Sunday, September 09, 2018

I’m now older than my father has ever been

Old photo.
My father died a few weeks shy of his 42nd birthday. Went to bed one night, didn’t wake up the next morning. The death certificate says heart failure. Family gossip says it was a history of clinical depression that led to obesity and heavy drinking. They tell me I take after him. They may not be entirely wrong.

I’ve had troubles with my blood pressure ever since I was a teenager. I also have fainting episodes. One time I infamously passed out on a plane as it was approaching the runway. The pilot had to cancel take-off and call an ambulance. Paramedics carried me off the plane, wheeled me away, and then kept me in the hospital for a week. While noteworthy for the trouble I had getting hold of a bag that traveled without me, this was neither the first nor the last time my blood pressure suddenly gave in for no particular reason. I’ve been on the receiving end of epinephrine shots more than once.

Besides being a constant reminder that life is short, having a close relative who died young from heart failure has also added a high-risk stamp to my medical documents. This blessed me with countless extra exams thanks to which I now know exactly that some of my heart valves don’t properly close and the right chambers are enlarged. I also have a heart arrhythmia.

My doctors say I’m healthy, which really means they don’t know what’s wrong with me. Maybe I just have a fickle vagus nerve that pulls the plug every once in a while. Whatever the cause of my indisposition, I’ve spent most of my life in the awareness that I may not wake up tomorrow.

Today I woke up to find I reached the end of my subconscious life-expectation. In two weeks I’ll turn 42. I have checked off almost all boxes on my to-do list for life. Plant a tree, have a child, write a book. The only unchecked item is visiting New Zealand. But besides this, folks, I feel like I’m done here.

And what the heck do I do now with the rest of my life?

I didn’t really think about this until a few people asked what I plan on doing now that my book has been published. My current contract will run out next year, and then what? Will I write another book? Apply for another grant? Do something entirely different? To which my answer was, I have no idea. Ask me anything about quantum gravity and I may have a smarter reply.

I worry about the future, of course, constantly. Oh yes, I am a great worrier. But the future I worry about is not mine, it’s that of mankind. I’m just a blip in the symphony, a wheel in the machinery, a node in a giant information-processing network. Science, to me, is our collective attempt to accurately understand the laws of nature. It’s not about me, it’s not about you, it’s about us; it’s about whether the human race will last or whether we’re just too dumb to figure out how the world works.

Some days I am optimistic, but today I fear we are too dumb. Interactions of humans in large groups have consequences that we do not intuitively grasp, a failure that underlies not only twitter witch-hunts and viral fake news, but is also the reason why science works so inefficiently. I’m not sure we can fix this. Scientists have known for decades that the pressure to work on topics that produce results quickly and that are well-cited supports the widespread use of bad methodologies. But they do nothing about it except for the occasional halfhearted complaint.

Unsurprisingly, taxpayers who are financing research-bubbles with zero return on investment have taken cue. Some of them conclude, not entirely incorrectly, that much of the scientific enterprise is corrupt and conclusions cannot be trusted. If we carry on like this, science skeptics are bound to become more numerous. And that’s how it will end, the great human civilization: Not with a bang and not with a whimper, but with everyone yelling at each other that someone else was responsible to do something about it.

And if not even scientists can learn that social feedback influences their decisions, how can we expect the same of people who have not been trained to objectively evaluate evidence? Most scientists still believe their enterprise is governed by an invisible hand that will miraculously set things right should they go astray. They believe science self-corrects. Hahaha. It does not, of course. Someone, somewhere, has to actually do the correcting. Someone has to stand up and say: “This isn’t good science. We shouldn’t do this. Stop it.” Hence my book.

I used to think old people must hate all younger people because who wouldn’t rather be young. Now that I’ve reached a certain age myself I find the opposite is true. Not only am I relieved that my hyperactive brain is slowing down, making it much easier for me to focus on one thing at a time. I also love young people. They give me hope, hope that I lost in my own generation. Kids, I know you inherit a mess. I am sorry. Now hand me the wine.

But getting older also has an awkward side, which is that younger people ask me for advice. Worse, I get invited to speak about my experience as a woman in science. I am supposed to be a role model now, you see, I am supposed to encourage young women to follow my footsteps. If only I had something encouraging to say; if only those footsteps would lead elsewhere than nowhere. I decline these invitations. My advice, ladies, is to find your own way. And keep in mind, life is short.

Today’s advice to myself is to come up with an idea how I’ll make a living next year. But after two weeks of travel, 4 lectures and 2 interviews, with a paper and an essay and two blogposts squeezed in between, I am only tired. I have also quite possibly had a glass of wine too much.

Maybe I’ll make a plan tomorrow, first thing when I wake up. If I wake up.


Unknown said...

Sabine, take heart. Do remember what Douglas Adams revealed: "The answer to life, the universe, and everything is 42."

doktor Boktor said...

That's touching. You are among the exceedingly small group of people who ever lived to learn something about quantum gravity, the pinnacle of human insight into nature. I hope you may long be able to enlighten and inspire the rest of us. Humanity is on a dangerous path, but we have no better option than to offer our own best efforts. Giving the right example is more effective than giving advice.

Eagle Tree said...


Matthew Rapaport said...

Quite an essay Dr. H., though this time I am inclined to address you more intimately as Sabine. You cannot control what your genetics gives you but as concerns health you are wise enough (it would seem) to do the best you can with what you are given. You don't smoke (??), keep weight under control, exercise (??). Your husband has a career and decent income (??), you are loved by family and friends. You are in a much better position than many others on this world. The next gig, or book, or artistic endeavor will come along in time. You don't need to stress over it. You are not one to become bored.

Judy said...

When in this mood, which happens to most of us, the only solution is to do what comes next, and to realize that the unrelieved gloom is a symptom and not, in fact, the unbiased truth. Look what happened only in the past couple of decades. They found the Higgs. They detected gravitational waves. Many kinds of cancer are under control. The US had an African American president (in this mood, better ignore the present one, but that too should pass.) These are amazing things. We all have these attacks but they're just that. Attacks.

Bill said...

Bless you always, dear woman. Your post went straight to my heart. And bless your girls and your husband as well.

I don't always agree with your ideas and opinions (I still don't believe in dark matter), but I bought and read your book and I am far the better for it. Thank you for sharing your views on a major problem with today's physics. Keep writing and working and blogging.

And a glass or two of wine is good for you.

David Lambert said...

Like doktor Boktor, I am also touched.
You care about humanity. Out of that care, out of that love, you have made the effort to be well-informed about the state of humanity. Being well-informed, you see what could work better but does not, and that is painful to a person who cares.
I give you my empathy. You are not alone in your pain, many many people share it. I wish I could forgive humanity for it imperfections, but I'm not good at forgiving. Maybe you are.

David Lambert said...

Private note: you're tired. It might help to get some rest and to spend some quality time with your loved ones. Thank you for sharing.

ELiddell said...

These are lovely, poignant, melancholy and oh so human thoughts, Sabine. Thank you for such candor and for sharing the real wisdom you have acquired in spite of 42 not being that terrifically old and in spite of self-doubts about the accumulated value of any knowledge at all. As someone who just crossed the half century mark, I certainly share your sense of the marginal added serenity that growing older brings, and your appreciation of younger people in turn. But I for one feel I have so much more still to do. Having spent (what I hope will turn out to be) the first half of my adult life as a teacher, including most recently many interdisciplinary courses on 'the search for meaning,' I still need to find new ways to learn more, and learn anew. For me this practically speaking means not just scholarship or reading or teaching, but traveling ad interacting directly and openly and curiously with individual people. I've spent so much time travelling in my mind, across time and cultural spaces, that in spite of built up wanderlust I haven't wandered far and wide enough, I fear. So, to start, I'm heading back to Italy next summer (though to teach as well as do my own explorations) and continuing to improve my Italian in anticipation. I always thought I'd write one good book sometime, but it hasn't come yet. But it may, the cosmos permitting, as I hope it will.

I recall Alan Guth having said at some point, 'the university may be the ultimate free lunch.' Let's enjoy the buffet.

I hope your upcoming trip to the US won't be too taxing. Certainly, we at EKU are really looking forward to hosting you and to whatever you want to share with us in your Chautauqua lecture!

Erik L.

Maarten Havinga said...

The future of mankind is not something you can do much about, it's up to everyone equally much. I think the earth will perish sometime, but my belief is that something of good persons like you will remain eternally. Nothing is unimportant, yet humanity will always be offered new chances I believe. How many geniuses weren't respected until after their lives? I'm thinking of J. S. Bach, for instance. I'm sure there are more examples. Who knows how many more years you might receive?

Filippo Salustri said...

Beautiful post. Definitely helps people understand "scientists are people too." And that could well be your legacy: helping the world understand that we're all just people and scientists have something important to contribute, and not just in the fields in which they practice.

I'm 56. I lost my dad 10 years ago, and my mom 2 years later. He was 91. Believe me, there's no good age to lose a parent. But it's inevitable. I'm sure he would be very proud of you.

You have a real talent for science communication, and the impact of science on society, and bringing a science-oriented view to everyday matters. If you're looking for things to do, take Einstein to heart, as I do: “I do not share your view that the scientist should observe silence in political matters.” There is a significant and global need for more rationality and evidence-based reasoning, now more than ever. I believe you could be a powerful force for good in that way.

Rudy Siegel said...

A beautiful, honest, frank read. Thank you, Sabine.

However, let me suggest that you accept those presentation invitations from the young women. Report your experiences, successes -- and your concerns. These are the fruit of your experience. It is the equivalent of publishing your research findings.

Don't let this important information be lost in the black hole of silence.

Let the reporting of your learning and concerns be among your contributions back to humanity. Who knows when the last night of humanity may fall!

Do it from empathy, if nothing else.

Here's is what philosopher Huston Smith tells us about the Confucian sense of empathy. Note the breadth of it's impact and the timeless aspect of its wisdom.

Bill Brockman said...

Your book taught me more about the subjects of discussion than I knew before. As an interested layman, I found it very understandable. Thank you!

Gregory said...

Soldier on !
Hell, I'm 77 & share some of your skeptical thoughts. You can have a whole career as a science journalist of specialized interests. Or far more.

MikeDG said...

Well done Sabine! Keep going. I enjoy your blog. Maybe you will learn more about what it means to be human in the next phase

pete best said...

Every generation gets close to the cliff like the bacteria that multiply consuming all of the resources and then they all die. Science and technology rather than helping us avoid the cliff and perhaps accelerating us towards it and our superior intelligence does not appear to want to address it either as much as we should be. The economy relies of consumption and the more rampant it is the more the economy grows so it is all good as far as our models of prosperity go. However we know that our current levels of consumption are not sustainable and hence as no one appears to change their behavior we rely once more on science and technology to save us from science and technology.

Koenraad Van Spaendonck said...

Hello Sabine,

If more professionals would share such a human side of themselves on a public platform, we'd spend far less time on keeping up appearances, and more on inspiring.

I recently read a quote somewhere :
' Ask yourself, who are you when no one is watching '.
Sometimes I do that, and it helps you define what goals to set.

But then on a more frivolous day, I just shout the words of Maximus Decimus Meridius ' What we do in this life, echoes in eternity ! ' haha.

Best, Koenraad

qsa said...

Whatever you do do it for the fun of it, don't take existence seriously it is nothing(pun intended).

Dan Dill said... Zealand!

JimV said...

Well, you're not alone in most of those feelings, of course, not that that is much consolation. Despite the personal and societal problems, you've done a lot that allows the rest of us to maintain some pride in the human race, and some hope for the future.

(I've always thought a book of your essays would be great. Maybe a mixture of light and dark topics because I enjoy the light ones but we need to think about what we are doing wrong also.)

Lawrence Crowell said...

I have a decade ahead of you. I will say that I have found largely happiness in life is not found in grand plans, schemes and desires to own things or get rich and so forth. Largely it comes in making little moments that have some element of joy. With my children now largely grown up happiness more comes with my dogs. I own three dogs, rather sizable too, I rescued off the streets and they are my little loves and joys. Last night I was with some people and a little male dog came up and had the body language that said, “Help, I am abandoned and lost.” In the moment it was not possible to take him, and I sort of regret not taking this little dog. If you give your heart to a dog that dog will give its heart to you. That is one way I find day to day moments of happiness.

It is not possible to say where we will go with science. It is possible we may have some “last chance power drive,” to quote Springsteen, and quantum gravity will yield some great result or better a set of them so we have at least some proximal idea of these foundational matters. On the other hand it might become mired in greater obscurantism, lack of clarity and nests of quibbles and we get nowhere. I am not a big exponent on the idea of the end of science, but on the other hand to quote George Harrison, “All things must pass.” At some point it seems plausible that science will end, or if not end become secondary to some other social-cultural construct.

There are other matters as well, such as outlined by Jared Diamond in Easter's End that is compelling, even if now it is known some of it is exaggerated. We are on track with the Club of Rome projection. This was a computer model that prognosticated a cratering in or implosion of the global economy and civilization in the mid 21st century. We humans are converting everything naturally occurring on Earth into trash, and we are going to become buried in this while at the same time we run out of the resources to continue. It is interesting to notice the huge outcry against these concerns that have captured the political world. As I see it this and the likes of Donald Trump are chaos similar to the frantic neural activity of the brain while the internal organs are ceasing to function with the onset of death.

Beyond that grim note, these things have a while before they take shape. It is best not to worry too much about them. Just as nobody cried over the end of T-rex nothing is concerned about the fate of us humans. Ultimately existence has no purpose and then appears absurd as it clashes with our preconceived ideas about things. So the only thing to do is to get beyond Camus' angst over whether to commit suicide and largely live life for the moment. There really is not much else to do. Take what comes from the big world at large in stride and find joy in the little things.

Ray Hinde said...

You touch the lives of so many people, myself included. If you decide you want to keep writing next year we'll still be reading.

Ian Miller said...

As someone who lives in New Zealand, and is somewhat older, I can say that yes, New Zealand is a really neat place, but it is hardly the end of the world if you don't make it. About your age I had this great idea and set out to chase it. It didn't work out and since then I have had to live by my wits, which gives a new perspective to being at wits end. However, I can also say that I have survived that, and worrying did absolutely nothing constructive, but planning sort of helped. Stick with it, and I wish you the best of luck.

Bruce Rout said...

An outstanding and moving post. Thank you.

naivetheorist said...


dont let your uncertain health get you down. when i turned 45, i was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and told that i had no more than 5 years to live. that was in 1993, 25 years ago. Doctors understand much less about how the human body works than foundational physicists understand how the universe works and their predictive abiliity is nearly as bad.

naive theorist

MBenson said...

Hello Sabine. I don't think the universe requires us to understand it. If we mange to become good and wise beings, the universe doesn't care. If we run about like ninnies killing ourselves and our very expendable planet, the universe doesn't care. If we learn this or that about dark matter, it is only for our benefit, not the universes'. What matters is that we get outside ourselves and help others, to the extent possible in our individual lives. It seems you've done that admirably, I think. I enjoy your blog, even though I'm not a scientist, and I enjoyed your book as well.

Unknown said...

We are story telling creatures. That’s how we understand the world and ourselves. Ive noticed that when we get older or when we reach our expected expiration date as you have, then we feel the impulse to summarize our lives to others and come to some conclusion. We feel that we must tie up loose ends for our audience and make things tidy. That’s all that’s happening here. No worries, this is quite normal. Maybe even ordinary. Thing is to push on now. Push through this firewall and to begin telling a new and different story. Tomorrow begins from this very point. The story of the rest of your life. What comes next? Do tell. And take care.

Mostafa said...

It's been years since I last read your blog, and I had forgotten how beautifully you write.
Happy early 42nd! I wish us many more years of healthy you and your great creations.

S Allen said...

It's the 1% (or less) of people like yourself who carry the whole species forward. The vast majority of people on the planet probably have no idea what quantum gravity even is. We can't have everything we want in the genetic lottery, so feel blessed to have the abilities you do, and please don't despair...we very much researchers and theorists continuing to do what they do best! What is unifying quantum and classical gravity leads to a new energy or propulsion technology that saves us from nuclear (or other) destruction? My vote is to continue working on black holes and a Theory of Everything!

Sandy Cameron said...

Dr H, best wishes, happy birthday, have one more glass of wine and remember, good wine is proof that the universe loves us (a misquote of Ben Franklin). I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts.

Friar said...

Dr. Hossenfelder --

I'm going to presume your interest in quantum gravity wasn't born into you, but was acquired or developed through different encounters and circumstances that piqued your curiosity and interest. You may be able to pinpoint how and when it happened, or it may have been much more subtle and at some point you just knew yourself to be fascinated by those phenomena and moved to pursue their study. Perhaps the interest that fuels the next phase for you -- whatever it is -- will come the same way? I would hope so and look forward to seeing what it is.

BadWolf said...

What a beautiful woman you are.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Thanks everyone for the kind words, much appreciated <3

Unknown said...

Truly amazing, just speechless after reading this.
Thank you, Dr. Sabine.

bud rap said...


When your sense of mortality rises suddenly before you, stare it down with one steely eye while keeping the other defiantly focused on the merry fact that you are not dead yet. Carry on, in every sense of that exhortation, and have a Happy Birthday!

Unknown said...


Your attitude shows that you are in line to become an "Elder Statesman of Science" - so hang in there for a bit longer, we need thinkers like you if humanity is to to improve.
And.. Have a Good Birthday!


John Fredsted said...

Thanks for a surprisingly personal blog post; I cannot remember ever having seen a scientist blog like that.

Luckily, I have no serious physical illnesses myself, at least not as of yet, even though I have just turned 50 this year. But I certainly have a tendency to melancholia. My upbringing has not installed in me any great expectations of being worth loving, this, I guess, being largely responsible for me having today no wife, no children, and only very few friends, and generally living quite a withdrawn life.

But the real source of my melancholia is the messy, irrational make up of biological life, comprising both humans and nature. Today I have reached the viewpoint where I no longer feel that life as it 'functions' deserves to be taken voluntarily serious; I find it just too ugly: far too often, stupidity and aggression prevails. But life, of course, forces one to take it seriously, as otherwise all sorts of (extra) misery will soon hit you.

But as a physicist, although unemployed, I find solace in the mathematical order and beauty (the latter possibly leading me astray :-)) of the laws of Nature. Their complete independence of the turmoil of life is to me a fixed point of reference, a spiritual (not religious) anchor to me, the boyancy of which usually holds my head above troubled water.

Unknown said...

Insanity comes with the devotion to science; see Mad Scientist references throughout history!! But like you I am finding mid life quite a joy; even though you still have a rough time to come in your life with the menopause/mid life crises thing (it happens to men too!!!) but with the right diet and exercise you should make it to late forties which can be a really cool time.
On the science scene (I am not a official scientist) I can only say I am appalled at the amount of bullshit passed of as fact. I find if you concentrate your efforts at the education of the youngest (high school and freshman) as to proper procedures; data collection; boundaries etc is the best you can do; but you will find they go in to a research lab all eager and proper only to be told "...this is not how we do it here ; now here is how to bullshit the grant providers..."

Tanner said...

Your two girls need you around. That bucket list is have and RAISE a child...

Happy Birthday ��

Alsolami said...

Hi sabine, I want you to stay strong as I find you in your book (Lost in math), the scientific community needs people like you to correct the path of science.
Please be strong sabine.

Something else I want you to consider in, I am a believer man, I found that very helpful in my life, and I don't know how to introduce my religion (Islam) to you because as I am a lover of science I don't care about muslims numbers, I need you to hear from who introduced himself as a God and every decision is up to you.
Sabine, some times I feel I am alone, I came to the life and will leave it alone, who is me and what is this shortcut if the story? Even in my religion I didn't find all the answers that I am searching for, but I found a mind to talk to him.
I don't care if you prove this comment, this comment is for you, and if you allow this comment to appear the public that's from your kindness .
Thanks sabine.

Here the book of the God translated in English language on YouTube.

Kay said...

Hallo Sabine,

an a bit anticipated "Glueckwuensch fuer Geburtstag"!
You look in a pessimistic mood...are you having the feared middle-life crisis?
I'm actually going through it...I'm also a physicist, I have also twins, I also work on stuff
not far from yours....and I live not too far away from you!
Ah yes..I have your age too.
Things will get better by themself I guess.
As for science, I'm not worried at all. I think we are living in times where new clear experimental
facts are lacking. If we will discover something, this will straighten up all the mess people did
in the past 20 years or so. Then you never discuss that there is a lot of other stuff besides fundamental physics.
I find exciting (just to cite an example) all the quantum materials stuff people are investigating today. No new physics but great applications.
What to do next year? Two crazy suggestions:
1) Pick the best of your blog (there is a lot, even this post) and use it to write a new book...a kind of scientific biography.
2) If jobless, come to do a post-doc here. With the S-Bahn is not too far ;)

I really like your humor...I find it very witty, very smart, and very german ;)
All the best and keep up with this great blog, at least.

lagunastreets said...

Don't smoke, don't eat processed foods, RIDE A BIKE. You know the drill.
Heppi Birs-Day! -Les

Lying sweetly said...


When I was 43, my wife and I didn’t know what to do, so we moved to Japan! After being there some months there was a knock on the door. It was the Japanese branch of the Jehovah’s witnesses (apparently they are everywhere). I listened to their opening spiel and then explained that I didn’t think they would have much luck with knocking on doors. I told them that in my life experience there’s not much you can tell people that has a real and lasting impact. My conclusion was that the best way you can influence people was by the example of your own life, lived openly so that others could see it. You seem to be doing that.

How we had gotten to Japan was that we made a left turn, one in a series of such throughout our lives. We had both been fascinated with Japan life long. So, with about 30 words of Japanese in our vocabulary, we decided to go. The six or so people at my door listened carefully, as the Japanese do. I told them I did not expect to change their behavior, because that was under their control. They seemed to be impressed, but I know that that impression can be very misleading. They wanted to ‘follow’ me and so I explained, again, that in my experience that wouldn’t work, that they each needed to follow their own instincts. Anyway, we lived there six very pleasant years and then made another left turn. Then another and another. We have sailed our own boat through the Med and then across the Atlantic. Everything we did, every left turn we made, was done with no money.

My “advice”, which I do know will have little to no effect on anyone else, is make left turns, lots of them. All I can tell you is that if you are smart (you are) and if you are sensitive (you are), you can make it all work out just as though you had planned it that way.

Uncle Al said...

"almost all boxes on my to-do list" Heal physics.

"visiting New Zealand" I put message bottles into the oceans by proxy. If you will be eastern offshore Christchurch, ride a message bottle or two into the future. Bottle #1064 is next. 2011 Barrow, Alaska to 2018 Iceland and Scotland is not “impossible." It is 8%.

"a blip in the symphony" Blips are consequential. Melanie Schnell's microwave rotational spectrometry, Markus Arndt's matter diffraction, a crafted molecule or two, a credible physicist. Quantum mechanics can fail. Straight through, the Equivalence Principle can fail. Symphonic orchestras feature cymbals.

"If I wake up" Given failed 400,000 theorist-years, Zildjian physics. Everybody wakes up. Even if life is meaningless, high scores matter.

Louis Tagliaferro said...

Talking about your mortality I was surprised you didn't mention your most important responsibility, raising and preparing your girls to make their own way as adults with the benefit of your experiences.

SRP said...

You have the knack for being interesting, which is valuable in a world where attention is scarce and words proliferate. Your words have weight because they are honest and incisive, because they serve to illuminate and entertain, and because they express a peer relationship with the reader, neither flattering nor talking down to him.

So no matter what happens in your scientific quest, there will be a non-trivial group following your journey and your reflections.

Unknown said...


Thank you for your book, thank you for your blog.
Take the next step: Stop worrying about the mankind. Let it get what it deserves.
You cannot stop the Universe expanding, accelerated or not.
Why do you think you can change the mankind's way's?

Cheers, - and GOOD wine, - only!

Rob van Son (Not a physicist, just an amateur) said...

"I used to think old people must hate all younger people because who wouldn’t rather be young. Now that I’ve reached a certain age myself I find the opposite is true. "

I am older than you by more than a decade (scientist, always on temporary projects, but I simply love the work).

I feel more compassion for young people the older I get. Like every generation, they will have to clean up the damage done by their parents and grandparents. And they will make the same mistakes again.

David Schroeder said...

Very sad to hear about the loss of your dad when he was at such a relatively young age, at a time when you must have been very young, maybe not even a teenager. It's no wonder that you have anxiety over your own health, at what most of us consider a quite youthful age bracket. By the looks of your photos you're quite slim, so that's a big plus for health. And, as my maternal grandmother was fond of saying something to the effect: 'a glass of wine a day keeps the doctor away'. She lived to 94. Here's wishing you and your family good health far into the future.

"My current contract will run out next year, and then what?" Considering how interesting and important is the work that you, and people like you, conduct it's a shame that more government funding isn't available. In that regard I always think of the admonition of president Eisenhower on excessive military spending to the detriment of the civilian sector. Hopefully, the paranoia driving this second arms race, after all the good work that Reagan and Gorbachev did to defuse the first arms race, will subside, allowing more funding for science not directly linked to military weaponry.

Unknown said...

Bless you Sabine. You're an inspiration to us all.

B. Gaulke said...

Hello Sabine. Sorry to hear about your health issues. I don't know if my situation is related or not, but I passed out in class in my senior year (physics at the University of Washington). Since then I have learned that I have an unusual form of epilepsy which causes my heart to stop. I now have a pacemaker and take anti-epileptic medication, but am otherwise living a normal life.

Brian Gaulke

Rick Ryals said...

If you haven't already try scuba diving,Sabine there is a whole nother amazing world to visit I'll even teach you if you'd like and it is a great way to forget about all of those things that bother you in the other world... :)

jeffry said...

you are open to many possibilities and that is great. it's ok to be a bit confused when you come to a decision point. that's what decision points are for.

i've been enjoying your blog for some time in spite of my very limited knowledge of the areas you discuss. i think it always worth reading what you have to say, and i do not have that opinion of many writers.

i can't speak to your medical concerns, but i have no doubt of your psychological strength and intelligence. i look forward to reading your posts for as long as choose to create them.

you did not believe you would outlive your father. so everything from here forward is bonus time! this newfound freedom is a bit of a surprise, and somewhat disorienting. i am sure you will use it well. everything you write bespeaks the vibrant life within you.

and the un-lived life is not worth examining.

Unknown said...

Dear Dr. Hossenfelder,

the "black dog" hits everyone from time to time. Don't let it get you down. Toscanini outlived every doctor who diagnosed his cough; with modern medicine you will probably live to be 80 or more. So hang on and do know that everyone out here is cheering for you.

Jon Orloff
Rockaway Beach, Oregon

PS Love your book

Jeff said...

Thank you for writing about yourself. And for refusing to fall in line with the ethic that everything we put on line must be rosy.

If you stop and think about it, evolution is never able to prepare a species for massive success. Massive success radically changes the environment in which the species evolved, most likely making them a bad fit. The difference this time is that we're capable of worrying about it. The oxygen-producing single celled creatures that killed off all the anaerobes earlier in history were not.

Bhupinder Singh Anand said...

Dear Sabine,

It was by fortuitous accident that I picked up 'All Passion Spent' in the late sixties. Not my preferred reading at the time. The very first paragraph was compelling; enough to read the book till the end.

I learnt an invaluable lesson: The passion to realise one's potential is never spent; merely clouded by emotion. Just needs stoking, occasionally stroking, to discover that which has always lurked, and will always lurk, just beyond the horizon.

A few years later I discovered Danton's stirring appreciation of this, which you so uncompromisingly epitomise:

"L'audace, encore de l'audace, et toujours l'audace".

Inspirational, indeed!

Thanks for sharing.

Enrico said...

What to do next? Deploy your creative writing skill. Write a new genre of science fiction. Most science fictions today are pure fantasy. Teach real science by telling fantastic stories. Examples: Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” is a mind-bending story of the paradoxes of time travel. Carl Sagan’s Contact became a Hollywood movie starring Jodie Foster who played the leading role. Sagan based the main character from the real life of SETI astronomer Jill Tarter. He even consulted Nobel laureate physicist Kip Thorne in the design of the time machine in the book.

Another creative writing style is mixing history and fiction in one book. James Michener’s Space did this trick. It’s the real-life story of Werner von Braun from WW2 to the space race in the 1950s and ‘60s. But Michener injected fictional characters in the book to make the story more exciting. Finally there’s Frank Tipler’s Physics of Immortality. It’s fiction but it has a lot of interesting discussion of science since Tipler is a Professor of physics and contributed to general relativity. The book has an Appendix for Scientists, which shows calculations and equations like a textbook. It’s a relativistic version of Divine Comedy. Fantasy and physics combined.

Science fiction is more lucrative than pure science books. Promote your books in Hollywood. Give it away for free. If they turn your book into a movie, book sales will increase. Good luck!

David Schroeder said...

"I used to think old people must hate all younger people because who wouldn’t rather be young." As I groggily read that line yesterday afternoon, after a long drive home from a Connecticut casino, in the back of my mind I was thinking - 'Oh, she must be referring to people in their 70's and 80's', scarcely imagining it was early 40's. Ironically, 'youngsters', like my brothers and I, take inspiration from local celebrities like octogenarian Willem Lange who still hikes the mountains of New England. My twin and I are soon to be 73, while our older brother recently turned 74. While people in their 30's and 40's must imagine such an age to be quite over the hill, in reality it's not that old, as long as one takes care of one's health - good diet, exercise, moderation in all things. My brothers and I don't think twice about an impromptu hike, on the spur of the moment, up one of New England's numerous peaks. Indeed, just a week, or so, ago we climbed Mt. Ascutney in Vermont, easily scaling the 1000 meter peak. We're also planning to climb the highest peak in New England, Mt. Washington, soon, before the weather closes in. Due to a heart valve that doesn't close completely (heart murmer) I do run short of breath sooner than other people. Despite being born with this condition, it doesn't deter me from riding along with 30 and 40 something cyclists in our local bike club with tons of vertical climbing in this mountainous region of New Hampshire, racking up approximately 2000 miles a season.

Since Monday was a holiday, and my twin brother had it off from his substitute teaching job, his wife managed to book a free overnight room at Foxwoods casino. While there we played some penny machines, that had a top prize, that is approaching 1.4 million dollars for thousands of linked machines nationwide. Should I ever hit that jackpot, I will send a nice chunk of it to Sabine, no strings attached, to help finance her research.

When one is down in the doldrums a song that I find particularly uplifting is a remix of Enya's awesome "Echos in Rain" on Youtube. The video part has spectacular views of the vast diversity of landscapes and life that inhabits our little blue marble, from a cute little seahorse traversing a kelp forest to a flyover of a South American tepui.

My twin brother and his wife and daughter visited New Zealand the summer before last, and absolutely loved it. They had a personal hiking guide that took them through the local forests, took an airplane ride through a spectacular fjord, and their daughter did a bunjee jump somewhere, with her parents being somewhat apprehensive.

Denis Boers said...

Dear dr.Hossenfelder,

Just being yourself already is quite a contribution you make to science and to the world. Also, the girls, and Stefan, need you.And science needs a conscience, you didn't ask for that role, but you got it anyway.

As for you - where to find the strength to go on ?
Well, maybe life isn't a " to do" list. Do dive into your heart, see wat it was that kept you alive, and soon you'll see that there's more of that to be had. No, not only New Zealand, that won't do.

It may take a couple of months, but you'll get in touch with your inner strength. And you'll find that, yes, there is enough to go on. For how long ? None of us know how long they've got. But make it count. OK, you won't get tenure. But I guarantee there's more to life than that. 99.999 ... % of humanity doesn't have tenure, which doesn't disqualify them from being worthwhile people ! And about solving all te problems of humanity : hey ! you're only human. And that has to be enough,and is enough.

Your task, now, seems to be : to accept that you are who you are. Sabine Hossenfelder, woman, wife, mother, scientist ... in whatever order, but not God Almighty ! And, as you can see, there are plenty of people around here who believe you are quite OK, as you are.

When you will have reached that inner strength, then you can make your new "to do" list or plan.Don't put the carriage before the horses ;-)

With best wishes,


Denis Boers said...

By the way, did you stay in touch with Christine Cordula Dantas from Theorema Egregium ?
Maybe you 2 have something to discuss ?



marten said...

September 18 is the shortest natural day of the year and the birthday of my late very nice father-in-law.

Denis Boers said...

This may help too:

Best ,


Qugyuk said...

Condolences to you, Sabine about your papa.

I lost my mother this summer, and my father a few years before and have been reflecting on what the loss of my parents has on me psychologically. I called my uncle (not blood related, but an uncle nonetheless), and he said welcome to being an adult. I understood his meaning, I am now it. I am the father, and I have no father to go to.

It caused for me intense self-reflection about myself. Whether or not I was up to the task, and because I am up to the task it never made it past the internal questioning. I am it. I am the end of the line.

Of course, there are still people I turn to but for the most part I drink back into myself the flames that break free from me.

I went to Aoteroa, if you ever go I heavily suggest you find some way to make yourself a guest of the Maori. I know a few that work at the universities (Canterbury and Otago) if you would like an introduction, although I'm certain one already knows of you.

Perhaps there, and in the context I suggest, you can find the answers you seek wrt to Science.

k-froe said...


No advice.
Thank you for letting us see into you. Wishing you and yours the very best through the challenging times. Been there, and know what it's like.

Anthony Verbalis said...

I just found your book in the library yesterday. I think it will be very interesting and informational.

I am a person who put in a few years as a physics grad student many years ago. The prevailing mentality of "shut up and calculate" at that time was not entirely agreeable to me. I maintain an interest in physics, especially quantum physics interpretations. Little wonder that I skipped to that chapter in your book when I started to read it.

Very interesting to me was that Steven Weinberg said that he could live with a theory that says that when "particles move around, there's a certain probability that it will go here, there, or the other place." His issues were with other aspects of the theory. But for me, that remains the central issue, with one of three possible possible interpretations: Hidden variables, or a random number generator built into the Universe, or a non-physicalist causative agent. I admit I lean towards #3.

Otherwise, I don't see how a certain amount of free will can be present in our behavior. It is perhaps unfashionable these days to believe that a certain amount of free will co-exists with determinism. But one thing I am sure of. If we didn't believe that we had some free will in our daily actions, the world would be the worse for it.

As far as the connection between physical law and beauty, I am still agnostic about that. Certainly many physical laws are beautiful. What I object to these days is the proliferation of theories which are untestable even in principle. Yes, many-worlds theory, I am looking straight at you.

Unknown said...

Being a mother to a toddler, late last night in a bout of sleeplessness, angst and selfーpity I was going to post on FB or somewhere, something personal along the lines of "People warn how you cannot shape or control your child's life as you would like to. For me it is the extent to which one might be able to which scares me, and weighs down as a responsibility." and as I sat down to post I read an interview given by a mother of a 36 year old autistic man, saying how every parent of an autistic child wishes she could die one day later than the child. Somehow it stopped me from posting anything.

I think we are OK Sabine.

There is a Korean film which came out in 2005 called Marathon which the mother in the interview was based on.

As an early happy birthday present for you I ordered the book for me. I know that the Germans don't abide by early happy birthday wishes but just to let you know.

In fact this might be the best way to sell books, I will remember that in case I write one in the future. I have been hesitating to buy your book and reading this post made me press Jetzt Kaufen.

sean s. said...


Your essay is quite moving for me, especially since I just lost a sibling to an unexpected death. I have out lived my parents, and a few careers, so I can only advise that you enjoy your family and your days. Relax and go with it; something will pop up for you to do.

thank you for sharing.

sean s.

Mounthell said...

Were you, Sabine, to design the universe, would you make the biological part deterministic, as the biologist tribes so tediously demand? Certainly you would pay heed to neither length scale as determining systems' dynamics nor human motivation for behavior being different than, say, nematodes' and they're studiously ignorant of what _ecological succession_ is trying to tell them about the same set of dynamics that animates all our babies' refrain of infinite development and

thus, physicists might let Darwin's _tangled bank_ guide their view of universal change as merely a short length-scale-and-longer evolution, with materiality stemming from immaterial precursory stuffless-stuff that cycled ecologically through a miasma of interacting s-s to maturity to often gentle discreteness as everything interestingly complex under our macro-noses appears to do and leaving the do-nothing-because-they-do-everything string-thingies for down-home ecosystem dynamics nicely spatiotemporally laid out for intimate observation because nature is not a republican and wouldn't be so stupid as to require different length-scales of a single universe to function through entirely different dynamics, but you can get it while patiently learning to carry her tune with and immersed in her panoply of joined destiny now in jeopardy: break some rules

Phillip Helbig said...

""But getting older also has an awkward side, which is that younger people ask me for advice."

Just wait until they offer you their seat in the bus. :-|

You're not really old yet:

The years between fifty and seventy are the hardest. You are always being
asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.

---T. S. Eliot

Maybe it picks up after 70. I saw Nick Mason last night, who is 74, and who seemed very happy.

Famous Dutch astronomer Jan Oort published more after retiring than before.

Liralen said...

At age 63, I have to agree with Phillip Helbig. I pretty much agree with all the comments so far, which have been lovely in the reading.

What to do next?

Do what Enrico said - write science fiction. As I mentioned here before, it did wonders for Asimov, and for those of us who first read his SF then followed him into his non-fiction writings, which helped me get through college. College focused on mechanics, but I really needed the "why" to be able to understand.

Which you do very well. As did Asimov.

What would the future be like if your ideas about gravity are correct? What would us killer apes do with it? I suggest research on the killer ape issue. It's controversial. I'm guessing it treads on theological grounds, despite the fact that it fits perfectly with evolutionary theories as well as my 63 years of observations.

The fact that the "killer ape" theory is even controversial is really weird, more weird than what's going on in physics these days.

David Schroeder said...

While Sabine, like all of us, may be down in the dumps on occasion, she surely must take inspiration from the beautiful country that she resides in. Just discovered these three videos by "Dr. Ludwig" on Youtube, titled "This is Germany", "This is Bavaria, and "This is Baden-Wurttemberg". The videos show breathtaking views of Germany from the air and ground, with unbelievably, beautiful musical scores to accompany them. Here's the Bavarian episode:

Cory Duma said...


Ian Miller said...

There has been advice to write science fiction, but as one who has tried this, I would add a cautionary note. As an example I wrote one book where as part of the plot, a Roman in the first century has to show that the earth orbits the sun, and it was designed to illustrate the scientific method of forming theories, including reviewing the literature, and having to decide what part of the current theory is wrong (i.e. Aristotle's physics). He also has to start with Aristotle's methodology (because he has to be a person of his time) but that is not all that bad because Aristotle actually invented discrete mathematics, except he had not got as far as using symbols. What happened next is I get indifferent reviews because the book is too technical. So be careful. If you are a scientist, the chances are what you write will not go down so well with some of the audience. They say they like science, but in general I suspect they just want simple explanations and illustrations, but they do not want to think.

David Schroeder said...

Writing science fiction does seem to be a wonderful outlet for the immense creative energies of scientists like Sabine, and might be worth pursuing. But I do hope that with so much talent Sabine doesn't abandon the search for truth in how nature works at the deepest levels. Also, she serves as an inspiration to young women (not that she's that old) who dream of careers in science, but might be discouraged by the considerable numerical disparity between men and women working scientists.

As a non-scientist I dabbled in writing sci-fi stories, inspired by TV serials like the X-Files. The most recent story is a time-travel tale set in modern Israel. Not being of the Jewish faith, or having ever visited that country, I had to do some background research to lend authenticity to the story. I won't provide a link, as I'm pretty sure it's against the rules.

Chris Sonnack said...

Firstly, congrats, and (as so many here clearly do) I hear ya.

Having reached the tender age of 111111 (binary, gonna need another bit next year!), I share a lot of those thoughts. I'm now a retired software designer, so there's plenty of time to look around and think.

"Some days I am optimistic, but today I fear we are too dumb. Interactions of humans in large groups have consequences that we do not intuitively grasp,..."

Yes. We evolved to live in groups, packs, small villages. Now we live among millions in cities, and belong to even larger nations. And a world with almost 7.7 billion of us.

Human existence is no longer as a pack or tribe. Human existence is now like ants or bacteria. Much of what is happening now politically and socially is a reaction to this, a rejection, a desire for an understandable, local existence. (Exactly why all the tribalism.)

It used to be possible, just barely, to wrap your head around the world. (Far enough back, it was easily possible.) Now there are "no user serviceable parts inside." One can barely wrap their head around anything anymore.

So people withdraw from a science they can't follow, from a world that requires serious effort to understand even a portion of. Far easier to watch baby animal videos or play computer games.

It's not that people are any dumber than they ever were. It's that our culture has become mind-nuumbing. It's that little in our culture demands deep thought. (I'm advised, for example, that my can of roasted peanuts "May contain nut products." Do tell.)

"Some of them conclude, not entirely incorrectly, that much of the scientific enterprise is corrupt and conclusions cannot be trusted. If we carry on like this, science skeptics are bound to become more numerous."

It sucks with scientists go acting like normal human beings. Seriously, it depresses me. I always expect all that scientific training to make them better people.

Or, at least, more logical people. Which is usually the case, but,,, you know,... people.

And it would be very good to always keep in mind the growing rejection of science and rationality. We're in a "post-empirical" world now, and truth -- even facts -- are what I say they are. "I believe" now means "I know."

Those of us who do know better need to always be better. We can all be role models.

And that’s how it will end, the great human civilization: Not with a bang and not with a whimper, but with everyone yelling at each other that someone else was responsible to do something about it.

Ever seen the movie Idiocracy? It's referred to as "the comedy that became a documentary."

I've been thinking a lot about the Fermi Paradox and Great Filters lately. Maybe we're seeing one answer. Intelligent species fail under the weight of their own astonishing success.

My advice, ladies, is to find your own way. And keep in mind, life is short.

Most excellent advice!

piotrw said...

This post is not meant to offend you in any way, but your observations prove my own decisions were correct. 42 and still not even a semi-permanent position, with exponentially decaying chances to get one. Freaking great! I strongly believe there were two best decisions in my professional life. The first one was to enroll to Ph.D. studies, for a simple reason: when you have barely started to *understand* what's really going on in your field, they say sayonara to you, you have already spent 5 years here, earned a master degree (with honors) and now can go away. No, I can't, because *now* I can really start to learn. In supercharged mode, violating all the intellectual speed limits. The second most important decision was to quit the studies after 3 years. Just because I discovered how it's going to end: a 28yo Ph.D. with a credit rating of a bum and with a similarly stellar wage. An offer I couldn't refuse from the industry helped a lot, too.
Now I have a normal life, with 3 years of learning advantage over my peers, worth a lot in the industry. For this reason I know why there aren't many women in science: because they are way too smart.

And happy birthday!

Kris Krogh said...

My doctors say I’m healthy, which really means they don’t know what’s wrong with me. Maybe I just have a fickle vagus nerve that pulls the plug every once in a while. Whatever the cause of my indisposition, I’ve spent most of my life in the awareness that I may not wake up tomorrow.

I passed out once while running on a walkway/bikeway alongside a canal in France. I only remember running (it was unusually hot and I was struggling) and then being loaded into an ambulance. I'd conked my head and fractured my cheekbone. A lone cyclist who'd just passed me heard the crack as my head hit the pavement, stopped and called for help.

My care at the French hospital was outstanding, but I didn't do any follow-up until I was back in the U.S. I mentioned to my regular doctor that, when stretching in the middle of a run a couple of days before the incident, I nearly fainted when rising from a toe-touch. He told me how head movement can impinge on the vagus nerve and trigger a reaction in some people. I told him,"That sounds like me." Then he told me about a tilt table test that can diagnose that susceptibility. Have you gotten that? (If not, I could tell you more about it. It's pretty trippy if you flunk it.)

Following standard procedure, my doctor referred me to a cardiologist. The cardiologist found my heart was OK, but was reluctant to prescribe the tilt table test. I twisted his arm to do that, and am glad I did, because I learned I really do have an overactive vagus nerve.

On that run, I had been unsure whether I belonged on the right or left side of the walkway/bikeway, going with or against bike traffic. I'm sure when the lone cyclist passed, I would have turned my head quickly to see which side he was coming around on. I'm pretty sure that was the trigger. Do you think turning your head to look out the plane window might have been a factor in your case?

Before that test, I was uneasy not knowing when I might pass out again. Now when I'm driving a car, I try to turn at my shoulders instead of just the neck to look sideways, or when I'm running, to turn my whole body. I feel like I've got things under control, and I'm not concerned I might pass out again.

Liralen said...

Ian Miller makes a good point about not getting overly technical in writing science fiction, although I wasn't suggesting you use SF to teach science, but rather as a means to interest people in reading your non-fiction.

My favorite Asimov book is the "The Gods Themselves" (inspired by "Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens"), which I think is the right balance between teaching science and going off into fantasy and speculation, which is SF's role. An SF story should not be a textbook.

On the other hand, his Foundation and robots series are more popular, so "The Gods Themselves" might represent the outer limits of how far you should get into science when writing a novel.

I also think you are more well-suited to imagine how a universe with different physical properties might be, more so than Asimov, who was a biochemist, not a physicist.

Beijixiong said...

Schubert created some of his best music when he was 31 and knew he was about to die. Although he never got to enjoy any performances of most of them, these pieces made the world a better place and, centuries later, continue to provide us with great joy and comfort. Thank God he didn't give in to despair.

David Schroeder said...

Germany is such an incredibly musical country; love the flash mobs, like below. In such an environment being a bit under the weather can't persist for too long.

Rolf said...

how can you write "i'm done here" with two 7 year old kids. uncaring mother!

David Schroeder said...

Probably shouldn't belabor this topic too much, but these flash mobs, a worldwide phenomena, are a great way to warm up peoples hearts and souls wherever they take place. This one from Moscow, Russia must have raised the spirits of the onlookers on this cold, December day. It's amazing how these spontaneous gatherings can become so coordinated, like flocks of birds in flight.

Liralen said...

@ rolf

My interpretation of her post is that it's about "I'm afraid" and not "I'm done here".

Please explain how you arrived at a different interpretation.

Liralen said...

@ rolf

My interpretation of her post is that it's about "I'm afraid" and not "I'm done here".

Please explain how you arrived at a different interpretation.

Liralen said...

@David Schroeder, That link completely blows away my favorite flash mob video

although I think Joy to the World is much better music.

As one raised in the American heartland, with all the propaganda that entails, the sight of Russians dancing so beautifully to our music is exquisitely beautiful.

Thank you for that.

Liralen said...

@David Shroeder I do have to say that it's obvious that it was choreographed for some Russian "princess" wedding, but as am American, I have no qualms about that. Par for the course, pretty much - and made me laugh how much alike we are.

Liralen said...

And in the spirit of how much alike we are, yet so different politically, are my favorite Tales of Two Chicken Dances:

both of whom are gorgeous.

David Schroeder said...

@Liralen, Indeed you're right. Viewing the Russian video again it dawned on me that it was prearranged for the wedding celebration, particularly with the giant crane to provide an aerial view of the event.

Loved that Joy to the World video, it was absolutely priceless!

Rolf said...

Hi liralen,

yes, you're right: she's afraid.
But even then, she stated, quote:
"I have checked off almost all boxes on my to-do list for life. Plant a tree, have a child, write a book. The only unchecked item is visiting New Zealand. But besides this, folks, I feel like I’m done here."

How cruel and egoistic is that?
Her daughters are 7.
Wouldn't any decent mother have
"see my children's 18th birthday", not only on her to-do list,
but on the very, very first position of her to-do list?

liralen, show your face: do u agree with me?
If you do not, why?


Sabine Hossenfelder said...


I will not approve further comments from you. People with mental illnesses already have a lot to cope with not counting those who, like you, blame them for their illness. Your behavior is disgusting and you clearly understand very little of what you even talk about. The internet is at your fingertips, do some reading. This is a starting point. Good bye.