Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Lost in Math: Out Now.

Today is the official publication date of my book “Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray.” There’s an interview with me in the current issue of “Der Spiegel” (in German) with a fancy photo, and an excerpt at Scientific American.

In the book I don’t say much about myself or my own research. I felt that was both superfluous and not particularly interesting. However, a lot of people have asked me about a comment I made in the passing in an earlier blogpost: “By writing [this book], I waived my hopes of ever getting tenure.” Even the Spiegel-guy who interviewed me asked about this! So I feel like I should add some explanation here to prevent misunderstandings. I hope you excuse that this will be somewhat more personal than my usual blogposts.

I am not tenured and I do not have a tenure-track position, so not like someone threatened me. I presently have a temporary contract which will run out next year. What I should be doing right now is applying for faculty positions. Now imagine you work at some institution which has a group in my research area. Everyone is happily producing papers in record numbers, but I go around and say this is a waste of money. Would you give me a job? You probably wouldn’t. I probably wouldn’t give me a job either.

That’s what prompted my remark, and I think it is a realistic assessment. But please note that the context in which I wrote this wasn’t a sudden bout of self-pity, it was to report a decision I made years ago.

I know you only get to see the results now, but I sold the book proposal in 2015. In the years prior to this, I was shortlisted for some faculty positions. In the end that didn’t pan out, but the interviews prompted me to imagine the scenario in which I actually got the job. And if I was being honest to myself, I didn’t like the scenario.

I have never been an easy fit to academia. I guess I was hoping I’d grow into it, but with time my fit has only become more uneasy. At some point I simply concluded I have had enough of this nonsense. I don’t want to be associated with a community which wastes tax-money because its practitioners think they are morally and intellectually so superior that they cannot possibly be affected by cognitive biases. You only have to read the comments on this blog to witness the origin of the problem, as with commenters who work in the field laughing off the idea that their objectivity can possibly be affected by working in echo-chambers. I can’t even.

As to what I’ll do when my contract runs out, I don’t know. As everyone who has written popular science books will confirm, you don’t get rich from it. The contract with Basic Books would never have paid for the actual working time, and that was before my agent got his share and the tax took its bite. (And while I am already publicly answering questions about my income, I also frequently get asked how much “money” I make with the ads on this blog. It’s about one dollar a day. Really the ads are only there so I don’t feel like I am writing here entirely for nothing.)

What typically happens when I write about my job situation is that everyone offers me advice. This is very kind, but I assure you I am not writing this because I am asking for help. I will be fine, do not worry about me. Yes, I don’t know what I’ll do next year, but something will come to my mind.

What needs help isn’t me, but academia: The current organization amplifies rather than limits the pressure to work on popular and productive topics. If you want to be part of the solution, the best starting point is to read my book.

Thanks for listening. And if you still haven’t had enough of me, Tam Hunt has an interview with me up at Medium. You can leave comments on this interview here.

More info on the official book website: lostinmathbook.com

96 comments:

Steve Bryson said...

Thank you for this refreshingly honest perspective, Sabine. I really relate: I had a very near brush with being a mathematical physicist back in the ‘80s. It didn’t happen, but in hindsight, because I could not accept the motivations for supersymmetry, much less string theory, I can see that it would have been a miserable fit. Somehow, by a very circuitous route, I ended up in a very satisfying situation on a history-making astronomy mission (NASA/Kepler), where I’m happy to say I made important contributions.

I’ve found your writing to be deeply satisfying, admittedly because it expresses much better than I ever could my feelings about SUSY and strings that I developed long ago. I hope you have surprising success in the future!

Andrew Thomas said...

Congratulations on the book. I will be reading it and enjoying it, I’m sure

I would have thought some place like Scientific American would snap you up for a writing job.

mkentri said...

Thank you, Sabine. That was a candid, concise backgrounder. I don't think science would have ever made advances without mavericks like you. I agree entirely about the bureaucracy of academia and the politics of grants. This is the first I am writing of such dissent in a public comment. This causes constraint in research and there are a finite amount of years any individual theorist has. I look forward to reading your book. -Mike

Phillip Helbig said...

"As everyone who has written popular science books will confirm, you don’t get rich from it."

It's rare, but some do. In his autobiography, Isaac Asimov notes the time when he started making more from writing than his salary as professor of biochemistry, and this was back before he was a really famous writer.

I'm sure that people like John Barrow and Martin Rees, though they might have been rich before, do make a substantial sum from popular books.

OK, Asimov was a full-time writer (though he formally kept his professorial title) and Rees and Barrow (and Gould and Sagan and so on) are/were famous as scientists.

The interesting question is whether one can make a (good) living from writing popular science books if one is not famous and without putting in well over 40 hours per week, as Asimov did. Probably, but it is not easy.

opamanfred said...

Sabine,
Pardon me for being a bit blunt, but when I read this post I could not stop thinking of Aesop's fable of the Fox and the Grapes (Fox can't jump high enough to catch grapes; then Fox says: Oh well, they are not ripe anyway, I never really wanted to eat them).
I actually agree with some of the things you write in the book (those anticipated in the blog anyway, the rest I don't know). But I really do not think anything of this prevents you or anybody else from getting tenure in academia.
The problem (both for the book and for the tenure) is the "solutions" you propose: mathematical consistency, making contact with experiments, and talking to philosophers. Well, who can disagree with that? Of course physical theories must be maths consistent. And who would not like their pet theory to be vindicated by experiment? The problem is that it is DIFFICULT to come up with a theory that is maths consistent, does not disagree with past observations and validated theories, and can also be realistically tested experimentally. If you criticize the current state of affairs, but offer only vague statements (some evil-minded Facebook friend might call them "platitudes"...) as solutions, I can understand that people are less impressed (even if, like me, they accept some of the criticism).
As to talking to philosophers, surely you're joking, Ms. Hossenfelder! I read with gusto the history and philosophy of science, so I perfectly agree that it can clarify some general statements about physical theories and help us reflect on our approaches. But physics is way too technical today to expect philosophers to make serious contributions. Do you really think professional philosophers can contribute something to quantum gravity research (unless they delve so much into the subject to become physicists themselves)?

m. s. said...

I am sorry to hear you are leaving academia. As someone who has left academia as well (for writing, of all things!) I know the pain. But you are smart, you will be fine. I am only sorry because science needs independent heads like yours, now more than ever. It is sad how the current structure of academia kicks out the people it would need more.

Sagittarius A said...

Lost In Math is already No. 1 in the German amazon.de Psysic category ;-) nice. I hope Der Spiegel put the interview also on their website. Viel Erfolg !!!

Juan Pablo Villaseca said...

Fantastic news! My copy will arrive in 3 weeks in Chile :)

cholling said...

Today is the official publication date of my book “Lost in Math: How Physics Leads Beauty Astray.”

That's the reverse order from the book cover... Change of heart? Freudian slip?

Uncle Al said...

String/M-theory: large (infinite) numbers of "acceptable" vacua, the multiverse!
Support evolution, shoot back.
String/M-theory: Cauchy horizons; unlimited numbers of immaterial solutions. The Emperor is naked.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KFvbaMD2P-0
... Does this meme play in German?

Lockley said...

One of the lessons that was drilled into me in 20 years as a laboratory supervisor (chemist) was: "If you think you know the answer, you won't continue to examine what is questioned"
It seems to me that you would be a valuable member of any research team. The ability to question the apparent answers and examine foundation assumptions is essential in all technical pursuits.

Bill said...

I just ordered your book from Amazon after reading several online reviews. Congratulations on what appears to become a best seller!

In the 1970s I learned about mathematical physicist Hermann Weyl's 1918 theory of the unified gravitational and electromagnetic fields, marveling at the sheer beauty of it all. I even wrote my physics thesis on a related topic. But Weyl's theory failed despite its beauty and mathematical consistency, a perfect example of what you have written about.

Of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these - "it might have been." -- Whittier

JimV said...

I have enjoyed books by Simon Singh and James Gleick. They are exceptions who seem to do well writing about science, but I think you write as well as them, and with more humor. So I hope you are able to keep writing and earn enough money at it so that it is worth your time. (There are many posts from this blog that could be published in a book of essays.) Of course you would like to keep working in science directly too, so I hope you can do that at the same time.

About making money from (private) blogs, those I read who seem to be doing so (not getting rich, but making enough to justify the time spent) have yearly fund drives (and/or a lot more adds, but I don't read those blogs when the adds are too intrusive and annoying). That is, once a year usually in the Spring they remind people that having well-written posts about interesting things isn't a free lunch, and might disappear if people don't support it. I never mind seeing those.

andrew said...

Eagerly awaiting you book on my porch today! Your voice in the wilderness is profoundly appreciated.

KS said...

Perhaps a Freudian slip: Should “Lost in Math: How Physics Leads Beauty Astray” near the top of your post be “Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray”?

Q said...

Funding in academia is sacred and anyone who threatens that becomes public enemy number one. You're just not allowed to say these things without becoming a persona non grata. Unsurprisingly the nature of academic funding is the very reason for the rampant publishing of useless papers and reproducibility crisis. It's a bitter truth that no one in the field or in academia as a whole wants to hear.

Tanner said...

“...wobei sich die Physikerin es sich nicht immer verkneifen kann, deren Aussagen unmittelbar ironisch zu kommentieren.”

Some people don’t like that :).

Waldemar Puszkarz said...

"As everyone who has written popular science books will confirm, you don’t get rich from it."

You will most likely not get rich this way, but some people keep writing such books over and over, which suggests that this is a decent source of income for them.

senanindya said...


"I have never been an easy fit to academia. I guess I was hoping I’d grow into it, but with time my fit has only become more uneasy. At some point I simply concluded I have had enough of this nonsense."

If that's what you think of physics, wait till you see the so-called social sciences. :)

But joking apart, I am convinced that the nonsense began the moment publishing papers became the end product and main goal of academics, rather than a means of communicating meaningful research.

The cancer has spread to every field and academics in every country are jumping on the same "publish or perish" bandwagon leading to exponential increase in junk publications.
I think a lot of academics - maybe even the majority - would agree with you if they weren't afraid of retaliation.

Sandy Cameron said...

Thanks very much for the background Dr. H. I got my copy today - I am off to a cottage at a lake next week, and expect that this and Chasing New Horizons will be my reading list. Really looking forward to it.

Jim said...

I have had enough of this nonsense....

Wow, burn those bridges, much! Or to mix metaphors, it sounds like you've decided to drop the rope and just free-climb from here on.

Meanwhile, I can't stand it:
Your Account › Your Orders › Order Details › Track Package
Arriving today by 8PM
Ordered January 18
Shipped Monday, June 11
Out for delivery...
[refresh]
Out for delivery...
[refresh]
Out for delivery...
[refresh]
Out for delivery...

Unknown said...

I remember a taxi driver in Boston who told me he delivered typewriter ribbons to Asimov.

Arun said...

Got my copy!

Alejandro Corichi said...

Well, without trying to offer you advice, nor suggest any path, there is precedent of an academic who wrote a controversial book and still got a job after that. Just ask João Magueijo.

Tony Vladusich said...

I had a similar experience when I was in academia. My field was computational neuroscience. It's a field littered with malformed ideas dogmatically defended by their self-interested creators.

I had a fairly successful career but could not crack the tenure job market, largely because (a) I didn't publish a lot (of garbage) papers, preferring to pursue my own ideas in lieu of the field's zeitgeist avenues, and (b) (partially as a consequence of (a)), I could not secure grant funding.

A couple of years ago, after teaching a course on Apple's new Swift programming language, I decided I'd had enough of academia and so made the scary transition to the world of software development. Now I develop mobile apps for a living and I could not be happier. I hope you find something to make you happy too.

I think you, like Woit and Smolin, raise the integrity of your field. It's a thankless task, so I'll thank you on behalf of those who should. Thanks!

Tom Andersen said...

Sabine,

While you may be correct about the tenure track thing, it seems to me that a truly open department would be wise to snap you up. Not all the faculty have to be onboard for every appointment. I guess I'm an optimist.

Looking forward to the book. I ordered the real copy, even though I like reading on the Kindle more.

--Tom

Ian Thomas said...

That is a cute twist "physics leads beauty astray" I guess that's what happened to you !

Enrico said...

You don't need a tenured position to make great science. Look at history. Great scientists, if they got professorship, got it after they made great science. Academic position has nothing to do with it. Newton was a farm boy, Einstein a clerk, Franklin a publisher, Lavoisier a tax collector, Herschel a musician, Joule a brewer, Darwin an independent scientist. Universities created the tenured position to attract good scientists not the make one. And scientists take academic position for many reasons other than science.

Your role is outside academia. Pauli was the conscience of physics. He invented the famous phrase "not even wrong" that describes the pseudoscience now plaguing theoretical physics. He also called group theory "the group pestilence." You are Pauli's successor. Though I don't know who's more sarcastic. How about "string pestilence?"

Rutger said...

As someone who has just switched from academic to data science: there is life outside the ivory tower. In fact, there is a *lot* of excitement, drive and relevance. And free coffee, let's not forget that :).

Robb Lutton said...

Sabine,
I just got my daily "bookbub" email and your book is listed as the "science" recommended reading with links to amazon and ibooks. Nice to see you get some publicity. I am looking forward to the book.

Shantanu said...

Sabine: You have lots of publications and grants. So I don't see you having a problem career wise. you are also well connected to academia

Phillip Helbig said...

"As to what I’ll do when my contract runs out, I don’t know.

What typically happens when I write about my job situation is that everyone offers me advice. This is very kind, but I assure you I am not writing this because I am asking for help. I will be fine, do not worry about me. Yes, I don’t know what I’ll do next year, but something will come to my mind."


Most people who work in university research will never get a tenured position, or even a permanent job in that area. I'm sure that most others suffer much more than Sabine as a result, both emotionally and financially.

Antonio Maraziti said...

Another review here:
https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2018/06/12/is-theoretical-physics-wasting-our-best-living-minds-on-nonsense/#38162d117566

Phillip Helbig said...

As far as I can see, it is not available in a non-proprietary ePub format. The Barnes and Noble NOOK is ePub, but encrypted in such a way that it can be read only on their reader devices. (I think that this is the opposite of the Amazon approach, which also uses a proprietary format but can be read (e.g. via an app) on other devices, while the Kindle reads only Amazon's format: the NOOK device can read other formats, but the NOOK format can be read only on this device.) So, I'll have to buy the paper version. :-(

It would be nice if all publishers agreed to distribute books in ePub format. Personally, I use the tolino e-reader, but the point of an open format is that it can be read on a variety of devices. The format is open but of course copyright etc still applies; standard approaches are Adobe-ID and watermarks.

David Bailey said...

Congratulations on publishing your book - I intend to read it just as soon as it is available in Kindle format in the UK.

You finish your video about groupthink in science with the remark, "And it is not just physics". I must admit I wonder about a lot of the edifice of science as it has mushroomed up over the last 80 years or so.

For example, there is a book "The Higgs Fake" that argues that enterprises such as the LHC are not reliable because they can't be repeated. The raw data is filtered electronically on the fly because it is too vast to be stored digitally! Thus nobody can repeat the analysis of the raw data to check it. He points out that recognising a particle decay of interest when the particle only exists for about 10^-25 of a second, against a huge background of particles generated in other ways, is probably not reliable.

Is it possible that more than just string theory will need to be unraveled before real progress can be made?

The book contains a set of questions in an appendix that I don't think anyone has tried to answer. The author, Alexander Unzicker, has a VERY grating style which makes him hard to read, but I feel he makes a lot of interesting points.

Rob Tate said...

Hi Sabine
I can't wait to get my copy.
Have you any idea why the delivery is 1 to 3 months on Amazon. I pre-ordered and have now cancelled and used Blackwell's instead as delivery is 48 hours.

Anti said...

I don't know of a nice way to say this. It seems quite disingenuous for someone without tenure who is nearly 42 years-old to claim that her new book will deprive her of such. It would seem that in the many years you've been a physicist, it is thought you've somply not made contributions that warrant tenure.

That said, taking a very TMZ/Hollywood Reporter approach to attacking the only theoretically and empirically plausible approach to unifying physics is certainly damning enough on it's own to any reputation within the theoretical physics community.

Opinions don't matter in science, yet you seem to be threatening to lead non-physicists astray with your irrelevant interview approach. This is all too similar to the approach taken generally in media today in which two incomplete cases are presented for opposing views on complex issues, leaving most of the relevant information unaddressed and leaving the non-theoretical physicist hopelessly ill-informed, with very misleading impressions.

I'm sorry to say that, while you seem like a nice person, you are part of the problem in physics and certainly not part of any solution.

Sorry, but there's no way to understand string theory without reading the published papers in the field regularly and being up to date on the cutting edge math required to understand it.

Mikyd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ken Abbott PhD said...

Congrats on the book!!!! Also, that's a great photo shot!!!!!

sean s. said...

I'm just going to sit in the back, here, and listen to the discussion while I read the book.

sean s.

Andrew Wilcox said...

Hi Sabine!

I had a question...

I've gotten as far as chapter 3 in your book! :-)

I'm not sure I understand the concept of the flow of theory space or not, so I was wondering if I might try a simpler example to ask if I'm on the right track...

Suppose I do some careful measurements and find that at the surface of the Earth, in a vacuum and without magnets etc., things accelerate downwards at 9.8 m/s^2. So this is my "standard theory": things accelerate towards the Earth at 9.8 m/s^2. (Imagine that it's always cloudy and mountains are super hard to climb so we don't have other observations).

Then this guy Newton comes along as say, "You know, what we measure here at the surface is consistent with my 'law of gravitation'... which also predicts that if we climb that mountain we'll find the acceleration is less by this precise amount. Not to mention that if we launch some rockets and there happens to be a vacuum above the cloud layer with some 'moons' or 'planets' up there we can predict their orbits." (For the sake of argument suppose we had managed to measure the mass of the Earth somehow).

Of course, the new theory only agrees with our current observations if its "G" parameter is 6.674x10^-11.

Is this an example of "fine tuning"? I.e, why so tiny? Why "6.674" and not a nice round number? Why does it have to be that precise value?

Matt Grayson said...

I just finished your book. Really marvelous. Congratulations!

I hope it is a positive enough experience for you so that you will write more.

Michael Harney said...

Sabine, I will throw in my support for your honorable cause. I too took a right turn early in my scientific career when I noticed the incredible arrogance of its practitoners. I recently tossed my hat back into the ring 2 years ago, working for a research group with great promise, only to find a year later that some accountant had decided to make our group for profit. I will just say that I think we are seeing the beginning of the end of this scientific arrogance, mostly because our current administration doesn't know which way is up in science and will likely alter the status of those at the highest levels in academia. Whether that changes their behavior and whether we recover from the damage done to the perception of science by the public is another question. But change does appear to be in the works.

Ken Abbott PhD said...

Sabine - Don't agonize over this. So you don't fit into Academia, so what? Don't think twice. Don't look back. With your talent their are tons of opportunities out there. Go grab them, or make them. -Ken

Andrew Wilcox said...

Oh. I read a bit further and see that it's only dimensionless units that count.

M Mahin said...

Sabine, you've misstated the title of your own book. It's "How Beauty Leads Physics Astray" not "How Physics Leads Beauty Astray"

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Thanks for letting me know I mistyped the title of my own book, lol, I fixed that!

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Rob,

I am guessing you are in the UK? The problem is that I do not have a publisher in the UK, so you'll have to wait for the US publisher to ship it.

nick w said...

Me offering advice would be like an ant offering directions to a giraffe. But I will remind you that Einstein published his miracle year papers while working at a patent office.

We think we are at the end of history, and that catastrophic institutional blunders are a thing of the past. But actually we are just coming to the middle of history, and future generations will look back on aether, flogiston, calor, heliocentrism, and string theory, as laughably provincial theories birthed from superstitious dogma.

Perhaps in the future you will be regarded as a precient rebel like copernicus, boltzman, or Bruno. Hopefully things turn out better for you than they did for Bruno.

Where can I buy your book that you get the biggest cut?

Ranjeet Dalal said...

One can not give up if she/he honestly think that present theories are mostly nonsense .. which they are. Nor I expect you will do. We can never stop fighting for the things which we considered most vital for science. Nor, we can bear the unbearable burden of possibility that our next generation will also be sucked to the same quagmire … considering the most unreal things ever possible as real... Secured or unsecured... tenured or untenured... demolish the unholy fortress of illusionary physics. Even if alone, your own perception will give you a great satisfaction that you stood for the things you thought mattered most.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Nick w,

If you use the link to amazon that's in the above blogpost or the one that's in the sidebar, it'll add a peanut to my amazon associates account. I'll not see royalties unless I make it above some threshold which I'm still below.

David Schroeder said...

Amazon just informed, via email, that "Lost in Math" is on its way, yay!

George Herold said...

Hi Sabine, my copy arrived yesterday. So far I'm very much enjoying it. But I enjoy your writing here so that's no surprise. I wanted to suggest that you send a copy to Sam Harris, he might be just the type to get you book into the hands of a wider audience. (I've suggested on his site that he look into an interview with you, but he has a much bigger following and I'm likely lost in the noise.)

Uncle Al said...

A growing fraction of Big Science is professionally managed Potemkin Lysenkoism that does not invite correction: "accepted" theory and Social Justice (funding politically adroit incompetence).

Monopoly - then competition, disbelief, fear, rage, retribution. First derivatives sell books, second derivatives sell guns. Grok your quarry. Get ready for the fun parts.

qsa said...

You are leaving academia, good for you Sabine. Now, you are free to publish on vixra your wild ideas. You can also start investigating my theory "Quntum Statistical Automata" without feeling guilty :)

qsa said...

Another idea. Write a book about your experience in working with physicists.

Phillip Helbig said...

"For example, there is a book "The Higgs Fake" that argues that enterprises such as the LHC are not reliable because they can't be repeated. The raw data is filtered electronically on the fly because it is too vast to be stored digitally! Thus nobody can repeat the analysis of the raw data to check it. He points out that recognising a particle decay of interest when the particle only exists for about 10^-25 of a second, against a huge background of particles generated in other ways, is probably not reliable."

Bullshit. Yes, at the moment, no other setup can duplicate the LHC. But it is certainly possible in principle. Yes, there is a problem that too often results are not confirmed. However, it is difficult to get money just to confirm an experiment. Yes, there are problems with this, but "The Higgs Fake" misses the mark big time.

First, two experiments at the LHC both found the Higgs. Second, in the history of particle physics it is common for a particle to be discovered somewhere and later detected elsewhere. But the main problem is the suggestion that the Higgs is fake: black helicopters, the Illuminati, Area 51, hollow Earth, flat Earth, Nazis on the Moon, and so on.

Phillip Helbig said...

"But I will remind you that Einstein published his miracle year papers while working at a patent office."

True, but irrelevant. As Sabine said, saying that Einstein was an outsider is itself a mark of being an outsider. Einstein was well connected in the physics community, read the literature, and people knew who he was. Today, it is much more difficult to do good physics from a non-academic position. (A few people do so with no position, but they have the luxury of not having to work and can spend much time doing research.)

Phillip Helbig said...

"Sabine: You have lots of publications and grants. So I don't see you having a problem career wise. you are also well connected to academia"

Not really; not compared to the competition---neither in number of publications, nor number of grants, nor degree of connection. As my history teacher used to say, just an observation, not a judgement.

I'm the last person who thinks that bibliometry should be the main method of evaluation when hiring someone. However, facts are facts. She does have a problem career-wise (though perhaps not mainly due to the number of publications, or grants, or degree of connection), and has said so herself.

Most people have a completely unrealistic view of academia. On average, each professor who has students will have one student who becomes a professor with students. That's it. It's a jungle out there.

David Bailey said...

Andrew Wilcox,

Surely your comment about the size of the gravitational constant G is wrong because G is not a dimensionless constant. Therefore its value varies depending on the units used!

Stuart said...

Your book exposes one of the greatest scandals in science -shenanigans selling red herrings covered in abstract mathematics and demanding a princely sum.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Nice review in Nature: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05374-9?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20180614&utm_source=nature_etoc&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20180614&spMailingID=56809088&spUserID=MTk5OTQ0NjA1MzEwS0&spJobID=1422054713&spReportId=MTQyMjA1NDcxMwS2

Mounthell said...

S. H.-
Your experience w/ institutions can be accounted for by the physical dynamics of their typical natural history; the entities that form them coalesce to the degree that they exchange resources which, over time, increases in intensity as the entities coadapt. Yet, the progressing global maturation offers correspondingly fewer available 'niches' for new entities (= decreased resources for invested/networked entities) especially if challenged (stressed):
Hollenberg "On the evolution and dynamics of biological networks" _Revista di Biologia/Biology Forum_ 100(1) 93-118.
@NetsDen => pdf

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

David,

Sorry, I had missed your comment. The argument that the Higgs must be fake because no one can reproduce the LHC data is based on a serious misunderstanding. Particle colliders have been in operation since the 1950s. The way by which the data is selected and analyzed is well-understood and has, as a matter of fact, been tested independently by many different groups for several decades. (Aside: The same cannot be said about gravitational wave detectors.) It is also on purely practical grounds next to impossible to fabricate that amount of data and keep this a secret in a community of several thousands. So really these worries are misplaced. Best,

B.

Peter Billam said...

Once you step outside, you're outside for the rest of your life.

- Alan Moore, from Another Suburban Romance

Peter Billam said...

Once you step outside, you're outside for the rest of your life.

- Alan Moore, from Another Suburban Romance

Mikyd said...

Phillip Helbig stated:
"As far as I can see, it is not available in a non-proprietary ePub format. The Barnes and Noble NOOK is ePub, but encrypted in such a way that it can be read only on their reader devices."
I just opened up the book from B&N and it opens fine in the Nook app(on android) just a heads up.

sean s. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phillip Helbig said...

"You are leaving academia, good for you Sabine. Now, you are free to publish on vixra"

Publishing on viXra means not just leaving academia, but completely turning one's back on rational discourse altogether.

Phillip Helbig said...

"The same cannot be said about gravitational wave detectors."

True, but there is no evidence that the detection of gravitational waves is a scam. The simultaneous observation of a gamma-ray burst is a pretty good indication that things are working as they should.

qsa said...

Philip, you said

"completely turning one's back on rational discourse altogether."

The truth is the truth no matter where it comes from.


sean s. said...

I deleted my earlier post because I discovered I’d mistook the posting dates. Rather than being from a couple of days ago, it was from 2016. Sorry.

sean s.

Phillip Helbig said...

"I just opened up the book from B&N and it opens fine in the Nook app(on android) just a heads up."

I wasn't aware that there is a Nook app. If there is one for iOS, then I could install it on my iPad, but I prefer an eBook reader (eBooks on an iPad or a big-screen computer only if there are high-resolution and/or colour photos). I really don't see why all publishers can't publish in ePub. Of course, if they can make money on a proprietary reader, that might be a reason. However, I think that the lack of using standard formats is preventing eBooks from really taking off. Once they do, people will probably buy more books (more convenient to buy, no shelf-space problem, etc).

I've ordered the paper book from a local bookshop. :-|

Mitchell said...

I'm going to point out that one could in fact follow the Hossenfelder methodology and still be a string theorist. As I understand it, the methodology demotes the avoidance of finetuning, in favor of a focus on testability and mathematical consistency. For a string theorist, that could mean something like focusing on the nonsupersymmetric part of the landscape, and on improving the ability to calculate yukawas.

Stuart said...

The important message in Bee's book is that science can progress in leaps if scientists develop a conscience that goes beyond their selfish interests and seek new knowledge according to the founding principles of the scientific endeavor.
If the community can allow new ideas to blossom and let empirical evidence screen out those that don't agree with observations then a lot more gifted people will join academia than leave. Society must get worried if only old white males are winning the Nobel Prizes.

Kaleberg said...

It sounds like a big decision that has been a long time in the making. You were never one to drink the Kool-Aid, so it's hard to imagine you pulling down a shift in the string factory.

Your book is on my birthday list, so I'll be reading it soon. Take advantage of the book publicity to explore new options. I'm not the only one who admires your critical intelligence.

MD Cory said...

I find it funny that you never mentioned sexual repression and sublimation as an explanation for the obsession with beauty in theories. Maybe it's too obvious to mention but it's completely relevant to nerds like physicists.

Nietzsche wrote: "There is, strictly speaking, neither unselfish conduct, nor a wholly disinterested point of view. Both are simply sublimations in which the basic element seems almost evaporated and betrays its presence only to the keenest observation. All that we need and that could possibly be given us in the present state of development of the sciences, is a chemistry of the moral, religious, aesthetic conceptions and feeling, as well as of those emotions which we experience in the affairs, great and small, of society and civilization, and which we are sensible of even in solitude. But what if this chemistry established the fact that, even in its domain, the most magnificent results were attained with the basest and most despised ingredients? Would many feel disposed to continue such investigations? Mankind loves to put by the questions of its origin and beginning: must one not be almost inhuman in order to follow the opposite course?"

Liralen said...

@Phillip Helbig. I completely agree with everything you said about Asimov's science writings. They helped me over some rough spots when I was in college.

I just wanted to say that the only reason I read them is because of being a fan of his sci-fi. Similarly, I bought Dr. Hossenfelder's book because of her other writings, such as this blog. But that's a much smaller interest than sci fi.

The problem with physics these days is that opinions matter more than facts. That problem has existed for a long time, such as Georges Lemaitre. It's also not confined to physics.

It's why I choose electrical engineering as a major instead of physics when I started college in the mid-1970's.

Now that I'm retired, I have even more reasons to advise young women to avoid majoring in pure science. Such as working with scientists who were much happier assisting engineers than they were in their jobs in academia, and working with engineers who were delighted to have me working with them (or at worst, were smart enough to not let their prejudices affect their professional behavior, aided by the fact that their financial security did not involve driving me out.)

That's a problem. It's a problem that permeates our whole society, not just science. It's a consequence of capitalism + democracy. Unfortunately, I don't think a better system exists.

But would be very much interested reading about alternatives.


Rob van Son (Not a physicist, just an amateur) said...

Here is a positive review of your book in one of our national newspapes, De Volkskrant, with a big picture:

https://www.volkskrant.nl/wetenschap/is-een-mooie-theorie-wel-echt-beter-dan-een-lelijke-~b96c8a90/

Karma said...

I have not read your book yet, but based on the teasers and articles written about the book I will probably buy it and read it.

I think the primary motivation in Physics, among aspiring physicists, is funding. Rarely is funding available for abstracts that detach from the 'norm' or 'expected'. The fringe have to pay out-of-pocket.

The fringe also make the greatest discoveries, and the status quo hates it.

May I say something that many will find absolutely preposterous? Quantum Mechanics is (very) often said to be the most powerfully predictive tool ever devised. That sounds like it is such a winner, so brilliant, so masterfully constructed...but all one needs to do to predict something with it is juggle some numbers around and then hope for the best. You don't hear about the failures, which are many. You only hear about the successes. Sometimes you can smash something too big into a much smaller hole or no hole at all. Carpenters do it all the time with hammers and nails...or more recently with pneumatic nailguns.

Did I get lost? Maybe. Many of you know how easily you can dazzle others with large exponents, positive and negative. It doesn't have to be so complicated. In fact, it is quite simple when you get down to the nitty-gritty. Well, grainy, anyway. Fine grain structure.

Peace and Love, as always...

KC

RalphB said...

I just finished the book and enjoyed it thoroughly. Many thanks for writing it.
Keep doing physics your way!
May I ask what your parents did for a living? It seems that a high percentage of new physicists have parents who were physicists. This doesn't reflect well on the meritocratic pretensions of the profession.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Hi Rob,

Thanks for the link, I had totally missed that. Best,

B.

Phillip Helbig said...

"You don't need a tenured position to make great science. Look at history. Great scientists, if they got professorship, got it after they made great science. Academic position has nothing to do with it. Newton was a farm boy, Einstein a clerk, Franklin a publisher, Lavoisier a tax collector, Herschel a musician, Joule a brewer, Darwin an independent scientist. Universities created the tenured position to attract good scientists not the make one."

Those were all a very long time ago.

There are certainly scientists who do great science after getting tenure, or even after retirement.

Phillip Helbig said...

"I just wanted to say that the only reason I read them is because of being a fan of his sci-fi. Similarly, I bought Dr. Hossenfelder's book because of her other writings, such as this blog. But that's a much smaller interest than sci fi."

It was the other way around for me: I had read a couple hundred of his non-fiction books before moving to his science fiction.

I had the pleasure of meeting Asimov once, at a science-fiction convention in Manhatan (I just happened to be passing through New York at the time). I'm not into collecting autographs; I have only two: Asimov and Walter Koenig.

"The problem with physics these days is that opinions matter more than facts. That problem has existed for a long time, such as Georges Lemaitre. It's also not confined to physics."

Not sure what the reference to Lemaitre is supposed to mean.

Phillip Helbig said...

"I find it funny that you never mentioned sexual repression and sublimation as an explanation for the obsession with beauty in theories. Maybe it's too obvious to mention but it's completely relevant to nerds like physicists."

Maybe she didn't mention it because it is irrelevant.

There was a successful Olympic swimmer, Michael Groß, who later worked as a journalist and obtained a doctorate in philology (thesis title: Ästhetik und Öffentlichkeit: Die Publizistik der Weimarer Klassik). Like many successful people, he, at least at one time, drove a Porsche 911. Once in a talkshow, a female journalist asked him questions about it, trying to make him admit that it was some sort of substitute for a successful sex life or some such bullshit. (You can't win. If you drive a rounded car like a Porsche, it's Ersatz for female curves. If you drive something more long and angular like a Lamborghini, it's a phallus.) He quickly caught on to what she was trying to do, but gave her free rein and really let her wind him up. Then he said, straight-faced, that his mother drove the same model.

Although Sabine probably does have a point about being lost in math and putting too much emphasis on beauty, some successful physicists have been successful using it as a criterion. Dirac famously said that it is more important for a theory to be beautiful than to be true, and Einstein certainly had a strong aesthetic component to his work. Einstein was far from sexually repressed, to say the least. His "rock star" status included numerous groupies.

Phillip Helbig said...

"May I ask what your parents did for a living? It seems that a high percentage of new physicists have parents who were physicists. This doesn't reflect well on the meritocratic pretensions of the profession."

This is a non sequitur, unless you are implying that physicists are hired because they are children of physicists. I doubt that the employer knows in most cases. There are many reasons why a higher percentage of physicists have parents who are physicists, and why a higher percentage of physicists have children who are physicists. There might be a lack of meritocracy, but your claim is not evidence for it.

Olav Lerflaten said...

Thank you, Sabine! Reading the book now on my Kindle. Your viewpoints are refreshing, to say the least. Regarding particle physics in particular, is it fair to say that science has come to an end, that further experiments would be prohibitively expensive (if at all possible), and that all we can look forward to are speculations that never can be proven or disproven?

Unknown said...

Karma / KC:

I think this is a big danger of many of the things that B calls out as nonsense - when they hit press releases and popularizations, they are given the same footing as other bits of "modern physics," and folks can wind up thinking that quantum mechanics should deserve the same skepticism. Skepticism is good, so why not? But quantum mechanics is on extremely solid footing and is well understood. The particle content at high energies can always have something new to discover, but the mechanical laws by which the ingredients evolve and interact. I'm searching for a more powerful metaphor than the baby/bathwater... really, that metaphor gets used for the injunction not to discard the good parts of an enterprise which is being cleaned up, but really, quantum mechanics (and many other bits of our modern understanding) are as extremely dissimilar as... as a baby and a tub of water, I suppose. I think a lot of popularizations paint a very pretty picture where things like quantum mechanics and inflationary landscapes are all just perfectly natural steps on the same forward progression, distinguished only by the order in which we have come to understand them, but resist the temptation!

Pietro Kreitlon Carolino said...

Dear Sabine, thanks for writing this very interesting book. I am about halfway through it.

I have one question: regarding the cosmological constant, at one point in your book Steven Weinberg claims to have calculated a probability distribution for it in a Bayesian fashion, by first assuming a flat, constant distribution, then updating for the existence of life.

My question is: as I understand it, the cosmological constant could in principle have any real value. So a constant probability distribution for it is impossible. You can't have a uniform probability distribution on the whole real line, or indeed any infinite interval. What gives?

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

RalphB,

There are no other physicists in my family.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Pietro,

Necessary for Weinberg's calculation is only the assumption that the distribution is flat (or nearly flat) in the region of values where we can plausibly exist. So, you are right that you cannot have a uniform distribution over all possible values, but for this argument you don't need to have one. Implicitly this means you assume that the distribution tapers off somehow so that it's normalizable, but just how this happens doesn't enter the conclusion. Best,

B.

Arun said...

Hi Bee,
Via a comment in Woit's blog:
https://aeon.co/essays/has-the-quest-for-top-down-unification-of-physics-stalled
about the lack of progress in particle physics in a top-down approach:

"All these challenges arise because of physics’ adherence to reductive unification....

Instead, many of us have switched from the old top-down style of working to a more humble, bottom-up approach. Instead of trying to drill down to the bedrock by coming up with a grand theory and testing it, now we’re just looking for any hints in the experimental data, and working bit by bit from there. If some measurement disagrees with the Standard Model’s predictions, we add an interacting particle with the right properties to explain it. Then we look at whether it’s consistent with all the other data. Finally, we ask how the particle and its interactions can be observed in the future, and how experiments should sieve the data in order to be able to test it."

Any thoughts on this? If you were to do a second edition of your book, how would this be included?

:)
-Arun

Peer Svensson said...

"I have never been an easy fit to academia. I guess I was hoping I’d grow into it, but with time my fit has only become more uneasy. At some point I simply concluded I have had enough of this nonsense."

I'm only about halfway through my PhD and I already feel this way, although for slightly different reasons. So much money and effort spent on the wrong things for bad reasons, such as people's egos and ambitions, and whatever they think will help them get the next grant, and papers brushing problems under the rug instead of acknowledging them, hoping no one will notice. The bullshit is never ending. I suspect though that wherever one goes those problems will rear their heads, in one form or another.

Liralen said...

@Phillip Helbig:

Oh, kewl! You met Asimov! Even though I didn't run into his science writings until I was in college, as a little girl I was devoted to him after I first read the short story "Robbie" in "I, Robot". The movie would have turned him over in his grave, although I think he might have approved of the liberties taken in the movie "Bicentennial Man". I think it was formative for me taking up engineering rather than pure science (little girls weren't encouraged to take up science or math in the US in the 1960's), but definitely got me interested in science generally (and who I turned to for help once I did), although my favorite book is "The Gods Themselves", and not the robots or Foundation he's more famous for.

My reference to Georges Lemaitre was with respect to the fact that the term "Big Bang" was coined by Hoyle to mock Lemaitre, and all that implies about physics (and as I said in my previous comment, academia generally).

If there are facts beyond the implications, I would love to hear them. I even find your opinions interesting and informative.


Liralen said...

Addendum to my previous comment about Asimov's novel "The Gods Themselves".

"Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens."

Koenraad Van Spaendonck said...

Well spoken Svensson. Students can also make a difference, but that will take courage. And after all, they will be the new generation of physicists. Think about how you want to spend your research time for the rest of your life, making a difference matters, bringing out your ideas, your take on things, your individual potential, matters. Diversity is the mother of collective intelligence. A loud 'no more' is needed.