Sabine Hossenfelder is a German theoretical physicist, science communicator, author, musician and YouTuber. She is currently employed as a research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies. Her new book, Existential Physics: A Scientists Guide To Life’s Biggest Questions is outstanding. Her simple and clear explanations make even the most complicated issues in physics accessible to the uninitiated. Most importantly she shows how issues in modern physics and cosmology relate to deep existential questions about life’s meaning. In the process, she guides us through questions about how the universe began, and how it will end, whether the past is still real, whether copies of us exist somewhere, whether physics has ruled out free will, whether consciousness is computable, and whether humans are predictable. She also investigates whether the universe thinks, whether it was made for us, whether it is all mathematics, and whether we can create a universe.
In the Epilogue “What’s The Purpose of Anything Anyway?” she addresses questions of meaning with both insight and humility. She begins by admitting that science doesn’t have, and almost certainly never will have, all the answers to life’s biggest questions. But, in addition to its practical implications, Hossenfelder practices science to make sense of her life. And this leads to the book’s final question “What’s the meaning of life in the universe revealed by modern science?” She believes that each person must answer this question for themselves but she tells a simple story to explain how she thinks about the issue.
When she was young she asked her mother “what’s the meaning of life?” Her mother was a teacher and she replied that for her “the meaning of life is to pass along knowledge to the next generation.” At the time Hossenfelder thought her mother’s answer was “rather lame. [But] Thirty years later I have come to pretty much the same conclusion.” For most of her life, she has studied the laws of nature and still takes great joy in sharing that knowledge with others. She has found that many people want to know how the universe works because we want to make sense of ourselves and our place in the universe.
Ultimately, Hossenfelder writes that she is trying to do her part “to aid the universe’s understanding of itself.” As she concludes, “So, yes, we are bags of atoms crawling around on a pale blue dot in the outer spiral arm of a remarkably unremarkable galaxy. And yet we are so much more than this.”