#ThanksEinstein: Katherine Freese on how relativity rejuvenated her career

Thanks Einstein Meme 3Under the Spell of Relativity

By Katherine Freese

Katherine Freese is director of Nordita, the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics, in Stockholm, and author of The Cosmic Cocktail, which tells of the epic quest to solve one of the most compelling enigmas of modern science—what is the universe made of? This is the story of how one of today’s foremost pioneers in the study of dark matter came back from the brink of burnout because of Relativity.

My career choice was hugely influenced by the work of Albert Einstein. I chose a career in physics precisely because I was inspired by his theories of relativity. My first exposure to physics was at Exeter Summer School in New Hampshire when I was fifteen years old. I went there after my junior year in high school because, frankly, I enjoyed learning and would otherwise have been bored over the long summer. I took an introductory course in physics and have to admit that, at first, I was a bit intimidated. But I got into it quickly and was gratified to discover that I did really well. The course was inspiring, and my teacher Mr. Dudley probably has no idea what an impact he had on me.

It was when the summer course turned to Special Relativity that I became really excited. What a bizarre and fascinating subject! To begin with, the idea that there is no absolute reference frame was an eye-opener. I later tried to explain this to friends, but they persisted in arguing that the Earth really does provide a special reference frame, world freeseat least for humans, so we should just compute everything from our own point of view.

Strange paradoxes arise when one makes one simple postulate, that the speed of light is the same in every reference frame. Two observers moving with relativistic speeds (relative to one another) measure completely different things. Clocks measure different times, and rulers measure different lengths. The shortest time is measured in the reference frame where the event takes place, and in every other frame time appears dilated. So an astronaut, who goes off into space and eventually returns, ages more slowly than the rest of us. There can be time travel! In the sense that the astronaut can come back to the Earth at an arbitrarily distant point in the future…if she can tolerate traveling at those speeds. Recently I met quite a few astronauts in Stockholm at the Congress of the Association of Space Explorers. They are amazing people. I was invited to give a 20 minute talk on “What we know about the Universe today.” A tall order in front of these folks. Can you guess what I talked about? Cosmology, beginning with Einstein’s relativity, of course.

These exciting things I learned when I was 15 made me determined to learn more physics, and I ended up majoring in physics in college. I went very young, at 16, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics from Princeton University at the age of 20. It was really hard, I was burning out quickly, and at that point I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue. Chapter One of The Cosmic Cocktail, the book that was published by Princeton University Press just over a year ago, describes what happened next. I decided to take some time off from school. With my best friend, I went off to Tokyo to teach English and ended up serving drinks in bars for a giant salary. (I finally surpassed it a few years ago as a Full Professor.) A year and a half later, I went to Korea to renew my visa. While I was traveling around Pusang, my stomach, or so I thought, started to hurt. When I returned to Tokyo I was walking around doubled over with pain. Indeed it turned out to be appendicitis. I went to the Catholic Hospital, run by English nuns, and had my appendix removed.

While I was lying in the hospital bed, I read the only book I had brought with me, Spacetime Physics by Taylor and Wheeler. It is a book about Einstein’s special relativity. The book is beautifully written and only requires simple knowledge of forces, energy, and so on, and I loved it. The minute I got out of the hospital, I flew back to the US, reinvigorated by the desire to study physics. I contacted Columbia University, which had previously accepted me, and they let me in at a moment’s notice. I was lucky they did.

Einstein’s influence persisted. Two years into my graduate program at Columbia University, I went to Fermilab, the particle physics accelerator outside of Chicago, to work in experimental high energy physics. However, I also took a class in cosmology at the University of Chicago twice a week, out of curiosity. Plus, it took me into the city of Chicago. Fermilab is on a farm an hour west and has buffalo roaming around. The professor who taught the course, David Schramm, was a giant both physically and mentally, and one of the founders of the field of astroparticle physics, where the smallest particles explain the properties of the largest galaxies. We nicknamed him “Schrammbo.” (If you want to know more about him, you’ll have to read my book.) In that course, Einstein’s equations were applied to the Universe as a whole. Wow. I stopped showing up in the lab and instead sat in my housing at Fermilab and read about general relativity, this time at a graduate level framed by far deeper mathematics. Again, it was a turning point. I transferred to the University of Chicago to get my PhD with David Schramm in the field of cosmology.

In human history, every culture has had creation myths. In the past 100 years we have developed our own, the Big Bang. The difference is that the Hot Big Bang is right! The achievements over the past century in the field of cosmology are breakthroughs for all of mankind. We understand everything about our observable Universe all the way out to the farthest distant that light could have traveled to us in the age of the Universe (anything farther out could not have impacted us because the information could not travel in excess of the speed of light).

Now I’m a professional. I work with Einstein’s equations or their immediate consequences every day. I’m a theorist. I invent things and hope they turn out to match reality. All my work lies within the framework of modern cosmology, which began with Einstein’s work in relativity in 1915. What a brilliant man he was! Ever since I learned about relativity I’ve been under its spell, and I still am.

Katherine Freese is director of Nordita, the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics, in Stockholm, and professor of physics at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Cosmic Cocktail.

#ThanksEinstein image courtesy of the official Albert Einstein Facebook page.

Katherine Freese, author of “The Cosmic Cocktail,” at the Royal Astronomical Society

Freese RAS talk

Katherine Freese speaking at the Royal Astronomical Society

Only 5 percent of all matter and energy in the cosmos (think plants, animals, planets, the air we breathe) is made up of ordinary atoms. The rest is known as dark matter—it cannot be seen with telescopes, and its precise identity remains unknown. The Cosmic Cocktail is the inside story of the epic quest to identify dark matter and learn what the universe is made of, told by one of today’s foremost pioneers in the study of dark matter, acclaimed theoretical physicist Katherine Freese. Neil deGrasse Tyson calls the book “a gripping first person account of her life as a cosmologist…Part memoir, part tutorial, part social commentary.” It’s the perfect detective story for science geeks.

Freese post-talk

Post-event drinks at the Royal Astronomical Society

This week, Katherine Freese is in the UK talking about her research and the book. On April 8, she gave a talk at the Royal Astronomical Society and then recorded The Forum on the BBC World Service, which was presented by science journalist Quentin Cooper and will be broadcast and available to listen to online later this month.

Freese and Quinton Cooper

Freese and Quentin Cooper

Don’t miss Freese’s upcoming speaking engagements: On April 15th, Freese and PUP author Jacqueline Mitton will be participating in Edinburgh International Science Festival and on April 16th Freese will be speaking at Blackwell’s in Oxford. Freese will be a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour on April 17th. On May 26th, she will be speaking at Hay Festival, a philosophy and music festival in Hay-on-Wye, (one of the biggest literary festivals in the UK, which was described by Bill Clinton in 2001 as “The Woodstock of the mind”).

Freese recording The Forum at BBC

Freese recording at BBC Broadcasting House


Katherine Freese talks cocktails and dark matter with Jennifer Ouellette

Popular science journalist and author Jennifer Ouellette recently sat down with Princeton University Press author and theoretical astrophysicist Katherine Freese to discuss Freese’s new book, The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter. The full hour-long interview is available for listening on Blog Talk Radio.

Find Additional Science Podcasts with Jay Ackroyd on BlogTalkRadio

Katherine Freese is the George E. Uhlenbeck Professor of Physics at the University of Michigan and Director of Nordita, the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics, in Stockholm. Her book traces the search for dark matter, from the discoveries of pioneers like Fritz Zwicky, who named dark matter in 1933, to today’s astounding insights into the very composition of the universe. Jennifer Ouellette’s books include Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics and Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self. She also writes the Cocktail Party Physics blog for Scientific American.

Katherine Freese is the author of:

The Cosmic Cocktail The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter by Katherine Freese
Hardcover | 2014 | $29.95 / £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691153353
264 pp. | 6 x 9 |5 color illus. 42 halftones. 31 line illus. | Reviews

PUP News of the World — June 6, 2014


Each week we post a round-up of some of our most exciting national and international PUP book coverage. Reviews, interviews, events, articles–this is the spot for coverage of all things “PUP books” that took place in the last week. Enjoy!


Shaken or stirred? When it comes to questions on all things dark matter, PUP author Katherine Freese’s new book is the perfect recipe. The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter is the inside story of the epic quest to solve one of the most compelling enigmas of modern science–what is the universe made of?–told by one of today’s foremost pioneers in the study of dark matter. Many cosmologists believe we are on the verge of solving the mystery. The Cosmic Cocktail provides the foundation needed to fully fathom this epochal moment in humankind’s quest to understand the universe.

The Washington Post reviewed The Cosmic Cocktail this week. Nancy Szokan writes:

Freese….tells a lively personal tale of her trajectory through the world of science….You end up thinking that being a physicist is certainly important and definitely difficult—but it could also be a lot of fun.

Freese’s book was also reviewed on the Space Review, and Nature ran a review, where Francis Halzen calls the book “clear and accessible” and “an excellent primer for the intrigued generalist, or for those who have spent too much time in particle-physics labs and want to catch up on what cosmologists are up to.”

Blending cutting-edge science with her own behind-the-scenes insights as a leading researcher in the field, acclaimed theoretical physicist Katherine Freese recounts the hunt for dark matter, from the discoveries of visionary scientists like Fritz Zwicky–the Swiss astronomer who coined the term “dark matter” in 1933–to the deluge of data today from underground laboratories, satellites in space, and the Large Hadron Collider. Read Chapter One of The Cosmic Cocktail here.


From outer space to ancient times, our next book takes us to the center of the ancient world. The oracle and sanctuary of the Greek god Apollo at Delphi were known as the “omphalos”–the “center” or “navel”–of the ancient world for more than 1000 years. Individuals, city leaders, and kings came from all over the Mediterranean and beyond to consult Delphi’s oracular priestess; to set up monuments to the gods in gold, ivory, bronze, marble, and stone; and to take part in athletic and musical competitions. Michael Scott’s Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World provides the first comprehensive narrative history of this extraordinary sanctuary and city, from its founding to its modern rediscovery, to show more clearly than ever before why Delphi was one of the most important places in the ancient world for so long.

The Guardian reviewed Delphi, and James Davidson writes:

The oracle is not the main concern of this fine, scholarly book. Although you can hardly write about Delphi without writing about the Pythia, Scott’s interest is much more in the site itself, the way it developed from a couple of buildings on a mountainside into the elaborate sanctuary of the classical period and beyond….Because Delphi was the focus of so much ancient attention, this rich but remote archaeological site gives us a keyhole view of the history of the ancient world as a whole, as cities are founded and proclaim their existence to the international community; as cities fall and find their monuments encroached on, buried or pecked at by prophetic crows; as dedications to commemorate victories over foreigners at Salamis give way to trophies of victories over other Greeks; as the Spartans inscribe their name on a gift of Croesus and hope no one will notice.

Delphi was also reviewed in the Ekathimerini, where Alex Clapp calls the book “an engaging tribute to a site that enjoined its visitors to know themselves – a demand that, in turn, requires us to know the Greeks.”

Check out the prologue of Delphi here.


Why does government fail so often? With the VA scandal running front page, PUP author, lawyer, and political scientist Peter Schuck addresses the behind-the-scene issues in a recent Washington Post op-ed, entitled “The real problem with the VA? Congress.” He writes:

Another day, another scandal at the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs. The real scandal, however, is not just the cynical manipulation of waiting lists but also the agency’s routine failure to deliver benefits and services to those who desperately need them. This more systemic failure will become even clearer once the inspector general submits a final report to an irate White House and the Republicans and many Democrats pile on.

Read the full op-ed, and view Chapter One of Schuck’s new book, Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better.

In his book, Schuck provides a wide range of examples and an enormous body of evidence to explain why so many domestic policies go awry–and how to right the foundering ship of state. Schuck argues that Washington’s failures are due not to episodic problems or partisan bickering, but rather to deep structural flaws that undermine every administration, Democratic and Republican. These recurrent weaknesses include unrealistic goals, perverse incentives, poor and distorted information, systemic irrationality, rigidity and lack of credibility, a mediocre bureaucracy, powerful and inescapable markets, and the inherent limits of law.

To counteract each of these problems, Schuck proposes numerous achievable reforms, from avoiding moral hazard in student loan, mortgage, and other subsidy programs, to empowering consumers of public services, simplifying programs and testing them for cost-effectiveness, and increasing the use of “big data.” The book also examines successful policies–including the G.I. Bill, the Voting Rights Act, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and airline deregulation–to highlight the factors that made them work.

Why Government Fails So Often was reviewed in the Shanghai Daily. The Federalist‘s William Voegeli also features the book in his recent column entitled “Buying People Stuff Doesn’t Mean You Care, VA Edition.”

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