Writing, Physics, Inspiration, and Life

One of Amanda Gefter’s favorite physicists was John Wheeler, and in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Gefter quotes him numerous times and describes the impact that Wheeler had on her life. What made Wheeler different from other physicists, what entranced Gefter with his work, was his often poetic way of describing the universe and interpreting what the mathematics of the universe told us. In a world of complex physics, daunting mathematics, and mind bending conclusions, Wheeler’s voice cut through with simplicity and his poetic style was elegant yet clear and inviting.

 

One part of Gefter’s book describes a trip she took with her father to Philadelphia to look over Wheeler’s old notebooks after he passed away in 2008. At the American Philosophical Society, Gefter and her father poured over his old notebooks, studying his thoughts, the progression of his studies, and analyzing the conclusions he reached along the way. One of his annotations in a notebook was included in Gefter’s book, and I think it does an excellent job illuminating Wheeler’s poetic style and what it was that drew Gefter to his writing, speaking, and way of describing science.

 

“Still,” Gefter writes, “Wheeler was lost. ‘Not seeing a dramatic clear path ahead,’ he wrote. ‘Now have concluded just have to push in through the undergrowth. ‘Traveler, there are no paths. Paths are made by walking.’”

 

In his personal notebook, describing what appeared to be a dead end in his research, Wheeler turned to a phrase we have probably heard before, but probably not in our science classes. Wheeler was pushing the edge of scientific thought, and he had come to a point where he could no longer rely on the research of others to show him the path forward. The quote was used to describe propositions, yes/no or true/false statements about some reality. Wheeler, like Gefter years later, was searching for some truth to the universe that was not observer dependent, that did not need to change or adjust based on a observer’s position, speed, or quantum composition. Propositions seemed to be a place to start, but even there, the dreaded sentence, “this sentence is false” seemed to break even propositions and seemed to pull apart any basic form of reality.

 

Altogether this short section from Gefter, the lessons she shared about Wheeler, and the scientific challenge which served as the genesis for Wheeler’s note teach us a few things. Often times we want a dramatically clear choice in our life, but for each of us, the path has not been made. We must push through the undergrowth of life, creating our own  path as we go. We must abandon expectations of how things should be and how things ought to turn out for us, because there is no solid truth that we march toward. We are not pushing forward in the universe and in our lives to an inherently perfect and true destiny. The reality we find as we cut through the undergrowth is as observer dependent as gravity and time. How we choose to see it depends on our reference frame, and our reference frame is something we have some choice in. And while we are using that choice, we can be boring, stuffy, and self pitying, or we can be inventive, flourishing, and excited for the new discoveries that know will lie ahead of us.

Finding Your Voice in Writing

Amanda Gefter’s book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, mostly focuses on physics and the complex state of how our leading physicists were thinking about the universe in 2014. The book also, however, focuses on Gefter’s journey into science journalism, about her life and experiences, about our quest for knowledge, and about the ways in which we try to express and share what it is we know and learn. A little over halfway through the book, Gefter writes about her first attempt at writing a book, and endeavor she undertook with her father.

 

Gefter struggled to write a book with her father that would be more than a repository for the knowledge that she and her father had gained over the years as they delved ever deeper into the complex physics of spacetime, relativity, and quantum mechanics. She describes her efforts to write a book and how her publisher described her final product as lacking her true voice. All her life, writing for a bridal magazine, writing academic papers, and trying to break into science journalism, Gefter had felt that she needed to write with a voice that was distinctly not her own. She had adopted the voice of a stuffy, old, British man for the academic papers she wrote in college, mimicking the style she saw in the academic papers around her, and her bridal magazine days early in her career seemed to lack any voice at all. To be able to write successfully, Gefter was challenged to find her true voice, and to use her voice to describe the science she loved and wanted so passionately to understand and be a part of.

 

She wrote about the feedback that her first editor, Katinka Matson, gave her regarding her first attempt at a book, “Matson felt it was the co-authorship that had muted my voice. Maybe she was right. Maybe it was Safe and Screwed, like their confusing co-authorship structure. You violate the laws of physics when you try to speak from two observer’s points of view simultaneously. Maybe you violate the laws of publishing, too. Maybe our book had been an impossible object from the start. Maybe it didn’t make sense to try to write a book using both our voices, since it would add up to no voice at all.” In trying to fit her voice in with her father’s voice, Gefter left something out of her writing. She felt that she could not write as herself, and as a result she adopted a different persona for her writing, a persona that lacked her energy and spark and that failed to authentically convey her own excitement and interest in the puzzling and sometimes paradoxical science of the universe.

 

The answer for Gefter was not necessarily to give up the idea of publishing a book with her father, her copilot on her journey though physics. The challenge and answer for Gefter was to figure out what she needed to do to write as herself, and early on in her writing career this meant developing her writing voice independently, and then learning to incorporate others people and elements.

 

In the passage above, Safe and Screwed are two characters that she introduces in Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn when talking about black holes and the experiences that two people would have if one crossed the event horizon of a black hole and the other did not. Safe would be outside the even horizon, alive and presumably happily floating along in space. Screwed, on the other hand, would be burned apart by Hawking radiation and the part of him not devoured by quantum particles would be pulled and stretched by the gravitational force of the black hole. Screwed and Safe are how Gefter came to understand what our experience of black holes would be like, and sharing their stories and perspectives was the type of innovative science writing that Gefter needed to cultivate to express her own voice. Throughout the book, Gefter references Screwed and Safe, and she brings in other characters to help us see what is taking place at the edges of our understanding of the universe. This was the voice that Gefter needed to develop. She needed to step beyond the safeness of stuffy academic writing and passionless editorial writing to be an authentic, yet possibly screwed, science writer.

 

In our own lives and activities we must do the same. We cannot simply write, think, or do the things that we have seen before us. We cannot adopt styles and personalities because we think that is what other people expect. To be authentic to ourselves, to be innovative, and to make an impact and a difference, we must be ourselves, cultivate our own voice, and we must not be afraid to show who we are. We are not all stuffy old British men, so we should not write, speak, or behave as if we are, simply because most people in our jobs act that way or because that is the model of success we have seen before. I don’t think we literally all act like stuffy old British men, but in our lives we adopt certain personalities not because those personalities express who we are, but rather what we think we want to be, and because those personalities signal to others that we are part of a tribe (or at list think we are/want to be) and that we can use the same words and hold the same virtues as others in the tribe. Moving forward, for society to grow, become more inclusive, and develop new innovations, we must find ways to be ourselves and be more creative in the way we interact with and relate to the world. Otherwise we will never be able to communicate our excitement about the corner of the universe that fascinates us, and we will never create the meaningful societal connections that form the cornerstone of society.

Expressing Your Mind Through Writing

Writing is a great skill that helps open our own thoughts to ourselves and gives readers access to the mind of another person. When we are writing something, we take thoughts that are whirling around in our mind at a million miles per hour and give them shape and structure. We take those thoughts and organize them. We combine them and build logical steps between them, and we make sense of the sometimes random, sometimes disconnected, and sometimes vague thoughts that pass through our mind.

 

When we read, we get to peer behind the curtain at another person’s thoughts. Writing allows us to open a door into our mind for other people, to give them an idea of what is going on in our mind. Reading is a chance to think more deeply about something that another person has spent time organizing their thoughts around, and it is a chance to learn more about the universe from another person.

 

This is what Amanda Gefter loves about writing and reading. Gefter is a science journalist, but she did not set out to cover science initially. She knew she wanted to write, but writing about science seemed so dense, challenging, and in some sense far off, away from the world that she knew and could write about. But as she pursued science for her own hobby, she had opportunities to write about science that she never expected, and she began to see the importance of writing about science and serving as a door that could open complex physics to more people.

 

About writing, Gefter writes in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, “Writing, for me, was about muddling through ideas, turning them over, viewing them from every angle to see where they led, even if they only led back to themselves.” Gefter’s ideas are important because writing does not always need to be revelatory, novel, and ingenious. Sometimes writing can meander and not really take you any place. Sometimes writing can be circuitous and double back on itself. Writing helps the mind order itself, so even if your writing does not shape the world, it can still shape your mind. Even if you don’t plan on sharing your writing, getting thoughts down on the Word Doc or in a journal will help your mind.

 

Gefter continues, “My favorite stories and poems shined a spotlight on the writer’s thought process, exposing all of its cracks and contradictions. But the writing I did as a journalist was just the opposite. Its light revealed only the end products of thought, the conclusions.” Our writing can be a tool to help other people see our development of thoughts and ideas. It can help us show others that there are complex realities in this world that we ourselves are still working through. For Gefter, this was important to bring to the world of science, “Science journalism’s express goal was to hang over the writer’s mind a veil so opaque that the reader would mistake the writer’s thoughts about the world for the world itself—the world as seen from an impossible God’s-eye view, a paradigm of objectivity and at the same time a lie.” In the last part of the quote, Gefter criticizes science journalism for making everything seem as thought it has been solved and put together. When we approach science journalism from a point of finality, it makes it seem as though the science is not as riddled with challenges and contradictions as it truly is. Objectivity takes away the mystery and confusion of science and presents a fake reality. I believe that Gefter would argue that we need to show our thought process and honestly discuss what we do understand and what is still out there making scientists scratch their head. When we present science as just facts to remember and know, as if the puzzle of the universe has been solved, we turn people away, presenting science as just math and facts to memorize. Gefter would suggest that real science writing show people how to think critically and inquisitively about what they see around them, and invite them to think scientifically about the challenges still ahead of us.

 

The last part of Gefter’s quote that I will share is this, “For me, hiding the writer’s thoughts strips writing of its greatest gift: its ability to grant us access to other minds.” What we get when we write more openly about science, or any subject, is a greater dialogue between author and reader. Revealing our thought process, and taking the time to step back from objectivity at points, allows the reader to connect with us more thoroughly and see how our mind works. For a reader this process allows them to see the challenges in the area in which we write, and it gives them the chance to take the first step toward the debates and investigations taking place within our mind, and within a given field more broadly. How we do this will always depend on our subject, but I think the first step is to understand that people have different perspectives and that there is often no simple answer to anything. We can address other ideas and points of view, and we can provide evidence to support our own view. We cannot, however, simply present one point of view or one experiment in isolation and use our writing to say that we have found the one truth and the one answer, without demonstrating that other ways of thinking are possible.

Violating General Relativity

Physics today is hard and incredibly head-spinningly confusing. That does not mean, however, that it cannot still be fun and presented in a way that makes us think deeply about the nature of the universe while still enjoying the science of how our universe exists and behaves. Amanda Gefter did not set out to be a science journalist, but she parachuted into a career as a science journalist and has a real skill for combining difficult scientific principles and relatable, real life jokes, puns, situations, and experiences. In doing so, Gefter is able to make physics and science engaging, which is a real and important skill for scientists, technocrats, and skilled professionals to develop. Learning to be engaging, even with the boring and the difficult, is what our society needs in order to convey the importance of the dull and often times drudgery of difficult thought work.

 

And that brings me to Gefter’s writing about General Relativity, the scientific principle laid out by Einstein that has been reinforced by recent discoveries such as gravitational wave experiments. In our universe, there are certain things we can’t measure simultaneously. We can know one item with certainty but in making a measurement or observation we suddenly are unable to identify or know another related aspect with certainty. Tied together in this type of relationship are time and total universal energy. We seem to be able to potentially measure one or the other, and we must eliminate one when trying to make predictions or models of the universe based on an understanding of the other. Describing this relationship, Gefter writes:

 

“When you think about it, it ought to have been obvious from the start that there’s no possible way to have both general covariance and a universe that evolves in time—the two ideas are mutually exclusive, because for the universe as a whole to evolve in time, it must be evolving relative to a frame of reference that is outside the universe. That frame is now a preferred frame, and you’ve violated general relativity. It’s one or the other—you can’t have an evolving universe and eat it, too.”

 

There are two things I want to pick out of the quote above. I am not scientifically literate (within the physics world) to fully pull apart the ideas about general relativity, general covariance, and how the universe changes in time, but I do understand Gefter’s point about a preferred reference frame. Relativity tells us that the universe is observer dependent, meaning that how you observe the universe shapes the reality that you experience. The experiments you do, what you can see, feel, measure, and interact with has an impact on the physics of the universe around you. This does not seem to apply only to conscious observers, but other types of observers such as stars emitting light rays, giant space rocks traveling to our solar system from other solar systems, and even quantum particles popping in and out of existence along the horizon line of a black hole. Everything in the universe is in the universe and therefore every action impacts the universe. We are never perfectly outside the universe in a true world or perfect perspective from which we can point back and say “that, right there, is the universe as it actually truly exists.”

 

Second, physics does not have to be all technical and serious. In complex writing we often want to display how smart we are and how well we understand the subject by using the language and writing style of smart academics. A recent podcast from the Naked Scientists highlighted work from researchers that show that journal articles are getting harder to read, and that means science is becoming less accessible. However, if you put the ego aside you can write about science without having the need to prove to others that you are smart and can write in complex styles. In the quote above Gefter manages this, and even includes a fun variation on a popular idiom. Finding ways to do this in science is important because it shows others that you can be a real human being and an ordinary person and still be interested enough to learn a little about cutting edge science.

Thinking About Science Writing

Amanda Gefter’s book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is an enjoyable read even if you only have a slight science background because Gefter is able to transform incredibly challenging physics topics into understandable and relatable concepts and ideas. Her use of metaphor throughout the book is funny and inviting, and while I am not an expert in the cutting edge of physics after reading her book, I do have a better basic grasp of the challenges physicists face when observing and making predictions about the universe today.

Early in the book Gefter describes some of her own confusion with topics like general relativity and quantum mechanics, and she provides in depth yet accessible explanations. In addition to describing the ideas themselves, Gefter is able to describe the why the problems and challenges at the edge of science puzzle so many people in a way that is accessible. Regarding quantum gravity she writes,

“I knew that physicists needed a theory of quantum gravity because general relativity and quantum mechanics couldn’t manage to peaceable coexist in a single universe. But what made exactly made them so hopelessly incompatible? Everywhere I looked I found technicalities—the world of relativity is continuous and the quantum world discrete; relativity regards positions in spacetime as well defined, while quantum theory renders them fuzzy. They were obstacles, sure, but they struck me as mere couple’s squabbles, not deep, unbridgeable rifts. It was like relativity preferred chocolate and quantum theory vanilla—not like relativity was a Protestant and quantum theory was a duck.”

I have more or less forgotten any ideas about quantum gravity, but I have managed to retain some general relativity and some quantum mechanics knowledge after reading Gefter’s book. What I enjoy about the passage above is the humor she brings to the science. We don’t often invite people into the science because we become very technical when describing the complexities of cutting edge science. There is a place for the jargon, but when we want to excite people and get them interested in the truly fascinating work taking place, we need to make science more clear and create demonstrations that will encourage people to look further as opposed to confuse people and put them to sleep.

What I think is also important to remember is that it is good for people to hear the answers to the basics, even if we (or they) have heard the basic questions and basic answers multiple times in the past. I listen to a lot of science podcasts, and the question/answer portions of the shows often have pretty strait forward and basic questions. My reaction as a human being when someone asks a question to which I know the answer is to praise myself for being so smart and to criticize the other person for not already knowing the answer to the question. However, I try my best to acknowledge that reaction, and then put it away because it is not helpful. Undoubtedly every time a simple question is answered, the response on a podcast is unique, and my understanding is deepened or even corrected altogether. What we must remember when discussing science, and what Gefter does a great job of in her book, is that everyone in our audience will come to our writing (or podcast discussion) with a different level of understanding and we must write in a way that does not make those with less background think that we are arrogant in our use of language and description of basic concepts.

How to Question the World

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats describes his mother’s approach to his childhood misbehavior in school. When Coats would get in trouble his mother would not just take away his privileges, she would make him reflect on why he got in trouble by making him write about his behavior, his thoughts, and his decisions. Describing his childhood he wrote,

 

“When I was in trouble at school (which was quite often) she would make me write about it. The writing had to answer a series of questions: Why did I feel the need to talk at the same time as my teacher? Why did I not believe that my teacher was entitled to respect? How would I want someone to behave while I was talking? What would I do the next time I felt the urge to talk to my friends during a lesson?” The questions Coats was writing about at a young age were self reflective questions. Rather than letting him brood and be in trouble, his mother forced him to organize his thoughts and put them down on paper. The act of reflecting is important, but without organizing thoughts and creating a coherent idea behind our thoughts, they simply whip around our head in a slightly chaotic manner. In his book 59 Seconds Richard Wiseman writes the following about the benefits of writing versus thinking or speaking,

 

“Thinking can often be somewhat unstructured, disorganized, and even chaotic.  In contrast, writing encourages the creation of a story line and structure that help people make sense of what has happened and work toward a solution.  In short, talking can add to a sense of confusion, but writing provides a more systematic solution-based approach.”

 

I have found that I often underestimate how intelligent young children are. I am constantly surprised by what toddlers remember and by the connections they are able to make. I would not have thought that a reflective exercise could be so impactful for a young child in elementary school, but Coats describes how these questions and how writing in particular shaped who he grew up to be. He continued in his book,

 

“Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing—myself.”

 

Writing and reflecting helped Coats organize his thoughts, but it also built a habit where he thought about his actions and his thoughts, and learned to question himself. Coats explains that he now gives his son the same writing tasks when he is in trouble. He says that he does not expect these exercise to change his son’s behavior as they did not necessarily change his behavior as a boy, but that he hopes these writing exercises will build a habit of reflection and self-awareness into his son’s life.

 

Coats grew up in a household where he was forced to question himself, his behavior, and his thoughts and beliefs. He was not raised in a household that told him that he was already special or great, and throughout his book he reflects on how he felt, why he felt certain ways at certain times, and how his thoughts and emotions drove him to act one way or another. He questioned how society was organized after making strong observations and recognizing that the systems in existence today are the results of real decisions made by real people. Often we go through our lives unaware of our impulses and beliefs, believing that things are the way they are out of some sort of divine providence or simply because they could never be a different way. Coats was raised to recognize that there was no way things should be, and from a young age developed a habit of asking why.

 

What is important to recognize from the his quote is that he is asking why and asking deep questions not just about society or about others, but about himself. When we ask why others error and make poor decisions, we are in a way placing ourselves above them. We assume that we are correct and on the right side of the moral divide, and then cast judgement on others and point out how flawed they are. Coats encourages us not to sympathize with our own self and not to spend too much time rationalizing our own beliefs, but to truly study and be aware of our thoughts, so that we can be more honest with ourselves about why we believe what we believe.

The Benefit of Journaling and Writing

In his book 59 Seconds Richard Wiseman continually returns to the idea of writing and journaling when trying to overcome obstacles, become more creative, and reach ones goals.  Towards the beginning of the book Wiseman discusses a study in which participants were asked to either talk to another person to express themselves, journal for a few minutes a few days a week, or just continue on as they always had while the experimenters examined them over long period of time.  The study found large benefits for those who spent their time writing as wiseman explains,

 

“Thinking can often be somewhat unstructured, disorganized, and even chaotic.  In contrast, writing encourages the creation of a story line and structure that help people make sense of what has happened and work toward a solution.  In short, talking can add to a sense of confusion, but writing provides a more systematic solution-based approach.”

 

The subjects of the experiment had all experienced a traumatic event in their lives, and those who spent time writing through what happened, as opposed to those who had done nothing or talked to another about their feelings, found the most traction in getting to a new way of thinking about the traumatic experience.  I believe that this plays into every part of our lives and can make a big impact in how we are feeling on a day to day basis.  Wiseman returns to studies related to journaling throughout his book and explains how anticipating obstacles and writing about them can help one be more prepared for the journey towards their goals. He also writes about the benefits of journaling about the things you love about your loved ones as a way to move forward in your relationships with a more open and loving attitude.

 

One small area in which I have taken Wiseman’s advice for writing and applied it to my own life is in a simple journaling exercise that helps me be aware of the lucky things that happen in my life. I keep a luck journal and every night before I go to bed I reflect on what happened that day that was positive and in some way lucky for me.  This puts me in the right mindset as I prepare to go to sleep and helps me be thankful for the good things that have happened.  I can feel more content with my “luck” at the end of the day and instead of going to bed fearful for something that is coming up.

 

Throughout 59 Seconds Wiseman explains that writing, more than any other activity, helps build new connections in the brain.  It is slower than speaking, even when you are typing at a million miles per hour, and it forces your brain to slow down and be more considerate.  When writing you have the time to think an idea through and find the best way to communicate that idea.  This reinforces the thoughts and connections you had already developed, and gives you a new chance to combine thoughts and ideas and to find new connections.

Awareness in Action

In a later written to James Harmon for the book, Take My Advice, the late Murray Bookchin writes, “Our ideas must always be completed, fully thought out, and richly informed by a knowledge of the past.  To separate oneself from the past, to maintain a sense of mere nowness, to deny what reason has to give us, as well as intuition, and most dangerously to leave ones thoughts unfinished, is to risk the grave dangers of manipulation and ignorance.” This quote speaks deeply to me about the importance of awareness and presence in our daily lives.  Bookchin would argue that we must develop a sense of connection in our lives that unifies us with the world around us in multiple ways.  We must be aware of our surroundings and current situations, but we must also be aware of our past and how our past influences our actions today.

I frequently focus on self awareness and for a long time I have worked to cultivate my own thoughts and ideas about the planet away from the television, but I never put things in the perspective of Bookchin.  The television according to Bookchin, isolates us in a space that is neither past nor present, it is a suspended reality where  we give up our thought and allow outside forces to shape us.  Our unique background, our independent existences, and our individual thoughts are pushed aside for a vision of life created by others.  In this quote, the idea that people are influenced by television is pushed beyond the simple and benign world of advertising influences and driven to a perspective of people being shaped by the television they watch.  When we abandon our complete thoughts of the past and fail to analyze our current situation, we open ourselves up to be manipulated by another.  We become easily influenced and accept one perspective as our ticket out of ignorance.

I think that Bookchin would encourage in depth journaling as a way to process the events that happen to us, and help us begin to build an awareness of the world.  This aligns with many of the ideas that Richard Wiseman presents in his book 59 Seconds in which he describes the importance of journaling and writing as reflective exercises.  Writing according to Wiseman provides a chance for the brain to systematically organize and express information.  This systematic approach to reviewing our thoughts and actions helps us build awareness and create new connections in our lives.