Monday, April 30, 2018

Me, Elsewhere

  • I spoke with Iulia Georgescu, who writes for the Nature Physics blog, about my upcoming book “Lost in Math.
  • The German version of the book now also has an Amazon page. It sells me as “Ketzer,” meaning “heretic.” Well, I guess I indeed make some blasphemous remarks about other people’s beliefs.
  • Chris Lee has reviewed my book for Ars Technica. He bemoans it’s lacking dramatic turns of plot. Let me just say it’s really hard to be surprising if your editor puts the storyline in the subtitle.
  • It seems there will be an audio version after all. Will let you know if details emerge.
  • When I was in New York last year, the Brockmans placed me in front of a camera with the task to speak about what has been on my mind recently, just that I shouldn’t mention my book, which of course has been the only thing on my mind recently. I did my best.


  1. Sabine said, "...other people’s beliefs"

    That is a key reason I follow you. Too many scientist don't recognize the difference between empirical, logical science and their beliefs. I feel you are better than most at seeing this. It's good to remember the insertion of beliefs in a seemingly logical rationale is always most difficult to see in ourselves because no one is perfect.

  2. I listened with great interest to your insightful video discussion. I could not help but compare the current glut of questionable quickie papers produced for the sake of citation numbers to the corporate profit motive, which is to produce goods and services as quickly and cheaply as possible. The ultimate purpose of human existence today seems to be just making a lot of money, which is itself meaningless as well as questionable. Have today's physicists fallen into the same rut?

    Niels Bohr didn't produce many papers, as he was focused on getting the science as correct as possible, but he had enormous influence on both the direction and progress of physics. Today I am astonished at the sheer number of papers many physicists are cranking out, but to what end? Where are the guiding lights like Bohr today?

  3. Ketzer ;-) Klasse. Vorbestellt!

  4. A lucid voice ("Ketzer") speaks within a dark community of process displacing product. Do we need Galileo and Popper given Aristotle, Tommy Aquinas and Bates?

    Yes, and more so for it. Philosophy discusses words’ meaning not content. Diversity says "Support the pretense of knowledge. Pursue demarcated undecidability. Embrace intertextual multivocalities of postcolonial others regarding phallogeocentric bias.”

    Look where curve fits tell you not to look.

  5. I like your point about the lack of science fiction in particle physics. I'd love to read some crazy ideas about what discovering supersymmetry or whatever could lead to technologically, but it's true one never hears about this...
    As an astrophysicist, I have to say this fits with my own prejudice that particle physicists are extremely intelligent, but not very imaginative. I once worked at the department with half theoretical astrophysicists and half theoretical particle physicists, and our half was, comparatively, almost artistically minded while the other reminded me a bit more extremely clever accountants who loved to calculate some coupling constant to 2 more digits... We never really seemed to understand each other. Maybe people with the kind of imagination that appreciates crazy sci-fi are drawn to other fields than particle physics, on average? Are particle physicists so obsessed with beauty and naturalness because they like order more than physicists in other fields? And perhaps this is again self-perpetuating because the maths in this field is so hard that people with .. more messy? ways of thinking often find it unattractive?

  6. I pre-ordered the Kindle version from Amazon. Forgive me...

    sean s.

  7. Cute picture Sabine. Looking forward to your book's appearance on my kindle! I remember you said June. Is there a specific date?

  8. Must remember the word ketzer. It sounds a little better than heretic.

  9. Your view that relying on beauty as a criterion for validity/progress is misplaced was verified by your Edge talk.
    I found you quite beautiful and that has not advanced my understanding whatsoever.

  10. Sabine,

    In the piece 'Looking in the Wrong Places' at you say that "We need signs to solve the problems on this planet, problems that we have caused ourselves. For this we need science to work properly."

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding you, but I don't think that making science work properly would make any real impact on the problems on this planet. For to me the problems on the planet are caused first and foremost by 1.) the modern mans seemingly needs for escaping boredom, anxiety, etc., through consumption, 2.) the seemingly need of people to impress each other (and perhaps themselves as well) by noisely and aggressively inflating themselves in various ways, economical, etc., which sadly seems to be rewarded, also via sexual selection.

    In my view, the problem is first and foremost a massive shortcoming on this planet of modesty and of courage to endure in solidarity with any other human being the basic conditions of being a human being: our existential worries concerning aloneness, death, etc.

  11. John,

    In the sentence you quote, the "signs" should have been "science". (I have asked them to fix the transcript, thanks for mentioning.)

    Suppose you are right on the causes of problems that you list. How do you want to solve them if not with science? Best,


  12. Sabine,

    Frankly speaking, I have no substantial ideas, but thanks for asking.

    Science itself is not the answer, I think, at least not if it is not accompanied by a spiritual (whereby I do not mean religious) maturation of modern man. For science leads to technology, the latter of which is a double-edged sword:

    It can be used for good, making cleaner energy solutions, making our lives a little easier, making possible medical advances, etc. But it will also very quickly be incorporated into our attempts to prevail over each other, our attempts to impress each other, etc; the socalled 'Jevons paradox' is, I think, a direct consequence of this.

    However, and on second thoughts, if science can be used to make modern man reflect deeper over the existence as such, and thereby most probably give reason, in contrast to unreason, a more prominent place, then perhaps science itself can be transformative. But looking back at the late onehundred years or so, where fundamental science have made so great strides, and seeing how unreason continues to flourish despite of that, does not install in me much hope that that is going to happen.

  13. @John and Sabine: All observation supports baryogenesis. Cite physical theory that allows baryogenesis prior to curve fittings assuming it. Teleparallel gravitations. Short list?

    Baryogenesis is not "fundamental" (chiral emergence), Noetherian (broken symmetries), or "beautiful" (goodbye sparse matrices). Contingencies are bench top falsifiable in existing equipment within an hour, or not. "It can't be true." So it can't be true, so what? Look.

  14. Long time lurker on your blog, and I thought this was as good an opportunity as any to say thanks for everything you write, and that I pre-ordered your book today.

  15. John,

    Science is a method for searching out evidence; science does not particularly lead to technology; learning and need lead to technology. Necessity, knowledge, and imagination remain the parents of invention.

    Many of our problems have been exacerbated by technology, but they were not caused by technology, but by ignorance or folly. Uninformed “spirituality” is as much a threat as anything could be.

    We need science to work properly to solve our problems because it’s the best way to get accurate information about the world. We will need more than properly functioning science, but properly functioning science is necessary.

    sean s.

  16. Even the models for economics and academics are very poor and sometimes wrong. Daniel Kahneman in "Thinking Fast and Slow" showed how economics stuck to unproven theories as axioms. Academics sticks to teaching my children the same way my grandfather was taught. Does anyone believe teaching cannot be improved dramatically? (except to say the low teacher wages are the root cause of primary & secondary school academic stagnation) There are plenty of worthwhile problems to be solving!

  17. sean s.,

    I agree with you that technology in itself is not the problem. It is how we choose to use/apply it.

    If you by "uninformed spirituality" means things like mysticism, esotericism, superstition, etc., then I agree with you that that poses also quite a threat. So let me be clear: My use of the word spitituality (perhaps badly chosen, please feel free to suggest a better one) is perhaps first and foremost in the sense of a mental practice of self-introspection (not necessarily by any formal means, like meditation), to attain knowledge about oneself and (ones) core values, in order to be able to break free of the cultural norms that seem so dysfunctional for the health of the planet, etc.

  18. The article "Research Funding: the Case for a Modified Lottery" ( is an attempt to provide an efficient way for funding research, far different from the cliches.

  19. Not sure if it has been mentioned already, but John Hawks had a nice mention of the book

  20. Thomas Kuhn argued that during the progress of "normal science" some observations were made that simply did not fit the standard paradigm. I have noted many of these, and in some they were noted in papers with an exclamation mark. In others the results were published, but the significance of them seemed to elude the authors. Occasionally, I have seen quite illogical conclusions reached where the author desperately tried to fit in with the current paradigm, and in others, the observations were dismissed with an arm-waving statement that "they were not important". In my opinion, true heresy is where these results are collected and something different made of them, while not being falsified by other observations. However, my experience is that doing that most certainly does not advance one's career. Quite simply, you will be ignored because too many have too much at stake.

  21. (this comment has been moved from the wrong post)

    I think you would agree, Sabine, when I suggest that expressing your thoughts as coherent narrative tends to put things in better focus for your own mind. That is, trying to explain what's in your head to a greater audience also helps clarify and reinforce your own thoughts.

    What I find interesting is that those physicists who have chosen the book approach are usually the ones with the most controversial ideas. Is this an implicit fault with academic journals and peer-reviewed articles in that they filter -- if not block -- ideas that are outside of the mainstream, or ideas that are more philosophical than mathematical?

  22. Tony, a paper is really designed to deal with one point that follows in a more or less straightforward approach from observation and current theory. Something that involves a optimising a set of disparate observations seldom comes out well i9n a paper because you don''t have the space to clarify and relate. Peer review also does not help when the reviewers do not want to get out of their comfort zone.

  23. Toward the end of the Edge interview, Sabine mentions the lack of serious research into the (social) mechanisms of science. That's an insightful observation! It reminded me of something I read earlier this year about constructing a simulation of a scientific community. I wonder if this general approach can be expanded upon?

    The paper is How to Beat Science and Influence People: Policy Makers and Propaganda in Epistemic Networks, and generated buzz in various sites like medium.

    This studies how two mechanisms (selective research and selective publication) can affect both scientific consensus and public opinion. That's not quite what Sabine is concerned with, but there's a connection at least to the kind of self-sustaining back-patting that goes on in research circles. I'm curious if this general simulation strategy can be applied to other areas of meta-science.


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