On your wavelength

Interactions: Conversation with Sabine Hossenfelder

Post by Iulia Georgescu.

Sabine Hossenfelder talks to us about her provocative upcoming book “Lost in math: How beauty leads physics astray”. The book will be available in June, but below you can get a sneak preview (with no spoilers).

You mention that some of your colleagues tried to dissuade you from writing this book. Why? What were their arguments?

“Don’t write a popular science book before you are tenured. It takes up too much time and doesn’t count on your CV. And even then, better don’t because it will look like you aren’t serious about doing research.”

They were right, of course, it took up time – time I did not spend doing research.

Hossenfelder, Sabine (Sabine Hossenfelder)

Was it worth it, then or is it too early to say?

The book has not yet been released, so I can’t tell whether it will cause the rethinking that I hope for. But from a personal point of view it was totally worth it, more so than I could have anticipated. I have been writing a blog for more than 12 years, but books are a different kind of beast. I wasn’t at all sure I could pull it through. But, well, I did. And along the way I’ve proved – to myself more than anybody else – that theoretical physics isn’t the only thing I can do with my life. So from the perspective of self-development it has been an asset already.

How do you expect this book will be perceived by physicists and the broader scientific community?

I expect most researchers in the areas that I criticize will complain that I should not have made this criticism publicly. But I don’t think the community will take on this problem without significant external pressure. So that was my only option. Besides, I have raised this criticism “internally” before (see my comment) which (unsurprisingly) led to zero rethinking.

As for the physicists outside the community: I really don’t know. The topics that I write about (as with multiverses and new particles and dark energy and such) get a lot of media attention despite the lack of scientific relevance, and I know that physicists in fields which get less attention are sometimes annoyed about that. So maybe they’ll be sympathetic to what I have to say.

Do you worry that it can be wrongly used to undermine the general public’s trust in science?

In my book I highlight problems with the present organization of scientific research. These problems make scientists untrustworthy. What undermines the public’s trust in science is ignoring these problems, not speaking about and trying to solve them. If nothing changes, of course you can use my book to argue that scientists shouldn’t be trusted, because in fact they cannot be trusted.

What do you think is the extent of the aesthetic bias in other areas of physics? Should we start questioning our compasses in other fields as well?

I don’t know, really. You should ask some people in other disciplines. It has not been all that easy to disentangle the aesthetic criteria from the mathematical ones in the areas I wrote about. You have to dig deeply into the literature to get to the bottom of what are now commonly used arguments. It was not fun, didn’t make me friends, and I am not keen on becoming the aesthetic-bias doctor of physics. But yes, by all means, question everything.

The theoretical particle physics community appears very isolated. Shouldn’t it try to come out and take other people more seriously, not only philosophers as you suggest in the book, but also physicists from other fields? What can one do to start the dialogue?

I am not opposed to specialization. Specialization has benefits. It allows researchers to use resources efficiently to solve specific problems. And science needs that. But science also needs a healthy dose of dialogue across disciplines because there is unexplored potential in applying insights from one discipline to the other. So we need a balance of both. But, where exactly that balance lies, I don’t know. I therefore think we should just avoid directing researcher’s interests by incentivising specialization. It’s easier to produce five papers on one topic than to produce five papers on different topics. Hence, if you look at productivity, sticking to one topic is a benefit. This leads me to think presently the balance is likely off in favour of specialization. How much, I can’t tell you.

But remove the obstacle and we’ll see if makes a difference.

Hossenfelder-Lost In Math

But what is the use of even trying to develop these theories?

For one, I think knowing how the world works has a value in and by itself. And that there is a market for books and movies about the foundation physics shows to me that this value isn’t merely recognized by those who do the research themselves. I believe people want to understand natural laws out of a basic sense of curiosity, or maybe a desire to know what is their own place in this universe. This isn’t a desire that’s reserved to theoretical physicists.

Having said that, it is arguably true that high energy particle physics doesn’t presently have much practical use. There really isn’t a lot you can do with a 25 km particle collider other than colliding particles. But I don’t think this research will remain useless forever. I am thinking here not about what will happen in 10 or 100 years, but maybe in 1000 or 5000 years. Who knows what this technology will one day be good for? I don’t. But, I would find it very surprising if it would remain an academic pursuit.

I think particle physics suffers from a lack of vision, or you could even say a lack of science fiction. This has been on my mind a lot while writing the book. See, astrophysicists have all the good stories about space-travel and alien life and warp drives and Dyson spheres and all that. And computer scientists have tales about sentient robots and omniscient AIs and, omg, we may live in a computer simulation. But particle physicists have nothing comparable. They have no stories. Give it 5000 years of technological development and what may particle colliders be good for? I think the field could benefit from some wild speculations here.

What is your bet as to where clues are likely to come from and solve the current crisis in particle physics?

I bet on dark matter and quantum gravity. Dark matter because at least we know it’s there. So, keep poking it, I say, sooner or later we’ll figure out what it is. Quantum gravity because we know there must be something new to find. As I lay out in the book it’s a good problem, a problem of mathematical consistency, not just an aesthetic itch. And I don’t think that it’s impossible to measure quantum gravitational effects. I wrote about proposals to measure it here.


The book Lost in Math will be released on June 12, 2018.

Follow Sabine Hossenfelder’s popular blog Backreaction.


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