Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn

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Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, by Amanda Gefter, is a memoir of a girl on two simultaneous quests. One is to find the answer to the ultimate question about life, the universe, and everything—namely, why is there something rather than nothing? The other is to publish a book about it and become a legitimate, big-time author. She appears to have succeeded to a significant degree on both counts and does a good job telling the story about how she did it.

Gefter’s treatment of the physics is an excellent demonstration of why popular science writing shouldn’t be left to scientists alone. Whereas scientists tend to be wrapped up in their own particular theories (e.g., string theory), a good journalist is better positioned to take a step back and make an unbiased assessment of what all the different theories out there are saying (even if the lack of bias is partly due to a lack of technical understanding). Gefter has attempted to do this, both by studying cosmology extensively on her own and by interviewing the big players in the field.

By taking this approach, she has done a more convincing job than anyone else has yet done—as far as I know—of presenting a satisfying explanation of how everything that we experience (i.e., life, the universe, and everything) can truly come from nothing (and actually be nothing), even though we perceive it to be something. Using qualitative conceptual arguments, she presents a compelling case for how the universe arises from nothing, without requiring any external laws of physics, such as quantum mechanics or general relativity, to exist a priori to govern the behavior of the nothingness.

Her central thesis, as I interpret it, is that something can’t be fundamentally “real” unless it is invariant—that is, unless it exists in all reference frames. In other words, if a reference frame can be found in which a thing doesn’t exist, then that thing is not “real.” She begins with a list of candidate components of reality, such as space-time, particles, fields, and forces; and in the course of her interviews with the most respected physicists of our time, crosses each item off the list.

In the end, with everything crossed off of her list, she concludes that the universe is ultimately made of nothing—which is the only philosophically satisfying conclusion anyway. It is very important to note here that what Gefter means by “nothing” is not space, but actual nothingness—devoid of all properties whatsoever, including any set of governing mathematical rules. With the help of a certain physicist, she even goes so far as to suggest how the mere imposition of a boundary—which is itself nothing—creates information from nothing. This emergence of information evidently initiates a cascade from which everything emerges.

It is reminiscent, Gefter notes, of how, in the field of mathematics, the entire set of real numbers can be constructed from the empty set alone—i.e., from nothing. She also mentions other pleasing analogies with mathematics that can be drawn, not the least of which is the possibility that, in the spirit of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, no set of physical laws that can be constructed within physical reality could ever give a complete, external description of physical reality.

Gefter doesn’t spend much time talking about Zen, but she does mention it, and one cannot help but think that she has given a rather compelling case for the truth of Zen from an actual physics perspective. Nothing is everything, and everything is nothing. And no system can observe itself, for it would then cease to exist upon making the observation.

My own analogy is that a blank canvas, which contains nothing, also contains everything—in more than one sense. While still blank, the canvas retains the potential to become any of the infinitely many possible paintings that could conceivably be painted on it. Moreover, if you actually do paint every last one of the infinitely many possible paintings on the canvas, it will become blank again (i.e., pure white or black, depending on the medium). Perhaps our universe is just one of the infinitely many possibilities that exist simultaneously on the blank canvas of nothingness.

Though Gefter’s case is conceptually compelling, it is neither academically rigorous nor airtight, and she acknowledges this. Should some component of the universe be shown to be truly invariant, her core thesis would go out the window. And there are still a few points about which I don’t feel satisfied. For example, why can observers (which don’t necessarily have to be conscious) exist within nothing? (For supposedly it is the observer who creates the boundary that gives rise to information.) Can we really talk about “observers” and “boundaries” within nothingness without invoking some sort of governing system of definitions and rules? Are we really talking about nothing then?

The other part of Gefter’s quest—to become a bona fide science writer—is interesting and inspiring in itself. It’s not a rags-to-riches story, but it’s an excellent example of how it can be possible to attain seemingly unattainable goals. That’s what the title is really about. In the beginning, she was neither a scientist nor a writer. And so she was not just literally trespassing on Einstein’s lawn when she visited his old house in Princeton; she was, in carrying out her quest, venturing into territory where she didn’t rightly belong. But in the end, she earned her spot on the lawn.

Gefter’s success comes from four components that I have been meditating on recently: passion, discipline, assertiveness, and luck. Throughout her quest, she maintained a very intense passion, largely instilled by her father, for the ultimate questions about physical reality. She also demonstrated the discipline to stick to that quest over a period of several years—attending conferences, writing articles one at a time, interviewing physicists, keeping a detailed journal, and ultimately sitting down to write out the book itself. Assertiveness played an important role when, in situations where most people would have thought there was no hope trying, she nevertheless called up high-profile scientists and publishers to try to get her foot in the door—and it worked. Finally, of course, she had plenty of luck. More than anything else, she was lucky to have a father who planted and cultivated the seed of her passion and then provided the financial, intellectual, and emotional support necessary for her to set off on her quest.

Throughout the book, Gefter draws many clever parallels between the mysterious physical phenomena that she is investigating and things that are going on in her personal life. For example, physicists’ conclusion that it is inherently impossible to construct a consistent description of the universe that takes into account more than one point of view at a time—i.e., you can only have one observer—was a nice parallel with her reluctant decision to write the book on her own after the publisher rejected her proposal for a book by a father-daughter duo.

I did grow a bit tired of Gefter’s self-deprecating refrain about how she was an impostor, a fake who didn’t deserve to be present at the conferences she attended or at the magazines where she worked. I also grew a bit tired of the “Oh my God, I’m in the presence of one of the greatest physicists who ever lived!” exclamation that seemed to accompany every single interview she did. And I didn’t appreciate the dig she took—which seemed rather mean-spirited to me—at a waiter who said that he had also majored in philosophy of science. She was making an attempt to draw another clever parallel, contrasting the success she hoped to achieve with the waiter’s apparent lack of success; but the net effect was to shatter the image of humility she seemed to be working so hard to create throughout the rest of the text.

Nevertheless, Gefter did a fantastic job documenting her quest, and the overall picture that she paints of the present status of cosmology is far more satisfying than any other I’ve read—precisely because she takes into account many different physicists’ points of view. She begins by saying:

Reality is a huge mystery, and you have a choice to make. You can run from it, you can placate yourself with fairy tales, you can just pretend everything’s normal, or you can stare that mystery in the eye and try to solve it. If you are one of the brave ones to choose the latter, welcome to science. Science is the quest to solve the eternal riddle.

Then, at the end, she is able to say, “Physics isn’t the machinery behind the workings of the world; physics is the machinery behind the illusion that there is a world.” Before reading the book, I would have dismissed this statement as pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo based on feelings that surely have no grounding in an actual understanding of physics. But I am now convinced that it may be a deep and legitimate conclusion indeed—and I am very glad that I took the time to read her story.

(Thanks to my father for giving me the book.)

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