Cutting Through

The truly great thing about physics is that it is universal. Literally. What we discover about physics here in the United States is true in South Africa, and what is discovered in South Africa can be learned just as well in Vietnam, and it all holds true on Jupiter or in the Andromeda Galexy. Physics is based in mathematics and repeatable experiments and it can be understood anywhere. It takes our perceptions and it boils them down into their most simplistic forms, tests them, repeats the test, and then determines what is real and what is unsupported. This means that physics has the ability to help us understand things in incredible new ways. We can better understand the universe and how it is held together, but only if we can study the physics and step beyond ourselves to understand what the tests, experiments, and math are trying to explain to us.

For Amanda Gefter, this is one of the best parts of physics. It takes our expectations, our assumptions, and what we want to be true, and completely ignores it. A good scientist, during their search for what is real and what is not, is able to cut through the noise of our expectations, beliefs, and desires to see the science underneath, holding things together.

Gefter writes, “That was what I loved about physics—that moment of pure surprise when you suddenly realize that what you had thought was one thing is really something else, or that two things that seemed so different are really two ways of looking at the very same thing. It was the perennial comfort that comes from discovering that the world is not remotely what it seems.”

By cutting through the noise of humanity, physics helps us to see the world more thoroughly. The world and the universe are not the way they simply appears to us from our perspective on Earth. Much of how we interpret and understand the universe is through what we see, but so much of the universe does not emit electromagnetic radiation or react with light in any way. How we perceive the universe depends on our point of view, and of our experience as human beings living on our planet. What physics does, is move beyond our experience of the universe to tell us how things are at any point in the universe, not just on planet Earth today. If we accept the world as it appears to us, then we somehow cease to move forward, and we begin to live in a story that never completely captures the reality we experience around us. We begin to live in ways that don’t add up, that put us at the center and don’t allow for the types of evolution and adaptation that we need to live in this universe responsibly. Physics takes the stories that we tell and re-writes them, adjusting the language to be the language of mathematics, giving us a new perspective from which to tell our story.
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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.

Creating History

Physics often times does not align with what we expect. But really, there is no reason that the physics we experience here on our planet with our limited senses should lead us to perfectly predict how physics and reality play out across the universe. Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is an excellent physics book because it takes readers with little scientific background through the complex paradoxes and challenges of physics to explore the furthest reaches of our scientific thought. Author Amanda Gefter herself is not a physicist, and learned to understand physics first as a hobby, and later (as detailed in her book) as a bit of an obsessive search for the universe’s ultimate building block.

Along her journey, Gefter introduces us to John Wheeler, a physicist who wrote with an almost poetic style when describing the complex science that he worked on. Wheeler helps us understand that one of the things within human experience that is so fundamental to how we view reality, is not quite as solid as we would expect. He is quoted  by Gefter writing, “We used to think that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us.” When we study physics we are actually adjusting and changing the past. We are not looking at an independent system that existed before us a certain way. When we measure and observe the past, we actually can change it from the present. This is explained by Gefter with further help from Wheeler by describing experiments with photons to measure how sub-atomic particles travel. Light is made of photons, but it acts as a wave, with probabilities based on the wave function determining where the photons of the light will be. Once, however, we make an observation of a single photon, the probabilistic wave function ceases to exist, and the photon acts as a particle, and not as a wave. Up until we make our measurement however, the photon is a series of probabilities and behaves as a wave, the same way a wave behaves in the open ocean, and not as a particle on a direct path.

Gefter writes, “Delayed-choice experiments have been carried out in laboratories, and each time they’ve worked just as wheeler suggested. It’s an established scientific fact: measurements in the present can rewrite history. No, not rewrite. Just write. Prior to observation, there is no history, just a haze of possibility, a past waiting to be born. ‘There is no more remarkable feature of this quantum world than the strange coupling it brings about between future and past,’ Wheeler wrote. If observations we make today can create a billion-year-old past, so, too, can observations made in the future help build the universe we see today.”

In the quote above Gefter is describing the same experiments with photons, but looking at photos billions of light years away from us that had to travel across the universe and split on one side or another of a black hole, universe, or other star to reach one of our telescopes. The path taken by a given photon is best described by the probabilistic wave function with all the features, such as frequency and amplitude, of physical waves that we can observe on earth. But once we make an observation in a telescope to measure the path the photon took around a galaxy, black hole, or star, the wave function no longer describes the photon, and the photon has to have followed a set pathway, a pathway that was not determined until it reached our planet, billions of years after it was emitted from its original source.

The physics is beyond my ability to describe, but the key point is that we are human and have limited brain space and experiential ability. We can only experience first hand so many sensations and realities. More possibilities exist than we can experience and understand. Thinking that we can ever describe reality in the most comprehensive manner is a great dream for scientists and physicists to work toward, but we will always be limited by the fact that we are human and can only experience the world in so many ways. Things that we take to be so certain, like history and the passage of time, seem to be interconnected with the present and the future in ways that we can’t quite explain right now.

Only Referencing the Inside

The problem of physics and the universe being relative to observers haunts Amanda Gefter in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn. Throughout the book she writes about the challenge of understanding physics and finding a set, definitive, absolute reality within physics. Motion, matter, electromagnetic waves, particles, and time all seem to change relative to an observer. The observer does not need to be alive, but it just any given point of reference.

 

During her quest to better understand physics and find an objective agreed upon base for reality Gefter spoke with physicist Fotini Markopoulou. Recounting the conversation Gefter writes, “Was there some way to continue talking about the universe while only referring to it from the inside? Markopoulou seemed to think so, but it came at a serious price. It meant tossing aside ordinary Boolean logic and replacing it with a kind of logic that depended on the observer. It meant redefining what we mean by “true.” It meant stripping physics of the ability to make absolute statements about ultimate reality. Propositions were no longer true or false. They were true or false according to some particular observer.”

 

Einstein’s theories of relativity tell us that observers make a big impact on how the universe is measured and understood. Where an observer exists in space, the observer’s scale, and its motion all impact the measurements for the observer.  Gefter was on a quest with her father to understand and determine what it is in the universe that is the absolute reality of the universe. What is the basic constant that forms the simplest building block of all of the universe? Here quest was to find the one thing that was not relative to a reference point and an observer and to find the one thing that everyone and everything in the universe can point to and say “yes, that there is X, and it is always X, and is X for all of us who look at it.”

 

The challenge is that we are all within the universe. We are all matter and each point within the universe is a point of the universe and is itself changing and interacting with other things in the universe. There is no way to stand outside the universe and set a universe clock to a specific time and see everything a specific way. There is no ‘outside’ to the universe, and that means that any point of reference or timeframe is relative to others based on a host of factors. Gefter wanted to find an objective piece of the universe that was not determined relative to another point, but the only way such a point could exist is if it were outside the universe, something we philosophically understand to be impossible.

A View from Nowhere

Physics is all around us, taking place within our coffee mug, within jet airplane engines, and on the roof above our head. Everywhere we go, physics goes, and everywhere we look, we see physics. Across the universe, magnified at the end of an electron microscope, and throughout time, physics connects everything there is. Amanda Gefter in her book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, describes the importance of viewing physics within a totally inclusive system. Because we are walking physics experiments, we alter the physics of the world around us and have an impact on every system that we study and interact with. In fact, it is not just us but everything that interacts or has the ability to observe a phenomenon in physics that acts upon and changes the system.

 

This is important because it shapes the way we study and understand physics and reality. There is no way for us, or anyone or anything else, to stand outside the universe and look back in at the universe to make an observation independently. If you are observing the universe you are within the universe and you are part of the universe. Describing her efforts to learn and understand what this means for physics, Gefter wrote,

 

“I had already learned that both relativity and quantum mechanics were trying to tell us the same thing: we run into trouble when we try to describe physics from an impossible God’s-eye view, a view from nowhere. We have to specify a reference frame, an observer. But now I finally understood the real tension between the two theories. The whole mess could be summed up with one question: where’s the observer?”

 

General relativity tells us that everything is inside the universe, but when we look at quantum mechanics we are trying to look at incredibly tiny particles that form the building blocks of the universe. A tension arises because we appear to be able to separate ourselves from the system in which our experiments take place, but the reality is that we are making an observation of the system, which means we are interacting with the system. Even when we take the human part away from our experiments and our systems, we still leave behind something to make an observation to somehow detect what is taking place. An observer does not have to be conscious and is better thought of as a frame of reference or something that can be changed and adjusted within the system. The only way we could truly understand pure physics it seems, is to be completely outside the system to look in and observe without changing the system, but this completely violates what we know is possible about how our universe works.

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.

Spacetime as a Wave Function

Amanda Gefter dives into complex physics in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, and helps us better understand the challenges of modern physics research today. When we look out into space we see stars and planets and if we look really closely with telescopes we see asteroids, galaxies, and lots of dust floating through space. What physics tells us exists within the empty space between those objects (and indeed within all space) is spacetime. Spacetime is a thing. It bends and is warped by matter and it can ripple through the universe and change the physical matter that we can see and feel.

 

Gefter describes our complex understanding of spacetime as a wave function, describing probabilities of our observations. She writes, “When it comes to spacetime, though, there’s no such thing as spacetime at an instant, because spacetime contains all instants. And you can’t have spacetime evolve in time, because it is time. The only way forward seemed to be this: break four-dimensional spacetime into three dimensions of space and one of time, then describe the spatial portion as a wave function that can evolve relative to the dimension you called ‘time’.”

 

Gefter’s quote is how we as humans experience spacetime. We do not experience all instances of space and time at one exact moment, but instead we experience space and our movement through space over time. Here on earth, where things operate on scales that seem constant and continuous to us, this works. But once we start operating on different scales in different parts of the universe with different masses, different speeds, and different energies, the experience of three dimensional space and one dimensional time break down. Gefter continues:

 

“Different observers can slice up spacetime in different ways. So when we decide to quantize only the three dimensions of space, we have to choose certain coordinates to call ‘space’ and others to call ‘time.’ But whose space? Whose time? Making any kind of choice would suggest that one observer had a truer view of reality than all others. But that can’t be so. That was Einstein’s whole point: the laws of physics must be the same for everyone.”

 

What is so concrete and clear in our world and in our experiences as human beings falls apart on scales beyond those that we can observe unaided with our senses. The universe is more complex and more challenging than we often imagine, and the priors that we bring to conversations, thoughts, and observations impact the way we come to understand the universe. There is no absolute time from which we can measure the universe, because as soon as we set a specific reference clock, physics breaks down for another observer somewhere else in the universe at a different scale of mass and energy. Similarly, there is no clock sitting outside the universe ticking away the lifetime of the universe as a whole. Spacetime is relative according to Einstein, and while we may be able to break spacetime into a wave function that predicts probabilities of space throughout time, we have to understand that the way we break space and time apart is specific to our observation and that both space and time change for other observers who separate spacetime differently from ourselves.

 

But why is any of this important? With physics and a deeper understanding we can begin to see that we are not outside the universe and our observations are not at the center of the universe. We are matter arranged in a way that allows us to observe other matter. Our perspectives and views are incomplete and the observations and perspectives we adopt shape the reality we can measure. There is a parallel between physical science and social science in this way. We may not realize it but our brains turn us all into social scientists, walking around with a megacomputer carefully recording observations of human behavior and reality, analyzing patterns, and crunching data to help us understand our position. If we assume that our observations and our reference frame is the one absolute and correct frame, then we miss the fact that the reality we live in is relative to where and when we make observations and how we have chosen to separate different points and parts of that reality. Perhaps not everything in the social sciences is completely relative since we do live in a constrained world, but we should recognize that there are not any absolutes living outside of our universe measuring us or anything else from the outside.