To Princeton University physics professor Paul Steinhardt’s way of thinking, there are two versions of impossible. The first would be something like 1 + 1 = 3 — something that is obviously, demonstrably false. The second refers to things that are extraordinarily unlikely but have a miniscule chance of being possible.
The Second Kind of Impossible is also Steinhardt’s new book, published by Simon & Schuster in January. It is a recounting of his 35-year journey to discover a new form of matter. Steinhardt discusses the book at Labyrinth Books on Wednesday, April 17, at 6 p.m.
The story is full of breakthroughs, setbacks, and a true adventure in the remotest regions of Russia, along with an in-depth glance at how the process of scientific discovery works. It starts with some recreational dabbling into a tiling pattern that seemed to defy scientists’ centuries-old understanding of the laws of symmetry — and it ends with the discovery of naturally occurring quasicrystals, a new type of matter that lacks the symmetry of traditional crystals but has an ordered structure that still fills all available space.
As Steinhardt writes in his preface: “In the early 1980s, my student and I discovered a scientific loophole in one of the most well-established laws of science and, exploiting that, realized it was possible to create new forms of matter. In a remarkable coincidence, just as our theory was being developed, an example of the material was accidentally discovered in a nearby laboratory. And soon, a new field of science was born.
“But there was one question that kept bothering me: Why hadn’t this discovery been made long ago? Surely nature had made these forms of matter thousands, or millions, or perhaps even billions of years before we had dreamed them up. I could not stop myself from wondering where the natural versions of our material were being hidden and what secrets they might hold.
I did not realize at the time that this question would lead me down the road to Kamchatka [Russia], an almost thirty-year-long detective story with a dizzying array of improbable twists and turns along the way. So many seemingly insurmountable barriers had to be conquered that it sometimes felt like an unseen force was guiding me and my team step by step toward this exotic land. Our entire investigation had been so … impossible.”
“The Second Kind of Impossible,” $27.
J. Robert Oppenheimer. You may remember him as the theoretical physicist who served as director of the Institute for Advanced Study from 1947 to 1966, the longest tenure of any Institute director. Or as the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, where the Manhattan Project led to the creation of the atomic bomb, and earned a memorable nickname for Oppenheimer: “The father of the A-Bomb.” Or as one of the figures in the Cold War hunt for Communist sympathizers.
So who was Oppenheimer really? Numerous biographies have been written in attempts to answer that question. Now comes a piece of fiction aiming to do the same: A novel called Trinity, by Louisa Hall, a Harvard alumna and writer in residence at Montana State.
Hall will discuss her book Wednesday, April 10, at the Old Guard of Princeton alumni group, and in a public appearance Friday, April 12, at 5:30 p.m. at the Institute for Advanced Study. Appearing in a conversation with her will be Pia de Jong, novelist (and columnist for the Echo), and a person who has a unique insight into the role of director of the Institute — de Jong is married to the current director, Robbert Dijkgraaf.
In a publicity statement Hall explains what drew her to write about Oppenheimer and what aspects of his life she finds to be relevant today:
“I was drawn to Oppenheimer first because of the bizarre nature of his security hearings, in which his friends and colleagues and family members were called to a secret room in Washington to testify on the question of whether or not Oppenheimer could be trusted in matters of national security. Over and over again, they were asked about his relationships with women, his friendships, the books he read, the activities he enjoyed, and whether and how well they really knew him. And over and over again, his friends and family members were forced to admit that they couldn’t be entirely certain they did.
In some ways, his trial became a question of how well we can ever understand the people we care for, or the people to whom we decide to give power.
“Still, though I began the project imagining that I was writing about Robert Oppenheimer, I came to realize that in fact I was writing about myself and my own growing fears about how well I could understand the motivations of people in positions of power, both in my own life and in the world at large. Oppenheimer came to represent such a person: a man with the ability to create or de
ploy a weapon that would instantly destroy a whole city.
“This novel—which takes the form of a long trial—is my attempt to gain solid ground in such a chaotic state.”
China in the spotlight
Princeton Adult School gives the community a timely lesson in history and international affairs with its spring lecture series, “China: From Mao to Now,” which began on March 26 and continues on Tuesdays through April 30. The course meets in the auditorium at Princeton University’s Friend Center at the corner of William and Olden streets. Cost: $125. Register at www.princetonadultschool.org.
The remaining lectures in the series are:
April 2: “U.S. Trade with China: War or Peace?” by Gene Grossman, professor of economics and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School
April 9: “China under Xi Jinping” by Rory Truex, assistant professor of politics and public affairs at the Wilson School.
April 16: “How Communist Was ‘Communist China’ under Chairman Mao?” by Karl Gerth, a visiting member at the Institute for Advanced Study and professor at the UC, San Diego.
April 23: “Chinese Companies in the United States” by Ji Li, a professor of law at Rutgers and member at the Institute.
And April 30: “Marriage and Family in Contemporary China” by Yu Xie, professor of sociology and director fo the Wythes Center on Contemporary China at Princeton.