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Lonely Hearts and Einstein in Love: The personal side of science


Lonely Hearts and Einstein in Love

Dennis Overbye Peers into the Personal Side of the Greatest Minds in Cosmology, Astronomy and Physics

by Amelia Jaycen

Dennis Overbye walks down the long Pulitzer hallway at The New York Times, stopping here and there to tilt his head and examine pictures through the bottom of his glasses. He turns, hands clasped behind his back, when a guest asks him, “When are you going to get your name up there?”

This is where the newspaper of record celebrates its 114 Pulitzer Prize winners: Tom Friedman, Anthony Lewis and David Halberstam among others. Dennis has worked at the Times as an editor and science writer for 16 years. In the floors below, 1,200 writers, reporters, photographers, video and Web producers work to turn out all the news that’s fit to print. “I don’t think we’ll get my name up there,” he says. “Just being realistic. The competition is pretty fierce.”

Dennis doesn’t mention that he’s just submitted a six-part series to the Pulitzer committee: “Chasing the Higgs,” a trip inside life at the world’s largest supercollider in Europe where in 2012 physicists discovered the Higgs boson, the missing piece —the “god particle”—that explains why the universe doesn’t “fly apart,” why life 
is possible. To bring the story alive, Dennis commandeered an entire section of the Science Times for a behind-the-scenes look featuring a physicist (and former rock musician) who fell in love with string theory, a marriage proposal at the particle accelerator, and years of rivalry surrounding what Dennis calls the “Great White Whale of modern science”—the discovery that an invisible force field runs the universe.

The Times didn’t submit the piece for a Pulitzer. But, after a nudge from his wife, Dennis did. He dropped it in the mail and forgot it. He’s not much for prizes or titles. He gave up his job as the Times’ deputy science editor in 2001 so he could return to writing.

As he leaves the Pulitzer hall, however, he can’t resist taking a jab at fate. “I suppose, in a pinch, a Nobel Prize would work,” he says, flashing a wink that radiates down his jaw. At The New York Times, Dennis Overbye keeps tabs on the top quark, the Big Bang,
the latest exoplanet, the Higgs boson and the expanding universe. Google his name and
 the search engine suggests reading about “quantum entanglement.” For more than 35 years, he’s reported from the front lines of the century’s greatest discoveries, narrating from inside the drama to turn elusive scientific ideas into café topics. He’s met and chatted (and sometimes knocked back drinks) with the great galaxy makers: Jim Peebles, the father of physical cosmology, out West. Yakov Boris Zeldovich, the man who designed the Russian hydrogen bomb, in the East. For years, he stalked astronomer Allan Sandage, the man who rode the Mount Wilson telescope — an invention that helped establish the age of the universe. He stalked him so much that Sandage would groan in “mock horror” when he saw Dennis show up at his door.

Dennis’ beat is particle physics, astronomy and cosmology as well as “the priests and mythmakers of our technological age,” as he calls them. When a wheelchair-bound Stephen Hawking needed a lift onto a Boston stage to talk about black holes in 1976, Dennis was there giving a hand. He was in Java for the total solar eclipse of 1983. (He passed on drinking cobra blood, but gamely ate fried snake.) When Halley’s Comet streaked the sky above Ayers Rock in Australia in 1986, Dennis was there, soaking up the spirit of the nightly watch parties and observing comet fever. In 2007, he stuck his head inside the particle accelerator in Switzerland, to see where protons would one day smash together and confirm the Higgs boson. “I am very lucky because I get to spend my life covering or being involved in some way in this enterprise, which I think is really at the core of human existence,” Dennis says.

His forte is peering into the lives behind the science: the rivalries and jealousies of great scientists, the bad choices, the stolen work, the failures and fits that happen behind laboratory doors. In his first book, Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Story of the Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe, Dennis wove theories like cosmic inflation and discoveries like the Hubble constant into the fabric of scientists’ everyday lives. (Sandage became Dennis’ tragic “King Lear of the cosmos.”) In his latest book, Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance, Dennis traced the steps of 18-year-old Albert Einstein in Berlin, read his love letters, interviewed his dysfunctional heirs and turned the theory of relativity into a love story with a cruel downside.

At the Times, Dennis calls himself the “cosmic affairs correspondent” — a joking nod to Hunter S. Thompson’s claim to be Rolling Stone’s national affairs correspondent. Every week, Dennis combines pop culture and scientific jargon with the skill of a beat poet, creating metaphors that turn complicated subjects into news that readers can understand. To simplify weighty concepts, he’s willing to steal ideas from Shakespeare and Herman Melville as well as Quantum Physics for Dummies.

“Dennis has a really good ear for metaphor, which is crucial in science writing. He’s very conversational while also very technical, and that’s difficult to pull off,” says former science editor Cornelia Dean, who hired Dennis as her deputy in 1998. His résumé was “wildly unusual,” she says. When the Times’ executive editor asked, “But can he write?” she responded by reciting the opening of Lonely Hearts, which she had memorized: “Few men are handed the keys to heaven, but Allan Sandage was one.” “Hire him,” the editor said.

Now Dennis is revered for his coverage of the physicists, astronomers and cosmologists working around the world to crack the code of the universe. So why is he standing in the Pulitzer hallway at work, scoffing at the very idea that he might have a place among the great science writers?

 

SPOOKY ACTION AT A DISTANCE

Two days later, Dennis wants to explain himself. “Well, the first thing is that basically I’m a pervasive whiner and I have a pessimistic outlook on everything,” he says. “And the other thing is that I don’t get along with people in authority. Generally it works best if I hate my editor, so there’s a whole lot of tension and griping in that relationship.”

Which perhaps explains why Dennis was sitting at the back of a classroom at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1965
— bored out of his mind and griping about
his professors. Staring at their backs as they sprawled equations on the chalkboard was the antithesis of the exciting career in science he had imagined as kid. “We were writing the equations on the blackboard back into our notebooks so that 20 years [later] we could stand up there and write our equations on the blackboard,” he says, disgusted. He skipped classes. He made lousy grades.

Philosopher Hubert Dreyfus’ class on existentialism, on the other hand, did interest him. It transported him back to his boyhood in Seattle, to reading Mad comic books, science fiction books by Arthur C. Clarke and The Universe and Dr. Einstein. “I’ve always just been drawn to the cosmic opera” — to stories where things didn’t end well for people, he says. In junior high, he and his friends would gather
in the boys’ bathroom at school, plotting their next story in the school newspaper. (“Break it up! Get to class, boys.”) The principal accused them of trying to subvert the student government (there were allegations of an eraser being thrown) and Dennis’ newspaper career went into a 30-year hiatus.

The Russian launch of Sputnik in the late ’50s, however, marked the dawn of space exploration and made careers in science and engineering sound exciting and patriotic. The boys all went off to Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Dartmouth while a group of them — Dennis included— chose MIT to study physics. He quickly grew disenchanted with the physics lectures. “There weren’t even any classes in general relativity, or if there were, they were all graduate courses,” he moans over cappuccino in the cafeteria at the Times, his back to the magnificent Manhattan skyline. His eyes are pensive but kind, the color of an ocean wave.

The college badass in the back of the classroom lurks beneath the beat-up leather jacket that he still wears at age 70. He slouches in his chair. He curses with style. He smirks often, fidgets in general. When he thinks, he squishes his fingers into a knuckly fist and points his index fingers to his mouth like a gun.

It was during the Great Northeast black-
out of 1965 that his suppressed desire to
write came back, he says. He and his buddies started telling stories: Somebody would start a sentence and then the next person would complete it. After a while, they set up a typewriter and took turns finishing each other’s stories. At the time, Dennis was reading Thomas Pynchon and Nikos Kazantzakis, listening to Bob Dylan sing “Like a Rolling Stone.” He began to groom himself after Pynchon.

With the Vietnam War draft a real threat, 
he graduated from MIT with a degree in physics in 1966 and took a job at his hometown company, Boeing, and then defense contractor EG&G. He enrolled at the University of California Los Angeles in a graduate astronomy program, but wound up in a writing workshop taught by Bernard Wolfe, who had worked with the exiled Russian Leon Trotsky in Mexico. Wolfe’s charismatic lectures and insight into the psychology of the writer fascinated Dennis, who once again felt the pull of writing.

He started a novel, quit his degree work
and decided to go back to Cambridge to write. But his novel had too many twists, too many themes and streams, with characters going backward and forward in space and time. Frustrated, Dennis was struck by an image from the I-Ching — of a bridge breaking under its own weight. “That’s it,” he realized. “I’m breaking under my own weight.”

After 65 weeks on unemployment, he drafted letters to every publisher in the Boston-area Yellow Pages asking for a job. When Sky & Telescope magazine hired him in 1976, the staid editors had their doubts about whether he knew enough astronomy to keep up, he says, but “I kept with it and kind of livened that place up a bit.”

Soon, magazines from Omni to Science80 were offering him writing jobs.

His failed book, in essence, had led him to a career in science writing. He still has the old book manuscript. Every once in a while, when moving papers around at home, he sees it. “I wouldn’t show it to you for a million dollars,” he says. But he hasn’t thrown it away either.

 

FAR OUT BEAT

The first time Dennis met Stephen Hawking was in 1976 at the Texas Symposium on Relativistic Astrophysics. Hawking, famous for noticing that black holes spew particles, was a researcher at Cambridge University in England, defying all odds by living with the degenerative neurological disease known as Lou Gehrig’s. His head lolled as Dennis and others lifted him to the stage to speak. Intrigued, Dennis designated himself Hawking’s psychologist. “I wanted to know how his mind worked,” Dennis wrote. “The whole world had a psychological block against black holes. Only Hawking had been able to shatter it.”

In 1978, Dennis painstakingly interviewed Hawking, listening through a translator, getting his answer bit by bit. His profile of Hawking in Omni magazine fetched him a 1980 Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics and launched his career as the chronicler of modern cosmology and the human dramas behind the science.

In 1980, Time Inc. recruited him for their upstart science offering, Discover. The ’80s were the glory days of magazine writing. Companies like Time were flush with cash and itching to establish their place in the science magazine racket. If something was happening in the sky, Dennis was probably there with his notebook. Discoveries in astronomy — eclipses, comets, quarks, neutrinos, black holes and bosons — were literally falling from the sky, pouring out of the data like candy
from a piñata, a metaphor Dennis borrowed from Sandage. But the Time Inc. ways — men in three-piece suits and women in “furs and lipstick and high heels” — were not for him. “They made clear that we were all just a bunch of inexperienced whippersnappers that needed to be brought in line,” he says.

Dennis was beginning to feel his subjects needed a bigger canvas (and less of a straight-jacket) than magazine articles, so he wrote a book proposal, hoping for a couple months
 off work to write. In 1985 he was at the Aspen Center for Physics enjoying workshops and meeting future sources when his agent called with news of a double-book contract and an “enormous” advance. Dennis hung up the phone and floated out the back door where he sprawled on the grass listening to music from an outdoor stage. “It was as if the sky split open, cracked by one of those perfect Rocky Mountain sunsets,” he says.

Dennis moved into his vacation house in Woodstock, New York, to write. He spent the next five years traveling to Russia, Switzerland and Hawaii, frequenting Harvard, Princeton and MIT, interviewing a generation of physicists. He interviewed Hawking, Peebles, Zeldovich, John Wheeler, the father of the black hole, and Alan Guth, one of the first to set forth the theory of cosmic inflation.

It wasn’t all heavy lifting. While researching, Dennis jetted off to Australia for Discover magazine to see Halley’s Comet as it soared over a sandstone plateau called Ayers Rock. A few days later, he was judging the Miss Halley Comet Deluxe contest, the newest addition to the annual camel races in tiny Alice Springs, when the freshly crowned Miss Halley admitted that she had actually missed the comet sighting. On a dusty road under the stars, Dennis guided her toward the dull rock floating almost out of sight. It was there he realized he could be “the cotter pin between generations,” Dennis wrote, stealing a term anybody who’s had a trailer hitch could understand.

As Dennis journaled his travel experiences and interviews, cosmologists were taking sides in debates over the big issues of the day (the age of the universe, the nature of gravitational energy) as well as the mundane (who got the most observing time on the telescopes). It was the beginning of relationships with sources around the globe whom Dennis still uses today. Dennis centered Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos around Allen Sandage, the protégé of Edwin Hubble who pressed on cataloging stars and galaxies after Hubble’s death. Dennis says he realized Sandage — Super Hubble, as he was known — was the star whose work inspired generations of astronomers. Dennis followed Sandage’s enemies, too: Gerard de Vancouleurs, who challenged Sandage’s calculation of the Hubble constant, a scientific squabble that made a splash in the Times and forced Sandage into years of bitter anger and isolation.

“Sandage was like the cranky grandfather I hadn’t quite known,” Dennis says. “He hadn’t talked to anybody in years.” When Dennis finally got him to talk, the two had a “chemistry” that turned into 300 pages of transcribed notes. Dennis saw Sandage as a heroic lone figure. In Lonely Hearts, Dennis wrote, “I rooted for Sandage the way I couldn’t help rooting for every loner who was stubborn, every gambler who ever pushed all his chips to the center of the table and smiled, waiting for the last card.”

Dennis won his second Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics for Lonely Hearts in 1992. Reviewers raved about his metaphor describing the universe as “the ultimate sagging mattress,” how a planet can warp space and time like a heavy sleeper denting a mattress. Lonely Hearts sealed his reputation as an authority — and poetic writer — on cosmic affairs.

 

DECONSTRUCTING GENIUS

Dennis’ home office fits snugly into one end of a spacious living room in a Morningside Heights brownstone. A picture of him with Stephen Hawking decorates the wall alongside certificates and science writing awards. A steel Möbius strip (a mathematical shape with one continuous side) testifies to his 1980 award from the American Institute of Physics for his Hawking article. On a shelf, Einstein dolls with beady eyes are falling all over each other like three stooges in a miniature costume contest. The small desk where Dennis puts his feet up to think is surrounded by bookshelves, one filled with letters written by the father of physics himself — one set in English and another in Einstein’s native German.

Having detailed the history of physics for the second half of the century, Dennis turned his attention to the first half. At a meeting of physicists in 1990, Dennis was surprised to hear scientists arguing whether Einstein’s wife Mileva, a brilliant mathematician, could be partly responsible for the theory of relativity. How could there possibly be questions about the source of the theory or any part of the life of the most famous scientist of the century? he wondered.

Dennis had grown up thinking of Einstein as a “symbol of cosmic mystery.” But behind the public image of genius, Dennis discovered a young man who was charismatic, yet full of rage. Einstein, he learned, had a head for physics, poetry and the violin as well as an uncanny knack for mistakes. “He was just like all these people I had been writing about in Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, but a generation, two generations earlier,” Dennis says. “He was young, poppy, full of beans, made a lot of mistakes, passionate, colorful. Fun to be around.”

Dennis pulls a folder from a file cabinet containing love letters and pictures of Einstein. “This is probably my favorite photograph of him.” In the picture, a young Albert stands by a bookshelf looking spry and confident with bright, mischievous eyes and dark hair. Hearing about the less-than-perfect Einstein was a kind of “miracle time-reversal,” says Dennis, allowing him to see the physicist as a scruffy college kid, failing exams and flirting in the lab, convincing his girlfriend to stay up late like any other 20-year-old.

Dennis found a way to “eavesdrop” on the young Albert through The Einstein Papers Project, an effort to publish and annotate around 43,000 Einstein documents, now at the California Institute of Technology. He began by creating a giant, “unwieldy” timeline, weaving Einstein’s life with Mileva’s and the other great physicist of the time, Max Planck, until he got a better sense of Einstein as a person. He went through five eyeglass prescriptions in seven years squinting over Einstein’s handwriting with a research assistant, reading everything from high school transcripts to divorce papers.

He took two Einstein trips, traveling to every place mentioned in the papers where Albert or Mileva lived, together or separately. He visited the school where they met, walked streets where Albert walked with his violin, and hiked the mountain pass where Einstein and Mileva conceived the daughter they would later lose. Lieserl Einstein was less than a year old when she disappeared, and it happened almost as fast as her mother’s name disappeared from the original draft of the theory of relativity. Dennis could find little evidence of the child beyond vague assumptions that she went to live with relatives. “The answer, if it exists, is in Serbia,” says Dennis. “But that was a war zone when I was writing the book, so it was just impossible to get in there.”

Unlike Lonely Hearts, which was written like Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff with no sourcing, Dennis knew he would have footnotes, but
 he was careful not to get bogged down in the scientific details. “That’s what makes any book interesting to me is the people in it, more than the science. I wouldn’t read a book just for the science. For me, it’s got to be an adventure story or a journey.”

In Einstein in Love, the “cosmic saint” that Dennis grew up with is revealed as a royal screwup, a bad husband and a crummy father. Why humanize Einstein? Why highlight the imperfections and messy personal struggles of the great intellects of our age? “When you can collapse the psychic distance between you and your heroes, that’s always a good thing,” Dennis says. “Isn’t that what you do? Try to take readers someplace they’ve never been?”

In a way, too, he identified with Einstein. “I sort of feel like I’ve been an asshole like Einstein was. I could understand it,” says Dennis. “So I liked that he had all these dimensions. He was a real person, not just some sock puppet running around Princeton.”

 

THE ULTIMATE METAPHOR

Dennis regards himself as a “dinosaur”
at the Times, the old hand among the young digital crowd running around with their
“open laptops,” says Dennis. He goes to lunch weekly with other “altacockers” — the Yiddish word for old farts — at the paper. There is much kidding in the newsroom about his cool demeanor. “Kind of like hanging out with an 8-year-old autistic kid. He’s actually heard you but he’s just putting you off for a second while he thinks about his answer,” ribs Donald McNeil Jr., a fellow altacocker whose beat is plagues and pestilence. In reality, editor Jill Taylor says, Dennis is “the brains” behind the Times science video operation because of his connections.

Unlike his sweatered professors at MIT,
he’s traveled the world and talked directly to the men who have changed the way we look
 at the universe — and the way he looks at the universe as well. “Now I understand how what [Einstein] did fits in with what’s going on now,” he says. It’s nearly impossible to find a Times article by Dennis that doesn’t contain an Einstein quote or reference. Einstein, as Dennis points out in his “Out There” column, “keeps being right about stuff. He’ll never be wrong. Even when he’s wrong, he’s right.”

Compared to his decade-long book projects, Dennis says newspaper writing is a bit like writing haiku. “I write for Henry Kissinger and Lou Reed and everybody in between.” He marvels that some of the subjects he writes about did not exist a few decades ago. Exoplanets, for example, were once a ludicrous idea akin to talking about UFOs. Dark matter, too. “We can measure things now that we never dreamed we could measure before. We think things now we never dreamed we’d think before,” Dennis says.

In his books, Dennis has detailed the human history of physics from 1900, when a childlike Einstein first walked up the front steps of the Polytechnic Institute in Zürich, to Sandage in the 1980s and the era of modern cosmology. “That was an age of heroic ideas. Now we’re in the age of heroic data,” Dennis says. He covers a new generation of physicists whose job is to sift through staggering amounts of data collected by complex electronic machines.

For the past seven years, he’s been chasing the story behind the elusive Higgs boson. The story has all the behind-the-scenes competition and drama that Dennis loves. Two teams (ATLAS and CMS, each with 3,000 physicists) work at the large hadron particle accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland, run by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN. The collider — 17 miles in diameter, seven stories deep — smashes protons together at the speed of light and collects data on the even smaller particles that result. It’s a peek behind the veil of mystery that shrouds human understanding of the early universe, that is, how chaos could be organized into matter.

Dennis first visited CERN in 2007 when it was being built, and he hung from the scaffolding to get a better view of the largest machine ever built. He’s returned several times, once lugging a video camera around for the Times. “I wanted to get below the surface of these anonymous collaborations,” says Dennis. “There had to be like 100,000 human dramas in these groups of passionate young people. They don’t really want to let you in.” He had a fantasy, he says, that if he dug hard enough, he’d find the grad student who was sitting at the computer when a “bump” in the data would reveal the Higgs boson. “And that’s sort of how it worked out, except they couldn’t ever agree on who or when they ever saw the bump,” says Dennis.

On July 4, 2012, CERN physicists discovered the Higgs boson. Dennis broke the story — and even beat the “tweeters and bloggers and social media people” to the punch, he said in a lecture earlier this year — by making an intuitive phone call to CERN’s director general. A digital book is supposedly in the works, but, alas, he says, “I don’t think an e-book about the Higgs boson is going to change my life.”

 

THE PRIZE

In April, Dennis was packing for Belize when Barbara Strauch, one of his editors at the Times, called to tell him he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting for his March 2013 piece on the Higgs boson. Dennis thought the award was interesting, but his mind was on the trip ahead of him to try to see a jaguar. Dennis lives for the trips, the people and the stories — not the awards.

He sees the power of great scientific discoveries — even abstract ones — to affect people. “They shake us the same way going to see a beautiful opera or symphony or a gorgeous piece of art at the Biennial would,” he says. But more than that, he’s excited for the scientists, seeing their work come to fruition. “That’s not a journalistic thing to say, that I’ve connected with them,” he admits. There’s a thrill, he says, in seeing “their dreams come true.”

As a Pulitzer finalist, Dennis isn’t getting his picture on the Pulitzer wall this time, but he 
is fine with that. The boy inspired by Sputnik has covered a century of events that changed man’s relationship with our physical world. The Higgs boson, exoplanets and dark matter are shaking physics to its core. As scientists toil in their labs to understand, Dennis toils to tell their story, chipping away at their ivory-tower existence. He lives and works “out there,” on the edge, at the place where science fiction becomes science fact. 

 

 

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