Fiction Meets Physics in This Novelist’s Book

Helen Clapp is a professor of theoretical physics at MIT. She recounts the biggest news of 21st century physics: the detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), an international collaboration by scientists. This gravitational waves were the result of the collision of two black holes which happened more than a billion years ago. It is to be noted that Einstein in 1915 hypothesized that gravitational waves existed, and his hypothesis would only prove correct a century later. But what are these waves, exactly?

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.”

This is a really precise explanation of what gravitational waves, as expected of an MIT professor. The surprise here, however, is that Helen Clapp is not a real person; she is a fictional character in Nell Freudenberger’s recent novel, entitled Lost and Wanted.

How did Freudenberger write such a really accurate character? She has immersed herself into the world of physics. Talk about dedication and passion!

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.”

Check out the story over at the Nautilus.

(Image Credit: Engin_Akyurt/ Pixabay)

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