Sometimes I believe in string theory. Then I wake up.
But then I got distracted by a disturbing question: Do we actually have evidence that elegance is a good guide to the laws of nature?
The brief answer is no, we have no evidence. The long answer is in my book and, yes, I will mention the-damned-book until everyone is sick of it. The summary is: Beautiful ideas sometimes work, sometimes they don’t. It’s just that many physicists prefer to recall the beautiful ideas which did work.
And not only is there no historical evidence that beauty and elegance are good guides to find correct theories, there isn’t even a theory for why that should be so. There’s no reason to think that our sense of beauty has any relevance for discovering new fundamental laws of nature.
Sure, if you ask those who believe in string theory and supersymmetry and in grand unification, they will say that of course they know there is no reason to believe a beautiful theory is more likely to be correct. They still work on them anyway. Because what better could they do with their lives? Or with their grants, respectively. And if you work on it, you better believe in it. More.
She’s certainly got one insight dead on: Elegant theories are not reality. Consider their role in politics. Beautiful theories promoted by geniuses have cost hundreds of millions of lives. Ugly patched-together systems that empower bores have nonetheless been associated with a remarkable amount of ordered freedom in the anglosphere.*
Here’s more on her book, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray (June, 2018):
Most physicists think of beauty as the royal road to discovery; a leading critic shows it is instead the road to nowhere
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.
It’s hard choosing between social acceptance and reality-based thinking. Dunno if this is any help but if you even notice a conflict, you had better choose reality-based thinking. The vast majority of go-along-get-alongs have never noticed a conflict. That’s actually how you know you are not one of them.
See also: Post-modern physics: String theory gets over the need for evidence
Cosmic inflation theory loses hangups about the scientific method
The multiverse is science’s assisted suicide
* Don’t believe me? Sit in on a local city council meeting in a frigid Canadian city, walk away vowing that dictatorship might work better – and then be amazed how the new snow gets shoveled tickety-boo in the middle of the night and dumped in vast snow yards nearby. Despite the asses on council. Dictatorship didn’t do that for you. It’s deep, centuries-old organization. And in a free society you can say what you well please anyhow about the city government…