Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter

This book is thought-provoking.

When she was fifteen, Amanda Gefter’s father, while out to dinner at their favorite Chinese restaurant, asked her “How would you define nothing?” Her father had been thinking about the nature of reality and he had come to the conclusion that it was nothing. Or better said, Nothing. This question led Amanda on a journey, both of personal development and to understand the true nature of reality. She delved deep into what physics said about reality. Along the way, in her mind masquerading as a journalist, she interviewed and discussed physics with leading physicists. She delved deep into what the cutting edge of science said about the nature of reality. And, along the way, she discovered her own voice, writing a book detailing her journey.

Gefter’s knowledge and insight about the nature of reality, and the excitement she conveys as she learns it, is simply inspiring. As she tries to uncover what physics says objective reality truly is, she slowly finds, step by step, that nothing is objective. Beginning with relativity that said that time and gravity are relative, and through quantum mechanics, that tells us that even measurements are relative, she examines what we know, what the gaps in our knowledge are, and what that uncompromisingly leads us to conclude about reality. There is no objective reality. Every observer essentially has their own reality, their own definition of the universe.

She jumps into how that means a universe could arise out of literally nothing. As no observer can know everything about the universe, as our views are limited and finite, it puts bounds on the information we can each collect. That bound essentially leads to the formation of the universe, a shadow that arises out of nothingness. I don’t completely understand it, and not sure I buy it all, but the steps by which she gets there are all based on what our science tells us.

In any case, her examination of the science itself is fascinating. I was unaware of what the most recent developments in cosmology, string theory, and quantum mechanics were concluding. Her excitement in discovery each new twist and turn is infectious. And, along the way, she gives great perspectives of the leading thinkers in this area.

This book is humbling.

Gefter has no formal science training. Her father, though a medical doctor, is not a physicist. But, these two delve so deep into questions regarding the nature of reality, it is simply humbling for someone like me who has studied physics. Granted, I went in a different direction, focusing on the properties of atoms and materials, but still, that these two have the curiosity, the drive, and the deep intuition to really delve into these questions is inspiring. I’m inspired to try to delve deeper into my own fields, beyond the every day drivers of doing practical science. We’ll see if I’m able to follow through.

The ideas that Gefter explores, that she describes, are hard concepts  and I admit that I struggle with many of them. Most of them arise from simply considerations, typically from seeming paradoxes where some assumption leads to contradictions about how reality must be. In each case, those assumptions must be abandoned and soon we are left with very few. The chain of reasoning and evidence that leads to the final picture is well described, but they ideas are challenging. To fully grasp them, I know I will need to read further.

This book is touching.

Gefter is set on her quest by her father’s question and his own ruminations on the nature of reality. She is both accompanied and followed by her father on this quest as she makes it her own. But, the way Gefter and her father conspire as this journey unfolds, the way they discuss their most recent insights, the way they work together to delve into these deepest of questions, is, in some sense, maybe what all parents dream of. Gefter’s father inspires his daughter to undertake the quest of a lifetime. And she takes it beyond what he could have ever done on his own. The deep intellectual relationship between the two, the shared vision, is something that I could only dream of passing along to my own daughter.

This book is awesome.

The way Gefter explores the nature of reality, the way she starts on her quest knowing literally nothing about the physics of cosmology, quantum mechanics, and relativity, and reaches into the deepest understanding we have, is a great way to convey what we know about reality. She systematically crosses off elements of what might comprise reality and delves deeper and deeper into the seeming paradoxes that arise as our science progresses. I certainly learned a great deal, and the ideas presented are thought provoking in a way that is rare in such books. As opposed to other books on cosmology and string theory, this one doesn’t necessarily take a side or advocate for a certain perspective. Instead, Gefter is really trying to understand what we know and what science tells us about reality. And, in doing so, she produces one of the most entertaining and educational forays into modern physics I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

The ideas that arise from modern physics are mind bending. They push the limits of our ability to understand the world around us. They are beyond our wildest imagination. Science is often criticized for its lack of creativity, but modern physics has created a view of the world and reality that could never have simply been imagined, never dreamed up.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley, takes place in London, but a London of the late 1800s, a time when the Irish were rebelling against British rule. Nathaniel “Thaniel” Steepleton works at one of the government offices as a telegraph operator. His life changes, however, when a watch he mysteriously finds in his room at a boarding house saves his life from a bomb by an alarm going off at just the right time. This begins a long and twisting journey in which he befriends the maker of the watch, Keita Miro, a Japanese nobelman, inventor and one-time assistant to an ambassador. He also crosses paths with one Grace Carrow, an ambitious young woman wishing to embark on a career in science — she wishes to prove the existence of the aether — but is thwarted because, during that time, women could not pursue such careers.

The story revolves around the relationships between Thaniel, Keita, and Grace and is devoted to developing these characters. Keita, in particular, harbors a powerful secret that drives much of the plot. Along the way, Pulley evokes a London of over 100 years ago, having done her research on the people and places of 19th century Britain. Her use of language is very adept, using phrases such as “the part of himself he had amputated still twinged somtimes,” to describe how Thaniel feels about having to have given up piano to get a real job, and “the spare room was crooked, as though it had planned to be L-shaped but changed its mind at the last minute,” to describe Thaniel’s room. This kind of word play makes reading this novel a joy.

The central theme of the story revolves around fate. Why do things happen? What is the role of luck or happenstance on those events. Why and how do we end up where we go in life? Pulley has invented a clever fictional device to drive her exploration of these ideas, while also driving an exciting plot, one that becomes a thriller near the end.

Not only does Pulley explore questions of fate, but she also examines the role of science in society. Grace is a typical scientist, awkward, socially inept, and driven to understand. At one point, one of the characters tells her “Your science can save a man’s life, but imagination makes it worth living.” I might quibble with the implication that science excludes imagination (as implied by Richard Feynman, science requires great imagination, more so than many other fields as it is constrained by and must be consistent with reality). However, the point is that there are multiple facets of a full life and all are part of a life worth living.

 

Blindsight by Peter Watts

There are two types of science fiction. There is what one might call “soft” science fiction, in which the setting is some futuristic or advanced technological place, but there is no real effort to try to ground the science in, well, science. As has been said, advanced techology might be indistinguishable from magic, and soft science fiction doesn’t even try to distinguish. To me, Star Wars is the epitome of this. It is essentially a fantasy story taking place amongst the stars.

In contrast, hard science fiction tries to base its world building on sound scientific concepts. Of course, liberties always have to be taken, since, if you are writing about a far-off future or an alien civilization, we don’t know all of the relevant science and one has to invent something. But, hard science fiction tries to do its best to extrapolate from what we know rather than simply invent new stuff that is indistiguishable from magic.

Blindsight, by Peter Watts, is an excellent example of great hard science fiction. Without spoiling the plot, the story evolves around a crew of humans sent from the Earth to investigate what seems to be a signal from an alien ship. None of the humans are normal. They have all been modified in some way, or have special abilities that somehow came about naturally.

The plot is essentially a vehicle for a discussion on what makes a being intelligent. The human characters have had their mental states modified in some way — one can directly interface with machines, another has deliberately created multiple personalities residing in one head to create diversity directly in the mind, and another is a vampire, an ancient race that humans have somehow revived and who have a prey-predator relationship with humans and thus a different level of intelligence. Central to this discussion is whether a being needs to be self-aware to be intelligent. Are these concepts inherently connected, or can intelligence exist in a being that isn’t aware that it itself exists? I guess, vice versa, one can ask if self-awareness automatically implies some level of intelligence.

At the same time, what distinguishes different levels of intelligence? What relationships doing beings of different relationships have? In this story, vampires are higher on the food chain than humans, so are humans to them essentially what cows are to us? Are we a lower life form and thus suitable for a food source? If aliens are out there, if they are more advanced than us, how might they treat us? If there are superior beings, “why should man expect his prayer for mercy to be heard by what is above him when he shows no mercy to what is under him?”

Good fiction makes us think about big questions, whether it is about the nature of relationships or our place in the universe. Blindsight asks hard questions about what is intelligence and what does it mean for creatures of different levels of intelligence to interact. How should those roles be defined? And, ultimately, what makes us human? Sometimes these questions get buried underneath “technobabble” in which pseudoscientific jargon is used to create an air of the future (though Watts has done his research and bases his world on as much hard science as he can find). But, those questions are there and they certainly engage one’s brain. And, on top of that, the plot is engrossing to boot.

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

Peter Grant, the son of a British musician and an African immigrant, is a novice constable in London, about to get his first assignment. Not having shown any particular aptitude, he is resigned to a menial desk job. That is, until, while on the scene of a murder, he ends up talking with a ghost. This opens a whole new reality for him, and his colleagues, in which ghosts and river gods inhabit the shadows of London, pushing and pulling at the fabric of regular London society. Peter is found by a true magician, Thomas Nightingale, who is the lead, and only member, of a special police division charged with investigating supernatural occurances. Together, they investigate a series of murders that seem to be connected to some pissed off ghost. At the same time, they have to prevent factions of different river gods and goddesses from warring with one another. Along the way, Peter begins his journey to become a magician in his own right.

Set in modern London, Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch has a style that brings London to life, with both casual but familiar descriptions of various parts of the city. Aaronovitch also does an adept job of balancing a world in which magic and science coincide. One of the interesting threads is how Peter applies his more scientific view of the world to his discovery and understanding of the magical side of reality. Though, there are a few things that are a stretch. At one point, Peter looks at a pulverized circuit board under a microscope and determines it contained silicon and a few impurities. In reality, it would take the most powerful electron microscopes and significant analysis to determine something like this. No regular optical microscope could do it.

I hesitated to read this book only because it is the first in a relatively long series, something like 6 or 8 books. However, this was both an entertaining and relatively easy read with reasonably intelligent and surprising plot twists to keep the plot moving along. The world that Aaronovitch has created is full of energy and intelligence, enough so that I am tempted to keep on following the adventures of Constable Peter Grant.

 

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick

These days, celebrities come in the form of musicians, actors, sometimes politicians, and athletes. They draw lots of attention and, in many cases, lots of money. They impact our lives, creating the music and films we listen to and watch, the sporting feats that entertain us, and, in particular, the policies that govern our lives. However, conspicuously missing in this list are scientists. Arguably, scientists make more profound and lasting changes that have greater impact on our lives, providing the fundamental discoveries and insights that become the technologies that transform our world, our way of work, and even how we are entertained. But, they don’t become celebreties. They are not widely recognized in society. Most of us would be hard pressed to name more than a few scientists, and most of them are known more for their advocacy than their actual science. Think Neil deGrasse Tyson. Or Stephen Hawking. How many more can most of us think of?

Maybe one of the last great scientists that also captivated the imagination of society as a whole was Richard Feynman. Even so, I didn’t know about him as a kid, even as I got into science and was going down a path that ultimately led to a career in science. In my case, I think my first exposure was Feynman’s role on the panel investigating the destruction of the Challenger space shuttle. But, even then, I didn’t know anything about his science.

It wasn’t until later, when I actually began studying physics in earnest, that I started learning something about Feynman’s science and life. That was through his two semi-autobiographical books: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?. These are more anecdotes of his life rather than detailed accounts of his science, and as such they contributed greatly to his celebrity. He was one of the most respected scientists in the world, but he was also a character, a man full of life, full of stories that let people see a side that wasn’t just the science, a side they could relate to.

I admit that I still don’t know much about Feynman’s science. I went a different direction in physics and his work always felt over my head. I did take one of the volumes of his Lectures on Physics with me when I lived in Spain for a year, hoping to delve more deeply into my studies, but I got distracted by the bar scene in San Sebastian. Of course, I encountered Feynman again in graduate school, but only briefly as my own studies agin took me in a different path.

That said, reading James Gleick’s biography of Feynman, Genius, let me “connect” with the mystique and science of Feynman in a way I hadn’t done before. Gleick intermixes Feynman’s personal life with the scientific advances he was making, including describing the struggles that any scientist encounters to some degree when they are embarking on pushing the frontiers of what is known. At times, Feynman struggled to find a topic that inspired him and, at others, struggled to push that science forward at the pace he really wanted to. At least later in life, Feynman had the luxury, due to his past success, to take his time to work at his pace and on problems of profound interest to him. He didn’t have to worry about the modern “publish or perish” paradigm that stifles so many. It makes me wonder how Feynman would have done in today’s environment.

Gleick does describe many of the profound contributions Feynman made to science, though admittedly they still go over my head. I would hope that if I had the time to devote to understanding his work, I might be able to, but the way Gleick describes how Feynman was able to make his leaps of insight and how he saw the fundamental nature of the universe, one can’t help but feel that Feynman was simply one of those people who truly is a genius, someone who’s mind works in either a different or faster way that allows him to see things others simply cannot see.

Even for a non-scientist, I think this biography would be an excellent read, one that conveys the excitement of scientific discovery as well as the hard work that is involved. It also captures that spark that we are all born with and we all have as kids — that spark that causes us to ask questions about the world around us, that spark that many of us seem to loose as we grow older. Gleick captures that spark in Feynman and the fact that he never lost it, he never stopped asking those questions.

Feynman also challenged those around him. He would ask provocative questions, such as If all scientific knowledge were lost in a cataclysm, what single statement would preserve the most information for the next generation of creatures? Feynman’s answer to this question was: “All things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.” It is essentially these interactions that form the foundation of my own research, how atoms interact to form materials and how those materials respond when the atoms are disrupted.

The celebrity of Feynman, and of scientists like him, has seemingly diminished. Gleick gives two reasons for this. First, there has been some disillusionment with science since the heyday after World War II, with the advent of nuclear weapons and our ability to essentially self-distruct. Further, the answers science provides in areas such as biology seem less black and white than they used to be, with the recommendations changing with each generation of scientists. This is in part because biology is that much harder than particle physics. Second, with more wide spread access to education and more people becoming scientists, fewer people stand out. As Gleick says, “When there are a dozen Babe Ruths, there are none.”

This book is a fascinating tour of both science in one of its most exciting and dynamic times, when quantum mechanics was being discovered and fleshed out, as well as one of the leading physicists of the time. His personal life was certainly as interesting as his science. A leading scientist at Los Alamos during the development of the first atomic bomb, his sick wife resided in nearby Albuquerque, suffering from tuberculosis, and dying at a very young age. This left Feynman personally adrift, particularly in his relationships with women, even while he contiuned to produce some of the most revolutionary science. All scientists are, at least so far, human, and have their own personal struggles. How these humans develop science is one of the fascinating aspects of this book. The insight into the creative process, the way science progresses, is a story everyone can appreciate. One of Feynman’s insights that resonates with me is that science is a deeply creative endeavor, but, “scientific creativity is imagination in a straightjacket.” As opposed to art, in science “whatever we are allowed to imagine… must be consistent with everything else we know.”

As Feynman described it, science is not an absolute. “The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty… we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure — that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes that this is true.” He contrasted this doubt with the certainty that is often characteristic of religious beliefs. Science doesn’t provide certainty, it provides a framework in which to interrogate the nature of the universe.

In the end, this is a great book about a fascinating man and his remarkable contributions to science. Getting a glimpse of how a very human person who also had one of the greatest scientific minds approached his work and found his way to these great insights is both fascinating and humbling. It certainly wants me to learn more about other great scientists.

 

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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