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What I'm Giving | November 19, 2013 1 comment
In this special series, we asked writers we admire to share a book they're giving to their friends and family this holiday season. Check back daily... Continue »
Louisa GilderDescribe 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.
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.
Chess or video games?
What do you do for relaxation?
Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
What was your favorite book as a kid?
What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
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?
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.