An imagining of a black hole. Credit: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center / Flickr Creative Commons
Science writer Amanda Gefter knows that Einstein’s theory of relativity changed the world. Not just because it led to GPS and the atomic bomb, but because it radically shifted the way we viewed the universe.
“With Newton… gravity was just the force that kept the planets in motion and made apples fall on people’s heads. Einstein was saying, how does that look to a given person? In doing that, he was able to realize that things we took for granted as just existing, like space and time, it turns out those look very different for different observers.”
Gefter has a unusually close personal relationship to the theory, though. She began to shift her perspective about the universe in a Chinese restaurant when, during dinner, her dad asked her a seemingly simple question:
“He asked me how I would define nothing. My dad’s sort of always off in space thinking deep thing, and it turned out he’d been thinking about this question a lot; he was obsessed with this intellectual puzzle. So, he asked me this and we got into a deep conversation about what is nothing, what is something, what is the universe. And we realized that these were physics questions.”
Gefter didn’t even like physics in high school, in fact, she had absolutely no interest in science at all.
“The way physics is set up in our educational system, you have to learn the really boring stuff before you get to the cool stuff like relativity and quantum mechanics, that’s not until college. By that point you’ve already decided to study that, so it’s selecting for the people who are into the boring stuff," she explains.
But when she started to explore the world of physics with her dad, beyond the confines of schoolwork and , she realized that physics was all about understanding the reality behind appearances; that the mysteries of the universe were comprehensible, but also full of wonder.
This exploration led her and her father to a physics conference celebrating John Wheeler, the man who coined the term “black holes.” Gefter was a member of the press, and the conference thought she was a representative of Manhattan Magazine. That was almost true -- she was actually writing for Manhattan Bride at the time.
After sneaking in, she was able to interrogate scientists about the subjects that fascinated them most. It was a revelation. She knew she didn’t just want to explore physics as a hobby, she wanted to write about it, to talk to even more scientists and find out what things amazed them.
Gefter points out that a lot of physicists (including Einstein) are (and were) rebellious, anti-authoritarian, willing to question everything — perhaps even more like artists than we realize.
She now works as a science writer for publications like Nautilus, Nature, and New Scientist, and she’s written about a homeless runaway who helped develop modern computing, the M-Theory, and her own journey to science writing.
But she never forgets the wonder she first felt at the Chinese restaurant with her dad.
“As a kid I was someone who wanted the world to be more than what it seemed, I was this bored teenager, and physics gives you that times a billion. Nothing is what it seems. And it opened me up to asking questions about everything.”
The shift in perspective may not have involved the curvature of spacetime, but it changed her view of the universe nonetheless.