Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math

Sabine Hossenfelder - Lost in Math

I just finished Sabine Hossenfelder‘s book Lost in Math.

Whether pondering black holes or predicting discoveries at CERN, physicists believe the best theories are beautiful, natural, and elegant, and this standard separates popular theories from disposable ones. This is why, Sabine Hossenfelder argues, we have not seen a major breakthrough in the foundations of physics for more than four decades.

The belief in beauty has become so dogmatic that it now conflicts with scientific objectivity: observation has been unable to confirm mindboggling theories, like supersymmetry or grand unification, invented by physicists based on aesthetic criteria. Worse, these “too good to not be true” theories are actually untestable and they have left the field in a cul-de-sac. To escape, physicists must rethink their methods. Only by embracing reality as it is can science discover the truth.

My review is brief but accurate:

  • Brilliant.
  • Lucid.
  • Brave.
  • Not in denial.
  • Rare.

Most of the physics Hossenfelder discussed was over my head but it makes me happy to be reminded of what the brain of our species is capable of achieving.

I also very much enjoyed watching a great intellect take down other great intellects that are denying reality.

I’m pretty sure Hossenfelder’s a denial mutant. I wish she would read and discuss Varki’s MORT theory.

I will read her book again soon.

Hossenfelder blogs here, and makes physics videos here.

Here is a must watch 7 minute synopsis of the book by the author.


Her most recent video took down Trump using quantum mechanics.


Hossenfelder also makes music videos here and here. These are a couple of my favorites.



6 thoughts on “Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math”

  1. Notes on debt:

    Debt is a promise to produce more wealth in the future than we produce today.
    Debt enables us to consume more wealth today than we could without debt.
    Most wealth is created from finite natural resources using non-renewable energy.
    When debt grows faster than wealth, debt is a good proxy for overshoot.
    Today debt is growing about 4 times faster than real wealth.
    This ratio has been increasing for many years and continues to accelerate.
    The higher the overshoot, the more destructive the inevitable collapse.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In addition to MORT, I am a fan of its converse, that is, one hears voices and sees visions that are not real. Nettle showed in his short and fascinating book ‘Strong Imagination’ (Oxford, 2001) that this madness also is part of human nature. Not only we deny the reality but also believe in fantasy.


  3. Nice essay by Chris Smaje using whale oil as an example of how technology and economic growth really work.

    Technology doesn’t just ‘move forwards’, it cascades. You can take a particular moment or context – the lamp oil market in 1850, for example – and stake a claim for the ecological benefits of a new product like kerosene. But to provide an adequate account of technological impact, you need to trace the ramifications forward in all their cascading complexity. In the case before us, this would involve the deadly impact on whales of fossil-fuelled whaling technologies after 1850, later technological developments such as the invention of margarine and hydrogenation techniques that stimulated a new demand for whale oil in the 20th century, the falling price of whale oil that made it competitive with other oils once again with the rise of labour-cutting mechanization and more efficient processing, new demands for baleen and other whale products, and so on. Any new technology, including kerosene, isn’t a one-shot intervention into a small slice of history like a specific lamp oil market. It cascades across the totality of human history and natural history.

    In fact, technology doesn’t ‘move forwards’ at all, nor ‘backwards’ – it just moves. Kerosene might have been an environmental boon for whales in 1850. In its best-known present use as aviation fuel, it’s an environmental disaster in terms of climate change, which may not turn out too well for whales in the long run – or for us. In fact, the development of liquid fossil fuels in the later 19th century, of which kerosene was one strand, didn’t turn out too well for whales even in the short run. ‘Oil saved the whales’ is an untestable claim that the future will turn out well, based on a questionable claim that the past turned out well. It amounts to saying no more than ‘somebody’s bound to think of something’. I’d suggest it’s better to focus on the problems of the present, using the means that are presently available to us.

    Low impact technologies can be high impact. Until the mid-19th century, the whaling industry used the same ‘sustainable’ methods as aboriginal whalers from time immemorial: sail, oar, harpoon, lance. And yet because of the social organization of the industry and the clever deployment of sustainable technology in the form of transoceanic sailing ships, it had a global impact on whale depletion. Industries using low impact technologies aren’t necessarily low impact industries.

    Capitalism sucks. By which I mean, following the previous point, organising industries in capitalist ways often results in sucking ever more non-renewable resources from the world. The graph above suggests as much. Fossil oil didn’t replace whale oil, it enabled whale oil to be added to an expanding repertoire of resource drawdown. The same is true of renewable energy technologies today. The problem can only really be addressed by changing the nature of the economy, not by changing the means through which it sucks.

    Ecological systems have inertia… Although forty years have passed without much large-scale commercial whaling (and many more years than that in the case of some species), recovery of stocks has been glacially slow. I’m hoping to examine this in greater detail, but as I understand it only with one species – the gray – have numbers yet returned to anything like their pre-whaling levels. No doubt this partly has to do with other and ongoing human-induced problems in the oceans (whales entangled with fishing nets, for example) but the nature of whales as stress tolerator or K-selected species means they can’t cope well with a perturbation like large-scale whaling, and they recover from it only slowly or perhaps not at all. A good deal of the biota is similar, suggesting that disturbance events can have negative effects long into the future after they’ve ended – worth noting, perhaps, for many other dimensions of human action upon the world besides whaling.

    …and so do economic systems. A firm principle of the oil salvation narrative is that human inventiveness brings forth new and superior alternatives to old and ecocidal ones, like kerosene for whale oil, and that market forces then swiftly do the work of ecological transition. But, leaving aside kerosene’s own ecocidal effects (Point 2), the history of whaling really doesn’t fit this narrative well. Substitutes for almost every whale product existed long before commercial whaling was banned in 1982, 130 years after Mr Gesner’s marvellous invention. The truth is that market forces don’t swiftly do the work of ecological transition, for numerous reasons – sunk costs, industry resistance, political leverage, wider geopolitics to name a few. Cue TED talk: “Oil didn’t save the whales, and market forces aren’t going to solve climate change.”

    Social systems cascade too. The oil salvation narrative settles on the singularity that commercial whaling was banned only because superior substitutes for whale products had been found. But in the real world, political decisions usually result from many factors, often with a fair slice of contingency thrown in. The existence of substitutes was no doubt one factor. Other factors included the declining whale catch, possible extinction arising from over-exploitation, and the rise of animal rights philosophies, environmentalist lobbying and direct action against whaling. Global geopolitics too. From my reading of the jockeying at the IWC and the endless foot-dragging of the whaling nations prior to the moratorium, it takes a very reductive worldview to discount all these other factors and impute the moratorium solely to technological substitution.

    Activism matters. And on that basis, I’d say that activism matters. It’s impossible to say how much it was the mobilisation of organisations like Greenpeace and changing public attitudes towards the relentless hunting of large mammals that resulted in the moratorium and how much it resulted from other more technocratic factors. But it seems clear to me that without impassioned (and media savvy) public activism the moratorium would have been less likely. So if you want to right a wrong, you could try to invent something that you hope market forces will take up and tip things in your preferred direction. Or you could protest more directly – for example by standing in a small boat between a whale and a gunner’s grenade. To me, it’s a rash theorist who claims to know for sure that Abraham Gesner is more deserving of a vote of thanks from the whales than, say, Paul Watson.

    The tragedy of the commons is a thing. As I’ve argued before on here and examine in more detail in my book, the debate about commons is stuck in a rut – Hardin versus Ostrom gets us started, but now we need to move on. In less than a century, humanity reduced blue whales to about 4% of their pre-whaling numbers. You could call this a tragedy of the commons, or – if you prefer – you could call it a tragedy of failing to create a commons, although there was still a common law of the sea in operation during the years of unrelenting, fossil-fuelled whaling. Whatever terminology you favour, the fact is that people don’t always succeed in preventing open access, private property or state regimes from over-exploiting resources and wild creatures.

    When going uphill, change down a gear. The oil salvation narrative is part of the wider one in mainstream economics that human ingenuity along with price signals will enable us to do more, to do it better and to do it faster unto eternity. No doubt this seemed plausible during much of the 20th century. But as the fossil fuelled bonanza hustled the human omnibus ever faster downhill, it made little difference to us whether we made sustainable use of whale products or not. And today it seems clearer that the downslope won’t last forever. There’s a good chance we’ll hit a steep energy upslope soon enough, and a climate change upslope before that, and at these points we’d be well advised – like any sensible driver – not to keep piling on full throttle in top gear in the hope it’ll get us to the top of the hill. Instead we need to slow down, change down a gear and trim the vehicle to the realities of the landscape. Oil didn’t save the whales. A low carbon, cheap energy revolution isn’t just around the corner. Slow down. Look out of the window. It’s a beautiful world out there.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I like and respect Richard Heinberg. He’s the wise and polite statesman of human overshoot. I cut him some slack for not publicly calling for rapid population reduction because I know he knows that’s what needs to be done, but unlike me which few read, he has a large base of paying fans that he can’t upset.

    His big picture essay today on modern history is very good.

    …expectations of a recovery to the status quo ante are not just premature; they’re fundamentally unrealistic. Even assuming that a new administration takes charge next year, the United States is entering a period of political, social, and economic dissolution. Its unconventional oil production rate has now peaked and is in steep decline, a debt bubble even larger than the one that existed in 2007 is ripe to pop, and COVID-19 threatens to wash back through the populace in repeated waves. Meanwhile, the specter of climate upheaval, for which the US is also entirely unprepared, lurks in the background, promising rising seas and worsening wildfires, droughts, floods, and storms.

    In part 2 Heinberg shares his personal experiences trying to prepare for a post-carbon future.

    We started with a rather trashy 1950s suburban house on a quarter-acre lot. We didn’t design a solar-optimal house from scratch the way Amory Lovins did (we thought about it, but we just didn’t have the time or money). We did what we could afford to do, when we could afford to do it.

    Our first step was to insulate our exterior walls, ceiling, and floors. That was probably our best investment overall: it saved energy, and it made the house quieter and more pleasant to live in. Then we installed a small (1.2 kw) photovoltaic system, and planted a garden and fruit-and-nut orchard. Gradually, over the years, we added battery backup for our PV system, a solar hot water heater, a solar food dryer, chickens, solar cookers, energy-efficient appliances (including a mini-split electric HVAC system), and an electric car.

    Here are ten things we learned along the way:

    1. It’s expensive.
    2. Some things didn’t work.
    3. Some things worked well.
    4. Energy storage is especially expensive.
    5. Reduce energy usage before you transition.
    6. Our house is not an industrial manufacturing site.
    7. Adding personal transportation to our renewable energy regime shifted us into energy deficit mode.
    8. True sustainability and self-sufficiency would have required a lot more money, a lot more work, adaptation to a lot less consumption—or all three.
    9. You can’t expect someone else to do it all for you.
    10. We’re glad we did what we did.

    I would have thought, at the outset, that after 20 years we’d be more sustainable and self-sufficient than we actually are. My take-away: the energy transition is an enormous job, and people who look at it just in terms of politics and policy have little understanding of what is actually required.

    I observe that Heinberg is still deeply dependent on fossil energy despite foresight and commitment, and despite living in warm and sunny food abundant California.

    Most of us here in Canada have none of those things.


  5. Tim Watkins today…

    What neither Johnson nor Starmer, and the parties they represent, seem able to grasp is that the global economy was already in a period of accelerating de-growth by the start of 2020 anyway. The pandemic, and the unplanned (and in the UK’s case, cack-handed) response to it, has merely accelerated a crisis which had already begun. Crucially – and despite the claims of economists who don’t know any better – the price of oil – the primary energy source which drives the global economy – is only low because demand has fallen off a cliff. As economies begin to unlock, demand will rise and the current stockpiles will soon be gone. When that happens – most likely in the autumn when the government support programmes also come to an end – we will be faced with a sharp shortage which cannot quickly be made up by an oil industry which has lost considerable capacity as a result of the lockdown. In the short-term, this means a sharp price spike which will be unaffordable to an economy which is already severely weakened.

    Because we have been conditioned to believe that energy is just another input to the economy, very few people understand the danger that we now face. In previous downturns when there was plenty of cheap oil beneath the ground, a temporary increase in price would result in additional drilling leading to more extraction. Since 2005, though, the price of oil has failed to rise high enough to make new conventional extraction viable. The one exception to the downward trend has been a US fracking industry which accounts for all of the global growth in oil extraction since 2010. But the apparent success of the US fracking industry owes more to investors desperately searching for returns in an artificially low-interest environment than it does to the economics of fracking itself. For the most part, fracking has involved pumping billions of dollars into an industry that extracts millions of dollars of oil in return. There is only so long that investors – and likely soon the US state itself – can maintain this subsidy before the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

    The point is that the “post-oil” future that so many people have bought into is very different to the post-oil future that is about to be foist upon us. And while renewable energy technologies are anything but renewable, they can still provide us with the means to maintain – at least temporarily – some of the more civilised aspects of modern living, such as a basic public healthcare service, electrified public transport, and access to clean water and safe sewage disposal, while we attempt to manage de-growth. Furthermore, it makes sense to utilise rather than eschew the remaining fossil fuels available to us to ease the transition to a less material and more localised future.

    In the grand scheme of things, Boris Johnson’s spending announcement will make little difference either way. It will not produce the desired economic growth – you can print currency but you can’t print wealth – nor will it do anything to halt climate change or prepare us to face the reality of looming resource shortages. And so long as opposition parties also remain wedded to the infinite economic growth delusion, as with the pandemic itself, it is only when the proverbial hits the fan that anyone is going to take action… and by then it will be decades too late.


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