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RS 211 - Sabine Hossenfelder on "The case against beauty in physics"

Release date: June 24th, 2018

Sabine Hossenfelder

This episode features physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, author of Lost in Math, arguing that fundamental physics is too enamored of "beauty" as a criterion for evaluating theories of how the universe works. She and Julia discuss the three components of beauty (simplicity, naturalness, and elegance), why physicists think it's reasonable to put their trust in beauty, and why this might be merely a symptom of other underlying problems with physics as a discipline.


Sabine's Book: "Lost in Math"

Sabine's Blog: Backreaction

Sabine's Pick: "The Big Picture" by Sean Carroll

Edited by Brent Silk

Music by Miracles of Modern Science


Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (7)

Once again this Podcast has made me feel seriously enlightened !!

Of Sabine's three aspects of beauty, only the simplicity prong really matters to me. And it matters a lot. Unless I can understand and apply a theory, that theory really has very little value to me. The theory could depart wildly from all previous experience, as long as it has strong experimental verification. In fact, theories that dynamically change our entire scientific understanding arguably have MORE value than those that seem to merely extend our previous knowledge. A discovery that poses a serious aberration to prior theory indicates not only the possible incorrectness of the prior theory, and the possibility of improvement of the prior theory, but also the potential for additional future discoveries as well.

What else besides prior experience could we possibly use to anticipate new theories? We could use totally wild guesses, but we would still need some basis for those guesses, however wild. Ultimately, our attempts at new theory must depend on previous experience.

Theoretical Physics certainly seems like a discipline that should not depend on 2 to 5 year grants. Firstly, how much equipment must a theorist procure? Secondly, simply funding really smart theorists to do lots of thinking, and lots of reviewing of the work of other theorists, would not result in any definite time frame to expect results. We probably just need to identify smart theorists and fund them indefinitely.
June 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
Main problem of this book is, it actually holds water, being as subjective and untestable, as its subject itself. The beauty is often in the eyes of beholder only. Nothing much pretty is about string theory, which is merely a nontransparent conglomerate of multiple mathematical models with even higher number of solutions (such a math was never considered nice) - and vice-versa: the "ugly" pet research of author (LQG) did fail its experimental scrutiny in similar way, like the "fancy" susy/stringy theories. After a battle everyone's is general, after wit is every body's wit - but the beauty (or lack of it) is neither objective, neither reliable clue here.
June 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterZephir_AWT
The screw would not have been considered beautiful (simple, natural, and elegant) in a world where only nails were used and understood. Similarly, later on, the introduction of the "Philips head" screw would have seemed complex and inelegant to carpenters working only with flat bladed drivers. To a modern carpenter, a "yankee screwdriver" from 50+ years ago seem unnatural and complex until they are demonstrated and understood.

Much of what theoretical physicists have done over time is to take the "complex, unnatural and inelegant" and develop tools and language, including mathematical languages, which allow phenomena to appear simple, natural and elegant -- at least to those who have developed substantial time to familiarize themselves with those tools.

The risk, of course, is that becoming so invested in learning / teaching / building science on a particular existing tool-kit, work which falls outside the parameters of the masters of that trade is dismissed, and the "inelegant, unnatural complexities" which it fails to handle remain that way because no one is going to develop the needed, possibly competing if not conflicting, tool kit.
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