It’s an old, familiar idea: Truth is beauty. Beauty is truth. They go together, inextricable, like friendship and laughter, or road work and traffic. Gazing at the universe will always satisfy your aesthetic itch—and if not, then you probably suck at gazing.
In her new book Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder lofts a very skeptical eyebrow at this orthodoxy.
Confession: I know about as much physics as the average squirrel. (Less, in fact; they, at least, reach birdfeeders via daring feats of applied mechanics.) Still, I found the book accessible, informative, and compellingly argued. Plus, the writing is great—a delicious mix of journalistic balance and iconoclastic snark.
Hossenfelder’s argument, in brief:
- There’s no reason to think nature cares what we find beautiful.
“Why should the laws of nature care what I find beautiful?” she writes on page 3. “Such a connection between me and the universe seems very mystical, very romantic, very not me.” Later, on page 189, she elaborates:
mathematics is full of amazing and beautiful things, and most of them do not describe the world. I could belabor until the end of eternal inflation how unfortunate it is that we don’t live in a complex manifold of dimension six because calculus in such spaces is considerably more beautiful than in the real space we have to deal with, but it wouldn’t make any difference. Nature doesn’t care.
The “beauty = truth” dogma isn’t a priori obvious. It’s worth asking why we find such a connection, and if the link says more about the universe, or about our unreliable perceptions of beauty.
- A lot of the beauty narrative is just that—narrative.
We’re storytelling creatures. And our “truth = beauty” conviction seems to rest on cherry-picked anecdotes. On p. 161, Hossenfelder relates a conversation:
“So why are you convinced that mathematics can describe everything?”
“All our successful theories are mathematical,” Garrett says.
“Even the unsuccessful ones,” I retort.
Another key factor: our notion of “beauty” shifts over time. Hossenfelder cites a historian named James McAllister, who argues that “every revolution in science necessitates overthrowing the concepts of beauty that scientists have developed.” Maybe it’s not so much that truth follows beauty, but that we rewrite the laws of beauty to match our latest understanding of truth.
- With new data so hard to come by, our beauty instinct runs amok.
These days, fundamental physics is like San Francisco real estate: wildly and forbiddingly expensive. Experimental data is slow and hard to come by. This creates a danger—that in the absence of empirical data, scientists will get lost in dreamy speculation. Hossenfelder pulls no punches on page 108:
I can’t believe what this once-venerable profession has become. Theoretical physicists used to explain what was observed. Now they try to explain why they can’t explain what was not observed. And they’re not even good at that.
Because “beauty = truth” is such a pretty and pleasing idea, Hossenfelder worries that bad ideas can hide behind it, avoiding the scrutiny they deserve. “Where experimentalists go to great lengths to account for statistical biases,” she writes, “theoreticians proceed entirely undisturbed, happily believing it is possible to intuit the correct laws of nature.”
Hossenfelder knows that she’s one scientist, writing from a particular angle. Perhaps, she worries on page 96, “I shouldn’t psychoanalyze a community that neither needs nor wants my therapy.”
Still, I’m glad she did. I’m fond of mathematical beauty, and fascinated by its role in intellectual life—including the ways it might steer the car into the pond like a malevolent GPS. I leave physicists to judge the merits of Hossenfelder’s case; as an outsider, I enjoyed the window into a live scientific debate.