Lost In Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray

Lost in Math
by Sabine Hossenfelder

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.


Lost in Math
by Sabine Hossenfelder

“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
by Sabine Hossenfelder

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.


The Trouble with Physics
by Lee Smolin, Professor of Physics at the Center for Gravitional Physics and Geometry Lee Smolin

In this groundbreaking book, the renowned theoretical physicist Lee Smolin argues that physics — the basis for all other sciences — has lost its way. For more than two centuries, our understanding of the laws of nature expanded rapidly. But today, despite our best efforts, we know nothing more about these laws than we knew in the 1970s. Why is physics suddenly in trouble? And what can we do about it?

One of the major problems, according to Smolin, is string theory: an ambitious attempt to formulate a “theory of everything” that explains all the particles and forces of nature and how the universe came to be. With its exotic new particles and parallel universes, string theory has captured the public’s imagination and seduced many physicists.

But as Smolin reveals, there’s a deep flaw in the theory: no part of it has been tested, and no one knows how to test it. In fact, the theory appears to come in an infinite number of versions, meaning that no experiment will ever be able to prove it false. As a scientific theory, it fails. And because it has soaked up the lion’s share of funding, attracted some of the best minds, and effectively penalized young physicists for pursuing other avenues, it is dragging the rest of physics down with it.

With clarity, passion, and authority, Smolin charts the rise and fall of string theory and takes a fascinating look at what will replace it. A group of young theorists has begun to develop exciting ideas that, unlike string theory, are testable. Smolin not only tells us who and what to watch for in the coming years, he offers novel solutions for seeking out and nurturing the best new talent–giving us a chance, at long last, of finding the next Einstein.


A Beautiful Question
by Frank Wilczek

Does the universe embody beautiful ideas?

Artists as well as scientists throughout human history have pondered this “beautiful question.” With Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek as your guide, embark on a voyage of related discoveries, from Plato and Pythagoras up to the present. Wilczek’s groundbreaking work in quantum physics was inspired by his intuition to look for a deeper order of beauty in nature. This is the deep logic of the universe–and it is no accident that it is also at the heart of what we find aesthetically pleasing and inspiring.

Wilczek is hardly alone among great scientists in charting his course using beauty as his compass. As he reveals in A Beautiful Question, this has been the heart of scientific pursuit from Pythagoras and the ancient belief in the music of the spheres to Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, and into the deep waters of twentieth-century physics. Wilczek brings us right to the edge of knowledge today, where the core insights of even the craziest quantum ideas apply principles we all understand. The equations for atoms and light are almost the same ones that govern musical instruments and sound; the subatomic particles that are responsible for most of our mass are determined by simple geometric symmetries.

Gorgeously illustrated, A Beautiful Question is a mind-shifting book that braids the age-old quest for beauty and the age-old quest for truth into a thrilling synthesis. It is a dazzling and important work from one of our best thinkers, whose humor and infectious sense of wonder animate every page. Yes: The world is a work of art, and its deepest truths are ones we already feel, as if they were somehow written in our souls.

Praise for A Beautiful Question:

“An expertly curated tour across 2,500 years of philosophy and physics . . . [Frank Wilczek] has accomplished a rare feat: Writing a book of profound humanity based on questions aimed directly at the eternal.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Both a brilliant exploration of largely uncharted territories and a refreshingly idiosyncratic guide to developments in particle physics.” —Nature

“Inspiring and remarkably accessible . . . Wilczek’s language is lyrical and almost mystical. . . . Whatever the answer Nature will ultimately give us, we have the pleasure of engaging with an enlightened and humble mind.” —The Chronicle of Higher Education


String Theory and the Scientific Method
by Richard Dawid

String theory has played a highly influential role in theoretical physics for nearly three decades and has substantially altered our view of the elementary building principles of the Universe. However, the theory remains empirically unconfirmed, and is expected to remain so for the foreseeable future. So why do string theorists have such a strong belief in their theory? This book explores this question, offering a novel insight into the nature of theory assessment itself. Dawid approaches the topic from a unique position, having extensive experience in both philosophy and high-energy physics. He argues that string theory is just the most conspicuous example of a number of theories in high-energy physics where non-empirical theory assessment has an important part to play. Aimed at physicists and philosophers of science, the book does not use mathematical formalism and explains most technical terms.

Through Two Doors at Once
by Anil Ananthaswamy

One of Smithsonian‘s Favorite Books of 2018
One of Forbes‘s 2018 Best Books About Astronomy, Physics and Mathematics
One of Kirkus‘s Best Books of 2018

The intellectual adventure story of the “double-slit” experiment, showing how a sunbeam split into two paths first challenged our understanding of light and then the nature of reality itself–and continues to almost 200 years later.

Many of science’s greatest minds have grappled with the simple yet elusive “double-slit” experiment. Thomas Young devised it in the early 1800s to show that light behaves like a wave, and in doing so opposed Isaac Newton. Nearly a century later, Albert Einstein showed that light comes in quanta, or particles, and the experiment became key to a fierce debate between Einstein and Niels Bohr over the nature of reality. Richard Feynman held that the double slit embodies the central mystery of the quantum world. Decade after decade, hypothesis after hypothesis, scientists have returned to this ingenious experiment to help them answer deeper and deeper questions about the fabric of the universe.

How can a single particle behave both like a particle and a wave? Does a particle exist before we look at it, or does the very act of looking create reality? Are there hidden aspects to reality missing from the orthodox view of quantum physics? Is there a place where the quantum world ends and the familiar classical world of our daily lives begins, and if so, can we find it? And if there’s no such place, then does the universe split into two each time a particle goes through the double slit?

With his extraordinarily gifted eloquence, Anil Ananthaswamy travels around the world and through history, down to the smallest scales of physical reality we have yet fathomed. Through Two Doors at Once is the most fantastic voyage you can take.


Farewell to Reality
by Jim Baggott

From acclaimed science author Jim Baggot, a lively, provocative, and “intellectually gratifying” critique of modern theoretical physics (The Economist).
 
Where does one draw the line between solid science and fairy-tale physics? Jim Baggott argues that there is no observational or experimental evidence for many of the ideas of modern theoretical physics: super-symmetric particles, super strings, the multiverse, the holographic principle, or the anthropic cosmological principle.
Unafraid to challenge prominent theorists, Baggott offers engaging portraits of many central figures of modern physics, including Stephen Hawking, Paul Davies, John D. Barrow, Brian Greene, and Leonard Susskind. Informed, comprehensive, and balanced, Farewell to Reality discusses the latest ideas about the nature of physical reality while clearly distinguishing between fact and fantasy, providing essential and entertaining reading for everyone interested in what we know and don’t know about the nature of the universe and reality itself.
 

When Einstein Walked with Gödel
by Jim Holt

From Jim Holt, the New York Times bestselling author of Why Does the World Exist?, comes an entertaining and accessible guide to the most profound scientific and mathematical ideas of recent centuries in When Einstein Walked with Gödel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought.

Does time exist? What is infinity? Why do mirrors reverse left and right but not up and down? In this scintillating collection, Holt explores the human mind, the cosmos, and the thinkers who’ve tried to encompass the latter with the former. With his trademark clarity and humor, Holt probes the mysteries of quantum mechanics, the quest for the foundations of mathematics, and the nature of logic and truth. Along the way, he offers intimate biographical sketches of celebrated and neglected thinkers, from the physicist Emmy Noether to the computing pioneer Alan Turing and the discoverer of fractals, Benoit Mandelbrot. Holt offers a painless and playful introduction to many of our most beautiful but least understood ideas, from Einsteinian relativity to string theory, and also invites us to consider why the greatest logician of the twentieth century believed the U.S. Constitution contained a terrible contradiction—and whether the universe truly has a future.


Third Thoughts
by Steven Weinberg

One of the world’s most captivating scientists challenges us to think about nature’s foundations and the entanglement of science and society. Steven Weinberg, author of The First Three Minutes, offers his views on fascinating aspects of physics and the universe, but does not seclude science behind disciplinary walls, or shy away from politics.

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