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A Novelist Teaches Herself Physics

To explore loss and mystery, Nell Freudenberger journeyed into the atomic world.

Helen Clapp, a professor of theoretical physics at MIT, recounted the biggest news of 21st century physics, the detection of gravitational…By Kevin Berger

Helen Clapp, a professor of theoretical physics at MIT, recounted the biggest news of 21st century physics, the detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), an international collaboration of scientists, resulting from the collision of two black holes more than a billion years ago. Einstein posited the existence of gravitational waves in 1915, Clapp said. “People describe these waves as ‘ripples in spacetime,’ with analogies about bowling balls on trampolines and people rolling around on mattresses, and these are probably as good as we’re going to get. The problem with all of the analogies, though, is that they’re three-dimensional; it’s almost impossible for human beings to add a fourth dimension, and visualize how objects with enormous gravity—black holes or dead stars—might bend not only space, but time.”

“Because gravity could stretch matter,” Clapp said, “We knew that a collision between enormously dense objects—black holes or neutron stars—was the most likely way we would be able to hear it. One scientist came up with a good Hollywood analogy—that the universe had finally ‘produced a talkie.’ Actually, the universe has always produced talkies; it was only that we didn’t have the ears to hear them.” The “interferometers became the ears.”

In fact, Clapp is the fictional creation of Nell Freudenberger, the narrator of her recent novel, Lost and Wanted. The novel, Freudenberger’s third, takes readers inside Clapp’s suddenly turbulent world, a single mother whose close friend, Charlie, has died. Freudenberger explored the transformation of characters uprooted from their home countries and cultures in her previous novels, The Dissident and The Newlyweds, and here traces her physicist’s dislocation as she receives texts from, apparently, her deceased friend, as if she were a ghost.

SCIENCE IN FICTION: “Somebody who reads Lost and Wanted, who’s more like me, and had never encountered any of these ideas, might find something, whether it’s quantum entanglement or LIGO or the Higgs discovery, that makes them want to read more about them,” says Nell Freudenberger (above).Elena Seibert

Freudenberger was determined to bring her protagonist to life as a working physicist. She read books by physicists Lisa Randall and Janna Levin, Steven Weinberg and Kip Thorne, among others. She interviewed Imre Bartos, an assistant professor physics at the University of Florida (formerly at Columbia University), and a member of LIGO, and David Kaiser, a professor of physics and the history of science at MIT, whose 2011 book, How the Hippies Saved Physics, figures in Lost and Wanted. Despite her research, Freudenberger admitted during a recent interview in her Brooklyn home, she remained nervous as a novice gambler about putting pen to paper about physics, worrying she would never fool anyone.

When Bartos and Kaiser read Lost and Wanted, they told me, they couldn’t have been more impressed. “The scientific descriptions are not just informative and accurate, but Nell also manages to make them sound matter-of-fact, as it would be when two scientists are talking,” Bartos said. “While a part of the science discussed is LIGO’s discovery of gravitational waves—arguably the scientific finding of the century—Nell flawlessly grasps the thinking of the scientists involved who look through the historical event and can’t wait to use the machine for yet unanswered questions.” Kaiser said the physics in Lost and Wanted never struck him as window-dressing. “I was really impressed by Nell’s ability to craft a fully realized central character who happened to be a theoretical physicist—rather than inserting a physicist character as a kind of cartoon stand-in, like the characters in a sitcom like The Big Bang Theory,” Kaiser said. “I also really loved the ways that Nell wove in ideas about gravity, quantum theory, and the cosmos that physicists really grapple with today, as legitimate features of Helen’s full and complicated experiences.”

Freudenberger must be pleased with the praise of her tutors. As she explained in our conversation, she entered physics boldly, uncertainly.


In the acknowledgements of Lost and Wanted, you write, “When I started writing this book, science felt more foreign to me than any country I’d ever visited.” What brought you to the land of physics?

I had a draft of the novel with a male astrophysicist, inspired by somebody I knew in college. He was both a fiction writer and a serious astrophysicist. I’m interested in somebody who has that kind of brain, who likes to do both things. As I wrote the book, though, I got more skeptical about the idea that we had either a humanities brain or a science brain. I had also set out to write a book about work, and the narrator was a novelist. But that didn’t work because I know what it’s like to write fiction every day, and it’s not very dramatic. I realized after I had this complete draft that it wasn’t good, and I wanted to start over again. I thought, “What if the first-person narrator were a physicist and a woman?” That was really scary because I knew I would have to do a whole other level of research to write a convincing physicist. But the feeling I can’t do something is what makes me think it’s worth trying to do.

How did you begin your deep dive into physics?

I interviewed Lisa Randall just because I was interested in her work. I read all of her books. She talks about theoretical models in physics and I thought that sounded similar to what a novelist does. There’s a great definition of fiction by Lorrie Moore. She says fiction is “the unlivable life, the strange room tacked onto the house, the extra moon that is circling the earth unbeknownst to science.” So when I was reading about Lisa’s models of branes and extra dimensions of space, I was thinking there is a parallel with fiction. We use pieces of experience to make a structure that has more meaning than lived experience. I tried that out on Lisa and she said, “Yeah, but we don’t make things up.” That went into the book because it’s a great physicist’s comment.

She resists speaking about “women in science.” She wants to speak about the work she’s actually doing.

Was reading physics a struggle?

Parts of it were a struggle. But what I love about Lisa Randall is her passion for communicating ideas. You get the sense you’re sitting across from somebody who’s saying, “Yes, I’m going to tell you all the details, I’m not going to present a crib-note version, because I think you can understand what I’m working on.” I also loved Louisa Gilder’s The Age of Entanglement and Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps. That one was slow for me, but it was like being in the kind of physics class I always dreamed of taking. At Harvard I had taken a class, Physics for Poets. The professor said in an impatient way, “If you can’t follow the math, then you don’t have to, but I can’t really explain it without the math, so just do the best you can.” My heart sank because I was excited about the class and on the first day I was being told I didn’t have the background to understand it. It was true, but when I was younger I had done really well at math. Then when I was in high school, a teacher said to me, “I’ve heard you’re good at languages and English, and so you could just focus on that and drop pre-calculus.” When you’re a 16-year-old and told you can drop math, you think, “That’s great, I’m going to take another art class.”

What did you think as you read deeper into physics?

That it was more accessible than I had thought. I spent a lot of time with Imre Bartos, one of the LIGO scientists. He was incredibly generous with his time. We were sitting in his office once and I asked him about a paper that concerned noise reduction inside the interferometers. I said I might have to skip over the math. He said, “We all skip over the math; unless we think it’s wrong, we skip it.” That was a huge relief. I’m never going to read a paper the way that physicist reads it. But Imre believed I could take away the basic ideas. The more I had moments like that, the more confident I got that I could understand physics well enough to put it on stage.

There are fairly lengthy technical passages in the book that detail how LIGO detected gravitational waves. You also tackle the complicated AdS/CFT correspondence, a key theory in understanding the holographic principle, how a region or bulk of space, like a black hole, can be represented by the information on its surface or boundary. Were you nervous writing those passages?

Of course! I definitely wanted physicists to read and fact check them for me. Imre, Lisa Barsotti at MIT and David Kaiser sent me pages of corrections. For example, when it came to AdS/CFT, I was trying to come with an analogy to help visualize it. I settled on a kaleidoscope. But David sent me a note that said, “I’m not sure a kaleidoscope would quite work for AdS/CFT. A kaleidoscope works by mixing together light from multiple images by using mirrors. To my mind, it doesn’t really capture the idea of a bulk-boundary relationship, that is, of some amount of information over here that is sufficient to reconstruct any information throughout that space.” He said I would have to go back to the drawing board on that one. My main goal in those passages was to make my main character, Helen, a working scientist. I wanted us to see her engaging with the ideas from her work, and not have the physics be simply a metaphorical structure for the emotional events in the book.

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Why didn’t you want physics to be a metaphorical structure for the book?

It came from my feeling that Helen would resist using scientific metaphors for daily life, and be frustrated with the way the uncertainty principle is related to what you should have for breakfast or the way people talk about gravity or a force in romantic relationships. But my relationship to that idea changed during the writing of the book, and that was partly from my conversations with Imre. One day we were walking in Riverside Park and talking about black holes. He was explaining them in a classical, Newtonian way as opposed to a quantum mechanics way. He was using all of these things around us—trees and rocks and squirrels—in a brilliant way to help me understand black holes. And I said, “Wait a minute, aren’t we supposed to resist explaining things in this way?” He said, “Absolutely not, our brains aren’t equipped to understand a lot of these ideas without analogies to our three-dimensional world. It’s just a question of choosing the analogies that are the closest to the idea we’re trying to explain and that do the best job of making it visual for us.” So by the end of the book, I had softened a little. After all, the three parts of the book are called Gravity, Entanglement, and Uncertainty.

What idea set the novel on its course?

I wanted to write about a scientist who experiences a loss and how she approaches grief. I thought she would experience grief in a more scientific or rational way than the rest of us do. But by the time I got to the end of the book, I thought she might be prone to the same sort of magical thing we all have around loss and grief. I asked Imre if there was some part of daily life that he approached differently because he was a physicist. It took him a long time to think of something and he said finally, “Well, maybe flying, I’m not afraid of flying because I know how airplanes work and the risks involved. It’s much scarier to me to get into a car.” I did start to believe that a part of Helen could, if not believe in a ghost, at least question the events that are happening around her friend’s death in the same way that you or I might do—the same sort of magical thinking where the phone rings and you think maybe it’s the person calling, even though you know the person’s gone.

I got more skeptical about the idea that we had either a humanities brain or a science brain.

In your first draft, your physicist was a man. Why did you change to a woman?

I wanted to write about women and work. Both Helen and her friend who dies, Charlie, were women who found their vocation before they found any other serious love, and I wanted them to keep that devotion to it, no matter how their lives got more complicated as they got older. One of the things that links them is their frustration with the idea of themselves as fighting against bias. They just want to do their work. Helen resists going out and speaking about “women in science.” She wants to speak about the work she’s actually doing. Charlie certainly doesn’t think of herself as a black screenwriter in Hollywood. She’s just a screenwriter. But as they get older, they come up against the bias that their education told them they weren’t necessarily going to have to face, but that these were battles that had already been fought.

Did you delve into research into grief?

Yes, and it’s fascinating to read some of the more out-there ideas about the afterlife that wear scientific clothing. I’ve never read one that I felt was pure science, but I was interested in the way that some people might be seriously ill or have a relative who was ill, and someone who was thinking about death, might latch on to the ideas of a scientist as a comfort in the same way that somebody might latch on to a religious idea.

Did you want a metaphysical tone in the book?

I have trouble believing in anything metaphysical, especially connected with the afterlife. But while I was writing the book, I lost a really close friend. I’d never experienced someone close to me dying. I’d lost grandparents, but I’d never lost a friend my own age. I was surprised by what that felt like, and how much my brain invented these possible scenarios where it hadn’t happened. I also read a book, not a science book, that was incredible: Hamlet in Purgatory by Stephen Greenblatt. Part of it is about staging ghosts. I wanted to stage a ghost and thought this book was a practical guide. Instead, the book is about the idea of purgatory. What if we take seriously the charge by theologians that the idea of purgatory was just a vast piece of poetry? I thought that was beautiful. And the reason the idea of purgatory is persistent is because it’s a way of keeping our loved ones closer. Purgatory is not just a question of God dithering about where people belong, but of them being able to come back into our lives. Greenblatt says this great thing about how no matter how much the churchmen preached against ghosts, there were still going to be reports of hauntings. And he says that no matter how much contemporary intellectuals preach against it, we will still have reports of hauntings.

Cognitive science invariably shows us individual beliefs are more powerful than facts.

Right, but I also spent time in these Internet grief chat rooms, where people are talking about loss. There are statistics that say almost half of Americans believe in ghosts, and I thought, “What is it like to really believe?” Instead of finding what I expected—wacky stuff about ghosts—I was moved again and again by people who had just experienced a loss and seeing the person or feeling the person near them, especially since I had gone through it myself, feeling the amazing the tricks my mind could play on me. Greenblatt says this great thing. You hear the phone ring and you expect it’s your dead friend on the line. I’ll always remember that because that’s exactly what it feels like.

If you became a scientist, what would you study?

I would study gravitational waves. That was the subject that was most fascinating to me. An interferometer is a fairly simple machine that’s been around for a long time. The way that LIGO has refined it to see this thing that Einstein didn’t believe scientists would ever be able to detect is amazing. And the first paper by the LIGO scientists, as they must have known when they were writing it, is a beautiful, classic paper. The fact it’s about both the first detection of gravitational waves and the first observation of a black hole merger, in just a few pages, is incredible.


Kevin Berger is the editor of Nautilus.

Lead image courtesy of Caltech / MIT / LIGO Laboratory: The illustration shows the merger of two black holes and the gravitational waves that ripple outward as the black holes spiral toward each other.

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