Make Time For Spacetime


Whenever I go on a trip, whether to a foreign country or just a state with a very different climate, I feel as though I’m in an alternate universe. The laws are different, I have to adjust my behavior accordingly, and I learn a few things about how the world actually functions by being an observer rather than a cog. When I come back to my normal life — where I live and work and all my toiletries are full-size — it seems to me as though no time has passed, largely because I have not observed it.

Reading The Universe in Your Hand, a new book from the French theoretical physicist Christophe Galfard, is a bit like going on one of these trips, with Galfard as your fixer and interpreter (he’s more than just a tour guide). The polyglot former grad student of Stephen Hawking wrote the book in breezy, conversational English (complete with one-line paragraphs), and promises to throw only one equation at you (E=mc2, and he doesn’t even use it that much). Unless you already happen to be a physicist or took a particularly thorough college-level course in astronomy, Galfard pretty much knows what you do and don’t know.

Galfard’s book is a triumph of straightforward (which is not to say simple) language. Already an international bestseller, it was first released in France in June 2015, followed by the U.K. version in August. Since he wrote it in English first, the book had to be translated into his native French; Galfard found the first pass unsatisfactory, and ended up largely re-writing it himself. The U.S. edition came out in March 2016, conveniently in time to account for the major announcement of the detection of gravitational waves, which provide experimental evidence for Einstein’s hundred-year-old theories.

Plain-English (and French and Greek and Italian — Galfard’s book will soon be available in more than a dozen languages) explanations of popular science and astronomy are nothing new. From Richard Feynman to Stephen Hawking, the enlightened have been bringing the cosmos to us in earthbound terms for decades. Where Carl Sagan used history and literature to explain astronomical phenomena and Neil de Grasse Tyson uses pop culture, Galfard is nearly absent of shtick. He uses pedestrian analogies and examples (cherry tomatoes, doting aunts, a robot with a sense of humor), and Nobel Prize-winning discoveries mark major inflection points. Some may read a whiff of condescension into his comparison of atoms swallowing electrons to “children being offered sweets at a party,” or when he confides, in the chapter about dark matter, “To be honest with you, you are not the first one to check out how fast these stars shoot around our galaxy.” But this may be an old habit — Galfard’s first books were all YA science-fiction, a French trilogy called Le Prince des nuages, and George’s Secret Key to the Universe, co-written with Stephen Hawking and his daughter, Lucy.

According to Galfard’s website, “The idea behind The Universe in your Hand was to write a pop-science book accessible to all in which the reader is the main character.” He uses the vehicle of first-person experience, narrated in the second person: Jay McInerney goes to space. The initial journey, with its beach setting and cast of characters who disbelieve your tale, bears some resemblance to the circumstances of Carl Sagan’s Contact: “deep inside yourself, you know that you experienced something very special and dreamt none of it.”

Reading the book feels like taking a class with an animated young professor, who takes his class on regular field trips to the planetarium. He goes through a series of gedanken experiments (what he calls “mind-trips”), some of which require you to shrink, Magic School Bus-style, into a mini-version of you (at one point, mini-you even catches an electron in your mini-hand). And because this is a class that lasts an entire semester (four hundred pages), he often recaps what he said at the last lecture (“what your mind did in Part One was to actually fly through a frozen 3D picture of the universe”), and previews what you’ll come across in future ones (“to…figure out what the Big Bang is will be your mission in Part Five”). There was enough repetition to make me conscious of the possibility of being quizzed — this is being repeated, so it must be important, I thought.

Theoretical physics is, after all, largely theoretical, so conceptual exercises like the ones Galfard takes us through are the best way to take a primer on a difficult subject — no textbooks, no equations, no chalkboard. Certainly no rockets. For kinesthetic learners (and, presumably, narcissists), it works very well. I had never really understood why spacetime was constantly being called a “fabric,” and how light can behave like both a particle and a wave — these are both facts I remember learning and memorizing many times over in school, but never internalizing in my own brainstem. I wrote in the margins, next to the introduction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, “That was painless!” At another point, 246 pages in, I stopped and wrote, “Wait, what is a particle? Is it just a little part?” (Yes, it is, and after finishing the book I can safely say that particles are still the most confusing part about the universe. I would read an entire book about particles.)

Most people, when faced with the truths about the universe repeat some version of the scene from Annie Hall: a young Woody Allen learns the universe is expanding so he can’t do his homework. Galfard is breathless — “When you touch your skin, or someone else’s, you touch stardust,” he writes. His cheery enthusiasm unflappable, even in the face of the amazingly morbid — if you’ve accidentally traveled four hundred years into the future, all your loved ones are dead. Sorry! Moving on. Sometimes, Galfard veers into grandiosity: “However humble one needs to be before the majesty of nature, science, and only science, has given us eyes to see where our bodies are blind.”

Galfard’s wide-eyed wonder was on full display last month at Albertine, the French reading room on the Upper East Side attached to the embassy. Galfard is tall and slim, and he wore a black suit with navy shirt (no tie), the way a French man can do and get away with. He gave a short talk with Janna Levin, a physics and astronomy professor at Barnard, and the author of Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space, which also came out in March.

“Did you feel something weird on September 14, 2015?” Galfard asked the audience. “That’s when the waves passed through you!” He was referring to the gravitational waves that were detected by the LIGO; if anyone laughed it was not audible. Levin, short and petite, dressed in all black, was somewhat more muted. She shared her previous ignorance, “I thought the time began at the time the universe was created.” But of course, now she knows, “Time went on in the past and will go forward in the future.” At one point, they brought up The Big Rip, the hypothesis about the ultimate fate of the universe that it expands so much it actually tears. “Don’t worry the sun will die before that happens,” Galfard reassured the audience “Don’t worry, the election is coming,” Levin added.

Both Galfard and Levin are disarmingly more attractive than you’d expect for a pair of astrogeeks, and both have their talking points down so pat that the phrase, “a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second” rolls off their tongues. They’re practically made for the TED-talk circuit. The latest generation of space apostles knows their audience, and they swear space can be cool. “There is a moment in our past where the very notion of space and time break down — that is where theoretical physicists begin,” writes Galfard, excitedly. Onward and upward into the void, except, he reminds us: “there is no such thing as emptiness in this universe of ours.” You are not alone.

A few weeks ago, I sat with Galfard for two hours in Downtown Brooklyn while he answered questions on a Reddit AmA and sucked on an e-cigarette filled with something called “menthe fraiche alfaliquid.” (Two nights prior, he had lost his other e-cig somewhere inside Albertine; this one was his backup.)

“How do I choose which questions?” he asked, overwhelmed. There were already hundreds of questions waiting. When faced with one question about what lies beyond our universe, he mimicked typing while simultaneously mouthing, “read the book!” While writing up an explanation about the proof of the accelerated expansion of the universe, he forgot the names of the three 2011 Nobel Prize winners. “I forgot my book,” he told me, “it’s in there. That’s more reliable than Wikipedia.” I lent him my copy, and he looked up the answer using the index (Perlmutter, Schmidt, and Riess). As he typed, aware that I was watching him spell in his second language, he said self-consciously, “I shouldn’t hesitate.” He knew he knew the right words to use, but it made me wonder about the process of writing the book; whether and how much he self-doubted. He sprinkled his answers with idioms, too. “When you do like this,” he said, grabbing his hair, “is it draw your hair?” he asked. “Oh, pull.”

During a lull in the questions, I asked Galfard if he had seen the “Rick and Morty” episode about miniverses. He said he had, but I played the clip back for us anyway. “They are on acid!” he said. Around 4:15pm, he exclaimed, “At last! Someone who’s read my book.” He was genuinely pleased. He even did a few calculations, at first pulling up the Calculator application on his Macbook, then resorting to pen and paper. I handed him a ballpoint pen and on the back of an envelope so he could come up with the number a million billion — too many zeroes for the little gray and orange squares to handle.

After he decided he’d answered as many questions as he could, I asked Galfard if anyone ever called him the French Neil de Grasse Tyson. “No!” he said. He leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, “I am better than him! His shows don’t pull on your heart.” Galfard is definitely aiming for the heart, or at least somewhere in the chest. He compared people’s fear of space to children’s fear of the dark. “Thanks to science,” he said, “we have shed some light, and written the history of the stars and our universe.” Galfard believes everything can be turned into a story that can make you feel less afraid and at sea, and so far he is not wrong. His next book will be about the origins of life; “I only stick to humble topics,” he said.

The Universe in Your Hand is a dual lesson in humility; you have to be okay with letting Galfard spacesplain to you. But the real test of a good trip is the memories you come back with, to say nothing of the postcards and pictures. Space is worth the imaginary voyage, if only so you can finally understand the point of accelerating a particle, and what on earth it might have to do with the cosmos. The most salient simile I internalized after reading the book was about the quantum world: just because you can see or detect a particle does not mean that is the particle’s only reality. In fact, the particle is ubiquitous — a mixture of possibilities. Galfard writes, it’s as though “all the thoughts you may or may not have at some point in our life on a given subject suddenly become reduced to one as someone hears you speak it out loud.” It’s not fair to reduce a wily particle to its observable nature. But humans are not operating in a quantum world; we have no such excuse. You are what you tweet! Now give me back my full-sized conditioner.

Photo: TEDx Paris / Olivier Ezratty