- Roughcut: 432 pages
- Publisher: Bantam; 1St Edition edition (January 14, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0345531434
- ISBN-13: 978-0345531438
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 134 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #326,506 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything 1St Edition Edition
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“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.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“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.”—Jim Holt, New York Times bestselling author of Why Does the World Exist?
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.
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The book is really two books in one. The first part recounts the personal story of her and her father's thirst to understand the origin and meaning of the universe. Gefter's father comes across as a brilliant man, a non-physicst (although a medical doctor) with an unquenchable passion for deep scientific mysteries and a deep, thoughtful imagination. It's a quality that he seems to have passed on to his daughter in spades. He was the one who got Gefter interested in such questions and read physics books with her into the wee hours of the morning, he was the one who attended conferences with her - sometimes using dubious but harmless credentials - and he was the one who encouraged her to follow her heart, to switch careers and talk to the world's leading physicists purely out of intellectual curiosity. Conversations, phone calls and emails between him and his daughter make constant appearances in the book and it's obvious that without him Gefter might have possibly ended up doing something very different. Fathers like him should be cloned and presented to children as role models.
The second part of the book - which is well-interspersed with the personal journey - contains the scientific meat. In it Gefter crisscrosses the country attending physics conferences and picking the brains of some of the world's most famous physicists through discussions and email. These include storied personalities like Stephen Hawking, Edward Witten, Alan Guth, Leonard Susskind and David Gross. There's also a few leading science writers and editors who provide Gefter with stimulating material. Through these conversations Gefter is exposed to and ponders perhaps every single idea at the cutting edge of physics; quantum cosmology, inflation, the arrow of time, the Big Bang, the measurement problem in quantum mechanics, multiple universes, black holes and string theory, to name just a few. What is remarkable is how deeply Gefter - a journalist with no formal physics background - acquaints herself with the most important ideas. This makes her a skilled interlocutor rather than just a reporter asking questions, and she is able to spar with many of the scientists in her journey on her own terms. At one point she even moderates a debate between multiverse supporter Susskind and multiverse critic Gross.
However the physicist who looms the largest in Gefter's narrative is John Archibald Wheeler, the legendary physicist who was friends with Bohr and Einstein and PhD advisor to Richard Feynman, a man who was as much of a poet and philosopher as a physicist. In often cryptic and revealing quotes Wheeler used to capture the greatest mysteries of physics. His emphasis on information and observers as core components of existence permeate the frontiers of the field and drive many of Gefter's inquiries; one of his favorite phrases was "it from bit". It is a conference in celebration of Wheeler's 90th birthday that sparks Gefter and her father's interest in the big questions of physics and philosophy. Throughout her journey Gefter returns to Wheeler, culminating in a memorable look at Wheeler's copious journals housed at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.
Ultimately Gefter doesn't know the answer to the question "How does something arise from nothing?" but then nobody else does. What is important here is the fascinating journey rather than the destination and during the process Gefter exposes the reader to some mind-bending and fantastic ideas. I do have two reservations however about what is otherwise an excellent book. One omission in the book is the lack of any discussion of biology; if you are asking questions about perceptions of reality, existence and observers, it seems fair to try to understand what neuroscientists have to say about the brain's relationship with these concepts.Thus if there was one suggestion I had to make for a possible sequel to this volume, it would be to include conversations with both physicists as well as neuroscientists. The second reservation I have is that while Gefter's enthusiasm for ideas is infectious, the things she seems most excited about are also things which are the most speculative and the most unmoored from experiment. Perhaps Gefter should also have talked to some experimental physicists and asked them how they could test some of these fascinating concepts. Experiment after all is the only metric for scientific success, but it's not clear how some of the ideas explored in the book can be tested. That being said, it's perfectly acceptable to treat these ideas as philosophy rather than science; as Wheeler put it, "Philosophy is too important to be left to the philosophers."
Notwithstanding these reservations, this is a wonderful book, written with care and affection, that demonstrates a thirst for knowledge that's rarely seen even among professional scientists. I think the last word belongs to the invisible co-author of this book - Gefter's father. At the beginning, when he was encouraging her to study physics and she protested that she wanted to write poetry and short stories, he quipped, "What could be more poetic than the answer to the universe?".
“My father’s definition of nothing had made it possible to cross that ontological divide between nothing and something, and the radical observer-dependence of every ingredient of reality down to reality itself made it possible to cross back. We had found the universe’s secret: physics isn’t the machinery behind the workings of the world; physics is the machinery behind the illusion that there is a world.”
Gefter’s conclusions are based on two recent discoveries of modern physics: dark energy and the holographic principle. Her conclusions arise naturally (and are unavoidable) when these two discoveries are integrated into the framework of theoretical physics in a logically consistent way (and in a way that incorporates the unification of relativity theory with quantum theory).
The basic argument is as follows: Whenever dark energy is expended (the exponential expansion of space that always expands relative to the central point of view of an observer), a cosmic horizon always arises that limits the observer’s observations of things in space. If the holographic principle is invoked (as happens naturally with non-commutative geometry), the observer’s horizon acts as a holographic screen that encodes all the bits of information for everything the observer can possibly observe within that horizon-limited space. In effect, the observer’s horizon defines every observable thing in its world (in the sense of a Hilbert space), which Gefter refers to as the one-world-per-observer paradigm. Gefter points out that a consensual reality (shared by many observers) can arise when different cosmic horizons overlap (in the sense of a Venn diagram) and share information (much like the kind of information sharing that occurs in an interactive computer network of overlapping screens).
Gefter discusses the role Consciousness plays in the creation of a holographic universe that arises with the expenditure of dark energy. Gefter explains that with the expenditure of dark energy a cosmic horizon arises (surrounding the observer at the central point of view). The observer's horizon acts as a holographic screen (that encodes all the bits of information for and projects all the images of everything in the observer's world), while the observer itself can only be identified as a focal point of consciousness (the singularity) at the center of the horizon.
Gefter points out that the observer is only a focal point of consciousness (the singularity) that arises at the central point of view in relation to a holographic screen (the observer’s horizon). In this sense, the observer is only a reference frame. The observer’s horizon only arises because the observer is in an accelerated frame of reference (due to the expenditure of dark energy).
This is what Gefter says about the reality of the observer and its world:
“The message was clear: having a finite frame of reference creates the illusion of a world, but even the reference frame itself is an illusion.”
Gefter points out that the observer’s holographic screen (that defines everything in its world) and the observer’s focal point of consciousness (the singularity at the center of that world) must both arise in an empty space of potentiality that Gefter calls the primordial nothingness (the void). She correctly identifies the void as the ultimate nature of reality. The nothingness of the void is what’s left when everything in the observer’s world disappears from existence. Since the observer’s world can only appear in an accelerated frame of reference (with the expenditure of dark energy that gives rise to the observer’s horizon), everything in the observer’s world, including that world itself, is ultimately an illusion (since it can all disappear if dark energy is no longer expressed). Even the observer itself (the central focal point of consciousness that arises in the accelerated frame of reference) is an illusion that disappears when dark energy is no longer expressed.
The missing link in this argument (that neither Gefter nor theoretical physicists seem to be willing to make) is the identification of the void as undifferentiated (non-dual) consciousness, while the observer is always differentiated (individual) consciousness (a focal point of consciousness that arises in relation to the observer’s holographic screen). The key aspect of this argument (that Gefter only hints about) is that both the observer's focal point of consciousness and the observer's holographic screen must arise in an empty space of potentiality (the void), which naturally happens with the expenditure of dark energy. In this sense, the expenditure of dark energy (which is nothing more than the exponential expansion of space that always expands relative to the central point of view of an observer) is the fundamental potentiality of the void to express itself and create a world for itself (a world that it always perceives from the central point of view of that world). To read about this part of the argument it's necessary to leave theoretical physics behind. See for example Jed McKenna's Theory of Everything for a logical discussion of why the void must be the nature of undifferentiated (non-dual) consciousness.