Something Versus Nothing: Why I Want to Interview Amanda Gefter


Never Underestimate an Amateur

It’s official. Amanda Gefter has blown my mind. Her book, “Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn,” tried to answer one simple question. Why is there something instead of nothing? Not so simple really.


Her quest to comprehend the universe and what that means to us, its residents, was inspired by her father. Gefter’s dad Warren, a radiologist and enthusiastic student of physics, captured the imagination of his wildish, adolescent daughter by proposing that they try to answer the something versus nothing question together.

That was the start of a father daughter obsession. In short order, their bookshelves were bulging with scientific tomes on physics, cosmology, and mathematics. These were consumed, discussed, and digested. But the answer to their original question, something versus nothing, remained elusive. They needed something more than books. They needed access to the greatest scientific minds of our time. But how could they, amateur enthusiasts, gain access to the ivy-bound halls of academic research?

A Living Example of Faking it Until You Make it

Their quest for an answer led Gefter to, ahem, embellish her credentials, securing two press passes to an academic conference honoring the physicist John Wheeler. Gefter’s description of their giddy delight was hilarious as they rubbed shoulders with the rock stars of physics, quantum mechanics, string theory, and cosmology. They even asked their question of Wheeler himself. His response was obscure, more of a Zen koan than an answer, but it was food for thought and they feasted upon it for the remainder of the book.

In no time at all, Gefter began getting real, scientific journalist writing assignments, earning the credentials she had once faked. With typical Gefter chutzpah, she decided to get a Master's degree in the Philosophy and History of Science from the London School of Economics. Like just anybody could do that, right? But even that accomplishment is part of a grander plan to find a literary agent who would take on her book proposal. Of course, Gefter succeeded in earning the degree and in finding an agent because I, along with many others, have delighted her book.

How Amanda Gefter Blew My Mind

So, this is how Amanda Gefter blew my mind. In her book she revealed that the things that scientists had taken to be facts, things like quantum particles, space-time, gravity, and so on turn out to be observer dependent. What? You and I don’t see the same stuff? But just by observing stuff at the quantum level we change it? My grasp of reality immediately felt far more tenuous. But my sense of wonder at the universe felt even more profound. And that’s why I want to interview Amanda Gefter on the Conversations podcast.

I acknowledge that I no longer know what reality is. But I’m pretty sure that a conversation with Amanda Gefter would be interesting, illuminating, and really fun.

My Interview Questions for Amanda Gefter

1.     What was it about your dad’s curiosity on the nature of the universe that captured your imagination?

2.     How did the idea to crash a scientific conference occur to you?

3.     Accomplished people sometimes feel like fakes. How’d you deal with this as you were becoming what you said you already were?

4.     Tell me about the greatest scientific minds of our time. How do they go about solving problems?

5.     What do you do to breakthrough when you’re stumped by a concept or your ability to interpret it for readers?

What questions would you ask?


How Podcasting Pros Achieve Authenticity


As I listen to my ever-growing list of favorite podcasts, it strikes me that the people who are really great at podcasting have the uncanny ability to project an authentic sense of self.

Take Malcolm Gladwell, for example. I love his Revisionist History podcast. One of my favorite episodes is about his discovery of McDonalds French fries in late adolescence. His passion for and devotion to this perfected form of potato is tangible; crunchy on the outside, hot and fluffy on the inside. And then McDonald’s broke his heart. That’s the pivot for the great story that follows. Listen to it when you have a chance.

Gladwell embodies authenticity. But we’re hearing a carefully edited version of Gladwell. It’s him only clearer and more compelling. Why? Because he has done the work of defining his podcast, of giving it a consistent format. All of that work pays off because we, the listeners, know what to expect and we love him for it. We’re not only getting what we subscribed to, we’re getting the best possible authentic version of Gladwell.

Authentic Podcasting is a Lot Like Acting

In an earlier version of the podcast I’m developing now, I had a conversation with Guy Saville, actor and Artistic Director of the Purple Rose Theatre, about how actors create an authentic character. Here’s what he said. “We (the actors) may not know exactly what we’re doing, but our passion and our purpose guides us.” The purpose is found in the dog-eared and well-thumbed pages of the script. The script does two things. It lays out the circumstances in which the characters react, and it’s the structure that the actors use to shape their characters’ authentic selves.

Acting Just Like You

Back to actor/director Guy Sanville. When I asked him to define acting he had obviously grappled with the question before.  “Acting is living truthfully in imaginary circumstances. You really are playing yourself in a lot of different situations. I tell young actors it really is about you. Your sense of truth, your sense of justice, your sense of humor.  You are playing yourself in a lot of different situations.”

Know Why You're Podcasting

In podcasting, as in acting, it takes work to arrive at your authentic self, starting with the answer to the question why you want to podcast. Whether you’re a brand in search of an additional marketing channel or an indie podcaster who has a passion and wants to share it, what’s your purpose? What do you want to achieve?  How will you know you’ve succeeded?

My purpose in podcasting is to host a public conversation on the nature and practical use of creativity. I want to know how accomplished people from cosmologists to comic book artists do what they do. How do they define creativity? Do they even use that word when thinking about the way they think? Most of all, I want to know about their daily habits and routines, the little things that they do to achieve rewarding work and build a meaningful life.

Becoming Real as a Podcaster

I am reminded of one of my favorite childhood books, The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. It’s the story of a stuffed toy rabbit who bravely dares to hope that he might become real someday if he is loved enough by the boy who owns him. After great hardship that to this day makes me tear up the velveteen rabbit does indeed become a real live bunny.

My point is this. To become real is a journey not without difficulties. Authenticity in life or in podcasting may be edited, augmented, and refined. But it is always real. Because that’s what life is.



Alan Rusbridger.png

Alan Rusbridger came into my life, as so many people do, because of a book he wrote, Play It Again. In 2013, the book’s publication date, I was aware of the Guardian and Mr. Rusbridger’s role as its editor. But it wasn’t Rusbridger’s day job that captured my imagination. It was the fact that in spite of 24-hour news cycle days, frequent international travel, family, and a lively circle of friends, Rusbridger heeded the call of what he characterized as his creative DNA.

In yielding to the gravitational pull of music, the piano in particular, Rusbridger set himself a daunting goal. Though an accomplished amateur pianist (and clarinetist), Rusbridger decided to climb the Mount Everest of piano literature; to learn Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor in a single year.

And it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of year. Sandwiched between the WikiLeaks news story and the News of the World hacking scandal Rusbridger described the period on his website as, “A defining year in the life of the Guardian and its editor, and one of the most memorable in the history of British journalism.”


This was the landscape in which Rusbridger tried to carve out 20 minutes of daily practice while he searched for, “The right teacher, the right piano, and the right fingering.”

In Play It Again, Rusbridger sought advice from some of the world’s most accomplished concert pianists, Murray Perahia, Emanuel Ax, Daniel Barenboim, and others who shared their insights on music in general and the immense difficulty of playing the ballade in particular. It may have been their professional assessment of the ballade’s terrifying complexity that prompted the book’s subtitle, An Amateur Against the Impossible.

This memoir of an extraordinary year includes conversations with music theorists, a neurologist on music and its effect on the brain, and a group of passionate amateur pianists on why music matters.

You’ll have to read the book to find out if Rusbridger was able to master the ballade in time for his public recital. Or you can listen to the Conversations podcast if I am lucky enough to have Mr. Rusbridger as a guest on the show.


1.     How did you pull it off? Are you a time lord who conjured up extra hours, hop-skipping from one dimension to another?

2.     What motivated and sustained you on this seemingly impossible quest?

3.     In what ways did this musical journey change your life?

4.     What impossible thing is he currently working on?

5.     Why 20-minutes a day?

6.     What practical advice can he give the rest of us to help us act on our own creative quests?

The back-flap copy on the book entices the reader with the question, “What will you do with your 20-minutes a day?” My answer was to get to work on a podcast that I’ve been thinking about and wanting to do for years. What will you do with your 20-minutes? I’d love to know.



Scientists as Super Heroes

This post is based on a conversation I had with Jim Ottaviani, a nuclear engineer, reference librarian, and award-winning writer of non-fiction comics about scientists since 1997.

Two minutes into the conversation with Jim, I learned that he had worked on a number of nuclear plants, caddied on the professional golf tour, and chauffeured then-Senator Al Gore on an early tour of the Information Superhighway. When I asked who or what influenced him as a child, his answer was, “better living through science,” a variant of a DuPont ad campaign that Millennials are not going to get.


What a Nuclear Scientist Really Does

As it turns out, a nuclear engineer doesn’t handle a lot of uranium. “I’ve given up the hope of ever getting super powers because I’ve been exposed to radiation or dangerous chemicals,” Jim said. “I’ve been in all sorts of laboratories and none of them have made me super-fast, super-smart, or able to fly. No super powers of any kind.”

In the real world, a nuclear engineer handles a lot of paperwork, making sure that power plants are as safe as possible. “There’s a lot of testing and mathematical modeling to ensure compliance with zillions of regulations,” said Jim. He also learned an interesting skill that I can’t quite visualize. He knows how to put on and take off his clothes without touching the outside of them. Try this at home and let me know how it works. Uh, no videos, please.

From Nuclear Engineer to Library Scientist

Jim traveled the world as a nuclear engineer but his 9-month tours of duty were to out of the way places where they actually build nuclear power plants. As a serial masters-degree student at the University of Michigan, Jim realized that what he really liked doing was research. “I took a library science class or two to get better at doing research and I liked it well enough to change careers.” 

An avid reader as a kid, Jim showed no early signs of becoming a comics writer, though he did read comics out of the newspaper. Yes, people used to do that. In his own words, “I was a pretty geeky kid before it was anything close to cool.” He described his career as a “steady move down the income ladder,” from nuclear engineer to librarian, and finally to comics writer.

Blame My Brother Billy and Frank Miller

Jim assigns blame to his younger brother Billy for sending him down the path of writing comics. Other than the aforementioned newspaper comics, Jim didn’t read comics regularly until he was home on break from college and picked his brother Billy’s Marvel comics. To Jim’s surprise, some were really good. Those were written and drawn by a fellow named Frank Miller. Though Miller is now known to the general public, thanks to Sin City, and more recently 300, two movies based almost entirely on his creation, he wasn’t widely known at the time. Jim said, “It was the quality of his work that attracted me to comics in the first place.                                                                                                    

When asked how he describes his work, Jim replied, “I don’t have a preference between comic books or graphic novels. It’s a format rather than a genre and neither is perfect. It’s like my being a vegetarian: that doesn’t mean I only eat leafy green vegetables. But I don’t think un-carnivorous is going to catch on.”

How to Get a Creative Project Off the Ground

Jim’s first comic was Two Fisted Science, featuring stories about Richard Feynman, Galileo Galilei, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and more. “It was an homage to two 1950s-comics called Two Fisted Tales and Weird Science,” Jim said. “With permission, I smooshed titles and logos together because it seemed like the perfect title for an anthology mainly about physicists.”

It’s interesting how ideas appear,” Jim said. “The panel images pop into your head.” For Two Fisted Science, the challenge was to figure out which stories to discard as the plot lines existed in real life. “I had to decide on the best bits about Feynman’s life or Galileo versus the Church. It was a matter of thinking page one, panel one over and over.”

On Panic and Getting Stuff Done Anyway

Jim is adept at replicating the panic he felt as a student in physics class. “I get the same feeling every time I sit down to make a new book. I arrive at each project with my brain, pencil, and paper (or rather, their modern analog, a keyboard, and a blinking cursor), with no clue as to how to solve the problem of writing a comics script.”

Returning to the Fundamental Idea

As he explained it to me, Jim makes his way through that panicked feeling by returning (often repeatedly) to the fundamental image or idea that got him excited about doing the book in the first place. His curiosity and passion for the subject eventually become words. And those words take form as dialogue, panel descriptions, pages, spreads, and scenes. Jim said, “all of a sudden (well, many months later, and thanks to heavy lifting by an artist) there it is, a new world, fresh for me to marvel at and enjoy as if I were discovering how gravity works like Isaac Newton.”

Work by Day. Write at Night. Creative Super Heroes

I asked Jim to describe what a good writing day looked like. As it turns out, his writing day starts at night, around 8:00 p.m. and ends in the vicinity of midnight. “As I get older, my ability to get up the next day and go to work diminishes but I really like writing at night. I think it’s the sense that everything is dark and timeless.”

Jim also writes on weekends but he doesn’t write on his lunch break, saying, “like everyone else, I use my lunch break to fool around on the web, and since I’m also a publisher I do business things, like track the industry.”

On Collaboration and Doing Work You Love

“One of the delights of writing comics is the collaborative process of working with illustrators. I send the artists a big stack of images and stick figure layouts, which they probably laugh at. It’s interesting, but the artists always want my awful drawings. Sometimes they don’t want to think about what to draw, and while my approach to depicting a scene may not be the best solution, at least it is one, and it works.

On Writing

When I asked about the kinesthetic part of writing, Jim agreed that there are certain pencils and papers that just feel better in the hand when you’re drawing. To get the satisfying click associated with a typewriter, he bought an old Macintosh keyboard that clacks away when he types. 

On Style and Approach

“Each character wants a different style and approach. The invention of calculus happened independently by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz but the two behaved really badly toward one another. Scientists have egos just like everyone else so we staged the encounter as a bar fight in an English pub. But we portrayed the meeting in Copenhagen between Heisenberg and Bohr straight up, using a classic illustration style, not at all cartoony.” 

In the Company of Nobel Laureates

Jim’s second book, Dignifying Science, tells the stories of 5 women who made substantial scientific contributions. The comic included Lise Meitner, an important but under-recognized nuclear physicist in the 1920s and ‘30s. Copies of the book made their way to Stockholm and Jim was contacted by the secretary of the physics prize committee. When Jim read the message, his reaction was, “Nobel committee, sure. That’s spam.” A little while later, he realized that, “Wow, it is from the Nobel prize committee.” Jim kept up the correspondence, with a standing invitation to meet next time he was overseas.

Come 2001, Jim was in Rome visiting his wife who was there on a 6-month assignment. Here’s how Jim described the situation. “We were trying to decide how I should best do my impersonation of a pack mule, helping her move all her stuff back, with a stop to visit friends in England. Then I suggested, it’s November, almost winter, shouldn’t we go to Scandinavia?  Because if you’re going to really experience the place it should be when it’s dark and cold and damp.”

Jim sent a note to his Nobel contact, saying he and his wife were coming up in late November and that he’d like to meet over lunch. In addition to lunch, Jim was invited to speak at the museum’s Fall creativity forum. He looked at his wife Kat and said, “what do I do?”  Kat advised Jim to accept. “Yeah,” he said. “But if I say yes, I’ll actually have to do it, not just be able to say I did it.”

So, they went to Stockholm and were put up in the hotel where all of the Nobel Laureates stay.  “It was great,” Jim said. “Stockholm is a charming city, even in the cold and gray. At the end of it, I got a medal commemorating Lise Meitner, who did not win a Nobel prize and should have for her work in nuclear fission. It was a terrific experience even though I didn’t end up with a Nobel prize, nor a million dollars.”

Your Practical Creativity Takeaway 

It’s okay to panic when you start something new. Just don’t let the panicky feeling of not knowing how or where to begin to hold you back. Like Jim, return to the core concept that got you excited in the first place. Think about it. Play with it. And keep working it. Before you know it, the idea of what you want to do will be so alive and real that the panicky feelings will take up less and less of your emotional real estate. Carry on and create something incredible.


In the time since my conversation with Jim, he has produced a succession of bestsellers that celebrate scientists and reveal their human imperfections. This holds true for Jim’s most recent comic, The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded.

Learn more about Jim’s rich and varied background.

The First Virtual Reality

Author Jonathan Gotschall

Author Jonathan Gotschall


Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, talked with Charlie Rose several months ago, about all things tech, but a good portion of the conversation was around the emergence of virtual reality. They discussed how VR is driving advances in medical diagnostic tools, but the conversation also covered mind-bending twists on our perception that begs the question what is real?

Let’s go back in time to look for the answer. “Tens of thousands of years ago, when the human mind was young and our numbers were few, we were telling one another stories,” Jonathan Gottschall writes in his book, The Storytelling Animal. He makes the case that then, as now, our species is addicted to storytelling. But when I heard Reid Hoffman enthusing about the potential of virtual reality, it reminded me of something Gottschall had said.


Gottschall proposed that stories were our first virtual reality experience, much like the flight simulators used to train pilots by putting them in potentially disastrous situations where the consequences are dire.

Stories were the homo sapiens equivalent of virtual reality, a vicarious yet visceral experience of something dangerous, a calamity to be avoided, an over-the-top heroic escape from something big, bad, and really scary.


Dr. Mathias Clasen, assistant professor of literature and media with Aarhus University, Denmark, suggests that watching horror movies can stimulate deep memories of frightening situations that our 21st-century selves no longer encounter.

According to Dr. Clasen, “When our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers in the East African savannah … they had to train their reactions to stressful situations, and the desire to do so became stored in their DNA – which we still carry today. When we watch a horror movie, we’re satisfying that desire. We’re training our danger preparedness.”

To watch, read or hear a frightening story is to experience a reality generated by someone else that our nervous system claims for its own. In other words, scary, though not the only way to learn, appears to be an effective way to learn how to survive.


Australian podcaster Claire Testoni produces The Singing Bones, a deliciously scary telling of folktales, stories about the earlier, dark side of humanity; jealousy, greed, hatred, revenge. Maybe our worst selves are the basis for the other, the monster that snatches children in the night, invades mead halls, and sings sailors to their death with siren songs.  

Testoni notes that until the Brothers Grimm released their first volume of sanitized German folk tales, we didn’t have fairy tales, literally little flying creatures thought to be based on Celtic traditions of the other, known as wee folk. Before fairies we had lore, and it was almost exclusively scary.

Podcaster Aaron Mencke produces Lore, stories based on fact and folk lore, with the finest use of music to evoke mood I’ve ever heard. As Mencke often points out, the scariest monsters are in reality, us, the other part of ourselves best kept in the dark.  

Perhaps, NetFlix, HBO, Hulu and others like them, are the campfires of our digital age, offering stories that we binge watch as entertainment. After all, as director Alfred Hitchcock reportedly said, “Drama is like life with all the dull bits cut out.”  


While we loved to be horrified by Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones, celebrated the resourceful drunkenness of Tyrion Lannister, admired the courage of Daenerys Targaryen, or were uplifted by Jon Snow’s grim but steady moral compass, we were also learning. When we identify with others, even fictional characters, we experience reality from another perspective, a virtual point of view, and that’s a remarkably human thing.

Almost as remarkable, are the conversations we have about the stories we’ve heard. We talk about these fictions as though they are real. And that may be where Gottschall is on to something. No matter how sophisticated the production level or the user interface, a story is at the heart of every experience, and we propagate this virtual reality every time we share it with others.