Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything

Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY KIRKUS REVIEWSIn a memoir of family bonding and cutting-edge physics for readers of Brian Greene's The Hidden Reality and Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?, Amanda Gefter tells the story of how she conned her way into a career as a science journalist--and wound up hanging out, talking shop, and butting heads with the world's m...

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Title:Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything
Author:Amanda Gefter
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Edition Language:English

Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything Reviews

  • James Easterson

    One of the best books I've read in quite awhile. This book takes you down the rabbit-hole of cosmology and theoretical physics via the trippy world of quantum mechanics. First of all I'll say that I am not convinced of all the conclusions here but I accept it as a valid argument and my differences lay mostly due to my own biases and philosophies which I see no reason to abandon at this point. Secondly I will state the this book covers the all current theories exceedingly well and provided a desc

    One of the best books I've read in quite awhile. This book takes you down the rabbit-hole of cosmology and theoretical physics via the trippy world of quantum mechanics. First of all I'll say that I am not convinced of all the conclusions here but I accept it as a valid argument and my differences lay mostly due to my own biases and philosophies which I see no reason to abandon at this point. Secondly I will state the this book covers the all current theories exceedingly well and provided a description of them I have found no where else and has greatly improved my understanding of them. For the most part I kept up with this book fairly well, though it did get beyond me at points due to terminologies and some theories on physics. The author does an amazing job, and her story captivates! I could not recommend this book more highly! An awesome read! No, I don't accept it all, but so what. That's just me. Personally, I think ultimate reality is a bit deeper than physics alone and think that each observer is just part of a greater whole, rather than the whole is each observer dependent.

  • Matt Kimball

    Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn is a braid of three strands of narrative -- one part conceptual tour of modern physics, one part philosophical rumination on the metaphysical implications of the pure weirdness that is modern physics, and one part memoir and love-letter to the author's father, with all three modes compelling throughout.

    Gefter's journey starts in a Chinese restaurant at the age of fifteen, as her father asks her, "How would you define nothing?" Not content to keep the discussion sm

    Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn is a braid of three strands of narrative -- one part conceptual tour of modern physics, one part philosophical rumination on the metaphysical implications of the pure weirdness that is modern physics, and one part memoir and love-letter to the author's father, with all three modes compelling throughout.

    Gefter's journey starts in a Chinese restaurant at the age of fifteen, as her father asks her, "How would you define nothing?" Not content to keep the discussion small, Amanda and her father wonder what it really would mean if the Universe were filled with nothingness -- a completely homogeneous state in which the things we think of as something (Matter? Spacetime? Quarks? Strings?) aren't, or perhaps cease to be meaningful concepts when in a boundaryless soup of blended Universe. Could this homogeneous state, the "H-State", be some sort of clue to the origin of existence?

    From this seed, Amanda's journey begins. Early on, she poses as a journalist at a physics conference, simply to get access to the best minds in physics so they might answer a few questions about the mechanisms of how something could come from nothing. Later, her charades become reality as she is hired to write physics coverage for New Scientist magazine. In each stage of her journey, she interweaves the principles of modern physics with her own life story. Early on, she explains special and general relativity, followed by Thomas Young's mind-bending double-slit light experiment. A few chapters further, she contrasts the philosophical concept of scientific realism with its competing philosophies while in the same chapter narrating her battle unseen rats -- rats which may or may not exist -- in her tiny London flat. And later, we get deep into modern physics with Hawking radiation, the difference in perspective between an observer crossing the event horizon of a black hole with one stationed safely outside the event horizon, d-brane theory and the holographic principle, all raising new and more disturbing questions about what reality is, exactly.

    It's an exhilarating ride, and though it's deeply rooted in science, one might even call it a spiritual journey. Certainly some of the biggest questions about life, the universe, and the meaning of it all are raised, and very speculatively and tentatively suggested to have answers. For this reader, it was even a little comforting to work through it all. I've been saddened by the idea of the entropy death of the universe ever since I learned of the concept, even though the timescale for such an event is so remote as to be comically irrelevant to my life, and I've been deeply troubled by some interpretations of quantum mechanics which seem to imply a special role for consciousness in physics, and I was actually assuaged and had my mood lifted by Gefter's vision here in relation to both of these concepts, going into my exact reasoning here would be mild spoilers, so I'll avoid them and let other readers experience the journey on their own.

    I'd unreservedly recommend Gefter's book to folks with an interest in modern physics and a bit of a bent towards philosophy. As one of the many physicists mentioned in the book suggests, perhaps philosophy is too important to be left only to the philosophers.

  • Lisa Nikolits

    A fascinating, surprisingly gripping read! I say surprisingly because I wouldn’t generally expect quantum mechanics, quarks, boson particles, string theory and the like to hold me hostage for an entire weekend of reading but I couldn’t put this book down! I’m no physicist (not even remotely) but I found the book to be accessible and clear. I have always been interested in the topic but I had never found a text that I could understand, relate to and enjoy, like this one. The memoir format worked

    A fascinating, surprisingly gripping read! I say surprisingly because I wouldn’t generally expect quantum mechanics, quarks, boson particles, string theory and the like to hold me hostage for an entire weekend of reading but I couldn’t put this book down! I’m no physicist (not even remotely) but I found the book to be accessible and clear. I have always been interested in the topic but I had never found a text that I could understand, relate to and enjoy, like this one. The memoir format worked well to create a personalized structure within which the (potentially) dry facts could be housed. The main character’s relationship with her parents, and her father in particular, was very heart-warming. I learned a lot from this book and it was refreshing to engage with a text that sparked my brain cells into some real thinking!

  • Jon Schull

    Really a wonderful book on many levels. Wonderful writing, wonderful people, wonderful wonder, and (apparently) a wonderful universe.

    I wrote her a fan letter, which I almost never do....

    Dear Ms Gefter,

    Congratulations on your book. I enjoyed and admired it tremendously and look forward to the next volume of what I hope will be a continuing saga. Your work is not done!

    Although I now work on human computer interaction in Rochester, NY, I taught Introductory and Biological Psychology at Haverford C

    Really a wonderful book on many levels. Wonderful writing, wonderful people, wonderful wonder, and (apparently) a wonderful universe.

    I wrote her a fan letter, which I almost never do....

    Dear Ms Gefter,

    Congratulations on your book. I enjoyed and admired it tremendously and look forward to the next volume of what I hope will be a continuing saga. Your work is not done!

    Although I now work on human computer interaction in Rochester, NY, I taught Introductory and Biological Psychology at Haverford College from 1980-1992, I frequently visit family there, and of course the Hunan restaurant is a long time favorite. It so happens that in those days, I wrote my only other fan-letter to an author; I suggested to Freeman Dyson that the problem of unknowable other universes was similar to the problem of other minds. You're in good company in my book!

    Needless to say, I didn't understand much of what you discuss, but I do have a few questions / comments that might be useful. I realize that these may be coals to Newcastle, so I'll be brief. But I'd be happy to discuss further if they are useful to you.

    Am I correct that the zen-like summary of your story is that "the only observer-independent invariant is that there is no observer-independent invariant"? If so, the paradox might be telling us something. What kind of gauge theory could reconcile the horns of that dilemma?

    Are you familiar with Gregory Bateson and his discussions of information theory? If not, I think you will enjoy Steps to an Ecology of Mind, especially the metalogues, and the Korzybski lecture. Here's my own gloss on the Korzybski lecture, to try to make the relevance to your work clear. (It's been about 20 years since I pondered the original text, so forgive any inaccuracies you may find when you get back to the orginal source.)

    Korzybski is famous for his observation that "the map is not the territory", and that maps (and maps of maps) are the only "things" we can know. Bateson (who participated in the Macy conferences that gave birth to information theory and systems theory) is famous for talking about information as "a difference that makes a difference". He points out that bits (and patterns which are collections of differences) are dimensionless non-things that nonetheless can capture observations of differences in the territory. When those differences are organized into patterns, they become maps (which preserve relationships in the territory, but should not be confused with the territory, in part because many different maps can be made of the same ultimately unknowable territory).

    Implicit in Bateson's writing (I think) but never articulated, is this further extrapolation. The difference a difference makes is dependent on the position of the observer. A red light means "stop" at an intersection, but means something else in th red light district. Patterns--the differences made, the maps we perceive--are in the eye of the beholder. There is a theory of meaning in there. And thanks to your book, I realize there might be a theory of cosmology in there somewhere too. (Or a pony.)

    The other book I want to make sure you're familiar with is the Laws of Form by G. Spencer Brown. Maddeningly cryptic at times, it is all about logical divisions and how they spawn a universe of meaning (or structure, or something), which always collapses into true or false. It might be worth revisiting with quantum logic, which I do not pretend to understand.

    Finally, I thought you might enjoy seeing how the computer language Python deals with a few of the fundamentals you discuss.

    In python a simple data structure is a list, denoted by two closed brackets: e.g., [1,2,3]

    # This is a comment

    # Here is an empty list

    emptyList = [] # a single equal = assigns a value

    # The length of an empty list is 0

    len([]) == 0

    #True #a double equal == assesses equality: thus, is the length of [ ] equal to 0?

    # But the empty set is not nothing. It's greater than False and it's greater than True and its greater than any mere number

    False < True < 100 < []

    #True

    # And you can indeed build up numbers and ordinality from them

    len( [[]] ) == 1

    #True

    len([ [], [] ] ) ==2

    #True

    [ [], [], [] ] > [ [], [] ]

    #True

    Thanks again to you and your father for creating such wonderful and human work.

  • D.L. Morrese

    What is real? Really real? Real for everyone everywhere? This is essentially the philosophical question Amanda Gefter is exploring in this truly unique book. It's part memoir, part philosophy, and part science. It's a narration of her personal quest to find an answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. It's a story about how she finagles a job as a science journalist in order to talk to some of the most eminent people working in theoretical physics today, and it's an

    What is real? Really real? Real for everyone everywhere? This is essentially the philosophical question Amanda Gefter is exploring in this truly unique book. It's part memoir, part philosophy, and part science. It's a narration of her personal quest to find an answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. It's a story about how she finagles a job as a science journalist in order to talk to some of the most eminent people working in theoretical physics today, and it's an exploration of the metaphysical implications of some of their ideas. (Reviewers note to reader: Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the ultimate nature of reality. It's kind of like real physics, especially theoretical physics, but without all the messy math and testability requirements.)

    I write (soft) science fiction, but I'm not a scientist. Relativity seemed rational enough to me (after some mental gymnastics), but many of the implications of quantum mechanics boggled my mind. It could make accurate predictions, but it never really made sense. It was like a superposition of 'true' and 'bat-crap crazy'. After joining Amanda on her search in the pages of this book, I feel I have a better intuitive grasp of entanglement, wave-particle duality, the uncertainty principle, and entropy than those I possessed before. My shaky understanding may still be dead wrong, of course, but at least I have some framework to give these ideas structure now.

    This would have been enough for me to proclaim this a great science book for nonscientists. But it has more.

    She shows us some of the major physicists of our time not as embodiments of their ideas but as real people who interact with the world around them much as we of lesser intellect do. They have personalities, egos, disagreements, and quirks. They are real people who also just happen to be brilliant scientists. As she related her interviews with them, I thought about young students who might be reading this and drawing inspiration from it. We sometimes put great achievers on pedestals, implying that greatness is out of reach for us 'normal' people. Gefter brings them down to earth, showing us their humanity and thereby reminding us that they are not so different from the rest of us.

    I think this book also reminds us of the tenuous relationship between theory, experiment, and the 'reality' behind them. Experiments yield data and theories provide beautiful equations, but what are they telling us about the underlying reality (assuming there is some)? This seems largely open to interpretation, at least on the quantum level. Yeah, the math works, but what does it MEAN? Is the 'thing' found 'real' or is it just a data point that tells us about a relationship with other data points from a particular point of view? Apparently, the answers depend on the questions asked, and if those answers seem contradictory, it may be because some of our underlying assumptions are wrong.

    Some books about science suggest that scientists are simply fine tuning, adding details to the standard model, and working out a few remaining unknowns, such as the nature of dark energy or whatever. Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn, I think, is telling us something entirely different. There are still a great number of things to learn and new theories needed to make sense of them. Science is not almost done. It has barely begun. There remains much to discover and understand.

    I found this book informative, thought provoking, and entertaining. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in science and philosophy.

  • Elnur “Filbala”

    What is ultimately real? — Amanda Gefter asks in her book and offers the answer: only what is invariant in any frame of reference is ultimately real. She composes the list of possible invariants, among them particles, fundamental forces, spacetime, and even the universe itself. During her quest for the ultimate reality she crosses every one of them out of the list.

    I have to say that I found this book fascinating. Its ideas of radical observer-dependency — that nothing is invariant and ultimately

    What is ultimately real? — Amanda Gefter asks in her book and offers the answer: only what is invariant in any frame of reference is ultimately real. She composes the list of possible invariants, among them particles, fundamental forces, spacetime, and even the universe itself. During her quest for the ultimate reality she crosses every one of them out of the list.

    I have to say that I found this book fascinating. Its ideas of radical observer-dependency — that nothing is invariant and ultimately real — deeply resonated both with my worldview as well as with ideas and sources I’ve been coming across.

    The only thing that confused me is that the author considers herself an ontic structural realist. Does this mean that she believes in some invariant, observer-independent structure out there? In that case we end up with realism: the world is external and fixed, has certain inherent structure, which we discover via experiment and math, describe with theories which can succeed each other, but nevertheless are asymptotically more and more accurate descriptions of the world as it is. In her book, Gefter refers to the ideas of eminent physicist John Archibald Wheeler, but I don’t think he shared this vision. After all, when all invariants are gone, is the structure what is to stay? In absence of space, time and even the universe, the structure of what? Isn’t a structure, being part of the reality, meant to be a result of the interaction between an observer and the world?

    I’m wondering whether the author encountered the matter of metaphor in her studies. Having a degree in Philosophy of Science, Gefter is probably aware of growing recognition of metaphor’s role in reasoning. Metaphor is not just a figure of speech anymore, not mere ornament of language, but a cornerstone of human cognition that defines how we think, act and communicate. All our abstract concepts, including the most fundamental physical ones, have been shown to be metaphorical. Theodore L. Brown in his book “Making Truth: Metaphor in Science” clearly illustrates how progress in science is largely a succession of metaphors. In “Physics as Metaphor,” Roger S. Jones shows space, time, matter and number to be the “cardinal metaphors” of physics, the very glue that holds it all together.

    Yes, of course, ontic structural realist could say, but metaphors are just stories, our ways of understanding the world. Stories are different descriptions of reality and shouldn’t be mistaken for different realities. Stories can change, but the underlying reality, its mathematical structure always remains the same. The philosopher and conceptual metaphors theorist Mark Johnson would argue: “It is often said that mature theories will use only mathematics and formal logic, thereby supposedly transcending metaphor. But both logic and mathematics are based on large numbers of conceptual metaphors that define their most fundamental concepts and operations. Mathematizing science doesn’t eliminate metaphor.” “Where Mathematics Comes From” is a comprehensive illustration of mathematics’ metaphorical foundations.

    There is a large and growing evidence of metaphor’s constitutive role in philosophical and scientific thinking. There are voices calling for the view that all knowledge is metaphorical. More radically still, some thinkers, including famous scientist Gregory Bateson, give metaphor not only epistemological, but also ontological status, viewing it as a feature of both human mind and nature itself. The most recent and quite remarkable example of such approach to metaphor is an ambitious and thought-provoking book “Missing Link: The Evolution of Metaphor and the Metaphor of Evolution” by Canadian poet and critic Jeffery Donaldson.

    But probably the most original ideas in this camp belong to the philosopher Cathy J. Wheeler. In the short article “Question With No Answer, Or: Reality as Literalism and as Metaphor” she offers her vision: reality is what the universe appears to be through its sensitivities (by which she presumably means observer-participators). “The thoughts, experiences, and images that take shape within them are reality itself.”

    It’s strikingly similar to notions of genesis by observership and participatory universe — the core ideas of what I believe was John Wheeler’s vision. This is probably some kind of synchronicity, as Cathy Wheeler and her famous namesake are not related in any way.

    Similar ideas can be found in other authors. Among them: Schrödinger’s “The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one;” Skolimowski’s “Outer walls of the cosmos are the inner walls of the mind;” and the concluding thought of Gefter’s book: “Existence is what nothing looks like from the inside.”

    There is one crucial thing, however, that makes Cathy Wheeler’s approach different — metaphor. Being a circular relationship between the universe and its sensitivities, reality, according to her, is itself metaphorical: “Metaphor is no longer a contained and unreal product of human minds, but an act of the universe itself, bringing together things that have never before mingled or producing new juxtapositions and interactions among old companions. This sort of metaphor results in reality, not unreality. Any thought or image that takes form within a sensitivity is reality, whether this particular sense of reality lasts for a millisecond or a billion years, whether it occurs within one sensitivity or many.”

    Thus, for Cathy Wheeler, metaphor is not a way of the separated mind to understand independent, single reality. As the line between observer and observed is blurring, reality and our perception of it become one and the same. Metaphor then is a way how various aspects of the universe interact, manifesting as definite reality. “Reality as metaphor is multiple and mutable. The universe keeps coming together in different configurations, each one producing a sense of reality ‘as if’ this is how the world is.”

    The universe was a machine yesterday, it’s the Big Bang expansion today, it may be a hologram or information tomorrow. Or a simulation, maybe. But whatever it is, we should remember that, as Norman O. Brown said, “all that is, is metaphor.” No matter whether in epistemological or ontological sense.

    There can be no theory of everything. No final destination from where we can say: “This is how the world really is.” Cathy Wheeler put it better than I could: “All reality is metaphorical […]. The universe takes form ‘as if’ there are certain things that do not ‘really’ exist, or that are [appearances] of other things, or that are mistakes, as well as ‘as if’ certain things are simply how things are.”

    Of course, taking reality as metaphor is a metaphor itself. A strange loop. We never get beyond metaphor. We never get to ultimate reality. We never get outside. What we call “outside” is another part of “inside” (and both, we must not forget, are metaphors, a consequence of our understanding of space, our very being in the world). Like Ouroboros biting its own tail, we can’t escape Gödel’s spell. We shouldn’t. Instead, we can celebrate metaphor as the universe “realizing” itself — coming into existence as being some, but not the only way — through us. M is for metaphor?

  • Jan

    Amanda Gefter is cute, charming, and whip smart. Provoked by her father's question about "Nothing" at age 15, she went on, through massive amounts of private reading in physics, philosophy, and cosmology, to become an amazing science journalist. This book tells the story of that journey.

    I needed the glossary at the end of the book. The definitions are written in a concise, accessible fashion, so it really did help me understand the theories she explored over the years. Even with the glossary ha

    Amanda Gefter is cute, charming, and whip smart. Provoked by her father's question about "Nothing" at age 15, she went on, through massive amounts of private reading in physics, philosophy, and cosmology, to become an amazing science journalist. This book tells the story of that journey.

    I needed the glossary at the end of the book. The definitions are written in a concise, accessible fashion, so it really did help me understand the theories she explored over the years. Even with the glossary handy, I needed the other recent readings I've done on the topics she covers in order to obliquely grasp the discussion.

    So, can a person read it just for the story of Gefter's journey? Probably not, but I can tell you all that physics and philosophy goes down a whole lot easier when embedded in the story of a young girl's quirky journey to an unlikely career outcome. Without a doubt this woman is smart, but she is also a great example of becoming brilliant by diligently pursuing knowledge and understanding.

    I reserve my five-star ratings for books I will press upon my friends, insisting they MUST read this. I am pressing this on my husband so he can talk about it with me. I think I will also press it on my son. But I doubt I'd strengthen bonds by pressing it on many others. So, an "advised" five stars.

  • Jen Jen

    Wow !!! I'm so impressed with this book. I came to it for a little info on John Wheeler, and I found that and so much more. Anyone concerned with the nature of reality and interested in the physics behind the search would enjoy this.

  • Peter Mcloughlin

    I can't help that the title of the book "trespassing on Einstein's lawn" is a metaphysical jibe at realism. The author is fascinated at that boundary where physics and metaphysics (in philosophy not new age) and is trespassing on Einstein's realism (god's eye view of the universe in relativity). The book has a lot to say about the frontiers of physics and goes into an exploration of the metaphysical implications as well. We go on a guided tour told through a first person memoir of modern physic

    I can't help that the title of the book "trespassing on Einstein's lawn" is a metaphysical jibe at realism. The author is fascinated at that boundary where physics and metaphysics (in philosophy not new age) and is trespassing on Einstein's realism (god's eye view of the universe in relativity). The book has a lot to say about the frontiers of physics and goes into an exploration of the metaphysical implications as well. We go on a guided tour told through a first person memoir of modern physics and cosmology. We will learn about Dark Energy, De Sitter space, the Accelerating Universe, Black Hole physics, Quantum mechanics, inflationary cosmology, Multiverses and much more. The author goes on a personal journey as a science writer and learns from very recent debates about that the metaphysical picture of realism which has often be sparring with results from quantum mechanics may have to be discarded for a radical idea that reality is strongly observer dependent. She makes a good case for this perspective. She claims that the picture at the frontiers of cosmology may force us to break the glass of the perfect god's eye view of nature and say that the laws of physics depend on an observer. This is a model where the observer participates in the laws of nature. this point of view has been expressed since the beginnings of quantum theory in the early twentieth century but cosmology may be pointing to observer dependent reality. I like the author and I like her book but I recoil from her conclusion. I can't find it in me to believe how I look at the universe fundamentally changes the universe or affects reality. I heavily lean towards a realist position. Her book is great I like the personal style of memoir she made as a format. The science she covers seems right but as I said I don't like her metaphysical conclusion but it is definitely worth the time spent reading it.

  • Malli

    A book that started out with a great deal of hope but petered out in disappointing fashion for me. Amanda Gefter seemed like an approachable, science enthusiast desperate to learn the theory of universe creation. The books starts off well - her father's and her love for physics shines through and the first couple of chapters are charming, endearing and lucid. But after that, she loses the plot. Her writing gets turgid and at times condescending (her frequent references to her dad, mom and labrad

    A book that started out with a great deal of hope but petered out in disappointing fashion for me. Amanda Gefter seemed like an approachable, science enthusiast desperate to learn the theory of universe creation. The books starts off well - her father's and her love for physics shines through and the first couple of chapters are charming, endearing and lucid. But after that, she loses the plot. Her writing gets turgid and at times condescending (her frequent references to her dad, mom and labrador do nothing to the plot other than providing brief respite from her poor prose). I am a determined reader when it comes to technical stuff related to cosmology - but I found her style arcane and poor. Would recommend a miss. There is better stuff out there.

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