Discussion Questions for Only the Longest Threads

1. When Sara sends Leo the Feynman quote from which the book’s title is drawn, she says it reminds her of the motifs that appear time and again in Leo’s manuscript, and the shared loves and desires that intertwine the characters. What does the title mean to you? What are some of the long threads you spy?

2. What did the book gain from transposing you into different times and places, and introducing multiple narrators? Would the impact have been the same if the story was told from a single point of view, or from a fixed time and place? 

3. Did you get a sense of who the narrators were? Would you have liked to know more about their lives? What details were you able to glean, and did they evoke any images?

4. What did you think about the nested story structure? Did Leo and Sara seem more "real" than the narrators Leo created? 

5. To what extent were the various characters influenced or affected by the science they studied? Do you think it impacted their everyday lives?

6. What was the most surprising thing you learned?

7. Many famous scientists make an appearance in this book. Whom were you most drawn to? Why?

8. Did learning about the people, and the process, behind major discoveries change the way you thought about the work? 

9. Sara’s arguments for writing fiction lead Leo to wonder if there are people who feel that physics is difficult to understand, simply because they have never heard it expressed in words that resonate with them. “What if, instead of being handed glib, polished statements, they could overhear the thoughts of a scientist who is processing new ideas and struggling to express them? Maybe these people would see something familiar, maybe they would recognize some of these tangled thoughts as their own.” Did that happen to you? Was there a passage that struck just the right note for you, leading you to understand something you didn’t before?

10. In Chapter 1, John’s father talks about the importance of learning from experience. Echoing Robert Hooke, he wonders how one would benefit if he had “not only a perfect register of his own experience, but [had] grown old with the experience of many hundreds of years, and many thousands of men”? What do you think you have gained, having read the experiences of several minds, spanning the centuries?

11. In Chapter 2, Charles recalls his father’s account of the time when, as a child, he saw Faraday sitting inside a wooden cage, charged to about 100, 000 Volts. “People watched, convinced he would be killed, but while sparks flew everywhere outside the cage, science was borne out and he remained unharmed." "Surely a child who witnesses a spectacle like that is not liable to forget it!” Charles thinks. Is there a "spectacle" that made an indelible impression on you, and awakened your curiosity about the natural world?

12. In Chapter 3, pondering Einstein’s relativity, Jacob finds himself “at the night sky as if I had never seen it before. Who would have suspected that starlight does not whiz nonchalantly by the sun but in fact tips its head in acknowledgment? In the dark depths of space, completely unbeknownst to us, these subtle social graces have been exchanged for centuries.” Is there any scientific fact or theory you have learned, that would inspire you to look at the world differently?

13. What did you think of Anna in Chapter 4? Did she challenge the way you think about symbols? Where, and in how many ways, do we employ symbols in our daily lives? Are there any parallels you can draw between these uses, and the use of mathematical symbols in science?

14. After reading "The Second Installment" Sara realizes that Einstein’s gedanken-experiments were – among other things – a way for him to “cast himself as the protagonist of the story.” “That’s exactly what we do when we read fiction!” she says. While reading Only the Longest Threads, did you imagine yourself into the story, at any point? Did you process that part differently to the rest?

15. In Chapter 5, as Ali (the father) describes Miramare Park to his children, he writes “Sitting here, far from the clamor of mindless chores and institutional responsibilities, I find my perspective on physics broadening; perhaps perspectives are elastic and stretch to fill the space provided.” Do you agree? Are there particular environments or conditions in which you think better or more clearly? Are there any specific places you like to go, to think?

16. In Chapter 6, when Lena finds herself overwhelmed by contradictory emotions, she instinctively turns to her “oldest coping mechanism: treat the mind like a toddler. Distract it with idea toys.” What would these idea toys be for you? What are the mysteries that pull you in and make you forget about your physical surroundings?

17. In Chapter 7, Sara addresses the increasing difficulty associated with testing new ideas. “If we follow our curiosity into realms that lie outside the natural grasp of our senses, we must be willing to extend our modes of analysis. We will have to invent ever more creative ways of probing these new frontiers, often using indirect measurements, but that’s the price of playing the game at this level.” Do you agree, or do you think science should limit itself to the directly verifiable? Why?