"Excellent book buy, Brian." I enjoy praising myself. I rarely fail to make sense when I'm speaking to someone who understands me: Me.
The book I'm talking about to myself is Amanda Gefter's "Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything."
I was worried it'd be too sentimental, with too much father-daughter stuff. I was mainly interested in the physics, the meaning of a cosmos that, as the subtitle says, is mainly (or completely?) comprised of nothing.
No worries. Three chapters in, I'm hooked.
Both on Gefter's compelling prose and the search for ultimate reality she embarks on with her father. Neither know much about physics and cosmology when they start on their quest (he is a radiologist; she is a free-spirited young woman who never completed a science class, I recall she says).
Here's an excerpt from the Amazon description of the book that helped tilt me toward buying it.
At a Chinese restaurant outside of Philadelphia, a father asks his fifteen-year-old daughter a deceptively simple question: “How would you define nothing?” With that, the girl who once tried to fail geometry as a conscientious objector starts reading up on general relativity and quantum mechanics, as she and her dad embark on a life-altering quest for the answers to the universe’s greatest mysteries.
Before Amanda Gefter became an accomplished science writer, she was a twenty-one-year-old magazine assistant willing to sneak her and her father, Warren, into a conference devoted to their physics hero, John Wheeler. Posing as journalists, Amanda and Warren met Wheeler, who offered them cryptic clues to the nature of reality: The universe is a self-excited circuit, he said. And, The boundary of a boundary is zero. Baffled, Amanda and Warren vowed to decode the phrases—and with them, the enigmas of existence. When we solve all that, they agreed, we’ll write a book.
...What they discover is extraordinary: the beginnings of a monumental paradigm shift in cosmology, from a single universe we all share to a splintered reality in which each observer has her own. Reality, the Gefters learn, is radically observer-dependent, far beyond anything of which Einstein or the founders of quantum mechanics ever dreamed—with shattering consequences for our understanding of the universe’s origin. And somehow it all ties back to that conversation, to that Chinese restaurant, and to the true meaning of nothing.
I've only gotten glimpses of the observer-dependent reality concept that is a central theme of Gefter's book. I''m looking forward to a closer view.
At the moment this notion is balanced in my mind between absurdity and obviousness.
Meaning, I find it difficult to give up the idea that reality exists independent of conscious observers. The universe is 13.7 billion years old. What state was it in before intelligence or consciousness evolved? Hard to believe that the universe wasn't anything until a conscious observer became aware of it.
On the other hand, I also find it difficult to visualize what the universe is like in a truly objective sense, absent the subjective consciousness of someone observing it. The closest I can come to this is viewing reality as purely mathematical, since there are good arguments for considering that mathematics exists in, or as, some sort of abstract Platonic'ish realm of forms.
(My mental split was reflected in two 2007 blog posts: "Consider a cosmos with no consciousness" and "Consider a cosmos that is only consciousness.")
It'll be interesting to see where Gefter leads me in the rest of her book.
Unlike books written by professional scientists, she doesn't give away much in her introductory chapter. This results in a pleasing sense of mystery about what's coming, unlike the "here's what I'm going to say" approach taken by many authors of popular science books.
I'm prepared to be surprised, being open to the possibility that whatever I consider to be true about reality, actually isn't. At the end of this paragraph is one of my favorite quotes in the part of the book I've read so far:
So here was the situation. A particle can't have a well-defined position and momentum, yet an observer can measure either one with perfect accuracy and is free to choose which one to measure. The moral of the story was clear: there's no normal reality lurking behind the quantum scene, no objective Einsteinian world that sits idly by regardless of who's looking. There's just the stuff we measure. The whole thing reeked of paradox, but Feynman said, "The 'paradox' is only a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality 'ought to be.'"
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