Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder: “There are quite a few areas where physics merges with religion”

Sabine Hossenfelder is a German theoretical physicist who writes books and runs a YouTube channel (with 618,000 subscribers at the time of writing) called Science Without the Gobbledygook. Born in Frankfurt, she studied mathematics at Goethe Universität and later focused on particle physics. His PhD explored the possibility of the Large Hadron Collider producing microscopic black holes. She is now a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Frankfurt, where she leads a group studying quantum gravity. His second book, Existential Physics: A Scientist’s Guide to Life’s Biggest Questionscame out in August.

The first question you ask the physicists you interview in the book is, “Are you religious? And you?
I tried to be religious when I was a teenager. I wasn’t Christianized because my parents were both atheists, but all my friends were Christians, so I went to church with them. And I kind of liked it – the singing, the social events. I considered joining, but I couldn’t believe that God exists.

You weren’t into physics at school. Why not?
It had to do with how it was taught. We were given experiences that had been done in the past by other people, and we were supposed to make a botched reconstruction of them ourselves. I just thought it was terribly boring. I didn’t really get interested in physics until I learned how differential equations work. Studying physics in college, I came to it from this weird angle where I was trying to figure out all the things you can do with math to understand nature. That’s why I don’t really fit into any particular area of ​​physics, because I have this general attitude. I just want to know what math is for.

What prompted you to write the book?
The main message I wanted to get across was this: we paint a very one-sided picture of physics in our education and in the popular science press – of a very technocratic, very mathematical discipline, with particle accelerators and all that things. . But physics also touches on big existential questions: how does the universe work? How it all began ? What are we made of?

You write that much research in physics, such as hypotheses about the early universe, is “religion disguised as science in the guise of mathematics”. Can you elaborate on this subject?
There are quite a few areas where the fundamentals of physics merge with religion, but physicists don’t notice it because they don’t pay attention to it. It is a lack of education in the philosophy of science in general. For example, the most commonly accepted story about the beginning of the universe is the big bang, and to some extent that’s really the easiest way to extrapolate the equations into the past – and then you can add inflation, which is an exponential phase of expansion; or, like Roger Penrose, you can make it a cyclical universe. But maybe it was a big bounce, or it started with the membranes colliding. These ideas are all possible, they are all compatible with the observations we have. But I would call them scientific – the kind of idea for which the evidence says nothing for or against.

Is it equally reasonable to say that God or some other higher power created the universe?
This is a difficult question. There is a difference between them in that the theories physicists work with are mathematical in nature, whereas the God hypothesis is not a mathematical thing.

You don’t have much time for the multiverse That is. Why not?
This is another one of those ideas that I would call scientific. If you want to believe that there are endless copies of you with small alterations – one of them may have won the Nobel Prize, another became a rock star – you can believe it if you can. want, it’s not in contradiction with everything we know. But from a scientific point of view, if you want to advance our understanding of natural law, I would say it’s a waste of time precisely for that reason, because you can’t test it.

Can you understand why some physics giants, like Stephen Hawking, have come to believe that we live in a multiverse?
I have guesses, but I can’t ask him. It’s not just Stephen Hawking, there are a number of people in the foundations of physics, although if you read the popular science press it exaggerates the number, as they are very important. It’s very niche, actually, this whole multiverse stuff. These people are really confused about what science can actually do. How they come to this conclusion that the multiverse must exist is that they have a theory that predicts certain things that agree with the observations – that’s fine. And then they jump to the conclusion that therefore all the mathematics that appears in this theory must also exist in some sense. But that’s not how it works. You have just attributed reality to certain mathematical expressions. You can’t back it up with a scientific argument.

You are very demanding when evaluating the work of other scientists, so I am interested to know: Which physicists working today do you hold in high esteem?
Oh Jesus. Then you’ll print this and everyone will hate me. Well, I really admire Roger Penrose, who has a very sharp mind and has done so many amazing things. He was also outspoken in his criticism of some of the trends in the foundations of physics, including string theory. And he’s brave, putting forward ideas that are pretty outlandish – like the stuff with gravitation-induced collapse, or how consciousness plays a role in the human brain, or the cyclical universe. Everything is very original.

You wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian in September about physicists inventing new particles that sparked a lot of debate…
My point was that it’s a very bad scientific strategy to invent math and then claim we have to go and test it when there’s no reason it should work. There’s an infinite number of these particles that you can create, and it doesn’t work. Look at what has come out of it over the past 40 years. That’s not really good. Maybe think of something better. Also, it worries me that we’re always talking about how science is supposed to self-correct, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. They just try the same thing over and over again.

A reader wrote saying that just because there wasn’t fruit within easy reach doesn’t mean there wasn’t fruit to be found.
That’s absolutely correct. It is possible that one of these experiments will find something. I’m just saying it’s incredibly unlikely, and if you look at the evidence, that seems to agree with me. It does not work. I’m not very demanding. I’m just saying, please use your brain.

You are a prolific tweeter. What would be lost if Twitter collapsed?
I made friends on Twitter, I have my little interest group, so it would be a shame if he died. But that’s how it is with internet startups. I feel like Elon Musk has a very experimental approach, he tries new things, and that’s good. I just wish he did it a little less destructive, a little slower, a little more carefully. But he doesn’t seem like the kind of person to do things slowly and carefully.

You have a YouTube channel for your own music
Normally I use it to clear my head when I’m stuck with something. It forces me to focus on something else. But I guess everyone needs a hobby.

Existential Physics: A Scientist’s Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions is published by Atlantic (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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