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Critical Opalescence

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Amanda Gefter’s Ultimate Reality Party

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Last night I had the pleasure of going to Amanda Gefter’s book party, celebrating the release of Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn. I first got to know Gefter a decade ago when she audaciously contacted Sci Am to pitch her first-ever science story, and I followed her later career at New Scientist with admiration. But 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.

The traditional assumption in science trade books is that scientists get to tell their personal stories—because they’re the real McCoys—while science-writers keep themselves in the background. Throughout my career, I have operated on the principle that my own process of discovery is of little interest to anyone but me. But Gefter‘s book, like Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? breaks the mold and shows that a nonexpert’s journey can be just as engaging as the scientists’.

She talks her way into scientific conferences, bootstraps a career with hardly any formal credentials, and bustles from one idea to another on an intellectual treasure hunt. Cosmological inflation, gauge theories, the anthropic principle, black-hole firewalls: Gefter relates the most exciting concepts in modern physics with gonzo verve. She paraphrases Bohr’s position in his famous debates with Einstein thus: “Sure, quantum theory fucks with reality, but you started it.” In describing what falling into a black hole would be like, she calls the infalling victim “Screwed” and a distant onlooker “Safe.” Then, in a beautiful twist, she talks about cosmological horizons in an accelerating universe and concludes, “We’re all Screwed.” What one topic has to do with the next is sometimes hard to follow, but I imagine that most readers will already have read a more straightforward account of modern physics, and if not, they certainly will be inspired to.

Throughout the book, she is driven by a distinctive conception of physical reality she develops with her father (pictured above)—a set of ideas that is hard to categorize, but is basically a type of ontic structural realism. The final chapter casts the narrative aside and crafts an argument for a radically relational physics, one that is so thoroughly observer-dependent that nothing objective remains. Not only are many features of the world artifacts of perspective, they all are. I’m not sure I buy it. What is real, then? Why does my foot hurt when I kick a rock? Gefter doesn’t address the philosophical counterarguments to structural realism. But it hardly matters. To my mind, the real significance of her argument is that she puts it forward at all. She makes no pretense to being a journalistic blank slate. Her book is a case study of what educational theorists call “constructivism”: learning is not pouring wine into empty bottles, but a complex stirring of new knowledge into existing ideas.

Photo: Warren and Amanda Gefter

 

George Musser About the Author: is a contributing editor at Scientific American. He focuses on space science and fundamental physics, ranging from particles to planets to parallel universes. He is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to String Theory. Musser has won numerous awards in his career, including the 2011 American Institute of Physics's Science Writing Award. Follow on Twitter @gmusser.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rloldershaw 6:17 pm 01/17/2014

    I think we can do much better than theoretical physics has been doing for the last 40 years, which is stumbling around in a fog of abstraction without an empirical or conceptual compass to guide it.

    Link to this

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