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Monday, January 23, 2023

Review: Existential Physics

 Existential Physics is Sabine Hossenfelder's book about what is or is not scientific. Her beef with physicists is that sometimes they speculate without actually explicitly saying that they're doing so, and that some of those speculations have no evidence in support of them. There's chapter after chapter of this relatively short book where some of these questions (such as what happened before the big bang) are explored, and the answer is probably somewhat boring, but it's very likely that she is right --- there's so much that we don't know, and the scientific evidence only takes you so far. Past that, you get into the realm of religion or philosophy, and Hossenfelder points out that scientists aren't better equipped than the typical lay person to speculate in those realms.

The book is short, and it explores things like AI, quantum physics, cosmology, and math. One interesting insight is that it's kind of pointless to try to translate mathematics into plain English, because if it was easy and possible, then there wouldn't be a need for mathematical notation. So your best bet for actually understanding those topics is to dive into the math. But of course, not everyone has the time or inclination to put in that much time into math, so we end up with these stories that attempt to translate say, the Schrodinger Wave Equation into English, which then has the problems she describes, people stretching those analogies into talking about what the actual science doesn't say.

When I was going through this book, I kept saying to myself, "What she's saying is obvious. Why does she have to write it down?" After I finished the book I realized that what she saying wasn't always obvious, it's just that she said it in such a way that you see the reasoning. That's the hallmark of a great teacher, which makes this book worth reading. Recommended.

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