Lost in Math: A Book Review

I recently finished reading a thought-provoking book by theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. Hossenfelder writes in an engaging and accessible style, and I hope you will enjoy reading this book as much as I did. Do we have a crisis in physics and cosmology? You be the judge. She presents convincing arguments.

The basic premise of Hossenfelder’s book is that when theoretical physicists and cosmologists lack empirical data to validate their theories, they have to rely on other approaches—”beauty”, “symmetry”, “simplicity”, “naturalness“, “elegance”—mathematics. Just because these approaches have been remarkably successful in the past is no guarantee they will lead to further progress.

One structural element that contributes to the book’s appeal is Hossenfelder’s interviews with prominent theoretical physicists and cosmologists: Gian Francesco Giudice, Michael Krämer, Gordon Kane, Keith Olive, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Steven Weinberg, Chad Orzel, Frank Wilczek, Garrett Lisi, Joseph Polchinski, Xiao-Gang Wen, Katie Mack, George Ellis, and Doyne Farmer. And, throughout the book, she quotes many other physicists, past and present, as well. This is a well-researched book by an expert in the field.

I also like her “In Brief” summaries of key points at the end of each chapter. And her occasional self-deprecating, brief, soliloquies, which I find reassuring. This book is never about the care and feeding of the author’s ego, but rather giving voice to largely unspoken fears that theoretical physics is stagnating. And an academic environment hell-bent on preserving the status quo isn’t helping matters, either.

Anthropic Principle

Do we live in a universe fine-tuned for life? If so, is it the only possible universe that would support life? Recent work indicates that there may be more than one set of parameters that could lead to a life-supporting universe.

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Is our sense of what is “beautiful” a reliable guide to gaining a deeper understanding of nature? Or does it sometimes lead us astray? We know from history that it does.

In the past, symmetries have been very useful. Past and present, they are considered beautiful

When we don’t have data to guide our theory development, aesthetic criteria are used. Caveat emptor.

Experiment and Theory

Traditionally, experiment and observation have driven theory. Now, increasingly, theory drives experiment, and the experiments are getting more difficult, more expensive, and more time consuming to do—if they can be done at all.

Inflation

The rapid expansion of the universe at the time of the Big Bang is known as cosmic inflation, or, simply, inflation. Though there is some evidence to support inflation, that evidence is not yet compelling.

Mathematics

Mathematics creates a logically consistent universe all its own. Some of it can actually be used to describe our physical universe. What math is the right math?

Math is very useful for describing nature, but is math itself “real”, or is it just a useful tool? This is an ancient question.

Memorable Quotations

“I went into physics because I don’t understand human behavior.” (p. 2)

“If a thousand people read a book, they read a thousand different books. But if a thousand people read an equation, they read the same equation.” (p. 9)

“In our search for new ideas, beauty plays many roles. It’s a guide, a reward, a motivation. It is also a systematic bias.” (p. 10)

On artificial intelligence: “Being unintuitive shouldn’t be held against a theory. Like lack of aesthetic appeal, it is a hurdle to progress. Maybe this one isn’t a hurdle we can overcome. Maybe we’re stuck in the foundations of physics because we’ve reached the limits of what humans can comprehend. Maybe it’s time to pass the torch.” (p. 132)

“The current organization of academia encourages scientists to join already dominant research programs and discourages any critique of one’s own research area.” (p. 170)

Multiverse

The idea that our universe of just one of a great many universes is presently the most controversial idea in physics.

Particles and Interactions

What is truly interesting is not the particles themselves, but the interactions between particles.

Philosophy

Physicists and astrophysicists are sloppy philosophers and could stand to benefit from a better understanding of the philosophical assumptions and implications of their work.

Physics isn’t Math

Sure, physics contains a lot of math, but that math has traditionally been well-grounded in observational science. Is math driving physics more than experiment and observation today?

Quantum Mechanics

Nobody really understands quantum mechanics. Everybody’s amazed but no one is happy. It works splendidly well. The quantum world is weird. Waves and particles don’t really exist, but everything (perhaps even the universe itself) is describable by a probabilistic “wave function” that has properties of both and yet is neither. Then there’s the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and quantum entanglement

Science and the Scientific Method

In areas of physics where experiments are too difficult, expensive, or impossible to do, some physicists seem to be abandoning the scientific method as the central pillar of scientific inquiry. Faith in beauty, faith in mathematics, faith in naturalness, faith in symmetry. How is this any different than religion?

If scientists can evaluate a theory using other criteria than that theory’s ability to describe observation, how is that science?

Stagnation

Some areas of physics haven’t seen any new data for decades. In such an environment, theories can and do run amok.

Standard Model (of particle physics)

Ugly, contrived, ad hoc, baroque, overly flexible, unfinished, too many unexplained parameters. These are some of the words used to describe the standard model of particle physics. And, yet, the standard model describes the elementary particles we see in nature and their interactions with extraordinary exactitude.

String Theory

String theory dates back at least to the 1970s, and its origins go back to the 1940s. To date, there is still no experimental evidence to support it. String theory is not able to predict basic features of the standard model. That’s a problem.

Triple Threat: Crises in Physics, Astrophysics, and Cosmology?

Physics: Sure, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN gave us the Higgs boson, but little else. No new physics. No supersymmetry particles. Embarrassments like the diphoton anomaly. Do we need a bigger collider? Perhaps. Do we need new ideas? Likely.

Astrophysics: We’ve spent decades trying to understand what dark matter is, to no avail. No dark matter particles have been found.

Cosmology: We have no testable idea as to what dark energy is. Plenty of theories, though.


See Hossenfelder’s recent comments on the LHC and dark matter in her op-ed, “The Uncertain Future of Particle Physics” in the January 23, 2019 issue of The New York Times.


The book concludes with three appendices:

  • Appendix A: The Standard Model Particles
  • Appendix B: The Trouble with Naturalness
  • Appendix C: What You Can Do To Help

Hossenfelder gives some excellent practical advice in Appendix C. This appendix is divided into three sections of action items:

  • As a scientist
  • As a higher ed administrator, science policy maker, journal editor, or representative of a funding body
  • As a science writer or member of the public

I’m really glad she wrote this book. As an insider, it takes courage to criticize the status quo.

References
Hossenfelder, S., Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, Basic Books, New York (2018).
Hossenfelder, Sabine. “The Uncertain Future of Particle Physics.” The New York Times 23 Jan 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/23/opinion/particle-physics-large-hadron-collider.html.

Pet Peeves

Here is a list of 10 irritations, in no particular order, that make me feel like an alien on my own planet.

  1. High color temperature headlights – Traditional automotive headlights have a yellowish-white color temperature of 3200K. Xenon headlights emit a bluish-white light around 4500K. LED lights are even bluer at around 6000K. These new “blue” headlights make me want to give up night driving altogether. They are too glary and too bright for oncoming traffic. Add in the same for so-called “fog” lights, and the result is often blinding for other drivers.
  2. High color temperature LED lights – While we’re on the topic of lighting, most indoor and outdoor LED lighting should have a color temperature between 2700K and 3000K. This provides a soothing yellow-white light instead of the garish and glary blue-white LED lights in common use today with a color temperature of 4000K or even higher.
  3. Dusk-to-dawn lighting – With the availability of modern light sources, control, and dimming technologies, most outdoor lighting does not need be on or running at full brightness all night long.
  4. Television advertisements – I don’t know how anyone can stand to watch television because there are so many advertisements. I’ve given up watching anything that has advertisement propaganda embedded within the program.
  5. Dystopian movies and television programs – Why would anyone find a dystopian portrayal of the future entertaining or even desirable? I find it utterly horrifying and we should do everything possible to make sure such a future never occurs. Furthermore, I find the amount of violence and aggression in movies and television appalling. This is entertainment? No thanks, I’ve got better things to do with my time.
  6. TV Screens in Restaurants – When I’m dining at a restaurant, just about the last thing I want to see is the distraction of one or more television screens. I’m there to enjoy the food and the company I’m with and screens of any kind are intrusive.
  7. Overuse of smartphones – So many people seem addicted to their smartphones. I don’t generally use one and get along just fine. As much as I use computers in my everyday life, I don’t want one with me everywhere I go. I am really thankful I grew up before personal computers and smartphones existed. Gives one a different perspective.
  8. Sports – I have absolutely no interest in sports. Physical fitness and healthful living, yes, but sports seems like a big waste of time. I don’t see how so many folks can get so excited about something that does absolutely nothing to make the world a better place.
  9. Hunting – I don’t see how anyone can derive pleasure out of depriving another animal of its life. It’s just sick. It is one thing to kill an animal if it is necessary for survival, or self-defense, but for sport it is disgusting. For necessary animal population control, why not use high-tech science-based birth control methods instead?
  10. Pets – I love seeing animals in nature, but have no interest in owning or taking care of a domesticated animal. I much prefer solitude or the company of people. I’m too busy to have any time for a pet, anyway. Don’t like it when you visit someone and their dog or cat jumps on you or licks you. Yuck.

March for Our Lives

I am so very proud of what hundreds of thousands of Americans of all ages did today, marching in hundreds of anti-gun-violence rallies all across our nation.  I’m especially proud of the students.  We had a huge group of marchers in Mineral Point, Wisconsin (students included), and I was glad I participated.

I do not want to live in a country where everyone is armed to the teeth.  You know, you have to decide what kind of a world you want to live in and then work towards that goal, no matter how difficult.

Paul McCartney at a March for Our Lives event in New York City

I was devastated and angry when John Lennon was shot to death in New York in 1980 outside his apartment building by a very disturbed man (it is almost always a man, isn’t it?).  I mean, who the hell would kill a musician?  I will never get over it On that day (and many times since), I decided “enough is enough”.  Gun ownership should be a privilege that has to be earned, not a right.  And weapons of war do not belong in the hands of private citizens—ever.  If that involves repealing the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, then so be it.  But “we the people” never get a chance to vote on gun issues, do we?

If gun owners in this country can’t support much stricter and sensible gun laws, then maybe we should peacefully go our separate ways.  Gun lovers can have their country (a dystopia, really), and the rest of us can live somewhere else.  I would support a civil separation, but never a civil war.  (Besides, we know what side has most of the guns.)

“The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible, and achieve it, generation after generation.”

– Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973)

Illumination Levels: Then and Now

The following excerpts are from the 1911 and 1925 editions of A Text-Book of Physics by Louis Bevier Spinney, Professor of Physics and Illuminating Engineering at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) in Ames, Iowa.

From the 1911 edition…

ILLUMINATION

516. The intensity of illumination of any surface is defined as the ratio of the light received by the surface to the area of the surface upon which the light falls.  A unit of intensity which is oftentimes employed is known as the foot candle, and is defined as the intensity of illumination which would be present upon a screen placed at a distance of one foot from a standard candle.  The meter candle is a unit of intensity which is employed to some extent.

The table below gives a number of values of illumination such as are commonly observed, the intensity of illumination being expressed in foot candles.

Suitable for drafting table    .    .    .    .    .    5 to 10

Suitable for library table   .    .    .    .    .   .    3 to 4

Suitable for reading table   .    .    .    .    .   .  1 to 2

Required for street lighting   .    .    .    .    .  0.05 to 0.60

Moonlight (full moon)    .    .    .    .    .    .   .  0.025 to 0.03

 

And from the 1925 edition…

ILLUMINATION

532.  The eye has a remarkable power of adaptation.  In strong light the pupil contracts and in weak light expands, so that we are able to use our eyes throughout a range of illumination which is really quite astonishing.  However, the continued use of the eyes under conditions of unfavorable illumination causes discomfort, fatigue, and even permanent injury.  Experiment and experience show that eye comfort, efficiency, and health considerations demand for each kind of eye work a certain minimum illumination.  Some of these illumination values taken from tables recently compiled are given below.

FOOT-CANDLES

Streets    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .     .    .    .    .    .    1/20 to 1/4

Living rooms; Halls and passageways    .    .    1 to 2

Auditoriums; Stairways and exits;
Machine shops, rough work    .     .    .    .    .    .  2 to 5

Classrooms; Laboratories; Offices;
Libraries; Machine shops, close work    .    .    5 to 10

Engraving; Fine repairing work; Drafting;
Sewing and weaving, dark goods  .    .    .    .     10 to 20

 

By comparing the 1911 and 1925 data with the illumination levels recommended today by IESNA, we can see that recommended light levels for streetlighting have increased anywhere from 40% to 380% since 1925.  A cynic might say that we need more light than our ancestors did to see well at night.  As you may have noticed, light levels have been steadily creeping upward, everywhere, over the last few decades.

Recommended Illumination Levels for Streetlighting

Year        Minimum    Average    Maximum

1911             0.05                ???               0.60

1925           0.05               0.25               ???

1996          0.07                1.20               ???

Have you ever noticed how well you can see at night when the full moon is lighting the ground?  The full moon provides surprisingly adequate non-glaring and uniform illumination at just 0.03 footcandles!  For inspiration, take a look at the following text from an Ames, Iowa city ordinance, dated July 8, 1895:

“The said grantees shall keep said lamps in good condition and repair, and have the same lighted every night in the year from dark until midnight, and from 5:00 a.m. until daylight, except such moonlight nights or fractions of the same as are not obscured by clouds, and as afford sufficient natural light to light the streets of said city.”

This was originally published as IDA Information Sheet 114 in November 1996, and authored by David Oesper.

It Came from Outer Space

Just watched a sci-fi movie this past weekend I had never seen before, thanks to Netflix.  In fact, this movie was released three years before I was born—in 1953.  I probably passed this one by before now because of its cheesy, B-movie title: It Came from Outer Space.

Actually, this movie was far better than I had expected.  Definitely a sci-fi classic, a must see for anyone interested in the science fiction genre.  It is rated “G” so is suitable for all ages (so rare nowadays for any dramatic movie, sadly), and is 1h21m in length, so not a huge time commitment.  The story is by noted author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012).

And, hey, the lead characters are an amateur astronomer and his gorgeous schoolteacher girlfriend, living in Arizona.

Without giving away too much of the plot, let me just say that aliens crash land in Arizona, and are simply trying to repair their damaged spacecraft so they can return to outer space.  How do we humans react?  All too predictably, sad to say.  The unknown frightens us, and  “What we don’t understand we want to destroy.”

As you’d expect from Bradbury, it is a good story.  Enjoy.  And think about the implications for the survival of the human race.

What Is and What Might Have Been

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

Thesis E2: We cannot take the nature of the laws of physics for granted.
One cannot take the existence and nature of the laws of physics (and hence of chemistry) as unquestionable in cosmology—which seems to be the usual habit in biological discussions on the origin and evolution of life.  This is in stark contrast to the rest of science, where we are content to take the existence and nature of the laws describing the fundamental behaviour of matter as given and unchangeable.  Cosmological investigation is interested in the properties of hypothetical universes with different physical behaviour.  Consideration of ‘what might have been’ is a useful cosmological speculation that may help throw light on what actually is; this is a statement of the usefulness of ‘Gedanken experiments‘ in cosmology.

Practical science, engineering, and technology are prescriptive.  If we do a, we know from experience that b will occur.  Using the laws of physics, we can predict the location of the Moon as a function of time, put a spacecraft in orbit around Saturn, or build a light bulb that will illuminate.  Though we may be curious, we are not required to know why or how these laws exist—or how they might have been different—only that they do work, time and time again.

Cosmology, though firmly rooted in science, is different.  We are passive observers in a very large and very old universe, and there is no absolute guarantee that the laws of physics that work for us so well in the here and now apply to all places and at all times.  We must attempt to understand the laws of physics in a larger context that does involve some well-reasoned and reasonable speculation.

“Not only does God … play dice, but He sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.” – Stephen Hawking

“Sometimes attaining the deepest familiarity with a question is our best substitute for actually having the answer.” – Brian Greene

In politics, governance, sociology, and philosophy, too, I would submit to you that consideration of “what might have been” is useful in helping us to understand what actually is.  Such reflection, en masse, might even lead to substantive change.

“Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so?  We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it.  Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?” – Tony Judt

Getting back to cosmology, however, for the moment…

Indeed if one wants to investigate issues such as why life exists in the universe, consideration of this larger framework—in essence, a hypothetical ensemble of universes with many varied properties—is essential (this is of course not the same as assuming an ensemble of such universes actually exists).  However, we need to be very cautious about using any claimed statistics of universes in such a hypothetical ensemble of all possible or all conceivable universes.  This is usually not well defined, and in any case is only relevant to physical processes if either the ensemble actually exists, rather than being a hypothetical one, or if it is the outcome of processes that produce well-defined probabilities—an untestable proposal.  We can learn from such considerations the nature of possible alternatives, but not necessarily the probability with which they might occur (if that concept has any real meaning).

It is easy to imagine a universe without life.  But we obviously do not live in such a universe.  There may be other universes devoid of life.

For the more thoughtful among us, it is easy to imagine a civilization without war, guns, violence, extrinsic suffering1 caused by others, or deprivation.  Obviously, we do not live in such a society.  But how can we say it is impossible, or even improbable?  It would be easy to find many millions of people in the world even today that would never fight in a war, would never own or use a gun, who would never resort to violence, who would never cause others to suffer, and who would make eliminating deprivation and poverty a top priority.  The question for the scientists is: what is wrong with the rest of us?

1Extrinsic suffering is suffering caused by others or circumstances completely outside of one’s control.  Intrinsic suffering, on the other hand, is self-inflicted—through our own failings, poor judgement, or mistakes that we make.

Growing Older

As we grow older,
That which is older grows upon us.
Time accelerates,
And the world seems a smaller place.

The years go by like months,
The months go by like weeks,
The weeks go by like days,
The days go by like hours,
And the hours go by like minutes.

And our world which in our youth was all that we knew
Slowly reveals itself to be a surprisingly alien place,
Full of centuries of hard work, unlikely events, and compromise:
The world could be a very different (and better) place,
Even within the confines of human nature.

Taken to its natural conclusion
Were we each to live for millennia, perhaps longer
We would find eternity in an instant
And infinity at the door.

David Oesper

References
Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.
[http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0602280]

Dark Sky Community Prospectus

  1. Rationale
    1. A small community (hereafter referred to as a dark sky community) can thrive without the need for streetlights or any other dusk-to-dawn lighting
    2. A dark sky community would appeal to people who value the night sky and a natural nighttime environment
    3. It will probably be many years before the majority of people will accept life without dusk-to-dawn outdoor lighting
    4. A dark sky community must be located far enough away from neighboring communities and other significant light sources that the night sky and nighttime environment will not be adversely affected, either now or in the foreseeable future
    5. It is better to live in community than in isolation
  2. Community Attributes
    1. A dark sky community should be multi-generational, but since rural employment options are limited, moving to a dark sky community may be easier for retired or semi-retired folks
    2. A dark sky community should be affordable, with a variety of housing options (units that can be rented, for example)
    3. An observatory commons area should be developed for observing and include more than one observatory for use by members of the community
    4. The dark sky community should engage in an ambitious educational outreach program, including the operation of an astronomy resort and astro-tourism business
    5. The business end of the community should be a nonprofit corporation or cooperative that operates the astronomy resort and rental properties
    6. The community should share resources as much as possible, freeing residents from the financial burden of having to individually own everything they need or use
    7. The dark sky community should engage in an ambitious program of collaborative astronomical research and data collection, working collaboratively within the community and with amateur and professional astronomers outside the community
  3. Community Location
    1. The most affordable option would be to “convert” an existing rural subdivision or small town into a dark sky community, current residents willing, of course!
    2. The best location for a dark sky community would be within, or adjacent to, a protected natural area such as a state or national park
    3. Recognizing that there would be distinct advantages in siting a dark sky community reasonably close to a town or city with medical facilities, it would be best (for astronomical reasons) for the dark sky community to be located southeast or southwest of the larger community
  4. Philosophy
    1. In an age of technological wonders such as digital imaging, computer-controlled telescopes, remote observing, and space astronomy, we recognize that there is still value in the experience of “firsthand astronomy” both for ourselves and our guests

For greater detail, see my astronomy village proposal for Mirador Astronomy Village.  I welcome your comments and ideas here.

The Language We Use

Much has been said about how television, movies, video games, and the internet contributes to the culture of violence in our uncivilization, and this extends to even the language we use to describe events, activities, and phenomena.  Even astronomy is not immune from pervasive, perverse imagery.  Little things add up.  For example, why do we call THE event 13.8 billion years ago the Big Bang instead of something like the Great Flaring Forth?  And, instead of telling a group of eager young stargazers, “Our next target will be M13” why not say something like “Our next destination will be M13”?  And why do we call a smaller galaxy merging with a larger one “galactic cannibalism”?  You get the idea.

Fred Rogers (1928-2003) had it right: “Of course, I get angry.  Of course, I get sad.  I have a full range of emotions.  I also have a whole smorgasbord of ways of dealing with my feelings.  That is what we should give children.  Give them ways to express their rage without hurting themselves or somebody else.  That’s what the world needs.”

Think about it.  Then do something about it.