Lost in Math

How Beauty Leads Physics Astray

[Amazon Link]

I picked this book up from the Portsmouth Public Library, spurred by an interesting Econtalk podcast with the author, Sabine Hossenfelder, earlier this year. She is a theoretical physicist, currently at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies. She's German, but her English is very good; as near as I can tell, her writing is mainly in English.

The book is an interesting combination of philosophy and science, spurred mainly by the recent (and continuing) failure of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to detect new particles predicted by theories of "supersymmetry".

Famously, the LHC detected the Higgs Boson a few years back, and that was great, but the Higgs had long been predicted by the so-called "Standard Model". Supersymmetry, though, is (was?) an exciting new theory that was considered to be "beautiful". So beautiful, in fact, that some theoreticians felt it "had to be true".

Could it be that (see the subtitle) that physicists were led "astray" by mathematical beauty? Specifically, led into dropping billions of eurodollars onto a research facility that has come up with (again, so far) disappointing results? (That money could maybe have been directed at more fruitful research. It would have bought a lot of whiteboards and dry-erase markers.)

Sabine (I call her Sabine) explores notions of "beauty" in science. With a philosopher's care, she breaks it down into various components: simplicity, naturalness, elegance. These are not strictly defined, but they're described well. "Naturalness" is probably the weirdest concept: the notion that dimensionless ratios between theoretical parameters "should" be around 1. (Don't believe me? There's a Wikipedia page.)

Sabine travels the world and interviews/argues with a lot of other physicists. Her takes are personal, idiosyncratic, and often funny.

The book is aimed at a popular audience, hence shies away from delving into the actual physics. A lot of theories are described on the surface, but a lot of readers (including me, and I was a physics major long ago) will be left wondering: what's that mean? Unavoidable, I think.

I've mentioned this before, but my concern is that some aspects of the universe might be entirely too complex or subtle for human intelligence to comprehend. I have a very smart dog, but I don't expect him to be able to understand calculus. Or even something relatively simple, like the base-10 numbering system. Not only doesn't he understand it, he doesn't even understand that there's something to understand. How sure can we be that we're not in the same state?

I don't think Sabine mentions this issue in the book.

If you want to explore All Things Sabine, a good place to start is sabinehossenfelder.com, which has links to her blog, videos (including, I am not making this up, music videos), articles in various outlets, etc.