Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Existential Physics: A Scientist's Guide to Life's Biggest Questions, Sabine Hossenfelder (author), Gina Daniels (narrator)

Penguin Random House Audio, ISBN 9780593592885, August 2022

Like The Disordered Cosmos, this is a book by a woman physicist, taking about her life and work in physics. And that's pretty much where the resemblance ends.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a black American woman of Caribbean descent on her mother's side and Russian Jewish descent on her father's, who describes herself as a Reconstructionist Jew. She's encountered, and engaged strongly with, issues of racism and sexism in the world of physics. She says it has robbed her of a lot of the joy of doing physics.

Sabine Hossenfelder is a white German woman who hasn't encountered, or chooses not to mention, any issues of sexism in her professional life. She expresses seemingly pure joy in doing physics. That makes this a much easier book to listen to, though as I  mentioned in my review, Prescod-Weinstein engaging those hard issues makes it a valuable book in its own right.

Hossenfelder talks about quantum physics, dark matter, the origin of the universe, and the difference between scientific, unscientific, and ascientific theories. The last category are things things for which there isn't and can't be, as far as we're able to know, any evidence either for or against. This includes God, but also string theory, the multiverse, and other ideas generating much excitement in the scientific world. She expresses no hostility to any of these ideas; she says those (like Stephen Hawking) who say that the existence of God has been disproven are being as unscientific as those who say God's existence has been or can be proven. It's not necessarily wrong, either way, she says; it's just not science. Hossenfelder is an atheist, or at least an agnostic, but she's not invested in being "right" on this. She's happy to have people believe in a religion, or string theory, or the multiverse, as long as they don't insist it's science.

On the one hand, it's a more open attitude than some vocal scientists have. On the other hand, on the ideas at least nominally within the realm of science (string theory, or the multiverse, I wonder if equally rigorous physicists necessarily agree with her, because so many physicists seem to find these ideas quite credible. Is she being overly dogmatic, or not?

On the subject of religion, though, I agree with her. It's not science, it's not supposed to be science, and that's kind of the point. I was taught in Catholic school that ignoring the best evidence of science about the physical universe is at least perilously close to calling God a liar. Evolution is real. Earth is 4.5 billion years old. The scientific jury is still out on string theory, the multiverse, and maybe dark matter.

There is a lot here about physics, much more than in Prescod-Weinstein's book, which had a more divided focus. It's interesting, enlightening, and in places just a lot of fun.


I bought this audiobook.

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