January 1

    Stephen Hawking

    On this date in 1942, cosmologist Stephen Hawking was born in Oxford, England, “300 years after the death of Galileo,” as he once noted. He attended Oxford, studying physics, then earned his Ph.D. in cosmology at Cambridge. By his 21st birthday he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

    Despite his disability, which confined him to a wheelchair and forced him to rely on mechanized speech, Hawking became a research fellow, worked at the Institute of Astronomy, and in 1973 joined the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge.

    Hawking is celebrated for his work on unifying General Relativity with Quantum Theory. His popular science books include A Brief History of Time, Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays and The Universe in a Nutshell. Although some rationalists have been disappointed in his tendency to use the term “god” too loosely as a metaphor, Hawking made it clear he did not believe in a personal god.

    In an interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC News (June 7, 2010), Hawking said, “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”

    In his follow-up book The Grand Design (2010), Hawking and co-author Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow wrote that “God” is not necessary: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

    In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo (Nov. 6, 2015), Hawking was more forthright about declaring his atheism: “Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist (Soy ateo).”

    In his last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, published posthumously in 2018, Hawking wrote, “There is no God. No one directs the universe.” Included in his parting advice: “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”

    Hawking met Jane Wilde in 1962, the year before his motor neuron diagnosis. They married in 1965 and had three children: Robert (1967), Lucy (1969) and Timothy (1979). His poor health and her strong Christian beliefs led to their divorce in 1995, after which he soon married Elaine Mason, one of his nurses.

    After their divorce in 2006, Hawking resumed closer relationships with Jane and his children. Her book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen was published in 2007 and was made into a film, “The Theory of Everything,” in 2014.

    Hawking died at his home in Cambridge at age 76 on March 14, 2018. His ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey’s nave between the graves of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

    NASA public domain photo

    “All that my work has shown is that you don’t have to say that the way the universe began was the personal whim of God.”

    —Hawking, "Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays" (1993)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

    Garrett Lisi

    Garrett Lisi

    On this date in 1968, Antony Garrett Lisi was born in Los Angeles. He earned B.S. degrees in physics and mathematics from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1991 and received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at San Diego in 1999. After graduation he moved to Hawaii and worked as a snowboard instructor and hiking guide. Lisi briefly taught at the University of Hawaii at Maui in 2005 before deciding to pursue independent research.

    He authored the paper “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything,” published on the online database arXiv on Nov. 6, 2007. The Theory of Everything, also called the E8 Theory, unites the electromagnetic force, strong force and weak force, as well as gravity and all elementary particles, through the use of the mathematical structure E8. It is an alternative to the popular string theory, which purports that these forces and particles are united by a complex system of vibrating strings.

    The New Yorker called Lisi a “committed atheist” in its issue of July 21, 2008. In 2011 and 2012 he co-hosted “Invention USA,” a History channel documentary series. He lives with his longtime girlfriend, Crystal Baranyk, an artist.

    PHOTO: By Cjean42 of Lisi being interviewed in Los Angeles in 2011. CC 3.0

    “Lisi, an atheist, says the whole notion of God misses the point. He’s not after the creator of the universe — he’s after the universe itself. Everything.”

    —Lisi profile, Maui Time (Feb. 16, 2011)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Victor Stenger

    Victor Stenger

    On this date in 1935, particle physicist, author and skeptic Victor John Stenger was born in Bayonne, New Jersey. Stenger, the son of a first-generation Lithuanian immigrant and a second-generation Hungarian immigrant, grew up in a Catholic neighborhood. He earned a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Newark College of Engineering and a master’s in physics from UCLA, followed by a Ph.D. After taking a position on the University of Hawaii faculty, Stenger began a long and influential career during one of the most exciting times for physics in history.

    His experiments helped establish standard models in physics, examining and uncovering the properties of quarks, gluons, neutrinos and “strange” particles. Stenger also made contributions to the emerging fields of high-energy gamma ray and neutrino astronomy. In his last major research endeavor before retiring in Colorado in 2000, Stenger collaborated on a project in Japan that demonstrated for the first time that the neutrino has mass. The project’s head researcher won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2002.

    In addition to his numerous and influential peer-reviewed articles, Stenger wrote 12 books, including the 2007 bestseller God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist. Some of his other titles include Not By Design: The Origin of the Universe (1988), The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology (1995), The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (2009), The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe Is Not Designed for Us (2011), and God and the Folly of Faith: The Fundamental Incompatibility of Religion and Science and Why It Matters (2012).

    Stenger’s work hinged on the interplay between philosophy, particle physics, quantum mechanics and religion. He was a self-professed skeptic and atheist, maintaining that all things in existence — including consciousness and the subjective illusion of libertarian free will — may be revealed and described by rational scientific inquiry without resorting to supernatural explanations, the meaning of which are empty, useless, unproductive and put a crippling end to intellectual progress.

    In order to champion these causes, Stenger pursued public speaking, debating prominent Christian apologists and participating in the 2008 “Origins Conference” hosted by the Skeptics Society. Stenger was a member of a number of skeptics and humanist organizations, including presidential stints with the Hawaiian Humanists from 1990-94 and the Colorado Citizens for Science from 2002-06.

    He was an honorary director of FFRF, a member of the Society of Humanist Philosophers and the Free Inquiry editorial board, and a fellow of the Center for Inquiry and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Among a number of visiting positions, Stenger was an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado and an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Hawaii. Stenger lived with his wife Phylliss, whom he married in 1962. They had two children. (D. 2014)

    PHOTO: Licensed under CC BY 3.0.

    “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”

    —Stenger, who suggested this slogan post-9/11 after ideas for bus signs were solicited by the Richard Dawkins Foundation.
    Compiled by Noah Bunnell

    Gerald H.F. Gardner

    Gerald H.F. Gardner

    On this date in 1926, mathematician Gerald Henry Frazier Gardner was born in Tullamore, Ireland. He studied mathematics and theoretical physics at Dublin’s Trinity College. He earned a master’s in applied mathematics from Carnegie Institute of Technology (1949) and a doctorate in mathematical physics from Princeton (1953). Gardner worked in applied seismology for several decades and taught at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), Rice University and the University of Houston.

    Gardner actively pursued equal rights for women. Along with his wife, the former Jo Ann Evans, he was an early member of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Organization for Women. Evans, a Ph.D. experimental psychologist, adopted the surname Evansgardner when they married in 1950.

    Gardner and the chapter in 1969 challenged sex-based employment ads in the Pittsburgh Press. Employment want ads used to list separate categories for “Male Wanted” and “Female Wanted,” which barred women from much professional work. Gardner specifically provided statistical analysis of the likelihood of women finding employment in such a structure. This led to a landmark women’s rights decision in 1973 by the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld a Pittsburgh ordinance that prohibited sex-based employment advertisements.

    As a result, want ads were “desexregated” around the nation, a huge boon for women’s employment rights. Gardner contributed statistical analysis in other cases involving gender and race discrimination and considered this work the most important of his life (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 27, 2009.) He and his wife were Life Members who joined FFRF in the late 1970s and left a generous bequest. Gardner died of leukemia at age 83 in 2009. Jo Ann died in 2010.

    He “was an activist atheist, a proselytizing atheist. He thought that not saying you were an atheist hurt the cause of reality.”

    —Jo Ann Evansgardner, remembering her husband in his New York Times obituary (July 28, 2009)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

    Brian Cox

    Brian Cox

    On this date in 1968, Brian Edward Cox was born in Lancashire, England. After completing his secondary education, Cox joined the rock band Dare as a keyboardist. Following the band’s breakup, Cox enrolled at the University of Manchester to study physics. He continued his career in music, playing with the pop band D:Ream, while receiving his B.Sc. and M.Phil degrees. D:Ream had several hits on the UK charts, including “Things Can Only Get Better,” a No. 1 hit.

    As of this writing he works as a particle physicist at the University of Manchester and at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland. He married Gia Milinovich in 2003 and they have one child. He was elected in 2016 as a Fellow of the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of sciences. 

    Cox is best known for his science outreach to the general public and has appeared on numerous BBC television and radio programs. Cox also lectures widely, has given several TED talks, and has co-authored several books about physics, including 2009’s Why Does E=mc²? (And Why Should We Care?).

    Cox is a strong advocate for science education and government funding of scientific research. Asked by the Guardian (March 6, 2010) if he has “ever believed in God,” Cox replied, “No! I was sent to Sunday school for a few weeks but I didn’t like getting up on Sunday mornings. But some of my friends are religious. I don’t have a strong view on religion, other than illogical religion. Young earth creationism, for example: bollocks.”

    Cox says the label of atheist does not apply to him because there is so much that is unknowable. His story “The Large Hadron Collider: A Scientific Creation Story” was one of 42 included in “The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas” in 2009. From the essay: “When the pattern of atoms known as you ceases to be, the building blocks will return to the voids of space and in a billion years or more they may take their place in another structure so beautiful that a future mind may perceive it to be the work of a god.”

    PHOTO: The Royal Society

    “So for me, the idea I would be able to have an entertaining and enjoyable afternoon discussing with people with whom I suppose I have to say I disagree at the most fundamental level, because I don’t have a particular faith, or any faith in fact – however, I think that difference of opinion and view of the world is to be celebrated and explored.”

    —"Professor Brian Cox condemns 'toxic' rows between science and religion," Christian Today (Sept. 9, 2016)
    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

    Albert Einstein

    Albert Einstein

    On this date in 1879, Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany, to nonobservant Jewish parents. He attended a Catholic school from age 5 to 8. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Zurich in 1909. His 1905 paper explaining the photo-electric effect — the basis of electronics — earned him the Nobel Prize in 1921. His first paper on Special Relativity Theory, also published in 1905, changed the world.

    Einstein split his time and academic appointments between various European universities. After the rise of the Nazi Party, Einstein made Princeton his permanent home, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1940 after moving there in 1933 with his second wife. A pacifist during World War I, he remained a firm proponent of social justice and responsibility. Einstein played a major role in the formation of what would become International Rescue Committee. He chaired the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, which organized to alert the public to the dangers of atomic warfare.

    Einstein wrote often about his views on religion and wonder at the cosmic mysteries. Confusion over his beliefs stemmed from such comments as his public statement, reported by United Press on April 25, 1929, that: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the orderly harmony in being, not in a God who deals with the facts and actions of men.” Einstein’s famous “God does not play dice with the Universe” metaphor — meaning nature conforms to mathematical law — fueled more confusion.

    At a symposium, he advised: “In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. In their labors they will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself. This is, to be sure a more difficult but an incomparably more worthy task.” (“Science, Philosophy and Religion, A Symposium,” 1941)

    In a letter to philosopher Eric Gutkind dated Jan. 3, 1954, Einstein continued to reject the idea of a personal god. Although saying he was proud to be a Jew, he said he was not impressed with Judaism. “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of venerable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.” In 2018 the “God letter” sold for almost $2.9 million following a four-minute bidding battle at Christie’s.

    He married Mileva Marić in 1903 and they had two sons. They had a daughter before marriage whose fate is unclear. She was either given up for adoption or died of scarlet fever. Their son Eduard was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 20 and spent most of the rest of his life in asylums. After divorcing in 1919, Einstein married Elsa Löwenthal that same year after having a relationship with her since 1912. She was a first cousin maternally and a second cousin paternally. She was diagnosed with heart and kidney problems and died in December 1936. 

    He died of an abdominal aortic aneurysm in 1955. Pathologist Thomas Stolz Harvey removed his brain without the family’s permission and preserved it in formalin before Einstein was cremated. Harvey later cut the brain into 240 blocks, took tissue samples from each block, mounted them on microscope slides and distributed the slides to some of the world’s top neuropathologists for study.

    “Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death. It is therefore easy to see why the churches have always fought science and persecuted its devotees.”

    —Einstein column headlined "Religion and Science" (New York Times Magazine, Nov. 9, 1930)

    Steven Weinberg

    Steven Weinberg

    On this date in 1933, Steven Weinberg was born in the Bronx, N.Y. He received his undergraduate degree in physics from Cornell University in 1954, which he attended on a scholarship. There he met his future wife, Louise Goldwasser. They married in 1954. She became a professor of law at the University of Texas. Weinberg began his graduate study at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen (now the Niels Bohr Institute). He completed his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1957.

    In 1979 Weinberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics along with Abdus Salam and Sheldon Lee Glashow “for their contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, including, inter alia, the prediction of the weak neutral current.” This was one of the most significant scientific advances in the second half of the 20th century.

    He received many other awards, including the national Medal of Science in 1991. He was also a foreign member of the Royal Society of London. Known for his writing, Weinberg received the Lewis Thomas Prize, which is awarded to the researcher who best embodies “the scientist as poet.”

    Weinberg wrote hundreds of scholarly articles and textbooks such as The Quantum Theory of Fields (three volumes: 1995, 1996, 2003) and Cosmology (2008); the more popular works The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (1977) and Dreams of a Final Theory (1993, which contains a chapter called “What About God?”). His collection Facing Up: Science and its Cultural Adversaries was published in 2001, and Lake Views: This World and the Universe in 2011.

    Weinberg was outspoken about his lack of religion and encouraged other scientists to be more vocal in their opposition to religious ideas. He said, “As you learn more and more about the universe, you find you can understand more and more without any reference to supernatural intervention, so you lose interest in that possibility. Most scientists I know don’t care enough about religion even to call themselves atheists. And that, I think, is one of the great things about science — that it has made it possible for people not to be religious.” (Quoted in Natalie Angier, “Confessions of a Lonely Atheist,” The New York Times, Jan. 14, 2001)

    He added, “The whole history of the last thousands of years has been a history of religious persecutions and wars, pogroms, jihads, crusades. I find it all very regrettable, to say the least.” Five years later at a forum at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, he said: “Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.” (New York Times, Nov. 21, 2006)

    In 1999 he became the first recipient of FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award, reserved for public figures who make known their dissent from religion. He began his acceptance speech: “I enjoy being at a meeting that doesn’t start with an invocation!” He said, “Nothing has been more important in the history of science than the work of Darwin and Wallace pointing out that not only the planets but even life can be understood in this naturalistic way.” More excerpts from his speech can be found here.

    He died at age 88 at a hospital in Austin and was survived by his wife Louise and their daughter Elizabeth. (D. 2021)

    “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

    —Weinberg address at the Conference on Cosmic Design, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington (April 1999)
    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

    Andrei Sakharov

    Andrei Sakharov

    On this date in 1921, Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov — nuclear physicist, dissident, Nobel laureate and activist for disarmament and human rights — was born in Moscow to Yekaterina Alekseevna (née Sofiano) and Dmitri Ivanovich Sakharov.

    His father was a physics professor and nonbeliever, and his mother and grandmother were religious. The younger Sakahrov decided in his early teens that he was an atheist but believed a “guiding principle” transcended physical laws. (“Andrei Sakharov: The Conscience of Humanity,” 2015)

    He studied physics at Moscow State University and after graduating worked in a laboratory in Ulyanovsk. He married Klavdia Alekseyevna Vikhireva in 1943. They raised two daughters and a son. He earned a Ph.D. in 1947. Under the auspices of the Physical Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, he joined a team that built the USSR’s first device, a low-yield uranium bomb detonated in August 1949.

    Sakharov played such an integral role in his next project that he became known as the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, a design first detonated in 1955. He would later express worry about the effects of radiation, along with deeper concerns: “What most troubles me now is the instability of the balance, the extreme peril of the current situation, the appalling waste of the arms race.” (“New Dictionary of Scientific Biography,” 2008)

    He worked on what became the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed in Moscow in 1963 by the the U.S., Soviet Union and Britain, banning nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, outer space and under water. He returned to fundamental science and began working on particle physics and physical cosmology, including theorizing why the curvature of the universe is relatively small.

    He began taking public stances that were politically (and hence physically) risky in a “gulag” state. He opposed scientific academy membership for a proponent of the pseudoscience of Lysenkoism, which denies genetics and well-established agricultural science. The application of Lysenkoism led to the starvation of millions of Russians. Sakharov also opposed the development of an anti-ballistic missile system..

    Sakharov married Yelena Bonner in 1972, three years after his first wife died. Bonner, who had a medical background, was a fierce critic of human rights abuses and thus fell under the eye of the KGB along with Sakharov. She was in Italy for medical treatment in 1975 and traveled to Norway to accept his Nobel Peace Prize after he was denied a visa to attend.

    The Nobel citation called him “the conscience of mankind” and said he had “fought not only against the abuse of power and violations of human dignity in all its forms, but has in equal vigor fought for the ideal of a state founded on the principle of justice for all.”

    After he denounced the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, he was arrested and banished to Gorky, 250 miles east of Moscow, where he spent seven years in exile. He was named 1980 Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association and in 1988 was the recipient of the International Humanist Award by the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

    The European Parliament established the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, to be given annually for outstanding contributions to human rights, in 1985. Biographer Gennady Gorelik called him “a totally nonmilitant atheist with an open heart.”

    He died at home in Moscow at age 68 of dilated cardiomyopathy. (D. 1989) 

    “Like most of the physicists of his generation, he was an atheist. In his later years, this son of a physicist, grandson of a lawyer, and great-grandson of a priest was to come to a new — and free thinking — view of religion. … [He] was simply a humanist for whom it was enough to show his compassion for a fellow man.”

    —"The World of Andrei Sakharov: A Russian Physicist's Path to Freedom" by Gennady Gorelik with Antonina Bouis (2005)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Peter Higgs

    Peter Higgs

    On this date in 1929, Peter Ware Higgs was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. He graduated with honors in physics in 1950 from King’s College, University of London. He earned his master of science the next year and his Ph.D. in 1954, both from King’s. In his early 30s, Higgs began his career as lecturer in mathematical physics at the University of Edinburgh. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1974 and chair of theoretical physics in 1980. Higgs was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1983 and Fellow of the Institute of Physics in 1991. 

    In the 1960s he proposed the existence of a single particle responsible for imparting mass to all matter immediately following the Big Bang. (The Guardian, Nov. 16, 2007.) The Higgs boson, the scientific term for the particle, radically altered the field of physics, such that Higgs, according to Time magazine, ranks with physics giants like Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Democritus. Based on Higgs’ theory, scientists theorized a quantum field through which initially weightless particles move and acquire their mass. Higgs and François Englert were awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work.

    For several decades, a multi-billion dollar effort, including the construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, sought to find the Higgs boson particle. The LHC , the most powerful particle accelerator ever constructed, cost $6 billion and took 25 years to plan. “Scientists … hope the [Large Hadron Collider] will produce clear signs of the boson, dubbed the ‘God particle’ by some, to the displeasure of Higgs, an atheist.” (Reuters, April 7, 2008.) Within two years of the original 2012 results at the LHC, the vast majority of particle physicists agreed that the Higgs particle discovery had been confirmed by multiple experiments and analyses.

    PHOTO: Higgs at the 2013 Nobel Laureates press conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences; photo by Bengt Nyman under CC 2.0.

    “I wish he hadn’t done it. I have to explain to people it was a joke. I’m an atheist.”

    —Higgs, on Leon Lederman, the scientist who nicknamed the Higgs boson the “God particle,” The Guardian (Nov. 16, 2007)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

    Paul Dirac

    Paul Dirac

    On this date in 1902, Paul Dirac, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, was born in Bristol, England. Dirac received his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in 1921 and his master’s in mathematics in 1923, both from the University of Bristol. He went on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in 1926, studying quantum mechanics and the theory of general relativity. He introduced an equation in 1928 which became known as the Dirac Equation. His equation, along with many other advances, implied the existence of anti-matter. Dirac and Erwin Schrodinger won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933 for “the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory.”

    Dirac married Margit Wigner in 1937 and they had four children. He was known for being extremely modest — he tended to name his discoveries after others instead of himself. He chose to give all of the proceeds from his book Directions in Physics (1978) to create a lecture series at the University of New South Wales in Kensington, Australia. He was a faculty member at the University of Cambridge, where he held the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, and at the University of Miami and Florida State University.

    A memorial for Dirac was unveiled in 1995 in Westminster Abbey. The dean of Westminster, Edward Carpenter, had initially refused to allow the memorial to be created, calling Dirac “anti-Christian” but relented after five years.

    Along with receiving the Nobel Prize, he won the Copley Medal and the Max Planck Medal in 1952 and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1930. Many awards have been named after him, including the Paul Dirac Medal and Prize awarded by the Institute of Physics, of which Stephen Hawking was a recipient. D. 1984.

    “If we are honest — and scientists have to be — we must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality. The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination. If religion is still being taught, it is by no means because its ideas still convince us, but simply because some of us want to keep the lower classes quiet.”

    —Excerpt of Dirac's criticism of the political purposes of religion at the Fifth Solvay International Conference (October 1927)
    Compiled by Sarah Eucalano

    Sabine Hossenfelder

    Sabine Hossenfelder

    On this date in 1976, Sabine Hossenfelder — theoretical physicist, author and science communicator — was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. “I’ve grown up an atheist, I was never baptized,” she later wrote. “I didn’t know much of God until I went to school and had to attend religion class, against my mother’s will.” (medium.com, “The Rising Star of Science,” Dec. 23, 2014)

    She earned a B.S. and an M.S. in mathematics from Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, where she was awarded a doctorate in theoretical physics in 2003. She subsequently worked as a research fellow at the University of Arizona-Tucson, University of California-Santa Barbara and at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario.

    Hossenfelder joined the Nordita Institute for Theoretical Physics in Stockholm in 2009 as an assistant professor and was employed by the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies between 2015-22. As of this writing in 2023, she is associated with the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy in Germany: “I am working on physics beyond the standard model, phenomenological quantum gravity, and modifications of [Einstein’s theory of] general relativity,” she wrote on her website.

    She and Stefan Scherer, also a Ph.D. physicist, married in 2006 and have twin daughters, Lara and Gloria, born in December 2010.

    Her free weekly newsletter includes noteworthy items from the past week centered around topics covered on her YouTube channel “Science Without the Gobbledygook.” It has almost 750,000 subscribers. She has blogged regularly since 2006, currently at Backreaction

    Hossenfelder says science is more than a profession. “It’s a way to make sense of the world. It’s a way to find unity with nature. Most scientists are atheists, not so much because belief and superstition have no place in science, but because, as [Pierre-Simon] Laplace put it so aptly, God is a useless hypothesis. Why spend the Sunday in church when you can spend it in the lab?” (medium.com, Ibid.)

    In “Existential Physics: A Scientist’s Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions” (2022), she posited that science and religion have the same roots. “They tackle many identical questions: Where did we come from? How did we get here? How much do we know? … Physics has come the closest to answering these questions.” (Hippocampus Magazine, Sept. 7, 2022) Library Journal called it an excellent book on physics for general readers.

    Her first book, “Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray” (2018), was written in English and translated into German, French, Spanish, Polish, Japanese, Romanian, Korean, Chinese, Hungarian and Italian. She contributes to the Forbes column Starts with a Bang edited by astrophysicist Ethan Siegel (formerly hosted by medium.com), Quanta Magazine, New Scientist, Scientific American, Nautilus Quarterly and numerous others. 

    “Science tells you that praying doesn’t cure cancer, that there is no immortal soul that lives when your body rots away. Science tells you there is nobody to watch over you, and that there are no rights and wrongs other than the ones that we create. Scientists deliver the truth and then leave you alone to deal with it,” wrote Hossenfelder on the need to make science more accessible to the general public. (medium.com, Ibid.) “If you are struggling to make sense of life, you don’t go and talk to a professor of neurology. If you’re suffering from unrequited love, you don’t look for advice in a journal of evolutionary psychology. If you’re having a phase of bad luck, you don’t seek solace by attending a lecture on statistics. Science isn’t helpful for most people because they don’t know what science has to give. And nobody is there to tell them.”

    PHOTO CREDIT: Warner Kissel

    “The world is still dominated by religion rather than science, it is still full with people who think that the laws of nature are somehow optional, that you can either believe or not believe in scientific evidence. And this religious dominance stalls the progress we need to improve the lives of the sick and poor. How come that in a time when the light of science shines so brightly, many people still prefer sitting in the dark?”

    —Hossenfelder, medium.com, "The Rising Star of Science" (Dec. 23, 2014)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Simon Singh

    Simon Singh

    On this date in 1964, Simon Singh was born in Somerset, England, after his parents immigrated to Britain from the Punjab region of India. He majored in physics at the Imperial College in London and received his Ph.D. in 1991 in particle physics from Cambridge University and at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva. He eventually became a writer with a focus on math and science. The BBC science department hired Singh in 1990.

    He directed the 1996 BAFTA award-winning documentary on a math theorem titled, “Fermat’s Last Theorem.” NOVA showed the documentary in the U.S. under the title “The Proof,” which received an Emmy nomination. Singh turned the documentary into his first book, called Fermat’s Last Theorem in Britain and Fermat’s Enigma in the U.S. In 1999 he published his second book, The Code Book: The Evolution of Secrecy From Mary, Queen Of Scots to Quantum Cryptography. He wrote Big Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need To Know About It in 2004.

    His article in April 2008 criticizing chiropractic, an alternative medicine that uses manual therapy, resulted in the British Chiropractic Association suing for libel in a case that Singh won after two years. He became an advocate for fairer libel laws via the Libel Reform Campaign in Britain and co-wrote Trick Or Treatment?: Alternative Medicine on Trial in 2008. Singh is active in the skeptic community. He married journalist Anita Anand in 2007. They live in London with their two sons.

    Photo by Richardc39 under CC 3.0.

    “For tens of thousands of years, humans have stared up into the heavens and wondered about the origin of the universe. Up until now every culture, society, and religion has had nothing else to turn to except its creation myths, fables, or religious scriptures. Today, by contrast, we have the extraordinary privilege of being the first generation of our species to have access to a scientific theory of the universe that explains its origin and evolution.”

    —Singh, CNN.com op-ed, "Why I'm dreaming of a white-noise Christmas” (Dec. 24, 2010)
    Compiled by Sarah Eucalano

    Paul MacCready

    Paul MacCready

    On this date in 1925, Paul B. MacCready Jr. was born in New Haven, Conn. He was interested in flight from a young age, often building prize-winning model airplanes. MacCready earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Yale in 1947, a master’s in physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1948 and a Ph.D. in aeronautics from Cal Tech in 1952. In college he built gliders and won the U.S. National Soaring Championships in 1948, 1949 and 1953, as well as becoming the first American to be named World Soaring Champion in 1956.

    MacCready, known as the “father of human-powered flight,” developed the Gossamer Condor in 1977, an aircraft powered solely by the muscles of its pilot. His later human-powered Gossamer Albatross accomplished the feat of flying across the English Channel in 1979. His many other aircraft include the solar-powered Gossamer Penguin, built in 1980, and the human-powered Pathfinder Plus, which in 1998 flew to over 80,000 feet. He founded AeroVironment Inc., in 1971, a company which develops energy-efficient vehicles and services. His numerous awards include the Guggenheim Medal in 1987, NASA’s Public Service Grand Achievement Award and the Reed Aeronautical Award in 1979.

    MacCready was an active humanist who identified himself as having nontheistic beliefs (according to “CSICOP and the Skeptics” by George Hansen, published in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, January 1992). “[Humans are] a magnificent random experiment with no goal,” MacCready said. He believed that religion formerly served the purpose of providing “authority, ritual, belonging, tradition [and] mystery,” but that it had become obsolete. MacCready opposed creationism and built a replica of a pterodactyl that was able to fly for the National Air and Space Museum in 1984, partially as an attempt to change the views of creationists.

    He was a Humanist Laureate of the Academy of Humanism, a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a member of the International Academy of Humanists. (All quotations cited are from More With Less: Paul MacCready and the Dream of Efficient Flight by Paul Ciotti, 2003.) D. 2007.

    “The scientific community has actually taken the offensive against creationist laws. There is some life in rationality, but I must admit the adversaries seem almost infinite.”

    —MacCready interview, Free Inquiry (Fall 1983)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Sean M. Carroll

    Sean M. Carroll

    On this date in 1966, Sean Michael Carroll was born into an Episcopalian family in Philadelphia (not to be confused with biologist Sean B. Carroll). He graduated from Harvard University with a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics in 1993. Carroll is a cosmologist and physicist who works as a research professor in physics at the California Institute of Technology. He has been a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Theoretical Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He is married to science writer Jennifer Ouellette.

    His books include Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity (2003), From Eternity To Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time (2010), The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World (2012), The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (2016) and Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime (2019).

    Carroll writes for the physics blog Cosmic Variance. In 2005, in a paper titled “Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists,” he wrote, “I wish to argue that religious belief necessarily entails certain statements about how the universe works, that these statements can be judged as scientific hypotheses, and that as such they should be rejected in favor of alternative ways of understanding the universe.”

    Carroll has debated Christian apologists Dinesh D’Souza, William Lane Craig and others. In 2014 he received FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award for speaking the truth about religion. His speech was titled “Atoms and Eve Incompatible.”

    PHOTO: Carroll at the LogiCal-LA 2017 Conference for Scientific Skeptics and Critical Thinkers; Sgerbic photo under CC 4.0

    “We are looking for a complete, coherent, and simple understanding of reality. Given what we know about the universe, there seems to be no reason to invoke God as part of this description.”

    —Carroll, “Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists” (2005)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

    Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

    On this date in 1910, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was born in Lahore, now in Pakistan but at the time a part of British India. He earned a B.S. with honors in physics from Presidency College in India in 1930 and a Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge University in England in 1933. After his graduation, Chandrasekhar was awarded a Prize Fellowship at Trinity College from 1933 to 1937. He worked as a research associate and professor at the University of Chicago from 1937 to 1995, and became an American citizen in 1953. He married Lalitha Doraiswamy in 1936.

    Chandrasekhar was an astrophysicist who made influential discoveries about white dwarf stars in 1930 when he was only 20. He is known for discovering the Chandrasekhar limit. He found that stars with masses below the Chandrasekhar limit form white dwarfs after they collapse, but stars with masses above the limit continue collapsing. His studies of stellar evolution were influential in the discovery of black holes.

    He won the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics with William Fowler for their work with stellar structure and evolution. He published 10 books, including Introduction to the Study of Stellar Structure (1939), Principles of Stellar Dynamics (1942) and The Mathematical Theory of Black Holes (1983).

    Chandrasekhar was the nephew of C. V. Raman, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1930. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1953. He died of a heart attack at the University of Chicago Hospital in 1995, 20 years after his first heart attack. His wife died at age 102 in 2013.

    “I am not religious in any sense; in fact, I consider myself an atheist.”

    —Chandrasekhar, quoted in "Chandra: A Biography of S. Chandrasekhar" by Kameshwar Wali (1991)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Hugh Everett III

    Hugh Everett III

    On this date in 1930, Hugh Everett III was born in Washington, D.C. He graduated in 1953 from the Catholic University of America in Washington with a degree in chemical engineering. Everett then attended Princeton University and earned his Ph.D. in physics in 1956. He was a co-founder of the Institute for Defense Analyses in 1956. Everett founded Lambda Corp., a defense analysis organization that assisted the Pentagon, in 1964. He married Nancy Gore in 1956 and they had two children, Elizabeth Everett and Mark Oliver Everett (lead singer of the band Eels).

    Everett was a physicist interested in theoretical and quantum physics who is known for developing the influential theory, “The Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.” His theory, part of his Ph.D. thesis, postulated that our universe is part of a multiverse, a vast system of universes. He hypothesized that every universe is constantly splitting into alternate universes that encompass every possible event. Everett’s theory, along with his book, The Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (1973), is widely studied by quantum physicists.

    Everett was a “lifelong atheist,” according to The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III (2010) by Peter Byrne. During his time at the Catholic university, Everett “drove devout Jesuits to distraction with scientific questioning” and even caused one of his professors to lose his faith after presenting a logical proof against the existence of God (quoted in The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III).

    He died in 1982 at age 51 of a heart attack and had been in poor health from smoking, drinking and obesity. In Mark Oliver Everett’s memoir, Things the Grandchildren Should Know (2008), he wrote, “My dad, who was a devout atheist, had once told my mom that he wanted his remains to be thrown out in the trash.” His wife kept his ashes in an urn for a few years before allegedly complying with his wishes. D. 1982.

    Photo: Everett at age 34.

    “Because of his loudly avowed atheism, he was labeled ‘the heretic’ by devout classmates.”

    Peter Byrne, writing about Everett in "The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III" (2010)

    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor; public domain photo

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