Seduced by Beauty: Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math

Seduced by Beauty: Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math

As a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Architecture in 1956, I was fortunate to have as an instructor Gyorgy Kepes, a world renowned artist in his own right, in a basic course on design. Dr. Kepes chose as text references two books I have never forgotten, one of them George Santayana’s The Sense of Beauty, a profound philosophical work on the meaning of that mysterious term of art, the other a more obscure work but just as profound, Anton Ehrenzweig’s The Psychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing. Ehrenzweig was an artist, a musician, and professionally a Freudian psychoanalyst full of the standard Freudian concepts of the ego, the id and the superego, but if one got past that, a superb analyst of the sense of beauty itself and the myriad ways it expresses itself in our responses to artistic media. Ehrenzweig’s book sounds as if it might be deeply impenetrable, but my copies seems to have possessed a strange attractiveness; I have just ordered a replacement, having over time loaned out three prior editions only to have them disappear forever from my bookshelf.

Ehrenzweig’s thesis is not simple, but strongly entangled with Freud’s psychoanalytic assumptions, but if you cut through those, he explains the evolution of art (and our sense of beauty) by showing that art and music made giant steps forward by what we might call mind stretching. In art, new ways of seeing the world, perspective, cubism, etc. comes from the artist dredging up from his unique unconscious new and previously unknown form material. Much of this is greeted  at its first appearance with revulsion, rejection, disbelief, but gradually shapes a new way of seeing.

In music this is best illustrated by example. Sometime in the late 50’s I was  privileged to hear Dr. Ehrenszweig lecture in Ann Arbor, and a demonstration he provided as part of the lecture has remained with me ever since. He played for the audience a short (32  bar) portion of Debussy’s composition  for orchestra, la Mer, which contemporary reports show its initial performance being greeted with wild criticism, even rejection, by a its French audience. To our ears there in the lecture hall it was familiar, beautiful, well-loved. He then played an equal length selection of what has been called Musique Concrete, a brief experimental fad of short sections of random taped sounds including voices, street noise, and the like, passed off for a while as a new musical form. He then repeated the prior section of la Mer, and we in the audience heard it transformed, as the random, dissonant, unharmonious construct that original French audience must have heard. It was a striking demonstration of his thesis.

So, a sense of beauty is an acquired capacity. It changes with time, custom, environment, in a word, taste. In science parlance, it is an emergent property, even in Ehrenzweig’s sense, derived from increasing familiarity, or its arrival as a near proof of some physical observation or set of observations. It changes our way of seeing the world.

Where is all this coming from, this wandering into principles of art and music? Well, it comes directly from my having just finished reading Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. This is a rich, well-researched exploration of the world of modern physics, particle physics, quantum physics, cosmology, all from the viewpoint of one who has become disillusioned with these fields’ wanderings off into unreality and away from the fuzziness of the real world and into the dreamlike but precise world of mathematics. Sabine’s is not the first confession of doubt, this sort of apostasy from an insider, so to speak. There were others. Peter Woit wrote Not Even Wrong, Jim Baggott wrote Escape from Reality, Lee Smolin wrote The Trouble With Physics: the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, Alexander Unzicker wroteBankrupting Physics, andmost recently,Adam Becker wroteWhat is Real?: the unfinished quest for the meaning of Quantum Physics. So, when Sabine’s op-ed The Uncertain Future of Particle Physicsappeared in the New York Times, she had plenty of support (and also attacks) from both within and outside of the field.

Taking her thesis from the books’ subtitle makes beauty the prime villain in the case. But the beauty she refers to is not the kind of beauty available to us all, but one only seen by mathematicians and the hyper educated audience they command. Einstein is said to have commented that if his equations for relativity were not acceptable to God that he was sorry for the good Lord because they were too beautiful not to be true. No, Sabine is referring to the tendency of mathematical physicists to see beauty in the simplicity and elegance of their equations and place them above their observations of the real world.

“As every physicist knows, the elegant forms of mathematics can easily outshine the dull stirrings of experience, and  eventually come to replace the phenomena they were originally invented to describe.” (Arthur Zajonc, Catching the Light, Oxford, 1993)

This is what has happened, even going so far as claims that the mathematics is the reality.

Fundamentally, physics is not far from where it was almost 100 years ago. General Relativity was on a path to acceptance, and the quantum theorists were near agreement after their historic meeting in Copenhagen. Although both theoretical models were considered nearly complete, the fact that they still did not work well together seemed a possibly surmountable problem. No one could have though that a century on we would still have not reconciled those differences. But the math was beautiful, and as Einstein (may have) said, “Something this beautiful must be true.”

But Einstein had never been a physicist, he was a mathematician. And the quantum gang were themselves infused with perhaps a too large dose of eastern mysticism. And the resolution between the two sets of theories seems intractable even in mathematics. To be fair, Einstein’s objection to quantum theory was that it seemed too divorced from reality in its particulars, like superposition and action at a distance.

Dr. Hossenfelder’s field is particle physics. It’s cutting edge research is now being carried out at the Large Hadron Collider, a seventeen mile long tunnel filled with the tools for causing complex particles to collide at near light speed and in those collisions, to give up the secrets of their composition. Alas, those results have become few and far between of late. Meanwhile, in academia, large teams of highly qualified researchers were propounding alternative theories of how to explain what was known so far. This is the world Dr. Hossenfelder gives us a tour of: what the professionals call “normalness,” mathematical elegance, economy. She gives us a tour of the opinions of multiple physics spokespersons, almost  uniformly despairing, but offering no hope or options for change. And that is what is my particular disappointment in the book, in fact in almost all of the books cited above. With the possible exception  of Alaxander Unzicker, none seems able to step far enough back and away from the “standard models” to enable a path forward from the apparent impasse they all agree that we find ourselves in.

I won’t attempt to do a detailed review of Dr. Hossenfelder’s book. That has been done exhaustively by Jeremy Butterfield of Cambridge University. I will say that Lost in Math is an accomplished, well-written, and engaging piece of work, well worth the effort. She effectively disposes of the current rash of untestable alternatives, including multiverse theories, super symmetry, and the like, and urges a return to the study of reality. If you share my own skepticism about the current state of modern physics, you will also enjoy the other writers listed above, except for the caveat that none seem to offer any way forward, only a look at the current intellectual stalemate, including Lost in Math.

I have my own sense of the nature of the problem and that is this. The world is fuzzy and irregular, only  the math is smooth. Plato saw this 2000 years ago. His ideal forms existed only in the abstract, in an ideal realm. A perfect sphere, a perfect form, existed only in the imagination. Everything in the real world was but an imperfect copy of those ideals. Our now finely tuned instruments tell us this is still true. No matter how great the magnification, no surface is perfectly smooth. Irregularity is everywhere. Turbulence reigns. There is no math to adequately describe it. The equations themselves can only be approximations, beautiful to see but not complete.  No two snowflakes are identical, no two humans, no two galaxies. There is beauty in this vision as well. It is there for us to see. We just have to acquire a new way of seeing.

Oh, but don’t shy away from your own development of a sense of beauty. Remember that it can emerge on its own, but one can also seek it proactively. Just know that with that new way of seeing even a random, inelegant world can give you just as powerful a thrill of recognition, a sense of  richness and emotional satisfaction.

(note: Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog is at

About Charles Scurlock

Charles is a recently retired architect/planner and generalist problem-solver with a lifelong interest in science, physics, and cosmology, and the workings of the human mind. He has started this blog in the interest of sharing his ideas with others of like-(or not so like) minds.
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