432 pages; $28
Review by Amber D. Stoner
A father’s question to his fifteen-year-old daughter starts it all. The question: “How would you define nothing?” The “all”: a journey to find ultimate reality. Amanda Gefter was that fifteen-year-old, and her first book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, which recounts her journey, reads like a mystery as she and her father pour over physics books and meet with the world’s foremost physicists.
Gefter has written a popular physics book within a memoir. The combo works well. The frame of memoir gives us frequent respite from the theoretical physics. Just as we are near the event horizon of a black hole, we get a return to the physical world, conversations with her father, and some funny bits about rats in her London flat. There is a greater sense of adventure here than in other popular physics books, as Gefter takes us along through her years of her personal hunt for why there is something rather than nothing. Her sustained enthusiasm carries the reader through the book. She is curious, bold, highly intelligent, and persistent. She is immersed in her topic and consistently asks insightful questions rather than being a passive recipient of what physicists say.
In college, Gefter focuses on philosophy and creative writing. “I was interested in how one can take these ideas and weave them into story, how to use narrative to bring meaning to the universe,” Gefter writes. Shortly after college, she finagles press badges for her and her father to attend the Science and the Ultimate Reality symposium, where they are excited for the opportunity to talk to John Wheeler, who coined the term “black hole.” His cryptic responses to their questions keep them searching for meaning for years. After the symposium, Gefter realizes that the access granted by being a journalist is just the ticket for studying physics without being a physicist. She can explore all her questions by being both inside and outside the physics community.
Gefter relates a story about Einstein’s fascination with a compass he received from his father, while Gefter received the idea of “nothing” from her dad. “My father, too, had offered me my first clue that reality is not what it seems. Only in my case the clue wasn’t an object but an idea, and instead of turning out to be Einstein I grew up to be a counterfeit journalist with more questions than answers. Still, it occurred to me now that the best gift a parent can give a child is a mystery.” Gefter and her father share information, science papers, ideas, and questions. Black and white pictures throughout the book are fun, personal candids that further reveal their close relationship. Few other personal relationships make it in the book, though her mother provides some refreshing practicality. She mentions a brother, but amid all the physics, the lack of intimates is odd for a memoir.
Gefter covers a heap of physics, including relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, black holes, and string theory. She inevitably ventures into philosophy as well. She provides excellent explanations of the physics with clarifying metaphors. Some of the most entertaining passages in Trespassing are the interactions of the physicists with one another and with Gefter. She moderates a debate between Leonard Susskind, one of the originators of string theory, and David Gross, a Nobel Prize winner. Another gathering of physicists devolves into outrage, confusion, and shouting about a new idea and the questions and the answers that spawn more questions. They keep coming up with more stuff to fix what they previously came up with. It’s fun to read.
The only equation that makes it in the book is E=mc2. It’s clean, simple, known, and easy to read. Physics equations are a sea of symbols and differential equations that basically form a language unto itself, but what is lost without the equations? Without them, it can sometimes seem to the reader like the physicists are just making stuff up rather than following the process of science. Physics is not all thought experiments; there are hours of calculations and missteps that we don’t see here, except briefly: “after two years of calculations Hawking arrived at a shocking conclusion.” Two years receives no commentary from Gefter, who moves quickly to the conclusion, thereby inviting the reader to make the very mistake she criticizes: “The key is to not mistake description for reality.”
After establishing her definition of reality as what’s invariant (that which isn’t observer-dependent), Gefter and her father jot down a list of the possible ingredients of ultimate reality on an IHOP napkin: space, time, gravity, light, and others. They work through the list, crossing off those that don’t make the cut. The list shrinks and shrinks until there’s nothing left. Hence, at the end of their journey, Gefter proposes that we live in a radically relational world where everything is observer-dependent.
As a memoir, Trespassing is short on introspection and, after the story is neatly wrapped up, doesn’t reveal what a radically relational world finally means to Gefter. Where is a little bit of the messiness of life and relationships? She alludes to the tragic history of Los Alamos briefly during their road trip, but little elsewhere. Physics doesn’t ponder questions of how to live life daily or how to treat other people, but in a book presented as memoir and physics, Gefter could reflect on the contrast and frequent incompatibility of contemplating the big questions of physics amidst daily life’s joys and struggles.
“Electrons are little stories we tell ourselves. Of course, we need stories … Structure alone doesn’t quench our existential thirst. We want meaning. And for our brains, meaning comes in the form of stories.” As a popular physics book, Gefter provides an exceedingly fun story that is thought provoking and large in scope and scale. Take some space and time to read it.
Amber D. Stoner is a writer and editor living in Minnesota. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, MinnPost.com, and the Eden Prairie News. She blogs at writingtogethermn.wordpress.com.