Does beautiful mathematics lead physics astray?


In a new book, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, Sabine Hossenfelder reflects on her career as a theoretical physicist. She acknowledges that her colleagues have produced “mind-boggling” new theories. But she is deeply troubled by the fact that so much work in theoretical physics today is disconnected from empirical reality, yet is excused because the theories themselves, and the mathematics behind them, are “too beautiful not to be true.”

Hossenfelder notes that there have been numerous instances in the past when scientists’ over-reliance on “beauty” has led it astray. Newton’s clockwork universe, with seemingly self-evident

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Fermi’s paradox and the Copernican principle

Distant galaxies magnified by a gravitational lens

Fermi’s paradox

As we have discussed on this forum before (see, for example, previous Math Scholar blog), Fermi’s paradox looms as one of the most profound and puzzling conundrums of science: Given that the universe is presumed to be teeming with intelligent life and technological civilizations, why do we see no evidence of their existence? Although the search for signals and other evidence from extraterrestrial (ET) societies continues (and is accelerating with new facilities and funding), nothing has been found in over 50 years.

Ever since Fermi first declared the paradox in

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Pseudoscience from the political left and right

Pseudoscience through the ages

Projected global mean sea level rise

Through the years, decades and centuries, the world of science has slowly turned back the tide of pseudoscience, with victory after victory against nonsense and ignorance. In the 16th and 17th century, the writings of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton overturned the ancient cosmology. The revolting practice of bloodletting was overturned in the late 19th century. Astrology was scientifically defeated in the 18th and 19th century, although, incredibly, it continues to attract faithful adherents even to this day. Young-earth creationism was scientifically overturned by the early 20th century, and now,

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