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Lost in Math

How Beauty Leads Physics Astray
Written by: Sabine Hossenfelder
Narrated by: Laura Jennings
Length: 8 hrs and 40 mins
4 out of 5 stars (5 ratings)

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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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    4 out of 5 stars

Good Public Wake-up Call

Been a scientifically literate layperson like me, and still waiting on "New Physics" touted in half of all physics science communications?

Yeah, it's a problem. and it seems like some of the smartest people on Earth are running in circles, acting suspiciously like the rest of us higher primates.

Sabine gives a good account of the issues in physics, science, and human cognition, and on why it may be holding us back now that the scientific going is tough.

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  • Joe
  • 2018-12-08

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There are two ways to approach this book: to engage with it as an argument, or to accept it as an historical document.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

156 of 159 people found this review helpful

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  • Anand
  • BALTIMORE, MD, United States
  • 2019-01-02

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.

52 of 53 people found this review helpful

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  • Oliver
  • 2019-01-06

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.

18 of 18 people found this review helpful

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  • Joe V
  • 2019-03-22

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.

9 of 9 people found this review helpful

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  • Wayne
  • Matthews, NC
  • 2019-06-22

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.

8 of 8 people found this review helpful

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  • See Reverse
  • 2019-03-15

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!

12 of 13 people found this review helpful

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  • Susan A. Henninger
  • 2018-12-07

Good background info, her critique is needed!

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

8 of 9 people found this review helpful

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  • Matthew
  • 2019-02-03

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

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Casey
  • 2018-12-14

A must read

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

6 of 8 people found this review helpful

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  • Mike Fisher
  • Sandy, Utah
  • 2019-06-21

Refreshing!

I found the book refreshing and thought provoking. I will listen to this book again.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful