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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.

What listeners say about Lost in Math

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excellent, very truly and reflect the reality

she has amazing style if writing which is quite convincing. I fully agree with it.

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  • Joe
  • 08-12-18

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There are two ways to approach this book: to engage with it as an argument, or to accept it as an historical document.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.

171 people found this helpful

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  • Anand
  • 02-01-19

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.

57 people found this helpful

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  • Oliver
  • 06-01-19

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.

20 people found this helpful

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  • Joe V
  • 22-03-19

Interesting, entertaining and a good wake-up call.

Interesting, entertaining and a good wake-up call for scientists in all fields. While some knowledge in particle physics would be useful here, just an interest in the field suffices.

11 people found this helpful

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  • See Reverse
  • 15-03-19

An Explanation of How the Physics Community Works

If you were curious about how the science of physics progresses - this is a fascinating read. The interconnection of theoretical physics, experimental physics, and mathematics is currently struggling through a period of difficult, high-cost experiments in order to progress to a better understanding of material reality. In the absence of new experiments, theoretical physics is favoring mathematical theories, like Super-Symmetry and String Theory which have "beautiful" ramifications for physics, but a continued lack of empirical support. In this book, Hossenfelder confronts the current state and bias of physics with an aim toward grounding physics in the physical world - a common-held belief that is now wavering in some pockets of the physics world.

Although this book focuses primarily on the system of people involved in advancing physics in the world today, it does address concerns of modernity: the busy, multi-tasked roles of physicists today is not improving the quality or advancement of the discipline. Where cutting edge physics experiments are expensive, putting a few string theorists on staff to draw attention to your department is cheap. Hossenfelder also provides a strong critique of economics... something like "economists are not advancing mathematics - even though string theory hasn't yet proved itself as a physical theory, at least it advances mathematics."

What a great listen - if you're at all interested in physics!

14 people found this helpful

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  • Jean
  • 13-08-19

Excellent

Hossenfelder is a theoretical physicist. This is her first book written for the lay audience. The author is a research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies in Germany. The book is about the abuse of mathematics while pretending to do science. The book is a series of interviews with well-known physicists. She builds a case of how science fails to self-correct itself and set about proving a theory. Hossenfelder does some critical thinking that she outlines in the book. I understand the politics of science and Hossenfelder put her career on the line by writing this book. If you are interested in science/physics, this is a worthwhile book to read.

The book is eight hours and forty minutes. Laura Jennings does a good job narrating the book. Jennings is a voice actor and full-time audiobook narrator.

5 people found this helpful

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  • Matthew
  • 03-02-19

Great synopsis of the state of HEP and an honest look at what needs to be questiond going forward.

5 people found this helpful

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  • Susan A. Henninger
  • 07-12-18

Good background info, her critique is needed!

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

11 people found this helpful

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  • Wayne
  • 22-06-19

Important book about biases of many scientists!

The topic of LOST IN MATH is about how many/most current physicists have abandoned serious scientific research in their search for "mathematical beauty". The author, a physicist herself, presents a strong case. Of course, cognitive bias has become a major issue is fields other than physics.

Narrator Laura Jennings does an outstanding job with difficult subject matter.

10 people found this helpful

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  • Tom
  • 26-07-19

Did you ever try to catch a single snowflake?

I began this book thinking that I understood her premise: Current efforts in Theoretical Particle Physics was proceeding down a blind alley toward a dead end because of its fascination with Beauty as a necessary requirement for a successful theory.

With my very limited knowledge of the field, I had always liked the idea that Beauty would be the ultimate criterion for a Theory of Everything so I was interested in her critique. Plus, she promised that an understanding of the Math used in Physics wouldn’t be required to enjoy the book.

She was right. No equations are required of the reader, but the arguments she engages in are so complex, convoluted and cached in the language of the Giants of the field, that it is like trying to catch one snowflake in a blizzard to grasp the individual gems she hides in each discussion with these Physicists.

I stuck with Lost in Math as long as I could because I love getting lost in the descriptions of Quantum Theory and String Theory. But I really don’t think I could do justice to a critique of the book. Good luck to those of you with better understanding of what she’s talking about. I still enjoyed the experience.

3 people found this helpful

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  • JHFD
  • 29-12-20

Interesting, informative & thought provoking read

I'm not a physicist but I found this an interesting book that puts a lot of the 'stories' that circulate relating to the significance and meaning of the current thinking both derrived from and related to quantum physics in perspective. Many of Sabine Hossenfelder's observations do not necessarily come as a surprise when one considers the culture of the modern era - celebrity, multimedia etc.

Had I a better understanding of physics, I am sure there would have been far more meaning for me with respect to the physics discussed. However, that did not detract from the my enjoyment or the primary objective of the book, which I took to be an attempt to raise an awareness within the world of physics that, based on Sabine's own experience and opinion, a lot of time, effort and money is actually being wasted by research physicists in the pursuit of ideas that are conceived as needing to be 'beautiful' in mathematical terms, simple, at the expense of failing to actually search for truth. Fundamentally a culture has developed within the community of physicists and associated mathematicians that has lost sight of their intended goals through a process driven by a range of biases (e.g. cognitive bias; belief bias; shared information bias) that end up promoting ‘popular’ beliefs and ideas at the expense of investigation that might be of greater value. The fact that researchers are in need of funding to pursue their interests and that supporting, funding organisations tend to have a bias towards supporting popular, topical areas of investigation, has a potentially harmful effect on those areas of potential interest that lack high profile status with the result that they tend to be ignored or overlooked.

George Soros might describe such pursuits as Rational Fallacies or in simpler terms the following of paths that appear to offer value, truth and meaning but are in fact wrong. He would also argue that such fallacies have a tendency to be ‘fertile’, they have a tendency to grow wings.

The study of Physics is a classic example of the human process of investigation, learning, evaluation, understanding, theorising and deduction; the search for truth through the scientific process. A process that seeks an understanding of the physical, error free world through man's only current means understanding, his own brain. Unfortunately the brain derives its understanding on the unavoidable process of interpretation of sensory data, not fact, only impressions created by the sensory organs of the body on the cells of the brain causing modification of its prevailing state. The brain's ability not only to interpret its own current state but to modify its state as a result of that process of interpretation, a process based on its previous evaluation of past states, actual and derived experience, makes it highly likely, indeed inevitably, prone to error. As a consequence of which, it is hardly surprising that apparently sound ideas are frequently actually in error, a fact that should be taken into account when pursuing any particular line of thought!

Recognising what are seen as the potentially harmful tendencies in the current approach to research into sub atomic physics, the book seeks to bring these to the attention of those involved and to encourage a greater degree of cooperation between the various disciplines in the world of physics and with other fields of knowledge with a view to broadening the somewhat blinkered approach that is seen as currently existing. Sabine Hossenfelder seeks to demonstrate and validate her ideas and feelings through a number of interviews with eminent researchers in the field of physics.

An interesting, informative and thought provoking read.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Jim Vaughan
  • 02-01-19

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.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Michael
  • 11-12-18

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 person found this helpful

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  • ALAN & ALISA DUTCH
  • 31-10-20

Meh

I mean, it was an OK physics blether, but not sure it added anything. TL;DR some physicists might be wasting their time just making up models that can't be tested.

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  • Christina
  • 27-02-20

Very clear analysis of the need for metaphysics

Sabine makes a compelling argument for the need for investigation of socialogical and metaphysical influences on theoretical physics.

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  • Davide V.
  • 24-01-19

A much needed critique of current science practice

This book reminded me of "The Trouble With Physics" by Lee Smolin. While that one tended to focus in particular on string theory and the self perpetuating funding biases that made it cannibalize other approaches, here Dr. Hosenfelder highlights how the widely accepted aesthetic criteria are not as solid as seems to be widely thought, and might make us blind to other promising but supposedly "ugly" avenues of research. I particularly appreciated Appendix C where a variety of recipes on how to mitigate some of the endemic biases in the scientific community are proposed.

1 person found this helpful