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.


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 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)


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.


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?


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.

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.

Observation, Theory, and Reality

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

8.3 Limits of Representation and Knowledge of Reality
It follows…that there are limits to what the scientific method can achieve in explanatory terms.  We need to respect these limits and acknowledge clearly when arguments and conclusions are based on some philosophical stance rather than purely on testable scientific argument.  If we acknowledge this and make that stance explicit, then the bases for different viewpoints are clear and alternatives can be argued about rationally.

We human beings want so badly to be able to explain our existence and existence itself that we tend to “fill in the blanks” and treat speculation (no matter how well reasoned) as if it were something akin to fact.  This is true for both science and religion.  A more reasonable approach, it seems to me, is to reject absolute certainty—especially where physical evidence is sparse or nonexistent—while always striving to deepen our understanding.  That is the scientist’s stock-in-trade—or should be.  Each of us needs to become more aware of the limitations of our understanding!

Thesis F6: Reality is not fully reflected in either observations or theoretical models.
Problems arise from confusion of epistemology (the theory of knowledge) with ontology (the nature of existence): existence is not always manifest clearly in the available evidence.  The theories and models of reality we use as our basis for understanding are necessarily partial and incomplete reflections of the true nature of reality, helpful in many ways but also inevitably misleading in others.  They should not be confused with reality itself!

We humans create our own “realities”, but under the very best of circumstances (science, for example), our “reality” is only an imperfect model of what actually exists.

The confusion of epistemology with ontology occurs all the time, underlying for example the errors of both logical positivism and extreme relativism.  In particular, it is erroneous to assume that lack of evidence for the existence of some entity is proof of its non-existence.  In cosmology it is clear for example that regions may exist from which we can obtain no evidence (because of the existence of horizons); so we can sometimes reasonably deduce the existence of unseen matter or regions from a sound extrapolation of available evidence (no one believes matter ends at or just beyond the visual horizon).  However one must be cautious about the other extreme, assuming existence can always be assumed because some theory says so, regardless of whether there is any evidence of existence or not.  This happens in present day cosmology, for example in presentations of the case for multiverses, even though the underlying physics has not been experimentally confirmed.  It may be suggested that arguments ignoring the need for experimental/observational verification of theories ultimately arise because these theories are being confused with reality, or at least are being taken as completely reliable total representations of reality.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  But, without evidence, all we have is conjecture, no matter how well informed.  As Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

No model (literary, intuitive, or scientific) can give a perfect reflection of reality.  Such models are always selective in what they represent and partial in the completeness with which they do so.  The only model that would reflect reality fully is a perfect fully detailed replica of reality itself! This understanding of the limits of models and theories does not diminish the utility of these models; rather it helps us use them in the proper way.  This is particularly relevant when we consider how laws of nature may relate to the origins of the universe itself, and to the existence and nature of life in the expanding universe.  The tendency to rely completely on our theories, even when untested, seems sometimes to arise because we believe they are the same as reality—when at most they are descriptions of reality.

Ellis makes a pretty good case here against dogma.  Though he does not specifically mention religion (and why should he, as the subject at hand is cosmology), I do think these ideas apply to religion as well.

Always a journey, never a destination.

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.

Theory and Observation

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 F1: Philosophical choices necessarily underly cosmological theory.
Some cosmologists tend to ignore the philosophical choices underlying their theories; but simplistic or unexamined philosophical standpoints are still philosophical standpoints!

Cosmology, and indeed all human inquiry, is based on (at least) two unproven (though certainly reasonable) assumptions:

  1. The Universe exists.
  2. The human mind is at least to some degree capable of perceiving and understanding the Universe.

Any cosmological theory will have additional foundational unproven assumptions.  These are called axioms.  Ellis admonishes us to at least be aware of them, and to admit to them.

8.1 Criteria for theories
As regards criteria for a good scientific theory, typical would be the following four areas of assessment: (1) Satisfactory structure: (a) internal consistency, (b) simplicity (Ockham’s razor), and (c) aesthetic appeal (‘beauty’ or ‘elegance’); (2) Intrinsic explanatory power: (a) logical tightness, (b) scope of the theory—the ability to unify otherwise separate phenomena, and (c) probability of the theory or model with respect to some well-defined measure; (3) Extrinsic explanatory power, or relatedness: (a) connectedness to the rest of science, (b) extendability—providing a basis for further development; (4) Observational and experimental support, in terms of (a) testability: the ability to make quantitative as well as qualitative predications that can be tested; and (b) confirmation: the extent to which the theory is supported by such tests as have been made.

As you can see, a theory is not an opinion.  It must be well-supported by facts.  It must be internally consistent.  It must have explanatory power.  The Russian physicist A. I. Kitaĭgorodskiĭ (1914-1985) put it succinctly: “A first-rate theory predicts; a second-rate theory forbids, and a
third-rate theory explains after the event.”  Einstein’s special and general relativity are spectacular examples of first-rate theories.  In over 100 years of increasingly rigorous and sophisticated experiments and observations, relativity has never been proven to be incorrect.

Ellis emphasizes the importance of observational and experimental support in any scientific theory.

It is particularly the latter that characterizes a scientific theory, in contrast to other types of theories claiming to explain features of the universe and why things happen as they do.  It should be noted that these criteria are philosophical in nature in that they themselves cannot be proven to be correct by any experiment.  Rather their choice is based on past experience combined with philosophical reflection.  One could attempt to formulate criteria for good criteria for scientific theories, but of course these too would need to be philosophically justified.  The enterprise will end in infinite regress unless it is ended at some stage by a simple acceptance of a specific set of criteria.

So, even our criteria about what makes a good scientific theory rest upon axioms that cannot be proven.  But unlike religion, scientific theories never posit the existence of any supernatural entity.

Thesis F3: Conflicts will inevitably arise in applying criteria for satisfactory cosmological theories.
The thrust of much recent development has been away from observational tests toward strongly theoretically based proposals, indeed sometimes almost discounting observational tests.  At present this is being corrected by a healthy move to detailed observational analysis of the consequences of the proposed theories, marking a maturity of the subject.  However because of all the limitations in terms of observations and testing, in the cosmological context we still have to rely heavily on other criteria, and some criteria that are important in most of science may not really make sense.

String theory? Cosmic inflation?  Multiverse? If a theory is currently neither testable nor directly supported by observations, is it science, or something else?

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.