When Warren Gefter M’74 asked his 15-year-old daughter Amanda how she would define nothing, he knew she’d be intrigued. But he never imagined she would embark on a 17-year quest through the dizzying world of cosmological physics to answer that question and its seemingly imponderable counterpart, “How come existence?” Or that she would end up publishing a critically acclaimed book chronicling that quest, in which her father plays a very significant role.
Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything (Bantam, 2014) is many things, among them a loving tribute to Warren, a professor of radiology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania who became a sort of spiritual advisor on this remarkable intellectual odyssey. The two crashed high-powered physics conferences featuring the likes of Leonard Susskind (inventor of string theory), Stephen Hawking, and the late John Wheeler, the legendary physicist whose theories and style inspired them both.
Both Gefters were particularly intrigued by Wheeler’s notion that observers create reality through quantum measurement and are therefore somehow implicated in the universe’s existence. In light of that theory, Warren can be seen as both an observer and a co-creator.
“After we had been immersed in it for a while, we started to think that maybe when we had this all figured out, we really would write a book,” he reflected recently over lunch at a University City Chinese restaurant. “Then we got into the really interesting things, and it lasted 15 years. And it got really odd, because we couldn’t figure out if we were living in the book or outside the book! It was very strange.”
Below are two of the more graspable passages from Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, one from the beginning, one from the end.
My sudden urge to crash a physics conference with my father can be traced to a conversation seven years earlier.
I was fifteen at the time, and my father had taken me out for dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant near our home in a small suburb just west of Philadelphia. Usually we ate there with my mother and older brother, but this time it was just the two of us. I was pushing a cashew around my plate with a chopstick when he looked at me intently and asked, “How would you define nothing?”
It was a strange dinner-table question, to be sure, but not entirely out of character for my father, who, thanks to his days as an intellectual hippie Buddhist back in the sixties, was prone to posing Zen-koan-like questions.
I had discovered that side of him the day I came across his college yearbook, flipping pages only to discover a photo of my father sitting shirtless in a lotus pose reading a copy of Alan Watts’s This Is It—a hilarious sight considering that these days he was a radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, where he not only wore a shirt every day but often sported a well-coordinated tie, too. He had made a name for himself by explaining how a whole array of lung diseases were caused by a single kind of fungus, and by inventing the disposable nipple marker—a sort of pastie that you stick on someone’s nipple when they’re getting a chest X-ray so the radiologists don’t mistake the nipple’s shadow for a tumor. But behind all the fungus and nipples, that groovy lotus-posing dude was still in there waiting for a chance to speak up. When he did, he would offer unlikely morsels of parental guidance, like, “There’s something about reality you need to know. I know it seems like there’s you and then there’s the rest of the world outside you. You feel that separation, but it’s all an illusion. Inside, outside—it’s all one thing.”
As a dogmatically skeptical teenager, I had my own Zen-like practice of zoning out when adults offered me advice, but when it came to my father I listened—maybe because when he spoke it sounded less like an authoritarian command and more like the confession of a secret. It’s all an illusion. Now here he was speaking in that same quietly intense tone, leaning in so as not to let the other diners overhear, asking me how I’d define nothing.
I wondered if he was asking me about nothing because he suspected I was entertaining some kind of nihilistic streak. I was a contemplative but restless kid, the kind that parents describe as “hard to handle.” In truth I think I was just bored and not cut out for the suburbs. An aspiring writer with a learner’s permit, I had read Jack Kerouac and I was itching to hit the road. To make matters worse, I had discovered philosophy. When you’re fifteen, boredom plus suburbia plus existentialism equals trouble …
“How would I define nothing? I guess I’d define it as the absence of something. The absence of everything. Why?”
“I’ve been thinking about it for years,” he said, “this question of how you can get something from nothing. It just seemed so impossible, but I figured we must be thinking about nothing the wrong way. And then the other day I was at the mechanic waiting for my car to be fixed and it just hit me! I finally understood it.”
“You understood nothing?”
He nodded excitedly. “I thought, what if you had a state that was infinite, unbounded, and perfectly the same everywhere?”
I shrugged. “I’m guessing it would be nothing?”
“Right! Think about it—a ‘thing’ is defined by its boundaries. By what differentiates it from something else. That’s why when you draw something, it’s enough to draw its outline. Its edges. The edges define the ‘thing.’ But if you have a completely homogenous state with no edges, and it’s infinite so there’s nothing else to differentiate it from … it would contain no ‘things.’ It would be nothing!”
My father had once told me that when he was a teenager on summer vacation, he was lying on a hammock in the backyard of his family home, not two miles from the home in which he and my mother would later raise me, reading The Way of Zen. “The book was talking about the illusion of the ego,” my father had told me, “and the duality of subject and object. I was totally blown away by this idea, which was so simple and yet so profound. It had such an effect on me that I became hyperaware of everything around me. I was so in the moment. And then a bee landed on the page and pooped on it and then flew away. So I circled the stain on the page and wrote in the margin, ‘A bee pooped here.’”
When he told me that story, I found myself wondering what I would have done if a bee had shat on my teenage reading, which was pretty much the opposite of everything Zen. Most likely I would have circled the stain in my Sartre and written, “Figures.” But the funny thing is, unbeknownst to my father, when I had snuck out of this house to get my first tattoo at the age of fourteen, I had, amidst my existentialism and angst, gotten a tattoo of the Chinese character for Zen, which looked like a little Hawaiian man carrying a tiki torch on my hip, because even though I was rebelling, I really just wanted to be like my father, to have the kind of subterranean wisdom I saw lurking behind his eyes, which were large and brown and sloped downward at the edges so that he appeared perpetually sleepy or stoned, eyes I had inherited from him and regarded not as mere genetic facsimile but as a secret handshake. It was his Zen-like thinking that led my father to his epiphany, the H-state, a way of thinking about nothing that made it the ontological equal of everything, and it was his H-state that led me to dream up a life, and a book, and a universe.