A theoretical physicist delivers an entertaining attack on her profession, arguing that it has fallen in love with theories that bear little relation to reality.
In her first book for a popular audience, a “story of how aesthetic judgment drives contemporary research,” Hossenfelder (editor: Experimental Search for Quantum Gravity, 2017), a research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies in Germany, expresses despair that the golden age of physics ended with her parents’ generation. By the 1970s, a torrent of Nobel Prizes went to physicists who unified a confusing mélange of subatomic particles into the elegant standard model and did the same for three out of four fundamental forces. While a brilliant achievement, the standard model failed to answer basic questions such as the nature of dark matter and energy, matter-antimatter asymmetry, and the impossibility of quantizing gravity. The author maintains that fashionable new theories addressing these issues are preoccupied with beauty and naturalness to the neglect of actual observation. Thus, supersymmetry solves several problems by predicting dozens of new subatomic particles that the most powerful accelerators have failed to find. String theory seems to explain almost everything, but its basis is pure mathematics, and its postulates are untestable by any conceivable technology. “I can’t believe what this once-venerable profession has become,” writes Hossenfelder. “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….But there are so many ways not to explain something.” A take-no-prisoners interviewer, the author asks pointed questions of the giants of physics and is not shy about arguing with them.
Even educated readers will struggle to understand the elements of modern physics, but they will have no trouble enjoying this insightful, delightfully pugnacious polemic about its leading controversy.