Wishes, Lies, and Dreams

Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math and the World that Makes It Necessary

There are times when certain sciences—like, say, astrophysics—can seem like liberal arts. What distinguishes the liberal arts from sciences, supposedly, is the sciences have data which are usually discrete from the eye of the beholder. A rock is going to be a rock, no matter if you look at it or not, and even if you can’t agree on what to call the rock—sedimentary or igneous—it carries on its business through the centuries. But a literary object, like, say, Hamlet, is open to so much interpretation that the gaze creates as much as it observes. Then there are the in-the middle-fields, which involve both science and the liberal arts—like sociology, say—in which the balance between data and the way it is described is so complex we don’t have space to stabilize that here.

But sciences, like physics, are supposed to have hard evidence that is distinct from our desire. We can see the moon through a telescope, which leaves the moon unchanged. Praying to the moon does not affect it, either, since our wishes never reach it, so far as we know.

Google synonyms for desire and the word wish will come up. We don’t talk about “the power of a wish” in the same way as “the power of desire.” Wishes are ephemeral and local; desire occurs across a life. Desire is often hidden from the one who has desire—we sometimes feel surprised by looking at the pattern of our actions over time, when our desire becomes apparent—but we know when we make a wish. Wishes don’t bend our idea of the world, but desire makes us make mistakes, all the time.

We might say that wishes have no place in science, but hypotheses are wishes by another name. The hypothesis is what the scientist wants to prove, it is what she hopes is true. The hypothesis expresses the desire of the hypothesizer. I want this sodium to explode when someone throws it in a lake, so now I’ll throw it in a lake! This is also how we read a character in fiction: their dialogue and actions tells us what they want, in ways that they themselves don’t fully understand. Cheating on my wife might bring me happiness. I’ll try it! Every line a character speaks and thing they do betrays a flawed conception of the world, so each act is a wish, and if you put them all together, you can see that character’s desire. So it is that each hypothesis, every theory, every model, is a projection of desire. In certain novels, plot might well be seen as the protagonist’s hypothesis.

The pursuit of desire over data is the subject of an excellent new book called Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, by the particle physicist Sabine Hossenfelder. Hossenfelder’s assertion is that physicists today pursue what they call “beauty,” a thing they have a special definition for, involving symmetry and organized numbers that don’t have to be “fine-tuned”—by which, broadly-speaking, they mean, “explained”—but which they chase with devoted, blinkered ardor.

According to Hossenfelder, many of our era’s great discoveries have been not-beautiful in a way that causes nausea in physicists. The mass of the Higgs Boson is affected by various quantum fluctuations, for example, and adjusting for this flux requires some computational gymnastics, the likes of which the physicists of today don’t like to do. As Hossenfelder proves again and again, what physicists prefer is a number that does not need adjusting, or “fine-tuning,” and which comes to them small and whole and, as they put it, “natural,” like someone who just rolled out of bed and went to work without putting makeup on.

The list of famous physicists who get caught up chasing beauty in this way is quite distinguished. Paul Dirac once wrote on a blackboard that “PHYSICAL LAWS SHOULD HAVE MATHEMATICAL BEAUTY.” Hossenfelder quotes Dirac’s biographer saying “…after 1935 [Dirac] failed to produce physics of lasting value. It is not irrelevant to point out that the principle of mathematical beauty governed his thinking only during the latter period.” Even Albert Einstein found the notion of the Big Bang to be “abominable,”  because of how it made his Theory of Relativity look unstable, and in need of fine-tuning. Neils Bohr’s Copenhagen Interpretation comes in for abuse, as well. Lev Vaidman calls it “…an ugly scar” and Max Tegmark says it’s “kludgy.”

Hossenfelder’s book is a kind of tour through all the suffering realms of physics, the stations of the cross where progress isn’t made anymore. She quotes a theorist named Garret Lissi who says that, “String theorists are in a hard position… because they’ve been promising a theory of everything for thirty years but it never panned out… it’s a total failure.” Hossenfelder Skypes with Katherine “Astrokatie” Mack, an astrophysicist and internet celebrity who can’t identify the particles called axions she thinks comprise Dark Matter, in part because she doesn’t want to fine-tune her numbers:

“…fine-tuning tells us there is something unnatural about our theories…. It’s just a sense of aesthetics among theorists…I don’t know of any overarching reason that says it has to be this way…. It’s just the way we approach our theories… naturalness is just more appealing.”

It turns out to be quite hard to win an argument with people who “feel” they’re right. When Hossenfelder asks a scientist named Frank Wilczek why he still believes in super-symmetry—or “susy” for short—he explains that “…evolution rewards that kind of feeling that being correct gives you, and that’s the sense of beauty… explanations that are successful become attractive.” In other words, we have to follow our intuition, look for something pretty and fall in love.

Hossenfelder is more than just a kind of town crier, bemoaning flaws in her community’s heuristics. She’s a witty and profound guide to the fallacies of our age, and the ways that thought becomes desire as if by magic. Of the problem science has respecting its own legacies, she reminds that Max Planck said “Science advances one funeral at a time.” On the issue of sounding crazy to one’s peers, she rues that, “We think arguments are stronger if the conclusion seems plausible.” We struggle to eliminate subjectivity because, “…the attempt to get rid of human choice just moves the choice elsewhere.” And she understands the ways in which a physicist cutting corners at her job is kind of like the rest of us at at our jobs, trying to get through the day without humiliation, and terrified before the ontological opacity of things, the gnostic obscurity. “Theoretical physicists used to explain what they observed. Now they try to explain why they can’t explain what was not observed… But there are many ways to not explain something… there isn’t any good reason for there to be a universe at all, or for a universe to contain matter.”

The desire for order and beauty is so strong that almost half a century of science may have been done to conceal their lack. Take Dark Matter, a thing which may well not exist as we currently understand it There are two ways to explain why scientists think we need Dark Matter. First, there isn’t enough matter in the universe to generate all the gravity we see, since gravity comes from mass, as heat comes from a fire. Second, scientists are clinging to an idea by Albert Einstein that looks more and more untrue as years go by.   

Let’s take the second idea first. How do scientists cling to Einstein? In the Theory of Relativity, Einstein says the rules of physics must be uniform across the entire universe. The way that gravity works in our galaxy has to be the same as other galaxies, or in other solar systems, which are similar to galaxies, yet smaller. Neils Bohr had his own theory we call The Copenhagen Interpretation. Among the many things that Bohr’s idea says is that, if you can’t observe a thing directly, it does not actually exist. This calls Einstein’s Theory of Relativity into question, by saying that we cannot make assumptions about things we cannot see, or measure.

For the moment, gravity is unmeasurable. How do you measure gravity at the far end of the galaxy? There is not enough matter in the universe to generate all the gravity we see. We can observe this problem in the Milky Way. If you google a picture of the Milky Way—which is really a collage of different photographic fragments, some real, some maybe not, since we cannot get outside the Milky Way to take a photo of it—what you see is that the light is very bright at the galaxy’s center, where there are more stars. The center of the galaxy has more matter than the fringes do. The more matter you have, the more gravity there is, since gravity correlates to mass.

If the center of the galaxy has more gravity than the outskirts, the center should rotate faster, since the pull is stronger there. Think of our own solar system. It takes longer for Neptune, the outermost planet, to orbit the sun (165 years) than Mercury, the innermost planet (approximately 88 days, or less than three months.). Yet the outside of the Milky Way orbits at more-or-less the exact same rate as the inside. According to the Theory of Relativity, this should be impossible, since the laws of gravity have to be the same in every part of every galaxy, ours included, and throughout the entire universe, as well. So what scientists decided is there must be something generating gravity at the far ends of the galaxy, something that we can’t see or detect in any way, except indirectly, by witnessing its gravitational effect on the world around it. More than anecdotally, the light we see out there is bending in a way that tells us there is gravity that’s pulling it. This is part of how we know where black holes lurk: we trawl through space for bending light.

An astronomer named Fritz Zwicky had the idea of missing matter in the nineteen-thirties and called it “Dark Matter.” In the Seventies, Vera Rubin, maybe the most over-qualified faculty wife in the history of science, doubled down on Zwicky’s work. She needed Dark Matter to prove that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is true. If Einstein was right, there must be Dark Matter everywhere. Indeed, it’s thought that up to 75% of the universe is comprised of it.

Another way of saying this is that the universe has some gravitational issues that we simply can’t explain. A lot of them, in fact. Indeed, each time we find one, it seems we throw Dark Matter in the mix as a kind of easy explanation. Remember the difference in speed between Mercury (88 days to go around the sun) and Neptune (165 years to go around the sun)? This discrepancy in speed between our solar system and the galaxy overall means that our solar system is weirdly bereft of Dark Matter, since gravity is working here exactly as it should. What this means is that the distribution of Dark Matter is lumpy and uneven throughout the universe. (“Lumpy” is indeed the word that many scientists use.) The rules may be consistent, according to Einstein, but the dispersal of matter is not.

You may think it’s weird that scientists are privileging abstractions such as Dark Matter over actual measurable objects and their quiddity, but if this was a novel, you would have a mordant laugh and say, “That’s human nature!” When we read “Good Country People”, and Hulga doesn’t notice that Manley Pointer stole her glasses, or the times he patronized her and her mother, we’re surprised but not surprised. The story tells us people do not see what is front of them because they do not want to.

Like any scientist should, Hossenfelder loves exceptions. Many large galaxies have smaller satellite galaxies, which are thought to have been rogues that zoomed through space until a larger galaxy trapped them in its orbit. But we have not found satellite galaxies in a halo. Instead, they are organized on the same flat disc as the Milky Way, and along the same plane, the same angle, and they orbit in the same exact direction. In other words, they mimic the spin of the Milky Way, as if they have been engineered from within.

Typing this, I feel like I am making an almost spooky, religious argument. No one understands this phenomenon at all, or has anything approaching a hypothesis for it. When the Milky Way’s satellite galaxies were discovered to be operating this way, it was thought to be an anomaly, a one-off that would never be seen again. Then we saw the satellites of Andromeda, our nearest neighbor galaxy, spinning the exact same way. Again, we said that this was just a wild coincidence.

Then we checked Centaurus A, a galaxy that is 13.5 million light years away—which counts as far in the mystifying world of astrophysics. Centaurus A is quite peculiar among the galaxies we know, since it is either elliptical—that is, like a ball—or lenticular, which means it has a bulbous middle, but its long arms, like the ones our Milky Way has, have burned out over time. Centaurus A is so erratic, and so distant, that its satellites should not have anything in common with our own. And yet: its satellite galaxies are like ours. They revolve in a flat plane and spin the same direction.

There is a theory positing that gravity is emergent, that it changes according to its environment, behaving more-or-less the same as photons of light, which act like waves if we treat them like waves, or like a particle if we treat them like a particle. This would mean that gravity isn’t fundamental, it’s contingent. It’s a process, not an object, and constructed by its circumstances.  This would mean that, at the smallest level, gravity is political.

This takes gravity away from Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and puts it in the realm of Neils Bohr and his Copenhagen Interpretation—the so-called “kludgy” thing that Hossenfelder says nobody likes—which says we shouldn’t generalize about the things we can’t observe directly. You could call Neils Bohr’s idea a wish for chaos, or at least for greater novelty. This essay might sound like a wish for that, as well. I admit to liking when discoveries displace accepted facts. Here’s one I particularly enjoyed: you may have heard that life is carbon-based. We knew that fact, or thought we knew it, until one day divers found bacteria in a lake in California that is based on the extremely toxic chemical called arsenic. It was thought that substances like arsenic could not interact with matter in a way that would sustain what we consider life, and yet here was an example of it doing that. NASA made this announcement in December of 2010. Until that point, the idea that all life on Earth was carbon-based had been accepted as a fact, and taught in science classes everywhere. Did everyone’s agreement on the status of that notion as a fact make it a fact, or was it just a wish, all along?

How many things we think are facts are really wishes? To cling to Relativity in our era is to wish for a kind of stability. Astrophysics has been heading for a long time toward what scientists must have thought was unity, a breakthrough in our comprehension of the underlying forces in the universe. To realize that the opposite of that is really true, that all our answers only lead to greater questions—that, in effect, the more we learn, the less we know—cannot be easy to accept, especially in the wake of giant investments like the Large Hadron Supercollider, which is scheduled for a second major upgrade now, since it continues to discover that Dark Matter cannot be produced, despite what all of the equations have predicted. Which proves, by the way, that math is abstract. And yes, it may look like I’m concern-trolling here. To concern-troll is to ask a rival to accept their most profound anathema, on the grounds that it will actually be good for them. And it’s especially formidable to study satellite galaxies, since it took nine years to get the New Horizons probe to Pluto, and galaxies outside the Milky Way are so much more distant. But the biggest achievement of the Large Hadron Collider was observing the Higgs Boson, which was theorized fifty years ago. Whatever we are up to there, it isn’t working.

One thing that should be different about rhetoric and science is that rhetoric can mobilize contradiction, while science, or the observance of the measurable absolute, should not. Science is rhetorical when its theories are peripheral to the real, and it always seeks to unify itself to that which it describes. Beyond the feud of Bohr and Einstein is a unity, a set of causes yet to be determined, which can only be exposed by plunging boldly into the swamp, the very heart of contradiction. More than anything, there must be no fear, which is a contingent, liberal-artsy manifestation science ought to be immune to. Fear is obvious to see, both in certain fictional characters, and in actual human beings. We can even sympathize with it, since, after all, it’s all too human.

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