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Lost in Math

Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray

Sabine Hossenfelder
Basic Books
2018
304 pp.
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Lost in Math is the debut book by Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist known to many from her blog, “Backreaction,” which is one of the most well-read of its kind by practitioners of theoretical high-energy physics. Hossenfelder has gained some notoriety for her strong opposition to common arguments that physicists make when formulating new theories.

Hossenfelder seems resigned to a dismal reception, predicting in October 2017, “This isn’t a nice book and sadly it’s foreseeable most of my colleagues will hate it. By writing it, I waived my hopes of ever getting tenure (1).” Although sure to be unpopular, her critical assessment of the field is appropriately timed. In recent decades, high-energy physicists have increasingly relied on theoretical guiding principles to develop new models of nature and to motivate new experiments. But these principles are losing validity, as the Large Hadron Collider has failed to verify many of their predictions. It is a real crisis: Just as the stakes surrounding experimental tests have risen (many experiments have become so costly that they need funding from several governments), our theoretical criteria are starting to fall apart.

Lost in Math paints a very bleak picture of the state of affairs, with Hossenfelder serving as the iconoclast. Our theoretical guiding principles, she insists, are more aesthetic than scientific. Although they may have influenced some historical successes, most of these successes were “postdictions” rather than predictions and should therefore not be counted as evidence. The theoretical physics community, she argues, is falling victim to group thinking and cognitive bias.

The book relies heavily on interviews with important stakeholders in the physics community, including several Nobel laureates and other well-known physicists. Hossenfelder interlaces direct quotes from the interviewees with her own interpretations of what they mean (and, often, why she thinks they are wrong). The interviews are the book’s main source of nuance, but her heavy-handed contextualization spoils them.

Hossenfelder’s book is not the first exposition on the state of theoretical physics for a general audience, but it is more sweeping in its scope. An academic dialogue might have been more appropriate, however; the choice to write for a lay audience is limiting. Although good analogies are found for some technical concepts, most readers will be left with only a high-level understanding of the arguments under discussion. Different concepts are conflated throughout the book (for example, technical naturalness, which has a statistical meaning, and mathematical elegance) and are somewhat mockingly referred to collectively as “beauty.” Even with these simplifications, however, the writing level will likely be challenging for nonphysicists.

Of course, all this might be forgiven if Hossenfelder offered a convincing alternative vision for the future of the field. Instead, the book’s last chapter includes a half-hearted argument in favor of more collaborations with philosophers (recognizing the philosophical nature of many of our theoretical guiding principles). But the reader is left to imagine what such a synergy would look like and what it would give rise to.

 

Editor’s Note: This review originally contained an unattributed quote, which has since been removed.

References

  1. Backreaction blog; http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2017/10/book-update.html

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755, USA.