The Future of Everything

November 24, 2018

Weird

Filed under: Books, Physics, Reviews — David @ 2:03 pm

I wrote a review of Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray after it came out a few months ago. As I mentioned, I enjoyed the book, which is based on revealing and entertaining interviews with eminent physicists. It also backed up the thesis of my 2012 book Truth or Beauty, which advanced the same idea that “scientists’ search for unity and symmetry may be leading them astray” as the Sunday Times put it. It was good to see a physics insider making the same case that the field has been shaped by a classical scientific aesthetic. My main (if rather trivial) gripe was that it cited my book only as arguing that “climate scientists favor elegant models to the detriment of accuracy.”

Without any context or backup, this sounds a little strange (as at least one reader noted). My point was that the development of climate models had been shaped, like other aspects of science, by the scientific aesthetic. And it seemed odd to focus on that when most of the book was about physics.

Anyway I later came across Hossenfelder’s capsule review of Truth or Beauty in a post where she summarises related books. Again, rather than say what the book’s argument is really about, as other reviewers did, Hossenfelder takes a small element – this time the role of gender in science – without giving any context, making it sound … weird. (Or weirder than it is.) In fact the segment (the original includes citations) follows a section where I am summarising the views of a number of authors and theorists including Evelyn Fox Keller, Margaret Wertheim, and so on.

Physics is an area that has long been dominated by men. And the idea that gender plays a role in aesthetics is hardly controversial, at least in philosophy. So it seems worth touching on if the aim is to understand the scientific aesthetic (though as mentioned in the book gender seems to be a bit of a taboo topic in physics).

Rather than simplistically saying that beauty is bad, Truth or Beauty makes the case for an alternative aesthetic, based on complexity rather than order and symmetry. And while Hossenfelder may find it “hard to take [its] argument seriously”, it seems ironic that, of all the books on her list, it is the only one where the central argument is exactly that, throughout history, beauty has been leading scientists astray.

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