The Future of Everything

July 4, 2018

Lost in Math

Filed under: Books, Physics, Reviews — David @ 3:14 pm

 

In which I read a book written on the same theme as something I wrote six years ago, and write a response in the style of the book.

I’m sitting at my computer when I come across a mention on a blog of a new book called Lost in Math, by the physicist Sabine Hossenfelder. The subtitle – How Beauty Leads Physics Astray – peaks my curiosity. In 2012 I wrote a book called Truth or Beauty which was about how science has been “led astray by the search for a particular type of beauty” as I put it. I think there might be a connection.

I see the book has received some excellent reviews, including one from the UK science writer Brian Clegg, who writes that the author “is saying that people in her profession need to step back from the coalface and take stock of what they are really doing and whether this particular approach really makes sense.” Some within the narrow high-energy physics community have been markedly less enthusiastic, but then they’re biased, aren’t they.

*

I order the book from my public library and it comes available within a few days. I pick it up at my local branch. It seems they are closing for renovations for 26 months (?), so they have free biscuits, and someone is playing classical guitar. I flip through the pages while I eat a chocolate chip biscuit.

The basic argument (scientists being led astray by beauty) seems to be the same as in my book, but the format and style is completely different. While I started at the beginning with the ancient Greeks and worked forward to the Large Hadron Collider, taking on subjects such as quantum mechanics and string theory on the way, Hossenfelder jumps around (literally – she always seems to be in transit), mixing interviews with commentary and snippets of historical content. It looks like a good read, sprinkled with pithy comments and interesting quotes.

I see there are also lots of breaks in the text, which always helps with readability. I scan my library card at the machine next to the guitar player, and leave with the book.

*

I walk back through the ravine, wondering about the book, and the lofty topic of aesthetics. I stop at a bench to read the opening sections. Science has always been shaped by aesthetics, in particular the principles of unity, symmetry, and stability. These were first articulated by the ancients, but they appear in modern form in theories such as supersymmetry, which asserts that every particle has a (so-far undetected) symmetrical twin; or the quest for a unified theory of everything. The most popular of these by far is string theory, in which subatomic particles are actually strings in a higher-dimensional space.

One aesthetic criterion favoured by physicists is the notion of naturalness, which means that dimensionless numbers in models (such as the ratios of particle masses) should be reasonably close to 1. No one can offer a good explanation of why this approach makes sense. It seems to be taking the concept of unity a little too literally.

When the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva opened for business in 2009, experimental results quickly confirmed the existence of the particle known as the Higgs boson, which had first been predicted in the 1960s. But most physicists working in the field were looking for more, expecting to see signs of supersymmetric particles, or something else pointing to new physics that would match their conception of beauty. For the last decade they have scoured the data in vain. As a result they have become “confused” as Hossenfelder puts it. Perhaps the universe doesn’t care about their sense of aesthetics?

“It’s either me who’s the idiot,” writes Hossenfelder, “or a thousand people with their prizes and rewards.”

*

I’m on my sofa reading the book more carefully. The style is very much in the here and now, mixing high science with the details of everyday life in an attractive way. A disadvantage is that the actual science part isn’t explained very clearly for those who think an SU(3) is a new kind of sports utility vehicle, rather than a mathematical object used in particle physics. The author also makes no effort to frame her book in the context of previous works, since “really I am more interested in the future than the past.”

I don’t for example come across any reference to my book, which I must admit seems odd given that it too was all about how science is “obsessed with beauty” as the Globe and Mail put it, but wonder if my response is related to what the physicist Nima Arkami-Hamed, interviewed in Chapter 4, calls the “narcissism of our times.” He calls out all those physicists who are worried because their pet theories didn’t work out: “It’s ludicrously narcissistic. Who the fuck cares about you and your little life? Other than you yourself, of course … Who cares about your feelings?”

I make myself another strong coffee and continue reading.

*

I am surrounded by packing boxes in an office. Framed works of art are stacked against the wall. This isn’t because I am an itinerant temporarily employed physicist, it’s just the way I roll.

Even before the LHC was complete, some physicists were starting to question the cult-like reverence that had developed around fields such as string theory. Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory & the Continuing Challenge to Unify the Laws of Physics, and Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, both appeared in 2006.

Still, when Truth or Beauty came out in 2012, its emphasis on aesthetics seemed rather provocative and controversial – especially given that the American Association for the Advancement of Science was about to hold its huge annual meeting on the theme of “The Beauty and Benefits of Science.” A common reaction at the time was that I was unqualified to comment, since my experience in physics was limited to working on the design of particle accelerators such as the Superconducting Super Collider. “Is it presumptuous for a nonphysicist,” asked the Chronicle of Higher Education rhetorically, “to criticize the work of the mighty minds that have defended string theory, including Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe, and Leonard Susskind, of Stanford University, and the Nobel Prize-winning Steven Weinberg, of the University of Texas at Austin?” Well, no insider was going to have a go at mocking the scientific aesthetic! Until now, that is. Things have changed, which is certainly refreshing.

I enjoy the book’s interviews, especially the one with Weinberg – once a champion of the SSC – who makes some insightful remarks. “I think the Newtonian revolution may have occurred because Newton did not find force acting at a distance ugly, whereas Descartes did … It was a change in aesthetic.”

The interview style seems to consist of sitting down with famous physicists and letting them prattle on unobstructed about truth and beauty, often to amusing effect. These physicists do like their symmetry. According to Dan Hooper for example, “All over the world, thousands of scientists have been imagining a beautiful supersymmetric universe.”

One of the best quotes is from an actual textbook on string theory, which announces: “The almost irresistible beauty of string theory has seduced many theoretical physicists in recent years. Even hardened men have been swept away by what they can already see and by the promise of even more.” Hmm.

*

I am on a bus to downtown when I read in the final chapter that “the mathematician David Orrell has argued that climate scientists favor elegant models to the detriment of accuracy.”

Huh? This description strikes me as misleading – even asymmetric? A third of a chapter was about meteorological models, the rest of the book as reviewers wrote was about how “scientists’ search for unity and symmetry may be leading them astray” or “leads too many researchers astray” or “has led them astray,” with an emphasis on physics. [Update: As an example of how this misleads readers, see this blog review which gets the wrong impression.]

I suppose the reason is that I did my D.Phil. on the predictability of nonlinear systems, with applications to weather forecasting – so from an insider perspective, what could I know about the aesthetics of high-energy physics? It would make as much sense as asking an art writer to comment.

*

Hossenfelder’s interviewees are nearly all famous physicists who are firmly in the mainstream. An exception of sorts is the Hawaii-based physicist/surfer Antony Garret Lisi, who tells her: “If you want to find a theory of everything, your aesthetic sense is pretty much all you have to work with.” While his lifestyle certainly sounds fun and adventurous, his sense of aesthetics seems deeply conventional. (In my book I compared a diagram of the E8 group, which is the basis of his theory, to a seventeenth century Theory of Everything by Robert Fludd.)

The interviewees are also all male, apart from one woman, included near the end, who according to Hossenfelder is famous on the internet because she was once retweeted by JK Rowling.

It still seems a little surprising that these people all regurgitate the same tired (and I argued gender-influenced, as in “hardened men”) aesthetic when questioned. On the other hand there is no effort to speak with complexity scientists, for example, or physicists who might have a different (more complex?) view of beauty. The one person who gives a different opinion is the author’s mother, who apparently likes to say that “symmetry is the art of the dumb.”

It is certainly the art of the old-fashioned. As Hossenfelder writes in the final chapter, “I spent nine chapters making a case that theoretical physicists are stuck on beauty ideals from the past.” Or as the art writer Benjamin Eastham wrote in a review of Truth or Beauty for V&A Magazine, “This conception of beauty, wedded to principles pre-dating Socrates, might to anyone even loosely familiar with a century’s progress in art, poetry and music seem at best archaic and at worst reactionary.”

Equations may only be understandable by a minority of trained experts – but aesthetic principles are rather more democratic. And they are open to change, as Newton knew.

In a review, physicist Peter Woit worries that the emphasis on “symmetry, unification and naturalness” risks over-simplifying the issues and doesn’t see “putting them together as ‘beauty’ to be helpful.” I would argue that Hossenfelder is on the right track – sometimes the problems really are simple.

*

I am finished with the book and try to return it to the library, but forgot that the library branch is closed for LHC-style multi-year renovations. The nearest alternative is a few miles away. It’s a nice day, so I decide to walk.

Asking why beauty has shaped physics, Hossenfelder mentions cognitive biases. One of these biases is not being able to see something if it doesn’t come from within your own community. Or as she put it “We disregard ideas that are out of the mainstream because these come from people ‘not like us’ … And we insist that our behavior is good scientific conduct, because we cannot possibly be influenced by social and psychological effects, no matter how well established.” It’s like when you review (or write) a book: it’s hard to be objective, but you should do your best to know your biases and declare your connections.

Of course, artists would probably ignore such advice.

I certainly agree with the book and hope it will make a difference. I recommend people read it. But a major problem with the physics profession is its extreme insularity. Physicists may travel a lot, and study the universe, but they live in a very small world. So if physicists want to revitalise their sense of aesthetics, they need to look outside their own narrow community – hell, even go to an art show. After all, as Tracey Emin once said, “art is for everybody” – not just a small elite – and the same goes for aesthetics in science.

*

Perhaps this will happen, now that someone inside the silo has said it – an aesthetic whistle-blower, if you like. As Clegg notes, it’s a brave book. But I still think the impetus for real aesthetic change will come from somewhere else.

I leave the book in the returns slot outside the library, and hope that its next collision is with a physicist.

Advertisements

1 Comment »

  1. I’ve always been a bit skeptical of string theory – elegant math does not necessarily make for good applied math, as mainstream economics shows. It is just too easy, wtih many parameters or dimensions, to explain skimpy data, especially when the interpretation of that data itself requires layers of theory, as it does in quantum dyanamics and cosmology.

    I’m also quite aware that both our intuition and language fails us when we extend to the very microscopic and very macroscopic levels. For example, calling all the microscopic entities “particles” seems may mislead more than it helps. In these regimes I think that we are on safer ground to explore the mathematical descriptions and properties.

    By the way, are you aware of the recent book “A God That Could be Real – Spirituality, Science, and the Future our Planet” by Nancy Abrahms. She asks, is there a viable concept of “God” that makes sense from the point of view of modern science? She concludes “God” could be viewed as an “emergent” phenomena of humanity, a kind of spiritual collective consciencious, based on our “aspirations” as individuals but only emerging from the complexity of our interactions with each other and with the natural world (= Gaia). When I want to figure out what someone’s usage of “God” means to me, I often such substitute the word “justice”. But this idea of an emergent collective consciencious of asipirations certainly as more depth to it, though she leaves a lot to be explored, focusing on what tradtional characeristics of “God” must be rejected (supernational, omnipotent, creator of the universe, etc). She began as an atheist and is married to a cosmologist.

    Comment by Dick Burkhart — July 5, 2018 @ 7:51 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: