(2022) Sabine Hossenfelder, Atlantic Books, £16.99, hrdbk, xvi + 248pp, ISBN 978-1-838-95035-4
The author is a Research Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, where she leads a group studying quantum gravity. She is also a science communicator. To put it another way, she is a professional in the field of physics and likes explaining it. It is not surprising therefore that this book is subtitled A Scientist’s Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions. The main text runs to 226 pages and is followed by a four-page Glossary, eight pages of Notes, and a ten-page Index.
This is far from being a physics text book, as is implied by its title of Existential Physics. The author takes us beyond the simple physics itself to ask what it means in the grand scale of things, and then discusses her opinions on these matters - and she certainly has opinions. We are spared the mathematics, which makes the book much more readable, and concentrates on the meaning. To be fully followed, many of the discussions require a good knowledge of all the current established theories and latest research so many readers will be better off simply accepting them (as you would when watching one of Prof. Brian Cox’s TV documentaries). For those who want to look further, the Notes contain very brief explanations and suggestions for further reading.
Due to the nature of the book, it is probably easiest to go through the ideas it discusses simply by looking at the chapter titles. These are: ‘Does the past still exist?’, ‘How did the universe begin? How will it end?’, ‘Why doesn’t anyone ever get younger?’, ‘Are you just a bag of atoms?’, ‘Do copies of us exist?’, ‘Has physics ruled out free will?’, ‘Was the universe made for us?’, ‘Does the universe think?’, ‘Are humans predictable?’, and finally the epilogue ‘What’s the purpose of anything anyway?’. To explain any further would simply be to précis whole parts of the book - and you would be better off reading these for yourselves.
Interspersed between the ten chapters are four interviews to add further thoughts to her discussions. They are ‘Is math all there is?’ with Tim Palmer (a climate scientist at the University of Oxford), ‘Is knowledge predictable?’ with David Deutsch (an expert on quantum computers and writer of science books), ‘Is consciousness computable?’ with Roger Penrose (emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford), and ‘Can we create a universe?’ with Zeeya Merali (a science journalist). All told, I thought these added little to the book; indeed, given that she often disagreed with her interviewees, I was left wondering why they were there - perhaps simply to illustrate that opinions are divided? However, if opinions are so divided, these interviews did not help strengthen her case. Furthermore, when describing her interviewees and setting the scene, she had a tendency to describe them in ways that were a little less than flattering; indeed, one could almost say that her comments could be a little snide (which I thought was poor writing).
Existential Physics is, well, an existential discussion and thus a collection of thoughts and theories, none of which can be proven as such though equally they cannot be disproven, which makes the whole thing an interesting discussion of many aspects of the universe. She describes some of the ideas she discusses as being scientific (backed by clear scientific examination), some as unscientific (there is no science at all), and others as a scientific (science neither explains nor disproves them). I thought the questions she asked (as per the chapter titles) were very interesting but, whilst there was much interesting material in the book, she did not always provide answers that wholly convinced me. By keeping things simple (no boring, mind-boggling mathematics), which I greatly appreciated, it sometimes left me feeling as if she was glossing over something in an attempt to get straight to her point. Much of what she discussed and the explanations she described were very interesting yet I have heard them explained elsewhere and, in my opinion, a little better. Perhaps it is due to the comments from others that are quoted on the cover but I somehow expected a little more than I got. I felt it concluded nothing startling, though it did gently disprove some of the more popular ideas put about by non-scientists and articles in certain newspapers.
Sadly, I did not finish the book with such thoughts as ‘wow, that’s woken me up and given the universe a new meaning’, more one of polite but unexcited general interest. Did it do much for me? Not as much as I had hoped. Did it go into enough of the science to satisfy a philosopher - well, you would have to ask the philosopher. As for writers of SF, I think that, whilst perhaps appreciating the science, they will continue to interpret possibilities for the sake of the story; as the author herself says, there is much that cannot be disproven. The author has written articles for a number of magazines and papers and has many followers on YouTube; as they already follow her, this book will likely go down well with them. And for those with some knowledge of physics and a desire to delve further, it has interesting things to say, even if some are self-confessed conjecture.
As I have indicated, this book did less for me than I had hoped. One quote on the cover describes the author as ‘part gonzo journalist’ and thereby may lie the problem. It is something about her writing that fails to carry me along; it sometimes feels to be too much about ‘me’ and at the expense of dispassion, and dispassion is something I require of science. To cherry-pick, and without context, a couple of quotes from the publisher’s website: ‘Ms. Hossenfelder is sometimes a little too opinionated’ and ‘You might agree with her. You might not. ’
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