A Novelist Teaches Herself Physics

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.

“Somebody who, 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).

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