Questions and answers with Amanda Gefter
A dinnertime conversation with her father about how our universe arose from nothing at all is what launched the science writing career of Amanda Gefter, author of the new book, Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything (Bantam Books, 2014). That book is reviewed in this month's issue of Physics Today.
Gefter holds a master's degree in the philosophy and history of science from the London School of Economics and was a 2012–13 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. She is now a consultant for New Scientist magazine, where she previously served as Books & Arts editor. Her writing has been featured in Scientific American, Nature, Sky and Telescope, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Gefter has also contributed to the books What Should We Be Worried About?: Real Scenarios that Keep Scientists Up at Night (Harper Perennial, 2014) and This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking (Harper Perennial, 2012). Both books were edited by John Brockman, founder of the science blog Edge.org.
Physics Today recently caught up with Gefter to discuss Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn, her first solo work.
PT: At what point did you decide that this quest with your father should become a book?
Gefter: In a sense, I knew it would be a book from the beginning, when I was fifteen years old and my father enlisted me in this quest to understand the origin of the universe. At the time, we were searching for answers in books—books that bred more books, until we had to build a library in our house, a whole room just for physics books. But as we combed through them, my father would say, "Maybe the book we're looking for hasn't been written yet." I had always known I wanted to be a writer, and here was the ultimate challenge. Throughout our crazy adventure, I always thought of life as the unfolding of the book. We often said that we had the surreal sense that we were living in the book.
PT: Can you describe all of what the title means? Does it suggest that you felt, and might still feel, like a trespasser in the field of physics?
Gefter: In 2002 I pretended to be a journalist in order to score two press passes to the Science and Ultimate Reality symposium in honor of John Wheeler. That [symposium] changed my life. First, my father and I met Wheeler. At the same time, I witnessed the power of the press pass and realized that being a science journalist would give me the perfect alibi to talk with physicists and learn about the nature of reality. After the conference let out, my father and I walked to Einstein's former home, now a private residence, and as we stood on his lawn we realized that this thing that had begun as a private hobby had become something bigger. So the title refers to that key moment, that turning point in my life.
But of course it also serves as a perfect metaphor. I spent years hanging out in the world of physics where I didn't belong. And I never felt like I really belonged in the world of science journalism, either, because this "career" had started as a kind of ruse. Every time I wrote a physics article, I wasn't motivated to dutifully report scientific developments to the public, but to find answers; to inch a little closer to understanding the reality behind reality. The quest with my father was behind everything I did. But I've since realized that I really was a science journalist all along—it's just that I was working on one single story for 17 years.
I did send a copy of the book to Einstein's house addressed to "resident" with a note in it that said, "Sorry for trespassing on your lawn." I haven't heard back.
PT: What kinds of reactions, from physicists and from nonexperts, have you been getting to the book?
Gefter: The reaction from physicists has been incredibly encouraging. I've had physicists tell me that they actually got new insights from the book, and that they never thought they'd say that about a popular-level physics book. That's probably the greatest compliment I could hope for.
The emails I've been getting from nonexperts have been so intelligent and thoughtful, and they've inspired some fascinating discussions. I got an email from an 89-year-old nun who told me about the conversations she had with her father about the nature of infinity when she was a little girl and it had been discovered that the universe was expanding. I got another from a man whose father was undergoing brain surgery but had just read the book and wanted to talk with me about the universe from his hospital bed. I know it sounds corny, but my readers teach me and inspire me every day.
I also got a wonderful reaction from Wheeler's family, [and that] meant a lot. A few months ago Wheeler's son and daughter-in-law invited my parents and me to dinner at the same Chinese restaurant where my father first asked me about the origin of the universe over cashew chicken. It turns out that it's one of their favorite restaurants, and that the owner of the restaurant is a physicist who did his PhD at Princeton, where he knew John Wheeler. So we all had dinner together, and after everyone had been served their food the waiter brought out an honorary plate of cashew chicken. That was an unforgettable night.
PT: Now that the book has been published, have you moved on to other projects?
Gefter: After the profound experience of reading Wheeler's journals, I've become fascinated with a period in the 1950s when scientists began to see the concept of information in a new light. [It] was a remarkable era that saw: the rise of modern neuroscience, the discovery that our bodies are built from information encoded in double-helix strands of DNA, and the emergence of the first electronic and commercial computers. There were fascinating overlaps between information theory, computation, neuroscience and theoretical physics, much of it taking place on Wheeler's home turf in Princeton, and I'm excited to explore them in my next book project.
I'm hoping it might shed some light on a question that still haunts me: what is the relationship between our subjective experience and the physical world? The so-called hard problem of consciousness, to me, ultimately, it's a physics question. What kind of physical reality can support the existence of subjective experience? It's a question of ontology—it's fundamental physics. Of course, any time you mention "consciousness," alarm bells ring because the science gets murky and prone to crackpottery. But it's a real question. It keeps me up at night.
PT: It seems clear that your father played a major role in getting you interested in science. Did you meet any physicists whose parents or other adults played a similar role?
Gefter: Actually, yes, I've talked with a few physicists who have told me about how their own parents inspired their careers and, conversely, how they hope they can inspire their children the same way that my father inspired me. I think the aspect of my relationship with my father that really moves people—and that I've only come to appreciate looking back as an adult—is that he always treated me as an intellectual equal, even when I was just a kid. He didn't care that I was fifteen and "angsty" and flunking math—he wanted to hear my thoughts about the universe. He treated me as someone whose ideas really mattered. That made all the difference.
PT: What books are you currently reading?
Gefter: I've recently emerged from an Arthur Eddington binge and now I'm reading Quantum Computing Since Democritus by Scott Aaronson (see the Physics Today review here) and One More Thing (Knopf, 2014), a book of short stories by B. J. Novak that is hilarious.