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
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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 futureshop.com. 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.

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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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