Book Review: Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter

Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn book cover
Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter, published by Bantam 2014

I love Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter more than I’ve loved any book in a long time.

I first became fascinated by cosmology in third grade (no kidding, in third grade I wrote an essay for school titled, “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Cosmologist.” You can ask my mom—she still has it.) While I didn’t dedicate my life to pursuing the subject the way that Ms. Gefter has, her delight and fascination with the theories of cosmology perfectly captures my own. I know the thrill of them the same way she does.

More than any other, this book reminds me why I love this field of study.

Most readers expect popular science books about cosmology to be written as fairly straight-forward informational texts. Ms. Gefter takes a very different approach here—she wrote this book as a personal memoir, the story of her path of discovery. It’s a deft strategy which grants a deeply personal resonance to a subject that defines “esoteric”.

Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is probably the best all-in-one summary of the cutting-edge ideas that have formed cosmology to date. Ms. Gefter explains each theory in layman’s terms about as well as possible—an impressive feat, given that some of these theories can’t really be stated in layman’s terms at all. She draws lines of connection between these various ideas to show how they all relate to each other.

It’s impossible to explore any aspect of cosmology in depth without using the abstruse language of the subject to some degree. Given that I’ve been an avid amateur cosmological enthusiast since I was a boy, I’m already quite familiar with this specialized vocabulary. Therefore, I can’t properly gauge how well readers new to the topic will be able to follow along. I feel that Ms. Gefter defines these specialist terms quite well, but it may be that this book isn’t as layman-friendly as I think it is.

It took me longer to read Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn than I anticipated, given my love for the subject matter and my previous familiarity with it. The reason it took me so long to get through it is because I had to stop every couple of pages to write things down—reactions, questions, disagreements, newly inspired thoughts. This book is dense with ideas, there’s so much on every page to mull over and evaluate. I haven’t had this many fresh thoughts about cosmology galloping around my head in a long time. I was compelled to take regular breaks to let my brain settle down and catch up.

This book inspired me.

If the book opens itself to criticism, it’s because Ms. Gefter offers her own rather extreme interpretation of where the current cutting-edge of cosmology is taking us. It’s worth noting that some of the best cosmologists in the field don’t agree with her. It’s also true that Ms. Gefter clearly prefers the ideas of some cosmologists over others (a statement which describes every professional cosmologist, as well, so she’s in good company). But even if you don’t agree with her conclusions, and even if she does display a degree of personal bias, her explanations of cosmology overall are very well done.

You don’t have to agree with any of the theories laid out in these pages to find joy in exploring them. There’s tremendous delight in trying to wrap your mind around such mind-twisting ideas. Knowing that human beings are capable of conceiving such complex structures of thought is awe-inspiring.

Ms. Gefter’s excitement for cosmology is infectious. She’s a wonderful tour guide through one of the most extreme and counter-intuitive subjects out there.

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