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Culture, history and society

Culture, history and society

Quest to understand ‘nothing’ wins Physics World’s 2015 Book of the Year

15 Dec 2015 Margaret Harris

Physics World‘s choice for the 2015 Book of the Year is Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: a Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything by Amanda Gefter

What sparked your interest in physics? It’s a question that appears regularly in Physics World‘s “Once a physicist” column (which profiles people who studied physics and then went on to do something else), and common responses include “I was good at it in school” and “I had an inspiring teacher”. But for the science journalist Amanda Gefter, the answer is much less conventional. As she explains in her book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn – which Physics World has chosen as its Book of the Year for 2015 – her interest in physics began “in a Chinese restaurant, circa 1995, when my father asked me a question about nothing”.

At the time, Gefter was an angsty teenager who found her high-school science classes boring, yet her father’s question struck a chord. Soon the pair were devouring popular-physics books, and a few years later, they blagged their way into a physics conference. Eventually, Gefter became a science journalist as a “cover” so that she could continue asking questions about what is “real” in the universe we observe around us.

Gefter’s background is an important part of Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, which mixes her coming-of-age story with a penetrating (and frequently mind-blowing) analysis of what modern physics has to say about the nature of reality. In the book, Gefter grows from someone with little knowledge of physics, into the sort of person who asks questions like “How can we apply the holographic principle to our de Sitter universe?”, and she takes readers with her, sharing and explaining the answers that theorists such as Alan Guth, Fotini Markopoulou, Kip Thorne and Leonard Susskind have given her over the years. Hence, Gefter’s private quest for understanding becomes a way of introducing general readers to some of the most esoteric concepts in physics and cosmology.

This combination of the personal and the scientific is highly unusual in popular-physics writing, and it helped propel Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn to the top of a strong shortlist for Physics World‘s annual books award, which recognizes works that are “novel” as well as “interesting to physicists” and (of course) “well written”. That said, the other nine books on the 2015 shortlist also have these qualities in abundance, and you can find out more about a few of them if you listen to our latest podcast.

In the podcast, you’ll hear Physics World‘s editor Matin Durrani and reviews editor Margaret Harris discussing their favourite shortlisted books with Andrew Glester, the science communicator behind the Cosmic Shed podcast. You’ll also hear Amanda Gefter describe the pros and cons of explaining highly mathematical concepts without resorting to equations – something she discusses at greater length in a previous edition of the Physics World podcast.

This is the seventh year that the magazine has picked a Book of the Year. Previous winners include The Strangest Man, Graham Farmelo’s biography of Paul Dirac (2009); How the Hippies Saved Physics, David Kaiser’s analysis of how relative outsiders helped revive interest in the fundamentals of quantum mechanics (2012); and Stuff Matters, Mark Miodownik’s paean to the science of everyday materials (2014).

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