Q&A with Tasneem Zehra Husain

Q: What was your inspiration for writing the book?

A: To me the word ‘inspiration’ implies a sudden flash of insight, or an idea that appears out of nowhere and lights up your brain. There were definitely moments while I was writing, when I experienced that kind of inspiration, but that’s not how this book began. It emerged, slowly, as a possible solution to a problem that had been at the back of my mind for years: how to explain what I do?

As a theoretical physicist, I get asked that a lot—and it’s not an easy question to answer. At the end of the day, there’s nothing tangible I have to show for my efforts, except pages covered with equations. How does one translate that into something that makes sense to people who lack a mathematical background but are genuinely curious? How does one explain this abstract endeavor without patronizing the questioner, yet doing justice to the question?

This book is my attempt at an answer.

Q: How did you choose the title?

A: I took the title from a quote by Richard Feynman, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics. And if there was a Nobel Prize for teaching, he might well have won that, too. Feynman said “Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.”

This resonates with me on many levels. I don’t want to over-explain it and rob people of the joy of uncovering the “long threads” that run through the narrative, so let’s just say that it seemed a singularly apt title, given that the book deals with major unifications in physics.

Q: Where were you when the Higgs boson announcement was made?

A: At home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Like countless others around the globe, I was glued to my laptop, watching the live webcast.

But if I take your question less literally, I could say that I was working on my manuscript, secure in the belief that I was a couple of months away from finishing it. We were expecting the book to be in print by summer 2013. Until then, the Higgs boson only marginally figured in my plan. My idea was to end the book at CERN on the eve of a much-anticipated announcement, and leave it open-ended. But of course, once the boson showed up, that conclusion no longer made sense.

So, I wrote to my publisher in the wake of this monumental discovery, saying something like “I might need a couple of extra weeks” to figure out how to work this into the story. It is almost comic how naive that was. It took months, multiple drafts, and countless revisions to get it into a shape I was reasonably happy with. And when all is said and done, I like this version much more than what I had initially envisioned.

Q: What did your research for the book entail?

A: Whenever I begin to create something, whether it is a mathematical calculation or a piece of writing, I start by constructing a very detailed mental image of the world I will be working in. In physics, that means reading papers; finding out what has already been done; figuring out the assumptions that underlie the statements that pass for conventional wisdom and thinking about the circumstances in which these would no longer hold, etc.

I go through a parallel process before writing. I try to visualize the world in which my characters are living. Most of this involves reading, of course, but I look at a lot of images as well. I spend hours poring over paintings and photographs, particularly of ephemera. I also like listening to music that evokes the mood I am trying to conjure.

Let me give you a more concrete example. When I wrote the chapter about electromagnetism, I read extensively about what London was like in the late nineteenth century. I was completely fascinated by Dickens’s Dictionary of London - an “unconventional handbook” (written by Charles Dickens’s son) that has entries for everything pertinent to daily life - from monuments and amusements to clubs and “lists of tradesmen”. This wasn’t just an exercise in fact-checking. I wanted to immerse myself in the period as much as I could, to the point where I began to see that world clearly­—not through my own eyes, but through the eyes of those who lived there at the time. That’s one of the reasons reading contemporary works was so important to me. If you do that enough, you start picking up the language and cadences of the time - and then you hope it shows through in your writing.

This is, of course, a bottomless pit. Every little piece you find points to another—often several. Each research paper has a long list of sources and references, every picture you see suggests dozens of others, every quote you trace back introduces you to a person who obviously said much more than the phrase that led you to them in the first place. Some readers might find this frustrating, or annoying, but I love knowing that the riches are inexhaustible. Then again, I’ve always been fascinated by fractals.

Q: How do you create and develop your characters?

A: I’ve never really thought about that, to be honest. When my mental world becomes vivid enough, it just becomes apparent whose eyes I am seeing it through.

Take the example of the chapter about general relativity. I knew I wanted the narrator, whoever he or she was, to be standing at Battery Park when Einstein’s ship arrived. I knew that this person wasn’t there just to greet a celebrity, but because Einstein and Einstein’s work had become important to him, personally. Why would that be?

When you answer a series of questions like that, the character eventually assumes enough form that you can at least begin to write—and then it’s all about what fits in his or her voice; after all, you can only express things that make sense for that particular person to say or feel. If you keep watching as the character’s thoughts spill onto the page, she (or he) comes into sharper and sharper focus.

In physics-speak, I’d say that as a writer you have the freedom to pick the axioms you want to start with, but once you’ve made that choice, logic places firm constraints on what you can do from then onwards. Internal consistency is a very strong force; it compels a theory—or a narrative—to flow in ways you could never have foretold.

Q: Explain the concept of "science in fiction" and how it came to you.

A: There are many excellent popular science books out there right now, some written by researchers at the forefront of their fields. These books lay out ideas very thoroughly and very well, and there didn’t seem to be much point in my attempting to do exactly the same thing again. When I sat down to write, I wanted to communicate more than the facts, or even the concepts—I wanted to convey what science feels like. It seems to me that non-fiction necessarily separates the reader and writer; no matter how personal the tone of the piece, you’re stuck on the outside. In fiction, there is no distance. You step into someone else’s shoes and get to know them from the inside. I wanted readers to be able to experience science for themselves, and there’s no better way I can think of doing that than through fiction.

As has doubtless happened to us all, I have often found myself describing situations and experiences from my own life in words borrowed from a favorite fictional character. It’s almost as if, having lived with their thoughts for so long, I have learned to think as they do. This propensity for interpreting life in different ways and through different vocabularies has enriched me more than I can say. I wanted the narrators in Only The Longest Threads to have an enhanced view of the world; superimposed on what is visible to us all, they spy another layer that is physics’ gift to them. I wanted to give my readers a glimpse of this wondrous, but often hidden, dimension. My hope is that if they dwell in it long enough, they will learn to conjure it up for themselves.

Q: Who are your favorite authors and what are your favorite books?

A: That’s a question I’ve never been able to answer. In fact, it stumps me so badly that people who don’t know me very well look at my nonplussed expression and conclude I must not read very much. The truth is there are so many books I love so deeply, I feel almost disloyal naming just a few.

But I should probably give you some names, so—limiting myself to what I have read this year—here are some favorites: Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See is exquisite. It is so sensitively observed, and his metaphors are stunning; there’s a graceful strength about it that I am totally in awe of. The Book of Disquiet. I find Pessoa’s expression beautiful, and I love the meandering patterns his reveries make. I also really enjoyed Susan Vreeland’s The Girl in Hyacinth Blue. It’s not new but I only read it a few months ago. The book is a series of linked short stories about a painting and what it has meant to the people who lived with it. It struck a particular chord because it reminded me of what I tried to do in Only The Longest Threads—write about what theories mean to the people who live with them.

As for books with more science in them, Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe is superb, as are all his works. I also thoroughly enjoyed Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, which is a science memoir of sorts. It involves a young girl who sneaks into academic conferences and venerates famous physicists as if they were rock stars; what’s not to love? Not only is the personal story very compelling, Amanda Gefter does a great job explaining the science, as well. Then there is Roberto Trotta’s The Edge of the Sky, which is a book about the universe, written using only the thousand most common words in English. The language is extremely poetic, and the book reads like a fable. How could one go wrong with a science-inspired fable?

Q: Can you discuss what the educational experience for girls is like in Pakistan?

A: In Pakistan, as in many places around the world, the situation spans the spectrum. Depending on your background and whether you are in a rural or urban setting, vastly different resources are available. Some of the disadvantages faced by young girls stem from the basic fact that education is not nearly as prevalent in Pakistan as one would likeand as such, these disadvantages apply equally to young boys. But I’m assuming you are interested primarily in the differences between the experience of young girls and young boys of similar backgrounds and in similar settings.

While it is undeniable that some people—particularly in the underdeveloped areas of the country—have a more conservative outlook, for the most part, I think parents who live in the cities are keen for their daughters to go to school. I know many women who have spent their own lives as domestic help, but are sending their daughters to school, and even college. Another very promising development is that in the past twenty years or so many new avenues have opened up; in large part, this is due to the internet, but regardless—young girls in Pakistan these days have access to facilities I could barely have dreamed of when I was their age. Overall, I’d say we have come a long way in the past couple of decades, but obviously there is still a lot left to do.

Q: Discuss your experience as a female scientist in Pakistan. What were your biggest challenges?

A: My parents have never distinguished between their sons and daughters, and so growing up, I had no experience of any discrimination between girls and boys. I was fortunate to be born into a family where creativity and curiosity were encouraged, and we siblings always had the support of our parents in all our pursuits. When I was a teenager, there were no schools in Lahore—my hometown—where girls were offered Physics at A–Level, and so I sat for the exams privately. For the most part, I studied on my own, but in the last few months, I enrolled in an exam prep course; there were almost thirty boys, and me. I was so relieved when another girl joined a few weeks later! Other than feeling slightly self-conscious, which is inevitable at that age, I had an absolute ball. The teachers were incredibly good, and the boys were extremely chivalrous but very competitive; I thrived in that atmosphere.

After my A–Levels, I went to an all-girls college for two years. Kinnaird College is the premier women’s college in Pakistan, and it is a fabulous institution. I met most of my closest friends there, and we made some of the best memories of our lives—but academically it wasn’t very satisfying. It was here that I first came face to face with the local educational system. The books weren’t exactly inspiring, and the local examination system was not nearly as challenging or imaginative as what I had become used to. Also, the Science block wasn’t much fun. So I flipped things on their head. I stopped making classes a priority and started spending most of the day in the Arts block (which, incidentally, included Math for some reason), getting involved in loads of extra-curricular activities and hanging out with friends. School became a social outlet, and studying was something I did at home. I had to do Physics on my own, but luckily my best friend was a Math major, so I had a study partner in her. That actually worked out really well. Looking back, I don’t know that I would change a thing. I enjoyed myself so much in those two years, and strange as it sounds, I learned a lot, too.

Thus far, my life had been pretty sheltered. I was just seventeen, still living at home, and most of my classmates, boys and girls, came from families similar to mine. Their parents were—typically—professionals, well-educated, and more often than not, had similar values to those with which I had been raised. Also, Lahore is a very large city, but it is pretty tightly knit, everyone seems to know, or at least know of, everyone else.

All this changed when I went to Islamabad for University. The set-up there was far less familiar. As a public institution, the university was committed to admitting students from all across the country, reserving a certain number of seats for applicants from far flung and remote areas. I found myself surrounded by many classmates who had far more conservative outlooks than I had been used to. For the first time, I came up against some of the challenges and limitations that girls experience in certain circumstances. But I don’t believe that the difficulties I faced had anything to with science, per se. They were, unfortunately, simply the result of being a girl in a male-dominated environment, where not everyone was equally liberal.

Q: What might surprise your U.S. audience?

A: I think it might surprise Americans to know the number of girls studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in Pakistan. Not so many girls study physics, but a very good number go to medical school. In my year at University, there were five girls and about twenty boys who majored in Physics, but in the Math department across the street (where my best friend studied) there were ten girls and ten boys, and the girls totally ruled the roost. That was almost two decades ago. The situation has changed a lot since then. Several new institutions have come up, including some private universities—like the one I helped set up—and with the increase in options, the number of girls studying science has increased as well. Many dozens of high schools in Lahore now allow girls to take science subjects at A–Level, and each year, thousands of girls in my hometown sit for these exams and do incredibly well.

With all the talk in the West about encouraging girls to study STEM, I’ve often wondered why it is that I don’t see a need for a parallel argument in Pakistan, and here’s what I think. This is just my own personal feeling, of course, and not the result of any rigorous study; but in my opinion it has a lot to do with the value that is placed on academic achievement there. Grades are important to parents, of course, but they can also win you the respect of your peers, so no one feels the need to downplay her academic ability. For example, a girl would not be thought of as less feminine because she “aced” a chemistry exam; she would simply be thought of as smart—and that’s a good thing. There’s no derogatory term associated with doing well in school—no nerd or geek equivalent in that culture. (Being a teacher’s pet is frowned upon, but that’s a whole separate issue!) And since—rightly or wrongly—the sciences are thought to be more difficult than the humanities, many bright students, girls and boys alike, take these subjects and work hard to excel at them.