Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn
When I read Amanda Gefter’s hilarious account of how she – a lowly envelope-stuffer for Manhattan Bride magazine – bluffed her way into securing a press pass for a Princeton physics conference, I knew Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn was my kind of book.
Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is a memoir. It’s a story of a young woman (Gefter) and her father who, in entertaining the deceptively simple question, “How would you define nothing?”, dive down the rabbit hole of general relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology and, well, they just keep going. And going.
Gefter brazenly hobnobbing with the world’s top physicists is endearing in its audacity, but she soon shows she’s not just a fawning “fangirl” – she’s a participant in the conversation, with an irrepressible sense of curiosity and wonder. Every bit of quality face time with famous scholars is offset by vast amounts of research and late-night philosophizing with Dad about the true nature of reality. Her dad, Warren, is a real character – the ultimate armchair philosopher – and Gefter’s relationship with him is the beating heart that drives this journey. Despite all her subsequent successes (paid gigs for New Scientist, emails from Stephen Hawking!), she very much remains her father’s daughter.
And how about the physics? How do Gefter’s explanations of these mind-boggling concepts stack up? Pretty well, I found. There’s a point in any complicated field at which metaphor and intuition reach their explanatory limit and you have to get your hands dirty with the math. Gefter does a brilliant job of pushing right up to that line as well as anyone, and never resorts to hand-wavy “just trust me on this” explanations like certain brilliant minds. (Side eye at you, Hawking… may he rest in peace.) That’s because she’s approaching this stuff from the same place as her audience. She’s taking us on her journey, not making pronouncements from a lofty peak. She’s more like the little kid who keeps badgering her parents with, “but why?!” in a recursive loop until she gets the Ultimate Answer to Everything. My only criticism would be that she veers quite far from proper theory into wild speculation and interpretation. It’s all good fun, but she doesn’t really make this distinction clear, so you’d have to forgive a seasoned physicist rolling their eyes at the more wide-eyed passages. I guess this is ultimately a flaw in the “personal quest” narrative – she started out with Big Questions, so dammit, she’s going to get some Big Answers!
There’s no doubt that Amanda Gefter has an incredible mind. Which is why it’s sometimes hard to take completely seriously her “aw-shucks-I’m-just-an-arts-major-and-science-was-never-my-bag” routine that she uses to propel her narrative. But it’s a thrilling narrative and it gets to the heart of some of the biggest questions of existence so I’ll forgive a little false modesty.
And I still don’t really understand why the universe(s) bothers to exist, but I’m grateful to find myself in one where this charming book’s trajectory collided with my own.