Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn

BOOK: Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn
5.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Copyright © 2014 by Amanda Gefter

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Bantam Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.

and the H
colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

“The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © 1995 by Maria Kodama, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.

Collected Fictions
by Jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © Maria Kodama, 1998. Translation and notes copyright © Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Canada Books Inc.

“The Aleph” from
Collected Fictions
by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Andrew Hurley, copyright © 1998 by Maria Kodama; translation copyright © 1998 by Penguin Putnam Inc. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

Excerpts from “Station Island” and “The First Gloss” from
Opened Ground:
Selected Poems 1966–1996
by Seamus Heaney. Copyright © 1998 by Seamus Heaney.

Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Excerpts from “Station Island” and “The First Gloss” from
Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966–1996
by Seamus Heaney © Estate of Seamus Heaney and reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.


Gefter, Amanda.

Trespassing on Einstein's lawn : a father, a daughter, the meaning of nothing, and the beginning of everything / Amanda Gefter.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references.

ISBN 978-0-345-53143-8 (hardback : acid-free paper)—ISBN 978-0-345-53963-2
(ebooks) 1. Physics—Philosophy. 2. Beginning. 3. Quantum theory. 4. Gefter, Amanda—
Anecdotes. I. Title.

QC6.G34 2014



Jacket design and illustration: David G. Stevenson, based on images © Sashkin/Shutterstock (grass path) and NASA (starfield)


“We used to think that the world exists ‘out there' independent of us, we the observer safely hidden behind a one-foot thick slab of plate glass, not getting involved, only observing. However, we've concluded in the meantime that that isn't the way the world works. In fact we have to smash the glass, reach in.”


A Note to the Reader

The book you're about to read contains cutting-edge physics packaged in a personal memoir, which spans the last seventeen years of my life. As such, it is inevitably subject to the failures of human memory, which I always hear neuroscientists claiming to be pathetically unreliable. Nevertheless, in reconstructing scenes and dialogue, I have done my best to keep everything as accurate as possible—by consulting my own notes and photographs, talking with others who were on the scene, and, most important, asking my mother, who somehow manages to remember my life in far greater detail than I ever do. My conversations with physicists have all been transcribed directly from recordings, though edited for ease of reading and length. In some cases, I've combined multiple interviews with the same physicist into a single conversation. When necessary, I've adjusted the chronology of scenes to allow me to present the physics in a logical, meaningful way. I've spent seventeen years wandering a tortuous, circuitous road trying to piece together a deep understanding of physics and the nature of reality; I figured I'd try to relay what I've learned in a slightly more straightforward book. Of course, I could have opted for perfect accuracy, but then there'd be far too many scenes of me watching bad TV, quietly reading, or sleeping for hours on end. Plus, it would take me way more than seventeen years to write and it would take you way more than seventeen years to read, and I think by the end we'd all agree it probably wasn't the best option. The logician Kurt Gödel proved that any form of self-reference is plagued by uncertainty, and I can't think of a better example than a memoir. Still, I have worked to produce a book that rings deeply true. We are in search of ultimate reality, after all.


Crashing the Ultimate Reality Party

It's hard to know where to begin. What even counts as a beginning? I could say my story begins in a Chinese restaurant, circa 1995, when my father asked me a question about nothing. More likely it begins circa 14 billion years ago, when the so-called universe was allegedly born, broiling and thick with existence. Then again, I've come to suspect that
story is only beginning right now. I realize how weird that must sound. Trust me, it gets weirder.

As for my story, it probably begins the day I lied and said I was a journalist. Not that I knew at the time that it was a beginning. There's no way I could have known how far the whole thing would go. That I'd soon be hanging out with the world's most brilliant physicists. That I'd turn a minor deception into an entire career. I could never have guessed that I'd be getting emails from Stephen Hawking, lunching with Nobel laureates, or stalking a man in a Panama hat. I never once imagined driving through the desert with my father to Los Alamos, or poring over fragile manuscripts in search of clues to a cosmic riddle. If I had stopped to think about it, I couldn't have foreseen that one little lie, one impulsive decision to go somewhere I didn't belong, would launch an all-consuming hunt for ultimate reality.

But the strangest part is that I no longer believe any of these things
is the beginning. Because after everything that's happened, after everything I've learned, I've come to see that this story begins with you. With you opening a book, hearing the soft crack of a spine, the whisper of a turning page. Don't get me wrong—I'd love to say that this is my story. My universe. My book. But after everything I've been through, I'm pretty certain that it's yours.

I was working in a magazine office when the lie was born. That was the idea, anyway—“working” in an “office.” In reality I was stuffing envelopes in the dusty one-bedroom apartment of a guy named Rick. The idea was that I worked for
magazine. The reality was that I worked for
Manhattan Bride.

covered New York's socialite charity-event circuit, but the magazine was bordering on extinction when I first took the job, and it was laid to rest shortly after.
Rick's newly launched glossy bridal magazine, on the other hand, was alive and well. So even though I spent most days fielding calls from florists and cake decorators, and one long afternoon scowling in an obscenely puffy wedding gown, I continued to tell people that I worked for
magazine. It sounded better.

I was there in the office, wondering if I could use the rubber-band ball to fling myself back to Brooklyn, when I spotted the article in
The New York Times.
John Archibald Wheeler, leading light of theoretical physics, poet laureate of existence, had just turned ninety and physicists from around the world were heading to Princeton to celebrate.
“This weekend,” the article read, “the Really Big Questions that Dr. Wheeler loves will be on the table when prominent scientists gather at a conference center here in his honor for a symposium modestly titled ‘Science and Ultimate Reality.' ”

As it happened, I was burning to ask Wheeler one particular Really Big Question. If only I were a “prominent scientist.” I slumped back in my seat and gazed absentmindedly at an old
cover hanging on the wall.

And then it hit me.

I waited until Rick left to get lunch, then picked up the phone, called the people in charge of publicity for the conference, and told them, in the most professional voice I could muster, that I was a journalist calling from
magazine and I was interested in covering the event. “Oh, of course, we would love you to come,” they said.

“Great,” I said. “Put me down plus one.”

I was utterly certain that these kind public relations people had never heard of
magazine. Most people in New York, let alone the rest of the world, had never heard of any such publication, but when I told people I worked for
magazine they always said, “Oh, of course!”
magazine is just a name that everyone thinks they know. Only they don't. And that, I realized, was my ticket to Science and Ultimate Reality.

I was equally certain that these same PR people assumed that my “plus one” would be a fellow journalist or a photographer there to shoot pictures as I covered my big story. I picked up the phone and called my father. “Clear your schedule for this weekend. We're going to Princeton.”

My sudden urge to crash a physics conference with my father can be traced to a conversation seven years earlier.

I was fifteen at the time, and my father had taken me out for dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant near our home in a small suburb just west of Philadelphia. Usually we ate there with my mother and older brother, but this time it was just the two of us. I was pushing a cashew around my plate with a chopstick when he looked at me intently and asked, “How would you define nothing?”

It was a strange dinner-table question, to be sure, but not entirely out of character for my father, who, thanks to his days as an intellectual hippie Buddhist back in the sixties, was prone to posing Zen-koan-like questions.

I had discovered that side of him the day I came across his college yearbook, flipping pages only to discover a photo of my father sitting shirtless in a lotus pose reading a copy of Alan Watts's
This Is It
hilarious sight considering that these days he was a radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, where he not only wore a shirt every day but often sported a well-coordinated tie, too. He had made a name for himself by explaining how a whole array of lung diseases were caused by a single kind of fungus, and by inventing the disposable nipple marker—a sort of pastie that you stick on someone's nipple when they're getting a chest X-ray so the radiologists don't mistake the nipple's shadow for a tumor. But behind all the fungus and nipples, that groovy lotus-posing dude was still in there waiting for a chance to speak up. When he did, he would offer unlikely morsels of parental guidance, like, “There's something about reality you need to know. I know it seems like there's you and then there's the rest of the world outside you. You feel that separation, but it's all an illusion. Inside, outside—it's all just one thing.”

As a dogmatically skeptical teenager, I had my own Zen-like practice of zoning out when adults offered me advice, but when it came to my father I listened—maybe because when he spoke it sounded less like an authoritarian command and more like the confession of a secret.
It's all an illusion.
Now here he was speaking in that same quietly intense tone, leaning in so as not to let the other diners overhear, asking me how I'd define nothing.

BOOK: Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn
5.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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