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Tech Q&A

Louisa Gilder

Describe your latest project.
I've just finished my history of entanglement, the phenomenon Schrödinger called "the characteristic trait of quantum mechanics." It's one of the things that makes quantum mechanics so much like magic. If two particles — atoms, photons of light, electrons, etc., in any combination — interact and then separate, the laws of quantum physics do not regard the distance between them as meaningful. As far as the equations are concerned, the objects are one, no matter how far apart they might be.

In interacting with one of these entangled particles, we both discover and destroy their unity. If we touch one particle, it seems that the other, untouched particle, reacts — a description of events which Einstein famously ridiculed as "spooky action at a distance." However it happens (and the how is still a mystery), this correlation was first demonstrated in the lab in 1972 over a distance of 12 feet, and last year, over 90 miles of the Atlantic between two of the Canary Islands. It has become the basis of unbreakable codes (quantum key exchange), with the potential for mind-bogglingly fast data processing (quantum computing), and is the focus of the most vibrant sections of physics departments worldwide.

So my book tells the history of this fascinating effect, from 1909 to 2008. But for all but a few years of that century, and by all but a few physicists, entanglement was ignored. This makes this an unusual history — in part, it's a revisiting of a history (the rise and ascendancy of quantum mechanics) that is at this point very familiar to physicists and science readers, and looking at it in a different light that makes some of the "failures" look visionary.

I spent eight-and-a-half years writing the book, and part of the struggle over those years was to work out a way to tell such a history of apparent failures and constant miscommunication. The way that the physicists' personalities interacted with each other had a huge effect on the course that research took. I found that the history just did not make sense without taking the human interaction into effect. So I ended up writing a book that tries to place the reader in the middle of these debates and miscommunications as they were happening, to "feel" the history as it was unfolding.

  1. The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn
    $11.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "[T]his compelling history...will stimulate more of the seminal conversations that generate new science. No book more fully delivers the creative excitement of science." Booklist (starred review)

    "Gilder's history is rife with curious characters and dramatizes how difficult it was for even these brilliant scientists to grasp the paradigm-changing concepts of quantum science." Publishers Weekly

    "A tour-de-force by a talented young author who makes a difficult subject accessible." Kirkus Reviews

What inspires you to sit down and write?
Well, I guess there are two different pictures here. There's the big picture — What inspires you to sit down and write at all? and there's the practical level, which is harder — What got you into that chair morning after morning for most of nine years?

The inspiration for the book came out of my research for my independent study in college (Dartmouth). In my junior winter, as a recently lapsed physics major, I encountered entanglement — in a philosophy class, of all places. It thrilled me; it was for discoveries like this that I had wanted to study physics in the first place! And the physics department let me do an independent study. As I did my research, I realized more and more that there was a fascinating human story to go with the fascinating physical effect. All the pieces of the story were spread out over memoirs and biographies and scientific journals and interviews, and I really longed to read a book that would collect the story in one place. I didn't feel inspired to write it, but I felt so strongly that that book should exist.

I've heard writers talk about writing the book that they wished they could read, and now I understand it. That was my motivation.

But you can't get through the day-to-day by telling yourself how much you want to read the book when it's done. Writing is a big struggle for me, and the moments where it all flows are far fewer than I would wish; a lot of it is nitpicking and just grinding away. What's worked best to get me to write has been ritualizing it. I've learned that the only way I can fight my procrastination is to start writing before anything else. Even breakfast is too distracting, let alone any morning reading (even if it's relevant). I sit in my maternal grandmother's chair at my paternal great-grandmother's desk (which have both traveled in my Honda Civic across the country three times), drinking gallons of green tea, and sometimes, if I'm alone, my computer plays music that might help evoke that precious fugue state — Hildegard von Bingen, or Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach on the cello. Best was when I had moved back in with my family (in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts) and both my parents were writing books. My mother and I would work side by side in what we called "the Temple" — a beautiful room over my parents' garage with a view of our beef cattle and the hills beyond.

Even ritual wouldn't do it, I realize, if I wasn't kind of obsessive and perfectionist about the book. (Of course, I already know I made mistakes that I never caught, so I was actually not obsessive and perfectionist enough.) But focusing on a tiny detail, rewriting a sentence over and over again, spending a day doing research for that sentence, and then cutting the sentence — the drive behind these non-adaptive behaviors actually is what made the book happen. And that drive is caring deeply about the subject and the people involved.

As I think about it, I think both the big picture and the little picture motivations add up to the same thing, which is love.

Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
My favorite was my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Lotz. Looking back, I now realize she must have been really young — maybe just out of college — but at the time, we 11-year-olds just realized she was "cool" (sometimes she wore sunglasses). To give a sense of the magic of Mrs. Lotz, one of the things she taught was sentence diagramming. Not just the "good kids," but the whole class (about 30 kids at St. Mary's School in Lee, MA), would be clamoring to diagram a sentence up on the board. I have no idea how she did it, but she made grammar fascinating. But the best thing was that she taught us to write books. We would write a draft and she'd edit it. Then we'd write up a neat final draft, illustrate it, and then bind it with thin, bendy cardboard and a few stitches of thread down the middle. I still have about five books I wrote over the course of that year. It was absolutely the high point of my entire school education. A family friend we called Aunt Jane was my favorite teacher outside of school. She was a major influence in my life from childhood through ninth grade (when she taught biology to my two best friends and me during a home-school year). Leading us on muddy walks through woods and swamps, she would explain amazing things about the plants, trees, amphibians, and bugs. I had previously thought of the woods as an empty stage waiting for something exciting to happen (like a bear), but Aunt Jane made even the most apparently empty woods magical.

Chess or video games?
Chess, particularly the knights.

What do you do for relaxation?
I run. Or cross-country ski if I'm near snow.

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
Scott Adams, but I think he's started phoning them in. The old ones, he could do that magic trick of making me laugh three times en route to the punchline. On the other hand, I've discovered The Office, which I think has successfully captured some of the same kind of humor.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
It was probably a four-way tie between Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, and two books written by my relatives — My Friend Flicka and George and His Horse Bill. One of my greatest birthday disappointments was the day my aunt Louisa, who is an artist, gave me a book called Little Horses, with a beautiful homemade book jacket she had drawn of running horses. Underneath was Little Women — her attempt to interest me in the most famous Louisa (eventually she was successful, but only years later).

Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, and Tintin, despite their deplorable dearth of equine characters, were very high on my list as well.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
I don't know if I'm allowed to talk about a technology that was developed by a friend and for which my father is trying to raise money, but it would be my choice even if I didn't know anyone involved. Seldon Technologies has made a tiny, incredibly efficient water-filtration system using carbon nanotubes that filter out not only the normal grime and bacteria but also viruses.

Obviously, technology alone can't solve the problem of access to clean water for everyone, but this seems to me to be a huge step forward.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
Definitely not a writer. Reading is much more gratifying than writing.

But it would be such a wonderful gift to be reincarnated as some young scientist who got to be part of the rise of quantum mechanics in the '20s and '30s — at the Cavendish Lab in Cambridge under Rutherford, or at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. To be just a small piece in either of those tremendous intellectual atmospheres, where terrific people were making the most beautiful, wonderful discoveries — I would really, really love that.

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Louisa Gilder graduated from Dartmouth College in 2000. She lives in Bodega Bay, California. This is her first book.

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