Romance and Relativity: Harriet Reuter Hapgood on Teaching Herself Physics

Romance and Relativity: Harriet Reuter Hapgood on Teaching Herself Physics

Peanut butter and jelly. Winter nights and snuggling. Some things just go together. But what about physics and young adult fiction? This might sound like an unlikely pairing, but for author Harriet Reuter Hapgood, they just make sense together—and based on her latest novel, The Square Root of Summer, we have to agree. In the book, Gottie Oppenheimer finds wormholes that allow her to relive and change moments from her past. Gottie’s a math prodigy and begins to theorize and unravel the impossible things happening around her. But how did Hapgood bone up on physics knowledge before writing this book? Good question. Here, Hapgood shares with Bookish her strategies for teaching herself physics.

I hit the books
My reading list: Quantum by Manjit Kumar, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, and biographies of famous scientists. Did you know Einstein was like a rock star? People would scream and ask for his autograph. I also read Imagining Numbers–a beautiful book that explores math and poetry, explaining why so many of us can picture “yellow tulips” but not visualize “minus fifteen”.

I experimented
Introducing Quantum Theory: A Graphic Guide has comic-book illustrations of everything from the Uncertainty Principle to particles–and it has a cat on the cover! Pictures make everything clearer, so I started doing felt-tip illustrations of time travel… I convinced my agent to sign me by drawing a wormhole on a napkin when we met.

I Googled
The internet is good for more than just procrastinating—you can find stuff out there! Starting with a keyword, say “Schwarzschild” (a German physicist), I played Wikipedia Quantum Leap, clicking on any link that looked promising. I ended up with pages and pages of notes on everything from fractals to event horizons.

I did homework
Using old school textbooks, I retaught myself quadratic equations and geometry. I soon decided I didn’t need to understand the numbers, just the theories. The same way you don’t need to know grammar and punctuation to enjoy a book. Numbers are the language; theories are the literature.

I hypothesized
As I understand it, proven laws of physics come about by observing something, making up a reason for why it happened that way, then doing some science to prove what you just guessed. (Scientists, don’t @ me.) In my book, Gottie hypothesizes how and why she’s able to time travel, changing her theory as she discovers more variables. Now someone just needs to prove her right…

Harriet Reuter Hapgood is a freelance journalist who has worked with Marie Claire, ELLE, and InStyle in the U.K. Her debut novel, The Square Root of Summer, was inspired by her German mathematician grandfather and her lifelong obsession with YA romance, which includes an MA thesis on Dawson’s Creek from London College of Fashion, and a dissertation on romantic comedies at Newcastle University. She lives in Brighton, England.




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