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Crashing the Ultimate Reality Party
It’s hard to know where to begin. What even counts as a beginning? I could say my story begins in a Chinese restaurant, circa 1995, when my father asked me a question about nothing. More likely it begins circa 14 billion years ago, when the so-called universe was allegedly born, broiling and thick with existence. Then again, I’ve come to suspect that that story is only beginning right now. I realize how weird that must sound. Trust me, it gets weirder.
As for my story, it probably begins the day I lied and said I was a journalist. Not that I knew at the time that it was a beginning. There’s no way I could have known how far the whole thing would go. That I’d soon be hanging out with the world’s most brilliant physicists. That I’d turn a minor deception into an entire career. I could never have guessed that I’d be getting emails from Stephen Hawking, lunching with Nobel laureates, or stalking a man in a Panama hat. I never once imagined driving through the desert with my father to Los Alamos, or poring over fragile manuscripts in search of clues to a cosmic riddle. If I had stopped to think about it, I couldn’t have foreseen that one little lie, one impulsive decision to go somewhere I didn’t belong, would launch an all-consuming hunt for ultimate reality.
But the strangest part is that I no longer believe that any of these things is the beginning. Because after everything that’s happened, after everything I’ve learned, I’ve come to see that this story begins with you. With you opening a book, hearing the soft crack of a spine, the whisper of a turning page. Don’t get me wrong—I’d love to say that this is my story. My universe. My book. But after everything I’ve been through, I’m pretty certain that it’s yours.
I was working in a magazine office when the lie was born. That was the idea, anyway—“working” in an “office.” In reality I was stuffing envelopes in the dusty one-bedroom apartment of a guy named Rick. The idea was that I worked for Manhattan magazine. The reality was that I worked for Manhattan Bride.
Manhattan covered New York’s socialite charity-event circuit, but the magazine was bordering on extinction when I first took the job, and it was laid to rest shortly after. Rick’s newly launched glossy bridal magazine, on the other hand, was alive and well. So even though I spent most days fielding calls from florists and cake decorators, and one long afternoon scowling in an obscenely puffy wedding gown, I continued to tell people that I worked for Manhattan magazine. It sounded better.
I was there in the office, wondering if I could use the rubber-band ball to fling myself back to Brooklyn, when I spotted the article in The New York Times. John Archibald Wheeler, leading light of theoretical physics, poet laureate of existence, had just turned ninety and physicists from around the world were heading to Princeton to celebrate. “This weekend,” the article read, “the Really Big Questions that Dr. Wheeler loves will be on the table when prominent scientists gather at a conference center here in his honor for a symposium modestly titled ‘Science and Ultimate Reality.’ ”
As it happened, I was burning to ask Wheeler one particular Really Big Question. If only I were a “prominent scientist.” I slumped back in my seat and gazed absentmindedly at an old Manhattan cover hanging on the wall.
And then it hit me.
I waited until Rick left to get lunch, then picked up the phone, called the people in charge of publicity for the conference, and told them, in the most professional voice I could muster, that I was a journalist calling from Manhattan magazine and I was interested in covering the event. “Oh, of course, we would love you to come,” they said.
“Great,” I said. “Put me down plus one.”
I was utterly certain that these kind public relations people had never heard of Manhattan magazine. Most people in New York, let alone the rest of the world, had never heard of any such publication, but when I told people I worked for Manhattan magazine they always said, “Oh, of course!” Manhattan magazine is just a name that everyone thinks they know. Only they don’t. And that, I realized, was my ticket to Science and Ultimate Reality.
I was equally certain that these same PR people assumed that my “plus one” would be a fellow journalist or a photographer there to shoot pictures as I covered my big story. I picked up the phone and called my father. “Clear your schedule for this weekend. We’re going to Princeton.”
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 just 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. I couldn’t imagine Sisyphus happy, and frankly, I didn’t bother to try. Kurt Cobain had offed himself and I didn’t believe in math. I had read somewhere that between the numbers 1 and 2 there were an infinite number of numbers, and I just kept thinking, how do you ever get to 2? My mother, a math teacher, would valiantly attempt to tutor me in geometry, but I’d refuse on principle. “Sure, I’ll find that area,” I’d say, “just as soon as you explain to me how you get to 2.” She’d throw up her hands in defeat and storm off, leaving me to fail the class as a conscientious objector. It was Zeno’s angst, in retrospect, but no one told me that then.
“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 homogeneous 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!”
I spooned some more rice onto my plate. “Okay . . .”
My father continued, his excitement mounting. “Usually people think that to get to nothing, you have to remove everything. But if nothing is defined as an infinite, unbounded homogeneous state, you don’t have to remove anything to get to it—you just have to put everything into a specific configuration. Think about it this way. You take a blender to the world—you blend up every object, every chair and table and fortune cookie in this place, you blend it all until everything is just atoms and then you keep blending the atoms until any remaining structure is gone, until everything in the universe looks exactly the same, and this completely undifferentiated stuff is spread out infinitely without bound. Everything will have disappeared into sameness. Everything becomes nothing. But in some sense it’s still everything, because everything you started with is still in there. Nothing is just everything in a different configuration.”
“Okay, that’s pretty cool,” I said. “Something and nothing aren’t really opposites, they’re just different patterns of the same thing.”
“Exactly!” My father beamed. “And if that’s true, then it seems much more plausible that you can get something from nothing. Because, in a way, the something is always there. It’s like if you build a sandcastle at the beach and then knock it down—where does the castle go? The castle’s ‘thingness’ was defined by its form, by the boundaries that differentiated it from the rest of the beach. When you knock it down, the castle disappears back into the homogeneity of the beach. The castle and the beach, the something and the nothing, are just two different patterns.”
The idea was beginning to click. In my existentialist musings I had thought a bit about nothing—not the transcendent, oneness brand of nothing that my father was drawn to but the Heideggerian variety, laced with indifference and dread. A nothing that was an absence, not only of stuff but of meaning, a vast and impenetrable darkness, like the void I’d find behind my eyelids at night. It was a concept that easily gave way to vertigo, a word that was a paradox by its mere existence. By its name it was a thing, yet it was no thing, and somehow it was the very thing that defined the world. Inasmuch as anything existed, it existed in opposition to nothing, but nothing was a noun doomed to self-destruct, an idea that came complete with its own negation, poised as the limit not only of reality but of knowledge and of language. Heidegger said that the question “what is nothing?” was the most fundamental of all philosophical questions, and yet “no one,” wrote Henning Genz, “has ever given us an answer to what exactly defines nothing, other than by characterizing it simply by negatives.” Only that’s exactly what my father was trying to do. To define nothing not in terms of what it isn’t, but in terms of what it is. A state of infinite, unbounded homogeneity.
“I like it,” I told him.
And then this happened.
My father looked at me—his fifteen-year-old daughter—and in all seriousness asked, “Do you think that could explain how the universe began?”
I opened my mouth to speak, then paused, mouth open, searching for the right words, any words, to convey my mounting concern for his sanity. Had he gotten into the pot I had hidden under my mattress? “You’re asking me how the universe began?”
“Well, before the universe there was nothing. So to get a universe, nothing has to become something. For years I’ve been thinking they must be two different states of the same underlying thing—the same underlying reality—otherwise there’d be no way to transform one into the other. But how could nothing be a state of anything? Only now I realize that it’s a state of infinite, unbounded homogeneity. If you start from that, the problem of the origin of the universe becomes thinkable, at least. Tractable, maybe.”
I had been on board when I thought we were playing a philosophical game of semantic Jenga, but now he was bringing the universe into it?
“Isn’t this, like, physics?” I asked.
“I’m not even taking physics. I opted out of physics and took meteorology with the other underachievers. And I can’t even tell you how a hurricane begins because I slept through the class.”
He motioned to the waitress for the check. “Well, I think we should figure it out.”
We should figure it out. It wasn’t the kind of thing a parent says to a child. It was the kind of thing a person says to another person. I was intrigued. The whole thing sounded crazy, but crazy was infinitely better than boring. Besides, if there was one thing I knew, it was that my father was brilliant. Everyone knew my father was brilliant. He played it down with his sweet exterior and goofy sense of humor. You’d be forgiven for not seeing his brilliance right away, since he was always making wrong turns, zoning out midsentence, or, according to family legend, forgetting his pants. But just past that polite, absentminded demeanor was a bold, creative, insightful mind, and people who spoke to him for even a few minutes walked away knowing they had encountered something extraordinary. If you had to choose one guy to lead you off a cliff with his crazy idea, my father was that guy. For the first time in what felt like years, I smiled.