Month: October 2018

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Lost in Math

October 30, 2018 | book reviews | No Comments

Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray 
by Sabine Hossenfelder. Basic Books, June 2018. Reviewed by Steven Willing, MD

“Physical laws should have mathematical beauty”. Paul Dirac, Nobel Laureate*
Way back in 1973, the world of theoretical physics reached a dead end. That year marked the last successful prediction of any elemental particles – the top and bottom quarks – which were experimentally verified in 1995 and 1977 respectively. (The Higgs boson, finally detected in 2012, had been predicted in the 1960’s). Since then, there has been no successful prediction that would supersede the standard model.

In the intervening decades, dozens of additional particles have been predicted; not one has been found. String theory evolved and gained wide acceptance, without a shred of experimental verification. Proton decay has been sought but never observed. Dark matter remains dark to our own investigations. The search for a grand unified theory, based on the the holy grail of supersymmetry, has gone nowhere. Eighty years of effort failed to combine general relativity with the standard model. More exotic concepts – the multiverse, wormholes, extra dimensions, mini black holes – have eluded observation and may never be testable. Some ideas are untestable, even in theory.  

Not that we are lacking in achievement. What physicists call the “standard model” – where all matter and forces except for gravity are accounted for by 25 elemental particles and forces – has been wildly successful both in experimental validation and its predictive power. The same is true of quantum theory. There’s only one problem. Physicists hate them both. Nature, it seems, is too unnatural for their tastes. 

The standard model has been denigrated as “ugly and contrived” (Michio Kaku), “ugly and ad hoc” (Stephen Hawking), “ugly and baroque” (Brian Greene), with “the air of unfinished business” (Paul Davies). What troubles them so? Fine-tuning. Too many improbable coincidences. Too hard to understand or explain. Quantum mechanics is “magic”.  Too many arbitrary constants. (In the standard model, there are at least 19 unique constants that cannot be predicted by the model. They can only be determined by scientific measurement).  

The mass of the Higgs boson serves as a case in point.   Its mass depends on the contribution from quantum fluctuations multiplied by the fermion/boson sum. Quantum fluctuations contribute an amount to the mass of the Higgs boson 1015 greater than what is measured. To achieve the measured mass, the quantum fluctuation effect must be perfectly offset by a factor of 10-15, with a precision extending to fourteen digits.   In the eyes of physicists, such fine-tuning is not “natural”. It is an improbable coincidence. Fine-tuning is “a badge of shame” (Lisa Randall), “a sickness” (Howard Baer). It seems to demand an explanation. It is “ugly”. There are other trouble spots of fine tuning: the cosmological constant, the “strong CP problem”, and the great disparity between gravity and other forces (the “hierarchy problem”).

Theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder suggests one reason physicists have hit a wall: in their philosophical quest for “Beauty” the world of theoretical physics has gotten “Lost in Math”. The popular perception of a scientist is that of one driven by cold, hard, objective, unswerving logic. Despite the stereotype, the theoretical physicists interviewed and cited  by Hossenfelder – all leaders in their field – seek, hope for, even insist upon solutions that are aesthetically satisfying.  To them, the ultimate explanation for everything should reveal elegance,  naturalness,  symmetry – all shrouded in mathematical beauty. Yet, there is a danger in this approach. If our present laws of nature were not beautiful, would we ever have found them?  Surely an ugly explanation beats no explanation at all. If a more fundamental theory is not “beautiful”, will we fail to find it? Or even look for it? What if ultimate reality is “ugly”? 

There are other barriers to progress. As high energy experiments from the Large Hadron Collider eliminate from consideration various testable hypotheses, successive hypotheses must assume even higher energy levels which may not be testable, ever: 

If we wanted to directly reach Planckian  energies, we’d need a particle collider about the size of the Milky Way. Or if we wanted to measure a quantum of the gravitational field – a graviton – the detector would have to be the size of Jupiter….Clearly, these aren’t experiments we’ll get funded anytime soon. 

To escape the current predicament, there are calls to abandon the scientific method by eliminating the requirement of experimental verification.  Physicist, philosopher, and string theory proponent Richard Dawid is advocating “non-empirical theory assessment”. With declining prospects of empirical validation, Dawid concludes that “the scientific method must be amended so that hypotheses can be evaluated on purely theoretical grounds.” But “if we can’t test it, is it science?” asks Hossenfelder. 

Hossenfelder is at various times lively, comic, and probing. She quips “Theoretical physicists used to explain what was observed. Now they try to explain why they can’t explain what was not observed…There are many ways to not explain something”.  

In her journey through the rarified world of particle physicists and cosmologists, Hossenfelder voices concern for how hostility to the idea of a God on the part of some harms the public image of science. In the course of their conversation, cosmologist George Ellis recalls his review of a book by Victor Stenger claiming that science disproves the existence of God: 

“I opened this book with great anticipation, waiting to see what was the experimental apparatus that gave the result and what did the data points look like and was it a three-sigma or five-sigma result? Of course, there is no such experiment. These are scientists who haven’t understood basic philosophy.” (God, the Failed Hypothesis, by Victor Stenger, reviewed by George Ellis in Physics World

“Lost in Math” portrays a community of researchers in philosophical crisis. The esteemed physicists interviewed in this book and its impressive author are to be congratulated on their efforts and their honesty. The genuine achievements of science are acknowledged and celebrated, while the limitations of science and of scientists are admitted frankly. Scientists are human, after all. 

Naturalness, beauty, simplicity are aesthetic and philosophical concepts, not scientific ones. While aggressive proponents of secularism accuse believers of irrationality for believing in a God that – they claim – cannot be proven, their rear guard is crumbling. The field of theoretical physics faces a headwall where empirical validation of foundational theories may no longer be possible. More foundational theories may ultimately be embraced on faith alone – so long as the mathematics is beautiful! 

In the world of physics, we find fine-tuning and mystery from the subatomic to the cosmic scale with rapidly diminishing prospects of natural explanation. It is possible we may never see deeper than we are currently able, that we have reached our limit of comprehension regarding the essence of underlying reality. Meanwhile, what can be proven is distressingly improbable. God must be smiling.

*In her biography of Paul Dirac, historian Helge Kragh noted that in the last 49 years of his life Dirac “largely failed to produce physics of lasting value”.

Sexual orientation and health

October 2, 2018 | apologetics | No Comments

Here, as anywhere, the wisdom of the great C. S. Lewis should be taken to heart:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. .. It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind…which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”  C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. [italics added]

Mental health

§  “A twofold excess in suicide attempts in lesbian, gay and bisexual people”
§ ” Lifetime prevalence of suicide attempt was especially high in gay and bisexual men (RR 4.28, CI 2.32, 7.88)”
§  “The risk for depression and anxiety disorders (over a period of 12 months or a lifetime) on meta-analyses were at least 1.5 times higher in lesbian, gay and bisexual people”
§  “Alcohol and other substance dependence over 12 months was also 1.5 times higher
§  “Lesbian and bisexual women were particularly at risk of substance dependence (alcohol 12 months: RR 4.00, CI 2.85, 5.61; drug dependence: RR 3.50, CI 1.87, 6.53; any substance use disorder RR 3.42, CI 1.97–5.92)”
Scapegoating the Church for LGBT Suicide and Stigma

This June 27, 2019 article by Family Practice physician Andre van Mol, MD reviews nearly two dozen research publications in the areas of suicidal behavior and intimate partner violence in LGBT-identifying individuals. Studies show an across-the-board increase in suicidality that is unaffected by liberal community attitudes. All studies to date either show no effect, or a protective effect, from religious faith. No one has been able to conclusively demonstrate a causal connection between stigmatization and mental illness in the LGBT community.

Domestic violence

CDC, The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 2010:

Sexual minority respondents reported levels of intimate partner violence
at rates equal to or higher than those of heterosexuals.

•Forty-four percent of lesbian women, 61% of bisexual women, and 35% of
heterosexual women experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an
intimate partner in their lifetime.
•Twenty-six percent of gay men, 37% of bisexual men, and 29% of heterosexual
men experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner
at some point in their lifetime.
•Approximately 1 in 5 bisexual women (22%) and nearly 1 in 10 heterosexual
women (9%) have been raped by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

Rates of some form of sexual violence were higher among lesbian
women, gay men, and bisexual women and men compared to
heterosexual women and men.

•Approximately 1 in 8 lesbian women (13%), nearly half of bisexual women
(46%), and 1 in 6 heterosexual women (17%) have been raped in their lifetime.
This translates to an estimated 214,000 lesbian women, 1.5 million bisexual women,
and 19 million heterosexual women.
•Four in 10 gay men (40%), nearly half of bisexual men (47%), and 1 in 5
heterosexual men (21%) have experienced SV other than rape in their lifetime.
This translates into nearly 1.1 million gay men, 903,000 bisexual men, and 21.6
million heterosexual men.   

Sexually Transmitted Disease

Mojola SA, Everett B. STD and HIV risk factors among U.S. young adults: variations by gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Perspect Sex Reprod Health. 2012;44(2):125-33.

  • “In the United States, sexual minorities, such as gay and bisexual men, as well as racial and ethnic minorities, such as blacks and Hispanics, have higher rates of STDs and HIV than their majority counterparts.”
  • “People who have multiple minority identities are at disproportionate risk of acquiring STDs, including HIV.”
  • “Gay males of every race or ethnicity reported a higher number of sexual partners than heterosexual white males”

Ritter, L. J., & Ueno, K. (2018). Same-Sex Contact and Lifetime Sexually Transmitted Disease Diagnoses Among Older Adults. Journal of Aging and Health.

  • “Older adults who report any SSC have higher lifetime counts of STDs. This difference persists even when controlling for sex, race, education, age, military status, and incarceration. Propensity matching models show that this difference persists when respondents are matched on several factors that may influence SSC prior to STD contraction.”


Marriage and Health

October 1, 2018 | apologetics | No Comments

A glimpse of current literature regarding the benefits of monogamy:

Effects on adults

What Do We Know About the Link Between Marriage and Health? Journal of Family Issues 31(8):1019-1040, 2010:

§  “Marriage reduces depression”
§  “Unmarried adults are more likely to drink, use marijuana, and drive recklessly”
§  “Married men and women experience lower mortality at every age relative to those who remain unmarried or lose their spouse through widowhood or divorce”
§  “A number of rigorous studies reveal that marriage can also lead to better general physical health and better outcomes for some specific health conditions, including arthritis, hypertension, and heart disease”

The impact of polygamy on women’s mental health: a systematic review | Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences 22(1):47-62, 2013

“Individual studies report a higher prevalence of somatization, depression, anxiety, hostility, psychoticism and psychiatric disorder in polygynous wives as well as reduced life and marital satisfaction, problematic family functioning and low self-esteem.”

 Effects on children

Parental Divorce or Death During Childhood and Adolescence. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 204(9):678-695, 2016:

“Participants reporting a history of parental divorce present a significantly higher prevalence of psychiatric disorders, particularly alcohol and drug use disorders compared with control subjects. While participants experiencing the death of a parent reported a poorer overall health, the prevalence of psychiatric disorder after 17 years of age was not significantly higher than that of the control subjects.”

The consequences of fatherlessness:

“Children from fatherless homes are more likely to be poor, become involved in drug and alcohol abuse, drop out of school, and suffer from health and emotional problems. Boys are more likely to become involved in crime, and girls are more likely to become pregnant as teens.”

Economic benefits

Marriage and divorce’s impact on wealth. Journal of Sociology 41(4):406-424, 2005:

“Married respondents experience per person net worth increases of 77 percent over single respondents. Additionally, their wealth increases on average 16 percent for each year of marriage. Divorced respondents’ wealth starts falling four years before divorce and they experience an average wealth drop of 77 percent.”