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Publisher's Summary

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.

©2018 Sabine Hossenfelder (P)2018 Brilliance Publishing, Inc., all rights reserved.

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A rare glimpse into the inner world of physics

There are two ways to approach this book: to engage with it as an argument, or to accept it as an historical document. The first approach is feasible only for a subset of physicists, a tiny fraction of potential readers. Taking myself as typical of the larger group of non-physicist readers, I could follow only the broad outlines of her arguments. Smarter readers may get more out of it, but don’t ask me what “gauge symmetry” is. On this level my overall reaction to “Lost in Math” is the same as my reaction to other popular books by living physicists, which is to wonder whether what these people mean by “doing science” has anything in common with what I do as a chemist and biologist. The parts of “Lost in Math” that I really understood were those that deal with the organizational and institutional aspects of physics. If I get lost in the epistemology of particle physics, I feel completely at home when Hossenfelder describes the canalization of research and the corrupting influence of competition for external funding. Perhaps the term ‘science’ has become uselessly broad as a description of method, and retains meaning only as a sociological term, to describe organized investigations of the world that are embedded in modern academic institutions. Hossenfelder probably would reject this social definition of science, and it’s to her credit that she has written with enough candor that her book can support positions that she might oppose.

And the real value of “Lost in Math” is in its honesty. Hossefelder’s descriptions of debates in physics are no more lucid than those of other contemporary physicists, but she has given us something better: a candid description of her own reaction to those debates, and the mind of a physicist. This candor, which is rare and demands courage, makes “Lost in Math” a document in the history of science that should remain useful long after the controversies it describes have faded, a category of books that also includes Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle,” Jung’s “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” and Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams.” Someone viewing contemporary physics from the outside and wondering what makes physicists tick is in a position analogous to a physicist investigating the deep structure of matter. In both cases the object can be understood only indirectly. “Lost in Math” is like a particle ejected from the core of physics, revealing information about an otherwise opaque world. The picture of that world that emerges in “Lost in Math” is not pretty. At times Hossenfelder displays an ignorance of what non-physicists do and think as profound as its reciprocal. But her book is only the more valuable for such ugliness, for if physicists have been seduced by beauty in their search for natural law, the wider world has been seduced by beauty in their search for understanding of how science works. The physicists in “Lost in Math” are human beings, not heroes.

7 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Good background info, her critique is needed!

Her review of current theories is excellent. Her heretical stance is important to be made public.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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A timely critique

In the era of the reproducibility crisis, scientists from diverse disciplines often aspire to the standards of physics, where experimental results are orders of magnitude more reliable than elsewhere. Hossenfelder and Jennings point out that there is another problem eating away at many scientific disciplines, and specifically affecting theoretical particle physics: an overweening reliance on aesthetic judgements such as 'naturalness' and elegance. The authors offer a timely critique of this growing problem with detailed examples and compelling interviews -- while remaining circumspect about making philosophical assertions that generalize out of their area of expertise. I recommend this book to any practicing scientist or philosopher of science.

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  • Anand
  • BALTIMORE, MD, United States
  • 01-02-19

Problems in fundamental physics research today

Great book on the problems facing fundamental physics research today. The author does a great job of talking about the past successes of theoretical physics and how those approaches aren't working leading to questionable practices within the community. The book is written for audiences, both with or without a scientific background. I would strongly recommend it for anyone that is interested.

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A must read

Hossenfelder allows the space for skepticism of established science by calling for a greater adoption of the scientific method.

1 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Michael
  • 12-11-18

Interesting perspective for a hopeful physicist

A very interesting book for me as I'm about to start a PhD in theoretical physics. Get it and listen. Though I will warn you it sounds like a (quite clever) robot read it.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Jim Vaughan
  • 01-02-19

Exciting, Challenging and Controversial.

Challenging (but important) book this, both in terms of the sophisticated Physics discussed, but also the controversial thesis at its heart!

Sabine Hossenfelder is a working physicist, prepared to blow the whistle on the chronic lack of progress for the past 50 years: the failure of the LHC to find any evidence of Supersymmetry, the lack of progress in String Theory, the failure to identify Dark Matter, resolve the contradictions between Quantum Mechanics and Relativity or develop a fundamental explanation beyond the Standard Model. Meanwhile, physicists continue to churn out untestable hypotheses and hypothetical new particles with curious names. Why? The attraction to beautiful theories, and elegant maths is seductive, but may be misleading us... Beauty may not necessarily be “Truth”, but may, like music, be culturally inculcated ie. in the eye of the beholder. Hossenfelder raises the alarm that we may be drifting towards ‘post empirical science’ where rather than being led by empirical discovery, a theory’s “beauty” defined as simplicity, naturalness and elegance become the dominant criteria used to decide where to invest in research. We may be looking in the wrong places.

Throughout the book, ideas and explanations are interwoven with sometimes confrontational interviews with the likes of Stephen Weinberg (who abruptly walks out on her), Frank Wilczek, George F.R. Ellis, Nima Arkani-Hamed and Joe Polchinski among others. She asks intriguing questions such as how, in a Multiverse of all possibilities, we can know which phenomena demand explanation, and what are just brute fact. Do we need a meta theory to determine the probabilities? Naturalness confounds simplicity.

This is an important book. If you are interested in Physics, and have a fair understanding of M-Theory, SUSY, QM, Relativity and the Standard Model, you should find it interesting, even if you disagree. It is narrated clearly and enjoyably. “Lost in Math” feels like the realisation of Horgan’s “The End of Science” at a time when Science, and especially Physics has never been more popular, or more widely perceived as successful.