Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder: ‘There are quite a few areas where physics blurs into religion’

Sabine Hossenfelder is a German theoretical physicist who writes books and runs a YouTube channel (with 618,000 subscribers at time of writing) called Science Without the Gobbledygook. Born in Frankfurt, she studied mathematics at the Goethe Universität and went on to focus on particle physics – her PhD explored the possibility that the Large Hadron Collider would produce microscopic black holes. She is now a research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, where she leads a group studying quantum gravity. Her second book, Existential Physics: A Scientist’s Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions, came out in August.

The first question you ask the physicists you interview in the book is: “Are you religious?” How about you?
I tried to be religious when I was a teenager. I was not Christianised because my parents were both atheists, but all of my friends were Christian, so I went to church with them. And I kind of liked it – the singing, the social events. I considered joining, but I just couldn’t get myself to believe that God exists.

You weren’t keen on physics at school. Why not?
It was to do with the way it was taught. We were given experiments that had been done in the past by other people, and were then supposed to do some sloppy reconstruction of it ourselves. I just thought it was terribly boring. I really only got interested in physics when I learned how differential equations work. Studying physics at university, I came to it from this weird angle where I was trying to figure out how much you can do with mathematics to understand nature. It’s why I don’t really fit into any particular area of physics, because I have this overview attitude. I just want to know what the mathematics is good for….