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Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn
Cover of Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn
Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn
A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything
Borrow Borrow
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY KIRKUS REVIEWS

In 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 most brilliant minds.

 
At a Chinese restaurant outside of Philadelphia, a father asks his fifteen-year-old daughter a deceptively simple question: “How would you define nothing?” With that, the girl who once tried to fail geometry as a conscientious objector starts reading up on general relativity and quantum mechanics, as she and her dad embark on a life-altering quest for the answers to the universe’s greatest mysteries.
      
Before Amanda Gefter became an accomplished science writer, she was a twenty-one-year-old magazine assistant willing to sneak her and her father, Warren, into a conference devoted to their physics hero, John Wheeler. Posing as journalists, Amanda and Warren met Wheeler, who offered them cryptic clues to the nature of reality: The universe is a self-excited circuit, he said. And, The boundary of a boundary is zero. Baffled, Amanda and Warren vowed to decode the phrases—and with them, the enigmas of existence. When we solve all that, they agreed, we’ll write a book.
 
Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is that book, a memoir of the impassioned hunt that takes Amanda and her father from New York to London to Los Alamos. Along the way, they bump up against quirky science and even quirkier personalities, including Leonard Susskind, the former Bronx plumber who invented string theory; Ed Witten, the soft-spoken genius who coined the enigmatic M-theory; even Stephen Hawking.
 
What they discover is extraordinary: the beginnings of a monumental paradigm shift in cosmology, from a single universe we all share to a splintered reality in which each observer has her own. Reality, the Gefters learn, is radically observer-dependent, far beyond anything of which Einstein or the founders of quantum mechanics ever dreamed—with shattering consequences for our understanding of the universe’s origin. And somehow it all ties back to that conversation, to that Chinese restaurant, and to the true meaning of nothing.
 
Throughout their journey, Amanda struggles to make sense of her own life—as her journalism career transforms from illusion to reality, as she searches for her voice as a writer, as she steps from a universe shared with her father to at last carve out one of her own. It’s a paradigm shift you might call growing up.
 
By turns hilarious, moving, irreverent, and profound, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn weaves together story and science in remarkable ways. By the end, you will never look at the universe the same way again.
Praise for Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn
 
“Nothing quite prepared me for this book. Wow. Reading it, I alternated between depression—how could the rest of us science writers ever match this?—and exhilaration.”Scientific American
 
“To Do: Read Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn. Reality doesn’t have to bite.”New York
 
“A zany superposition of genres . . . It’s at once a coming-of-age chronicle and...
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY KIRKUS REVIEWS

In 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 most brilliant minds.

 
At a Chinese restaurant outside of Philadelphia, a father asks his fifteen-year-old daughter a deceptively simple question: “How would you define nothing?” With that, the girl who once tried to fail geometry as a conscientious objector starts reading up on general relativity and quantum mechanics, as she and her dad embark on a life-altering quest for the answers to the universe’s greatest mysteries.
      
Before Amanda Gefter became an accomplished science writer, she was a twenty-one-year-old magazine assistant willing to sneak her and her father, Warren, into a conference devoted to their physics hero, John Wheeler. Posing as journalists, Amanda and Warren met Wheeler, who offered them cryptic clues to the nature of reality: The universe is a self-excited circuit, he said. And, The boundary of a boundary is zero. Baffled, Amanda and Warren vowed to decode the phrases—and with them, the enigmas of existence. When we solve all that, they agreed, we’ll write a book.
 
Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is that book, a memoir of the impassioned hunt that takes Amanda and her father from New York to London to Los Alamos. Along the way, they bump up against quirky science and even quirkier personalities, including Leonard Susskind, the former Bronx plumber who invented string theory; Ed Witten, the soft-spoken genius who coined the enigmatic M-theory; even Stephen Hawking.
 
What they discover is extraordinary: the beginnings of a monumental paradigm shift in cosmology, from a single universe we all share to a splintered reality in which each observer has her own. Reality, the Gefters learn, is radically observer-dependent, far beyond anything of which Einstein or the founders of quantum mechanics ever dreamed—with shattering consequences for our understanding of the universe’s origin. And somehow it all ties back to that conversation, to that Chinese restaurant, and to the true meaning of nothing.
 
Throughout their journey, Amanda struggles to make sense of her own life—as her journalism career transforms from illusion to reality, as she searches for her voice as a writer, as she steps from a universe shared with her father to at last carve out one of her own. It’s a paradigm shift you might call growing up.
 
By turns hilarious, moving, irreverent, and profound, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn weaves together story and science in remarkable ways. By the end, you will never look at the universe the same way again.
Praise for Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn
 
“Nothing quite prepared me for this book. Wow. Reading it, I alternated between depression—how could the rest of us science writers ever match this?—and exhilaration.”Scientific American
 
“To Do: Read Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn. Reality doesn’t have to bite.”New York
 
“A zany superposition of genres . . . It’s at once a coming-of-age chronicle and...
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Excerpts-
  • Chapter 1 chapter 1

    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 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 that 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 Manhattan magazine. The reality was that I worked for Manhattan Bride.

    Manhattan 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 Manhattan 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 Manhattan cover hanging on the wall.

    And then it hit me.

    I waited until Rick left...

About the Author-
  • Amanda Gefter is a physics and cosmology writer and a consultant for New Scientist magazine, where she formerly served as books and arts editor and founded CultureLab. Her writing has been featured in New Scientist, Scientific American, Sky and Telescope, Astronomy.com, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Gefter studied the history and philosophy of science at the London School of Economics and was a 2012–13 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is her first book.
Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    Starred review from January 15, 2014
    Part science writing and part memoir, this adventurous fact-finding romp takes readers across the landscape of ideas about the universe, calling on the expertise of the biggest names in science--and also the author's lifelong partner in her pursuit of the meaning of everything: her father. Gefter, an MIT Knight Science Journalism fellow and founding editor of CultureLab at New Scientist, is a crafty storyteller and journalist; she describes how she jump-started her career by crashing physics conferences and faking her way into interviews with world-famous physicists. Fueled by an insatiable curiosity about how the universe could be at once governed by the laws of cosmology (which define large-scale properties of the universe) and also by the laws of quantum mechanics (which define the behavior of microscopic particles), the author embarked on a scientific scavenger hunt while chasing leads across time and space. Gefter makes even the most esoteric concepts--and there are a lot of them in this book--lucid and approachable. From string theory to the multiverse to the holographic principle, the author's exuberance for physics and the possibility that cutting-edge theories may lead to a new understanding of "reality" is evident in her passionate prose. Underlying the joys of scientific pursuit is the author's formative relationship with her father, who first asked the big question--"How would you define nothing?"--that inspired her yearslong quest to define how "nothing" and "everything" can be explained by the forces that govern the universe. What she discovered about the new frontier of quantum cosmology and the importance of the role of the individual observer is astonishing and awesome, and Gefter's book is a useful presentation of this thrilling ontological shift for a general audience. Beautifully written and hugely entertaining, this book is a heartfelt introduction to the many mind-bending theories in contemporary physics.

    COPYRIGHT(2014) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

    "Nothing quite prepared me for this book. Wow. Reading it, I alternated between depression--how could the rest of us science writers ever match this?--and exhilaration."--Scientific American "To Do: Read Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn. Reality doesn't have to bite."--New York "A zany superposition of genres . . . It's at once a coming-of-age chronicle and a father-daughter road trip to the far reaches of this universe and 10,500 others. . . . Einstein's Lawn transcends the traditional categorizations publishers try to confer on the books they market."--The Philadelphia Inquirer "Gefter's wit, audacity, intelligence and irreverence, her wonderful relationship with her father, and fan photos of the two of them with famous physicists give the book heart. What gives it heft is Gefter's gift for reducing mind-blowing concepts . . . into plain English. . . . Try Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn. Gefter will take you on an outsider's tour of the universe's inside story, and you'll learn--and understand--more than you imagined you could."--Concord Monitor "In this mix of memoir and science, Gefter chronicles her quest to understand the big conundrums through study of the physics literature and meetings with remarkable theoreticians from John Archibald Wheeler to Lisa Randall."--Nature "Part science writing and part memoir, this adventurous fact-finding romp takes readers across the landscape of ideas about the universe. . . . [Gefter] is a crafty storyteller and journalist. . . . [She] makes even the most esoteric concepts--and there are a lot of them in this book--lucid and approachable. . . . What she discovered about the new frontier of quantum cosmology and the importance of the role of the individual observer is astonishing and awesome, and Gefter's book is a useful presentation of this thrilling ontological shift for a general audience. Beautifully written and hugely entertaining, this book is a heartfelt introduction to the many mind-bending theories in contemporary physics."

  • Jim Holt, New York Times bestselling author of Why Does the World Exist? "This is the most charming book ever written about the fundamental nature of reality. Amanda Gefter sounds like your best friend telling you a captivating story, but really she's teaching you about some of the deepest ideas in modern physics and cosmology. Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn is a delight from start to finish."--Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist and author of The Particle at the End of the Universe "Amanda Gefter is a remarkable explorer, and Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn takes the reader on a journey into the unexpected. Follow this beautifully written quest as it leads you through the terrain of physics, of family, of history, and you will find yourself pondering all the roads that lead to a richer understanding of ourselves and our place in this endlessly strange and beautiful universe."--Deborah Blum, Pulitzer Prize--winning journalist and author of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York "I devoured Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn in a weekend, marveling at how the author went from being a coat-check girl at a Manhattan nightclub to going up against some of the greatest physicists alive and explaining their wild and deep ideas often better than they could--and wittily, too."
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A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything
Amanda Gefter
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