19 January, 2015Issue 27.1AutobiographyLiteratureScience

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Mind Over Mathematics

Kanta Dihal

Amanda Gefter
Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn
Bantam, 2014
£17.99 (hardback)
432 pages
ISBN: 9780345531438

Nearly all of the best-selling popular physics books are written by world-class physicists. There is hardly a Nobel Prize winner in the field who has not published at least one book for a wider audience, and the most famous popularizers—for example, Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox—have usually produced impressive research before making a semi-permanent transition to communicating science. Having scientists popularize science gives the reader the advantage of being able to read about the most up-to-date science by those who create it. However, it is often suggested that those scientists have to cross a so-called “knowledge gap” between their own specialist knowledge and that of their intended audience, the latter of which must be roughly estimated. Amanda Gefter skirts around this problem by writing from the position of the intended audience: she started her career simply by being interested in theoretical physics and reading about it in her spare time. The sheer amount of knowledge she possesses, and manages to convey in this book, is an encouragement and a compliment to the potential of the non-scientist reader, showing that this “knowledge gap” is perfectly bridgeable.

Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is arguably the best popular science book published in 2014, precisely because of the position it was written from. Gefter’s narrative starts with her father asking her, at age fifteen, “How would you define nothing?” This seemingly simple question sparks a lifelong curiosity for theoretical physics, fed by popular physics books, that leads Gefter at age twenty-one to pretend to be a journalist so she can crash a physics symposium. Gefter narrates the history of a quest which ultimately led her to becoming a real, extremely knowledgeable, science journalist, who reads the actual scientific papers—without ever having taken a single physics class. She shows exactly how much someone can learn about physics without a formal education in the subject, which turns out to be a lot more than might be expected. It is an encouraging insight for someone who wishes to learn more about physics but is afraid that learning from popular science books alone will teach them ideas that are inaccu-rate, inadequate, or irrelevant.

Gefter describes her work as “cutting-edge physics packed in a personal memoir,” a clever combination of genres that allows for an air of “irreverent deference”, as Alice Bell once characterized the rhetoric of children’s science books. Gefter casually titles one chapter “That Alice-in-Wonderland Shit,” which, it must be said, are not her words but popular science publisher John Brockman’s. Her writing makes frequent use of the F-word as well as phrasings such as “obviously bullshit” and “Like, why was string theory so useless in the face of cosmology?” Though her colloquialisms are at times unsettling in the scientific context in which she applies them, they are cleverly used to keep the reader on track: the most important concepts are written in the most irreverent language. The double-slit experiment thus becomes “the classic, bat-shit crazy quantum experiment.” The way in which Gefter seems to be doing her research is equally irreverent with respect to the standard procedures demanded by academia: Gefter’s knowledge comes in equal amounts from science popularizations, interviews, official peer-reviewed physics publications, and papers published on the arXiv. Her familiarity with the latter website, on which physicists post their research papers before journals have accepted them for publication, ensures that Gefter’s book exudes a feeling of being at the cutting edge of science. At the same time, a more established physicist would frown at the manner in which Gefter seems to take these papers for established knowledge and is amazed when some of them are withdrawn by the author within a few weeks, as the conclusions they present prove to have been slightly premature.

The “deference” part, on the other hand, applies to every single physicist Gefter meets in the course of the seventeen years spanned by this book, including her career as a science journalist when she receives e-mails from Stephen Hawking and invitations from Leonard Susskind (whom she refers to as ‘Lenny’). From the moment when she first blags her way into the Science and Ultimate Reality symposium with her father to the moment where she holds a master’s degree in Philosophy and History of Science and is an editor at New Scientist, Gefter continues to emphasise the feeling of being an intruder, of not really belonging to the world of physics in which she continually increases her foothold and stature. It is a feeling known to anyone who engages in interdisciplinary research. Gefter describes this feeling accurately and in a confronting manner: when she ends up in Massachusetts working for New Scientist, the reader is long convinced that she is an excellent science writer with an impressive physics knowledge stock, while Gefter herself is still attempting to justify her presence at the meetings, seminars and conferences she is invited to: “What if I was no more than an ordinary journalist who had somehow convinced herself that she was on some secret mission to uncover the nature of reality, because it made life exciting and meaningful?” This leads to interesting questions that readers may well ask themselves: what makes one an expert? Does Gefter become an expert the moment she obtains her master’s degree and is recognised with official credentials in academia? Gefter’s degree does not seem to matter much to her at all: she describes how she wrote her dissertation in “forty-eight hours. Straight.” Most of the anecdotes in her book that concern this year at the London School of Economics are related to English mannerisms that confuse her as an American—she comments on the fact that her apartment is small exhaustingly often, which is ironic for someone coming from a country in which undergraduate students are commonly housed in a single room with a complete stranger.

Gefter’s work is not aimed at a reader who is absolutely ignorant of physics and philosophy. Mathematical knowledge is not necessary at all: the book only mentions three equations, which are fully verbally explained. Knowledge of basic concepts in modern physics is all too necessary, however. Gefter bases her work on such a large knowledge base in physics and the philosophy thereof that it takes some effort to keep up with the many theories she races through: the casual reader will frequently have to flick back and forth to the fourteen-page glossary. Of course, physics is not easy, not to be learned from a single book, and Gefter does not make any false promises in this regard. The final pages of her book are dedicated to “Suggestions for Further Reading,” a list containing at least one book per chapter. All the suggestions are popular science books, but since some of them are more specifically aimed at people who have not engaged with physics for a long time, these works might well have been considered required reading before starting this book: Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe (1999), for instance, contains many illustrations and visualisations that are easier to follow than Gefter’s attempts to describe verbally, and in a single page, the most complicated of physics concepts. Gefter’s book is not without illustrations, but hers are usually photographs of herself, with or without her father, excitedly meeting physicists and visiting famous physics faculties. It is hypocritical, even a bit nasty of her to write about the embarrassment she felt when her father asked Leonard Susskind for an autograph, while we see that she has repeatedly arranged for her picture to be taken with all these bigwigs.

A reader familiar with more formal, standardized methods of explaining quantum physics, string theory, and cosmology will appreciate the rebellious, colloquial and original method with which Gefter explains these concepts again. Having a concept explained twice in entirely different ways is extremely helpful, as anyone with teaching experience can confirm. Reading this book in order to learn about all these concepts for the first time, however, one might feel slightly in over one’s head, and all the “likes” and “bullshits” might become more annoying than anything else. For those who are willing to put in some effort, however, the book holds out a very happy prospect indeed: it is possible to become extremely knowledgeable about physics without being a physicist. Gefter shows that physics is not the scary, inaccessible, intimidating field it is widely thought to be, precisely by voicing her own fears in this regard.

Kanta Dihal is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford.