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Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Review: Lost in Math

Lost in Math is a book discussing something that was also discussed in Not Even Wrong, which is that lack of progress in theoretical physics, mostly because it's actually very difficult to design theories that are testable while still fitting in within the framework of everything we already know. In particular, after a decade of the LHC, there haven't been new particles discovered (though the Higgs Boson was confirmed) that were predicted by some of the super-symmetry models.

A lot of the problem apparently is that the experiments generate so much data that much of that data gets thrown away if it's not explicitly looked for. That means that you have to know what to look for in advanced, something theoretical physicists get to help out with. But how do you know what to look for? Well, you have to have a theory, and that theory has to make predictions, and you have to persuade the community that they should look for the data that your theory predicts.

With an infinite number of theories to potentially look at, how do you decide which ones are most promising. Sabine Hossenfelder's book is a critique of the idea that mathematical beauty is the most criteria for selection. She asks various physicists what their idea of beauty is, and of course, finds that every person has a different idea of what that beauty entails, as well as what's important in terms of producing a good theory. In particular, I enjoyed her interview with Xiao-Gang Wen who discussed Qubit Field theory with her.

The text of the book is not heavily mathematical, and is full of self-deprecating sentences. It's easy to read and some of the ideas are fun to contemplate. Many of her metaphors for the mathematics behind a field of study are awesome:
To appreciate how bizarre this is, imagine you visit a website where you can order door signs with numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on, all the way up to infinity. Then you can also order an emu, an empty bottle, and the Eiffel Tower. That's how awkwardly the exceptional Lie groups sit beside the orderly infinite families. (Kindle Loc 2634)
The book ends with an exploration into math in Economics, which as she mentions is full of disaster. The question then is obvious: is there any particular reason to believe that nature is going to be simple and easy to describe with math, any more than human societies are? What's wrong with those "fined-tuned" constants anyway? Why should you consider those constants ugly?

It's interesting food for thought. Recommended.

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