Sabine Hossenfelder: My Inspiration

Sabine HossenfelderToday, a guest post. I’m excited, because it’s from one of my favourite bloggers, Sabine Hossenfelder, or “Bee” as you may know her from her comments here, and of course her blog Backreaction.

Bee giving a guest post here on Asymptotia originated in a suggestion I made in the comments of an earlier post of mine. Bee had asked me to do a post on her blog as part of her excellent series of guest posts about what made her guest choose to go into physics. Pressed for time, and not sure whether I’d really have anything new or interesting to say about myself, I stalled for time (I thought) by saying I’d do it in exchange for her doing a post here on a similar subject. She rapidly came up with the post. And of course it’s a great one. I’m so on the spot now.

Anyway, here’s Bee! -cvj

I just sat down with the best intention to write a lengthy blah on Clifford’s question what inspires me. Now that I sit here, hands above the keyboard, I am facing a problem. It’s not that the question is too difficult, it’s too easy to answer. I get inspiration everywhere. Reading books, seeing movies, taking a walk – ah yes, also from scrolling through blogs. Most of all by talking to my friends and colleagues. The problem is now that I’m too inspired not to shamelessly use the opportunity of writing a guest post for Clifford 😉 So let me redirect the question to your opportunity to use your inspiration.

Had you been born some thousand years ago, your life would have been pretty much determined by where and when you were born, and whether you happened to be a man or a woman. You’d have spent most of your time striving to survive. Undoubtedly, you’d have considered your generation very progressive, still you’d have worked hard to make a better future for those coming after you. And of course our generation says since then we’ve made a lot of progress! But what is it? Is it a 6 lane highway, 50 different Jelly Bean flavors, the size of a 2 GB USB stick, a life expectation of 80 years, plastic surgery, weblogs for everybody?

In my opinion, a society’s maturity is measured not by the development (alias shrinking) of more and more technological gadgets, but by its ability to let (wo)men follow their passion. Progress is what makes our life easier. It is what gives us more time, more freedom. It is our understanding of nature that has allowed us to spend less time on the struggle to survive, and given us the opportunity to live. It has given us the freedom to follow all the stray thoughts that came with the evolution of the homo sapiens’ large brain: the everlasting wish to find and understand our place in the universe that we are part of.

A search that everybody of us undergoes in his or her own way. Some find their place within the circle of their friends and family. Some in teaching, painting, constructing the cities of the future, writing down the untold stories, influencing our lives with every tiny single step, inspiring the next generation. And of course I’m completely biased here, but for me the front of all our search today lies in theoretical physics, in our task to answer the questions were we come from, why is the world is as it is, what we are made of, and what limits the laws of nature set to our efforts to shape the world.

I find it kind of ironic that during the last decades this ancient desire of men to just understand had to be more and more justified by the prospect of material output. Nowadays, governmental funding goes primarily into applied sciences, ideally into military applications, many of which fulfill the only purpose to blow up other people’s efforts to build the cities of the future. What a progress! Have we struggled so hard to make room for basic research just to question its relevance now that we have the opportunity to pursue it? Its like one of these confused moments when I eventually get up and drag myself into the kitchen. Just to find that I’ve forgotten what I wanted to do when I get there (see: woking).

Of course I do agree that fundamental research is the door towards technological progress, but that’s an argument you’ve heard so often I don’t want to elaborate on it. It just makes me sad that we theoretical physicists need to justify our relevance through the prospect of patents, the claim that our search might eventually result in something you could order at And then go ask yourself what’s the economical relevance of knowing that the stars are not holes in the celestial sphere, and that there are incredibly many solar systems just like our own. It’s not a cellphone with a ringtone melody from Robbie Williams that changes our view of the world.

If I ask myself how that has happened, I’ve largely to blame the scientific community itself. Being supported by the taxpayers, by those that provide the basis for our survival, we have neglected to share our insights with the society that we are part of. It is only now that we begin to feel the outcome of this missing communication that we remember our task. But what I find equally bad as leaving unclear what we do, is leaving unclear how we do it. A fact that I notice in every email from someone who has found the theory of everything and wants me to have a look at it (see: osbaston). And though I appreciate this evidence of inspiration, I’ve to say inspiration is necessary, but not sufficient.

As every other part of our lives, theoretical physics has been specialized into many areas, and it requires education to contribute to the front of research. Technical knowledge alone also is not sufficient, but it is definitely necessary. See, if you want to move into a cave, you don’t need to worry about many details. But if you were to build the city of the future, wouldn’t you better hire architects that have learned how to take care of the details. Like, the house not falling into pieces if you slam the door?

Theoretical physics in the 21st century isn’t done by lying under a tree waiting for the apple to drop. It’s a tough job. It’s for a reason that the education takes so long. The difficult part is not having an idea, but to connect it to reality. The hard part is to make it work. The hardest part is to see it fail, and to start all over again. I as many of my colleagues have gone through phases of doubts. Doubts whether it’s worth it, doubts whether he or she is good enough, intelligent enough, patient enough, stubborn enough.

Today, you have a vast number of options for your life. The wish to make the right choice, accompanied by the anxiety to make the wrong choice, and the responsibility for your own happiness. All that is a burden that comes with the freedom of our modern civilization. Every ‘Yes’ implies a ‘No’, every decision is an exclusion of possibilities. The better you know what you want, and what you get, the easier it will be for you to find your way. I think that Clifford’s and other science blogs can provide you with a good impression of what it means to be a theoretical physicist today. If you think theoretical physics is the right place for you, then follow your passion.

Acknowledgements: I want to express my gratitude towards all those who’ve provided me with funding in the last decade. Especially the German government and private foundations. I’m really sorry that nevertheless I’m a drained brain.


Sabine Hossenfelder is currently a postdoc at Perimeter Institute working on physics beyond the standard model. If physics or physicists drive her nuts, she likes painting, reading, and writing her blog Backreaction. Besides this, she enjoys complaining about the weather, the IT guys, or life in general. Sabine obtained her PhD in 2003 at Frankfurt University. Suggested literature: The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd.

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28 Responses to Sabine Hossenfelder: My Inspiration

  1. Louise says:

    It is always a pleasure seeing one more woman working in science. I hope that many other societies continue to empower women. We can also hope that physics gets out of its deep blue funk. Sabine is not a drained brain, there is plenty of room to see apples fall from trees. Just be prepared to endure a few slings and arrows when you come up with something original.

    Oh dear! Comic Variance is off the air. Someone please clarify!

  2. Rae Ann says:

    Thanks Clifford and Bee! This is exactly why I really like Bee and her blog. She explains things so well, and most times, we seem to see things in a similar light. And she’s right that informing the public about the goings on in theoretical physics will ultimately lead to more support and not less. And actually, I think it is going to be the women in science who will become the best representatives and communicators because of their (inherent) communication skills.

  3. Amara says:

    Thanks, Bee. Your enthusiasm is infectious. Last night I finished and submitted my first NASA proposal. Grueling process. Like a research paper, but 10 times harder, and I was wondering last night why I was putting myself through that. Now your post has reminded me. It’s a wonderfully interesting world out there.

  4. stefan says:

    Dear Clifford,

    thank you for publishing this post, and the enthusiastical introduction!
    Man, I am proud 🙂

    All the best, stefan

  5. Clifford says:

    Stefan:- And indeed you should be! 😀

    You’re welcome.



  6. Arun says:

    I guess the “drained brain” refers to the fact of having migrated, thereby contributing to a brain drain out of Germany.

    Anyway, I hope you become rich (in the things you count as valuable) in your pursuit of physics.

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  8. Bee says:

    Hi All,

    Thanks so much for the nice words. Esp. Amara, it makes me very happy to hear I was able to remind you how wonderful and interesting the world is through the eyes of a physicist. Sometimes I forget myself, and I’m always glad to have somebody around to remind me.

    Hi Arun,

    I guess the “drained brain” refers to the fact of having migrated, thereby contributing to a brain drain out of Germany.

    Yeah, that was what I meant to say. It’s not big news that Germany is loosing top researchers to North America, see e.g.

    Brain Drain Hurting Germany

    (coincidentally, I just noticed the photo was taken in a lecture hall I sat in myself some years ago). Since I’ve declined a pretty decent offer from the Germans last year, I have kind of a bad conscience, esp. since I’ve financed part of my stay in the US with governmental support.

    In addition to this, the Germans are permanently worried about their falling birth rate, see e.g.

    German birth rate falls to lowest in Europe

    A fact that has repeatedly been connected to, guess what, young women going into academics instead of properly reproducing. If you ask me, there are too many Germans anyhow, but those who are there are definitely world leaders in complaining and worrying. I guess, at least in this sense, I’m a good German 😉



  9. rodion says:

    I’m a student and I am studying right now for my finals. Studying theoretical physics can be very frustrating. But for a while I am following Asymptotia and Backreaction and it kind of helps. Cause by seeing professional theoretical physicists having still so much fun by the things they are doing, makes me thing that it is really worth the effort. I really love theoretical physics and to see that people do not loose their passion for it after doing it as their profession is a great motivation.
    So by that I just want to thank you both for your great blogs!

  10. Chris Oakley says:


    That was well done, and on account of your interest in the writings of Douglas Adams, I can, in my capacity as Emperor of the Vl’hurgs, grant you clemency when our Empire takes over this puny galaxy.

    Suggestion … why not ask Uncle Al to provide a similar biographical post. I think a lot of people would interested. I would, anyway.

  11. Arun says:


    If you believe in the dubious science of psychometrics, and the even more dubious research in that field by Richard Lynn, then there is no need to feel guilty about draining Germany of brains; Germany has a surplus of them. See the following:

    Do take the stuff at the URL tongue-in-cheek. Not though, Richard Lynn. He is poison. He is the kind of guy who thinks, when it suits him, that given a set of numbers { x } and a non-linear function f, f[average[x]] == average[f[x]].


  12. Amara says:

    Dear Bee, Usually I don’t see the dividing lines between fields in the physical sciences; I think it is easy to remind each other. Your Brain Drain comment regarding Germany is interesting because I didn’t think that Germany suffered that situation very much, especially compared to Italy, which not a drain but a brain flood. However, you’re right. When I was finishing my (German) PhD and looked around, I didn’t see very many options, but many obstacles like the necessity for the second PhD to teach and new laws that limited the time of nonpermanent contracts. Some number of my friends had to leave their jobs because they worked on soft money for too long and their workplaces could not offer anything more.

    Do you have any pictures of your PhD hat? I received mine two years before yours, in Heidelberg. My thesis advisor arranged my oral defense during a time when our group was hosting a conference in my subject. I was terrified that I was going to fail, and everyone important in my career would know instantly. My parents came from the U.S and my uncle came from Latvia for that event too. I passed, but I’ll never forget my terror on that day. BTW, I earned my PhD at age 40, but that story is better left to another post.

  13. Chris Oakley says:

    I shared an office with a German physicist at Harwell Laboratory around 1987-1988 and I do not see how anyone with spirit or creativity would want to put themselves through the tortures that the German academic system subjects its young scientists to. I would not blame anyone for getting out.

  14. Amara says:

    Chris, I think that My German PhD life was cozy compared to the Italian scientific educational system. What the Italian young scientists go through, well. This _is_ the country of comedy and tragedy.

  15. Chris Oakley says:

    Hi Amara,

    My criticism of the academic research system in general is that all the decision making is done by people my age (I am 47) and older. On the other hand almost all the important work – and certainly all the innovative stuff – is done by the under-30’s. Someone in their 20s can come up with a great idea and then get nowhere because one of the old timers feels threatened by them. Germany seems to be an extreme case of this. The faculty seem to have more protection and be able to obstruct creative young minds more than elsewhere. Habilitation, for example – what is the point of that other than just to protect the old timers from dangerous, sceptical, original young minds?

  16. Amara says:

    Chris, the same occurs in Italy, but more and grayer. It’s a deeply entrenced system. The decision making occurs by those in their later 50 and 60s. University job positions are rare, the old professors don’t open their position easily (a nontrivial number are running other business activies), and when they do, it is only to someone whom they know. Plus the young creative scientists are almost working for free (their families supporting them, well into their 30s and even some in their 40s). The young people consider such a situation ‘normal’, until they travel abroad for the first time. Science only ‘works’ in Italy because the families are subsidizing it, providing accomodations and other help to all of those passionate minds. Otherwise there is no way that they could live on their (sometimes nonexistent) unliveable salaries. It’s a situation that I don’t think can last for too much longer.

  17. Amara says:

    Chris: one more thing: While a PhD student in Heidelberg, I typically went to 4-5 conferences a year, I published a few papers including a Nature paper. I never had any time without funding, and my thesis advisor was supportive in every way (I knew that before, though, otherwise I wouldn’t have moved across the Atlantic). Trivial example: Organizing our working group to help me move to a different apartment (he himself participated in the transporting of my 1000 books). I don’t know if such support is typical for German PhD students; my advisor was likely unusual in that sense. So while I understand your points above, I had an excellent experience and don’t regret my decision to make my doctorate in Germany. I think that the German government gave me a valuable gift.

  18. Bee says:

    Hi Amara, Hi Chris,

    it seems to me there might be a reason why Heidelberg, second to Munich, is again and again rated top among German Universities in the world ranking. Unfortunately, I can completely confirm what Chris writes above. The power at German Universities lies in the hands of the senior people, and many of them use it to their own advantages, which is very short sighted. The fact that a Professorship is still a life-time position (in case someone doesn’t know, this really means they CAN NOT be fired and have their job until they literally drop dead) makes things worse. Once you’re employed you can roughly speaking do what you want, or nothing at all (of course this has consequences for your grant). In addition to this, it means that the positions are extremely rare and hard to get. A reasonable middle range of well-paid but not overpaid, long but not eternal positions, is missing. They try to get rid of the Habilitation, but obviously there is some resistance to this.

    I guess its kind of natural to assume that it is the same everywhere, I also didn’t know much about how the system works overseas until I went to some conferences. However, in my case the situation was a bit complicated because I worked on a topic that wasn’t content of the Institute’s research plan, and it was tough to get travel grants. I had to pay a considerable part by myself, which was almost impossible with a salary that didn’t even pay the rent… blahblah, you get the point. Today I’d say I should have left Germany earlier and made my PhD in the US, things would have been far easier.

    Do you have any pictures of your PhD hat?

    We had no hats. We didn’t even have a party. Oh yes, there was a party, but I was told I’d have to pay for it, so the invited guests could have their dinner for free. I didn’t go but had my own party.



  19. Amara says:

    Sorry about your hatless PhD, Bee. I assumed after seeing it in a few universities there, that it was a standard German doctorate tradition. Like the tie that the guys wear, that someone with a scissors must demolish. And now that I think about it, I _did_ pay for my own party…

  20. urs says:

    that it was a standard German doctorate tradition

    Most such tradition ended at least after those events 1968, as far as I am aware. But in recent years things are beginning to change again.

  21. Amara says:

    In case there is a misunderstanding: not a generic hat from the university, but one that your colleagues/friends make for you, that usually have something related to your thesis topic (and your character). Mine had the Galileo spacecraft crashlanded on Io, with volcanoes, The syrofoam had embedded glass tubes for spewing liquids, to make a nice display on my head (if I wanted).

  22. Bee says:

    nope, no hat for me. but a title that I had to return three times because it had typos 😉

  23. Bee says:

    btw, I just received the next contribution to the ‘inspiration-series’. It’s from a German cosmologist (Stefan Hofmann), he also wrote about his experience with the German education system. It’s a very thoughtful writing, I like it very much. It should be online Sunday evening.

  24. Amara says:

    Dear Bee: I’m looking forward to it. I didn’t take my graduate coursework in Heidelberg (I had my master’s already), so I’m sure I will learn something about what I ‘missed’.
    Your outstanding writing in this essay helped me to take a large view of the type of feedback that I think is occurring between the Italian scientists/academics and the Italian public; perfect for Dante, but a failure for a progressive society.

  25. John Baez says:

    Nice post!

    See, if you want to move into a cave, you don’t need to worry about many details.

    Have you tried it? I bet I’d need to worry about lots of details. It gets awfully chilly in the winter without some bear skins to hang over the front entrance… but bear skins, well, for them you need flint spearheads and a well-trained team of hunters… and then there’s the problem of gathering nuts and berries, and cooking…

    So, cave dwellers may have been more aware than people today of how much technical knowledge and skill are needed to run a culture — because now we’re so specialized, and so much gets done ‘behind the scenes’, that we can’t even imagine life without it all.

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  28. Eytan Suchard says:

    “the everlasting wish to find and understand our place in the universe that we are part of”.
    Accomplishment of this cannot be done based on materialistic
    approaches alone.

    1) The psychophysical problem can be described via experiment.
    Slightly burn one’s thumb with short CO2 laser exposure and
    you’ll get what is known as Evoke Potential followed by sharp
    pain for few seconds. The pulse from the thumb to the brain
    can be measured and so all the resulting spike trains in the
    neuron’s axons – if not now then in the future. The entire process
    can be monitored as a temporal dependent graph flow of pulses.
    The entire physical process is publicly owned by all observers
    including the subject. The pain, however, is felt by the subject
    alone. Trying to fool the experiment one can connect the brain of
    the subject to the brain of an observer such that the observer
    will feel the pain, alas, the observer’s experience runs through
    the observer’s brain and thus we get a process which is equivalent
    to exposing the observer to the stimulus and there is no way to
    compare the experience of the observer and the experience of the original subject except for the publicly owned observation.
    What can be said is that there is a correlation between the pulses per second and pain. Are correlation and causation the same ?
    The answer is no. The linguistic terms “publicly owned” and “privately owned” reflect the crux of the pschophysical duality.
    The subject experience is “parallel” to the physical world or “reported” by the physical world but need not be physical.
    How does this agree with the principle of parsimony ? Why to assume
    an existence beyond physics if it is not needed ? Well, it is needed because of the encapsulation of privately owned experience within the subject’s world. Instead of dismissing the existence of the psych
    in favor of physics, we can regard physics as a Shared Interpretation of Shared Experience – Observation. In that interpretation, the physical world itself, which is “publicly owned” is merely shared experience by all subjects.

    Understanding of our origin may not be within the realm of physics.

    2) Physics depends on geometry, no matter how complex. The basic objects of space – time are the events or collisions (with particles, waves etc.). These events are multiple. The goal of
    physics is to perceive reality as unity which does not align with
    the plurality of events unless all events are a deterministic result
    of some recursive algorithm. Therefore the perception of space – time
    as one, contradicts the use of geometry which results in a dead end.
    One source to the physical phenomenology means that such a source is
    beyond geometry. In other words, such a source is metaphysical.
    As a friend of mine who is a philosopher (Sharon Vaknin) says,
    “Philosophy is the watchdog of physics”. I totally concur with him.
    Hopefully Sabine also.
    Scientists should also be philosophers.

    “As every other part of our lives, theoretical physics has been specialized into many areas, and it requires education to contribute to the front of research”.
    My personal preference is to deconstruct space – time into an ensemble of unsynchronizable 3D manifolds on which time appears as
    an emergent function and results in a new locally orthogonal dimension without violating the covariance principle.
    Orthogonality is achieved on the expense of synchronizability and
    thus the 4D coordinates are totally local. The problem of such
    a theory is to construct global coordinates. This is where
    I lack knowledge. The theory is not any conventional theory but
    bears some resemblance to quantum gravity. It appears as a candidate to make peace between string theory and loop quantum gravity but
    is quite stuck in very early stages and involves C++ simulations.

    Material and spiritual redemption to you all,
    wishing Eytan.