Sunday, June 03, 2018

Book Update: Books are printed!

I had just returned from my trip to Dublin when the door rang and the UPS man dumped two big boxes on our doorstep. My husband has a habit of ordering books by the dozens, so my first thought was that this time he’d really outdone himself. Alas, the UPS guy pointed out, the boxes were addressed to me.

I signed, feeling guilty for having forgotten I ordered something from Lebanon, that being the origin of the parcels. But when I cut the tape and opened the boxes I found – drumrolls please – 25 copies “Lost in Math”. Turns out my publisher has their books printed in Lebanon.

I hadn’t gotten neither galleys nor review copies, so that was the first time I actually saw The-Damned-Book, as it’s been referred to in our household for the past three years. And The-Damned-Book is finally, FINALLY, a real book!

The cover looks much better in print than it does in the digital version because it has some glossy and some matte parts and, well, at least two seven-year-old girls agree that it’s a pretty book and also mommy’s name is on the cover and a mommy photo in the back, and that’s about as far as their interest went.

I’m so glad this is done. When I signed the contract in 2015, I had no idea how nerve-wrecking it would be to wait for the publication. In hindsight, it was a totally nutty idea to base the whole premise of The-Damned-Book on the absence of progress in the foundations of physics when such progress could happen literally any day. For three years now I’ve been holding my breath every time there was a statistical fluctuation in the data.

But now – with little more than a week to go until publication – it seems exceedingly unlikely anything will change about the story I am telling: Fact is, theorists in the foundations of physics have been spectacularly unsuccessful with their predictions for more than 30 years now. (The neutrino-anomaly I recently wrote about wasn’t a prediction, so even if it holds up it’s not something you could credit theorists with.)

The story here isn’t that theorists have been unsuccessful per se, but that they’ve been unsuccessful and yet don’t change their methods. That’s especially perplexing if you know that these methods rely on arguments from beauty even though everyone agrees that beauty isn’t a scientific criterion. Parallels to the continued use of flawed statistical methods in psychology and the life sciences are obvious. There too, everyone kept using bad methods that were known to be bad, just because it was the state of the art. And that’s the real story here: Scientists get stuck on unsuccessful methods.

Some people have voiced their disapproval that I went and argued with some prominent people in the field without them knowing they’d end up in my book. First, I recommend you read the book before you disapprove of what you believe it contains. I think I have treated everyone politely and respectfully.

Second, it should go without saying but apparently doesn’t, that everyone who I interviewed signed an interview waiver, transferring all rights for everything they told me to my publisher in all translations and all formats, globally and for all eternity, Amen. They knew what they were being interviewed for. I’m not an undercover agent, and my opinions about arguments from beauty are no secret.

Furthermore, everyone I interviewed got to see and approved a transcript with the exact wording that appears in the book. Though I later removed some parts entirely because it was just too much material. (And no, I cannot reuse it elsewhere because that was indeed not what they agreed on.) I had to replace a few technical terms here or there that most readers wouldn’t have understood, but these instances are marked in the text.

So, I think I did my best to accurately represent their opinions, and if anyone comes off looking like an idiot it should be me.

Most importantly though, the very purpose of these interviews is to offer the reader a variety of viewpoints rather than merely my own. So of course I disagree with the people I spoke with here and there – because who’d read a dialogue in which two people constantly agree with each other?

In any case, everything’s been said and done and now I can only wait and hope. This isn’t a problem that physicists can solve themselves. The whole organization of academic research today acts against major changes in methodology because that would result in a sudden and drastic decrease of publishing activity. The only way I can see change come about is public pressure. We have had enough talk about elegant universes and beautiful theories.

If you still haven’t made up your mind whether to buy the book, we now have a website which contains a table of contents and links to reviews and such, and Amazon offers you can “Look Inside” the book. Two video trailers will be coming next week. Silicon Republic writes about the book here and Dan Falk has a piece at NBC titled “Why some scientists say physics has gone off the rails.”


  1. Congratulations on being an author.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Congratulations Sabine, I hope my own copy will come soon...

    Btw, I would bet the theorists in fundamental physics work kin selection :)


  4. Great! I will have my copy of your book soon, as a gift for my birthday.
    Don’t be afraid If some breakthrough may occur in theoretical physics by the way, your statements will still be valid somewhere in the multiverse!
    Congratulations and good work

  5. "For three years now I’ve been holding my breath every time there was a statistical fluctuation in the data." Had to laugh, Sabine! I am on my way to the Denver AAS meeting today, and I am hoping to meet up with Dennis Overbye to draw his attention to Cheers, Dick Henry

  6. My copy has been ordered! Looking forward to it!

  7. Amazing! What kind of Damned-Book should we be waiting for in the future, given the final fall of beauty?!

  8. Your children and their children will be able to experience your thoughts for all of their adult lives, wherever they are, as long as they have the book. This will be very valuable to them.

    Whatever one does, some will criticize. LeBron James scored 51 points against one of the best defending teams in the NBA a few nights ago and I have heard some criticisms of his effort.

    I hope the book does well in general, but I am sure it will do well with me. (My copy should be arriving sometime this month.) I expect it will be useful for family gifts also. Thanks for writing it (and for this blog).

  9. The wait is finally over! Congratulation, Sabine! Looking forward to this.

  10. I have already bought your book. Only waiting for the kindle version to post. I'm sure your use of interview material was fair and balanced. Congratulations on seeing your book. I'm looking forward to reading it...

  11. Take two pristine first editions. Sign, date, and thumbprint their inner covers, wrap each in aluminum foil (light, dirt), seal each in a plastic bag (oxygen, moisture, biology), place them on a high shelf. On the twins' 18th birthday...confirm mommy is an idiot (as a class - parent), or prove otherwise.

    "they’ve been unsuccessful and yet don’t change their methods." To criticize is to volunteer. LOOK.
    ... 220 days: Opposite shoes do not vacuum free fall identically. Eötvös balance, quartz.
    ... 001 day: Opposite shoes do not melt into socks identically. Two calorimeters, benzil.
    ... 000.04 day: Opposite shoes do not rotate identically. Microwave spectrometer, 3:1 R:S D_3-trishomocubane-2-carbonitrile.

  12. Congratulations! At least, one nontenured person has become a little tiny happier from the tons of misery accumulated in the field.

  13. Can you give me a free copy?

    Just kidding. Congratulations on the new-born baby!

  14. COPY on order...
    Hope it deals with a puzzle: why does the neutrino mass, a non-Standard Model result, not generate some vital clues to a model beyond the Standard?
    I'm at UCI, which looms large in neutrinos, but this seems to generate not much beyond, "so just add another term to the Lagrangian."

  15. I like to judge (superficially) the value of the book by the number of appendices it contains. Three is not bad at all. Congrats on what seems to be a nice piece of work - again, speaking superficially as I have yet to read the thing.

  16. I look forward to reading this; congratulations on completing the project and my best wishes for its success.

  17. Are there plans for a paperback edition? Not that I am tight or anything!

  18. Perhaps relevant:

  19. Congratulation! A huge accomplishment.

    "(And no, I cannot reuse it elsewhere because that was indeed not what they agreed on.)"

    Perhaps at some point you could approach each interviewee (well, each one you were interested in), to see if he or she would agree to let you post the unpublished interview material (or an approved portion thereof) to a website that is supplementary to the book.

    I'm sure I'm not the only one who cringes at the thought of their further thoughts being forever locked away!

  20. When mine arrives, it will go to the top of my List of Books to Read.

    sean s.

  21. Mighty,

    Sure, there will be a paperback version at some point. I don't know when though.

  22. Well done Sabine, I'll be buying a copy. I hope it sells well, because you're sticking your neck out here. I wish more people would do that. I also hope it sells well because it will be out of date soon. Oh yeah!

    John Duffield, the physics detective.

  23. I pre-ordered your book when I first read your announcement of it here, last October, in thanks after almost a decade of reading pop-sci physics that I could not reconcile with the physics I was taught in school (1985 graduate). My degree was in electrical engineering, not physics, so I had a huge amount of uncertainty about rejecting what the physics superstars were proclaiming. I use that word deliberately, because it was one of the things that raised a red flag - proclamation instead of explanation.

    Paul Steinhardt's article in Scientific American (circa 2005 or so) was the first pop-sci article that I read that convinced me that my doubt was reasonable although his proposed solutions also seemed doubtful. It still felt like proclamation. It made me feel like I was treading on religious territory. I felt like a physics acolyte turned apostate. I still believe in physics, I just doubt the validity of the church's teaching.

    Thanks to you and some others, I now understand that's not an untenable position to hold. You explain rather than proclaim.

    You have also taught me that it is not the most financially viable position for physicists, so I am happy to support your book and look forward to reading it next week when my pre-order should be delivered.

  24. When will the German translation be available? Amazon tells me not before September - is that real?

  25. I just can't wait to read your book! It has popped up on my radar a few times in the past few days and these occurrences were just too unique to be only noise. One of them was the recent interview of Rovelli with Jim Al-Khalili on BBC Radio 4's "Life scientific" plus a few other places to make it a significant outlier to find out more about :) I am now reading through your earlier blog posts and I wish I found it earlier.

    Best, Marcin

  26. About the interviews, I am sure that all was done correctly and no one should be concerned about their views being misrepresented. What I find a bit unfair is that you give their opinions and then you can comment on them, you can present yours and arguments in favor of yours and against theirs and so on, but they don't have a chance to respond to that. May be they had a very good argument that shows that you are wrong, or may be they find your argument convincing and change their views.

  27. "Lost in Math", Kirkus Reviews
    At least, "Lost in Math" has one reference to Milgrom — one up on most of the string theorists.

  28. Space Time,

    There we go with people complaining before they've even read the book...

  29. Uli,

    Yes, the German translation will appear in September.

  30. Liralen,

    Thanks for the feedback, I appreciate your support and hope you will enjoy the book.

  31. Sabine said, “…they’ve been unsuccessful and yet don’t change their methods”

    This is a predominating human behavior (stubbornly sticking too and rationalizing what you “believe”) that I find particularly frustrating when displayed in scientist and researchers. Particularly because they are convinced their rationale is purely logical and scientific when that is not entirely true.

    Everyone, especially those who practice science, should be much more vigilant in scrutinizing their reasoning. We need to be more aware, and understand that unwittingly straying from a purely rational or scientific thought process is a natural and very common human behavior. It takes great diligence and constant self-examination to keep that behavior from creeping into one’s thoughts and work. In my observations, the majority of humans and scientists don’t do a very good job at keeping this kind of corruption out of their conclusions, yet they believe they do.

  32. Are you saying that they could respond in some way?

  33. Hi Sabine
    Hope to be able to read your book soon!
    How does the book contents relate to your research?
    Do you believe that GR SpaceTime IS Gravity?
    Do you believe that Gravity is Quantized and Can Be Quantized (mathematically)?
    How far back did Physics Go Astray?
    Congrats on the Book!

  34. Space Time,

    You seem to be blaming me that printed books are of finite length, but I assure you this was already the case before I was born. Besides, if the people who are quoted in the book have thoughts to add which occurred to them later, they can respond in any way they want and please.

  35. Peter,

    The book doesn't contain anything about my research, except for some brief mentioning what I did during my PhD. I didn't want the reader to think I write the book to promote my own research. This really isn't the point of the book. But of course I try to stick to the conclusions that I came to in choosing my own research topics. Best,


  36. "At least, "Lost in Math" has one reference to Milgrom — one up on most of the string theorists."

    Personally, I'm convinced that MOND phenomenology is real, but not that any MOND theory is correct. The best candidate is probably Khoury's stuff, which is not really a MOND theory per se, but rather dark matter which additionally explains MOND phenomenology.

    The real problem is that too few scientists know about the details of MOND phenomenology, and hence don't see that there is a real problem. However, your steady flow of blog comments touting Milgrom as the Messiah probably does more harm than good.

  37. Congrets for a nice efforts! I think, it is a shared duty to speak out against the blind run of physics community for very speculative and equally far from reality, physics theories. Many, so called, groups often headed by big bosses started these speculations and rest followed them due to "Group Thinking" tendencies leaving no space for something real breakthrough. Fred Hoyle talked about these democratic trends after talking about his typical bash against Big Bang;

  38. Sabine, will there be a Spanish translation of your book?

  39. ... your steady flow of blog comments touting Milgrom as the Messiah...

    Milgrom’s the Messiah? Really? I guess I missed that comment. I thought he was just a guy who came up with a interesting and potentially valid idea.

    Hmm. I totally missed that Messiah thing ...


    sean s.

  40. Guillermo,

    So far no Spanish-language publisher has expressed interest, hence the answer to your question is none is planned.

  41. Congratulations and thank you. I'm not a scientist but I believe science is essential and that science that is self-critical is, well, critical.

  42. "You seem to be blaming me that printed books are of finite length, but I assure you this was already the case before I was born. Besides, if the people who are quoted in the book have thoughts to add which occurred to them later, they can respond in any way they want and please."

    Well, this is not my concern. Let me ask you this. During the interviews did you present you point of view and did you ask them to comment on it? Or did you ask them to present their point of view and then you made comments on that in your book? Please don't say that I can see that in the book. I haven't decided if I will read the book. This could be a factor in my decision.

  43. "Milgrom’s the Messiah? Really? I guess I missed that comment. I thought he was just a guy who came up with a interesting and potentially valid idea.

    Hmm. I totally missed that Messiah thing ... "

    Search this and other blogs for comments by David Brown. OK, maybe not literally the Messiah, but the "new Kepler" or whatever.

  44. Space Time,

    I'm not exactly known for holding back my point of view, am I? Of course I told them about my concerns. The whole premise of the book is that I go out and ask these people what they think about my worries. Besides, I have added very little commentaries to the interviews altogether. It's mostly scenery and explanations necessary for context and a lot of "He says, I says."

    In any case, I think you totally misunderstand the purpose of these interviews. They're there to illustrate what topics we're currently discussing in the foundations of physics. Throughout the book I collect notions of beauty that people name to me. Naturalness and elegance and rigidity and symmetries and so on. To the extent that someone said something that I thought was seriously nonsense I didn't include it (even if they agreed on the transcript). And let me add once again that they got to see the transcript and had the option to change it. (Indeed most of them did change some things here and there.)

  45. Interesting, Wikipedia entry and all. I wonder who the offended individual was?

  46. Tanner,

    That's interesting indeed, thanks for the pointer.

  47. Thank you for using your own brain

  48. Die software zwingt mich, unter "Schwabinger Gesprächskreis" zu posten. Ich möchte aber unter meinem Namen Wolfgang Engelhardt veröffentlichen. Ist das möglich?

    Sehr geehrte Frau Hossenfelder,
    noch bevor ich Ihr Buch gelesen habe, bin ich aufgrund Ihres Interviews mit dem Spiegel hocherfreut über den unkonventionellen Weg, den Sie eingeschlagen haben. Auch ich bin der Ansicht, dass sich nicht nur die theoretische Physik, sondern die physikalische Forschung überhaupt von der Suche nach der naturgesetzlichen Wahrheit weitgehend entfernt hat.

    Sie äußern den Verdacht, dass vielleicht einige Grundannahmen unseres physikalischen Weltbildes unzutreffend sein könnten. Dieses Hinterfragen der Grundlagen war einmal eine selbstverständliche Aufgabe relevanter Forschung, ist aber im Mainstream weitgehend untergegangen. Ich denke, dass sich daraus vor allem der von Ihnen beklagte Stillstand in unserer Wissenschaft erklärt. Konrad Lorenz empfahl noch dem Wissenschaftler, als Morgengymnastik einmal eine seiner Lieblingsideen probatorisch aufzugeben, doch diese gesunde Haltung scheint es nicht mehr zu geben.

    Sie schreiben, dass Sie daran arbeiten, die Schwerkraft anders zu verstehen. Dafür gibt es in der Tat viele Gründe. Einige davon habe ich in dieser Arbeit: aufgeschrieben. Das kurze Papier hat zu meiner eigenen Überraschung bei ResearchGate mit 93000 Reads und 1900 Kommentaren große Aufmerksamkeit gefunden. Offenbar gibt es eine verbreitete Unzufriedenheit mit der ART. Ihre Meinung dazu würde mich sehr interessieren.

    Mit besten Grüßen und guten Wünschen für den Erfolg Ihres Buchs!
    Wolfgang Engelhardt
    ( )

  49. Interesting that you say your copies were printed in Lebanon as my copy has it that it was printed in the U.S.A. or maybe perhaps there is a place in the U.S. called Lebanon.

  50. I just discovered your blog yesterday via Peter Woit's blog. I've been gripped by your posts and many of the comments I've devoured. The Amazon Man delivered a copy of your book a few minutes ago.

    Thank you for doing all this, it takes a great deal of courage.


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