idea that if we extrapolate our technological progress further ahead in time, we will be able to build such a simulation ourselves *therefore* we are a simulation.
If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review.
[I received a copy of this book from NetGalley.]
Well, that was a pretty informative read. A little difficult to get into at times (although I suspect half of it was because I was trying to read it when I was too tired), but definitely informative.
To be honest, I’m not that well-versed in equations in general. I can solve basic linear equations with two unknowns, that kind of thing; just don’t ask me to memorise really complex ones. So, I admit that, at first, I was hesitant to request this book, thinking that maybe it’d be out of my reach. Fortunately, while it does deal with equations, it’s not just page after page filled with numbers and symbols, and the author does explain what each term of each equation stands for. In the end, this was all fairly understandable, both the math and the writing itself.
The book doesn’t simply deal with equations either, and delves into astrobiology and basic atomic and particles physics (electrons -are- subatomic particles, after all, and knowing what part they play in atomic interactions is useful to understand what exactly happens at the biological molecular level, too). In fact, I found that a couple of chapters do fit in nicely with quantum theory, if you’re interested in that as well, since they explain essential interactions at shell level. I hadn’t studied chemistry since… at least 21 years, but this sent me back to my old classes, and I realised that I still possessed the required knowledge to get what the author was talking about. Which is great, because 1) I’m interested, 2) I like it when I grasp something that old me would’ve dismissed as ‘too hard’, 3) did I say I’m interested?
Last but not least, the book also contains a list of references that I’ll try to check at some point. Not all of them, of course, but since he points to Sean B. Carroll and his works on evo-devo, that’s a win in my little world.
All in all, this was a set of really interesting and intriguing theories, theories that make a lot of sense when you think about it and take time to observe nature around you. (Why did animals develop legs and not wheels? Well, inequal terrain and all that… Logics, logics…) And if you’re wondering about the possibility of other forms of life, either carbon-based on other planets or not even carbon-based, the author also explores this, going to demonstrate why it may or may not work (hence why a basic lesson in chemistry is provided). A solid 4.5 stars for me (I just think it dragged slightly in the last chapter).