Book Corner 2022.41

by Sabine Hossenfelder

I can’t say I understood any of the physics in this. Yet I read the whole thing. (Save the appendices.) Because she keeps it so funny, and because the premise is simple: we should harbor no expectation that nature should be beautiful; and science should be about finding the truth, not coming up with beautiful theories. “We don’t seek theories to evoke emotional reactions; we seek explanations for what we observe.” Yet physicists keep working on theories where the math is ‘beautiful’, regardless whether these theories bear any relation to reality or can even hoped to be proven or disproven.

Hossenfelder is a physicist based in Germany. She literally travels the world to write this book, interviewing physicists, often wearing out her welcome, to ask each of them about their work; why do they think this is beautiful and the other unsatisfying, and above all, why do they think we should care what’s beautiful. She’s harsh in her criticism of getting “lost in math” to the detriment of what should be the main business of explaining the world. Or in her words:

“Maybe I’m just here to find an excuse for leaving academia because I’m disillusioned, unable to stay motivated through all the null results. & what an amazing excuse i have come up with – blaming a scientific community for misusing the scientific method.”

Some passages that made things simple enough for even me to understand:

“If you have a map of a mountainous landscape that doesn’t show altitudes, winding roads won’t make much sense. But if you know there are mountains, you understand why the roads curve like that – it’s the best they an do. That we cannot see the curvature of space-time is like having a map without altitude lines. If you could see space-time curvature, you would understand it makes perfect sense for planets to orbit around the Sun. It’s the best they can do.”

“It makes sense, intuitively, that our intuition fails in the quantum world. We don’t experience quantum effects in daily life… Indeed, it would be surprising if quantum physics were intuitive, because we never had a chance to get accustomed to it. Being unintuitive therefore shouldn’t be held against a theory. But like lack of aesthetic appeal, it is a hurdle to progress. & maybe, I think, this isn’t a hurdle we can overcome. Maybe we’re stuck in the foundations of physics because we’ve reached the limit of what humans can comprehend.”

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