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Dear Madeline,

If I’ve learned anything from this last year, it’s that lies are all too common in these post-truth times. Trump lies. The media lies. Everyone, my dear, has been lying to you. Including me. Your father, the esteemed physicist. The one who was supposed to be telling you the truth no matter what.

So I’ve written this letter, against my better judgment, to come clean. To begin, I hope, a process of regaining your trust.

Gravity is not, technically speaking, a force.

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come clean about this. It’s just that, you, you were so excited when you came home from school and shared with me what you’d learned about Newtonian Gravity in high school. I still have the scrap of paper where you wrote down the law for the gravitational force:

equation-1 physicist

I mean, for crying out loud, it looks exactly like the law for the electrostatic force!

equation-2 physicist

It made perfect sense that you believed gravity was a “force” just like electromagnetism. What I didn’t have the heart to tell you then, is that that Einstein’s theory of gravity supersedes Newton’s gravity. In Einstein’s theory, gravitation is identified with the warping of space and time. The analogy with all those other forces you learned about in school is an illusion. Apples don’t fall because the earth is “pulling” them down. They fall because the earth warps space and time and apples just follow the contours of space and time “towards” the earth. I’m sorry I lied—but maybe I can make it up to you by taking you to Dairy Queen? You could even get a large Snickers Blizzard this time.

Atoms are not like little solar systems.

Remember that diorama you made in fifth grade? You meticulously glued all those pom poms on it and earned the highest grade in the class. You were so proud, telling me you stood there in front of the other students and explained that electrons orbit the nucleus of the atom in the same way that the planets orbit the sun.

atom physicist

Well, they don’t. They couldn’t, actually. But how could any father possibly look into his ten year-old daughter’s eyes, reflecting the blue of her first place ribbon, and explain that there’s no diorama in the world that can accurately depict the inner workings of an atom? That electrons don’t really fly around at all, but only exist in some strange cloud of probability? You don’t. In any case, I didn’t. And for that, I’m truly sorry.

hydrogen-electron-orbitals physicist

Black holes can evaporate.

This one is hard for me to talk about. Once, when you were younger, you’d asked me about black holes. “Are they real, dad?” And I’d looked you in the eyes and explained how they were very real. I told you they were giant monsters in space that gobbled up everything and kept getting fatter and fatter—that nothing could ever stop them.

I just didn’t think you were ready to hear about Hawking Radiation: that photons can actually escape from the black hole! And that sometimes black holes radiate so much energy that they simply vanish. You were nine years old. You weren’t ready for that, were you?

black-holes physicist

Time travel is possible, sort of.

But it’s a trivial kind of time travel, if you ask me, which is why I failed to mention it when I promised you that “robots could not travel back in time to destroy us here in the present.” It’s known as a causal loop and it is, like all things time travel-y, confusing. Needless to say, you can’t travel back and marry your mom and become your own father—unless, and it’s a big unless—it was already the case that you were your own father.


The universe may not have 10 dimensions after all.

In my defense, I was a little intoxicated the night I promised you that the Large Hadron Collider would vindicate String Theory and the 10 dimensions of space and time it requires. I’d just finished reading The Elegant Universe. Your mother and I were going through a rocky period. I was feeling vulnerable and so I took a firm position on something that has never been more than theoretical speculation.


This isn’t a full accounting of all the lies I’ve ever told you. At some point I’ll tell you what really happened to Fluffy—but suffice it to say there was no orphanage in need of a bunny that summer. Hopefully, though, this is a start.


P.S. – OK, I already feel guilty for glossing over the fact that gravity actually may be a force after all. Like I said earlier, it’s complicated. If gravitation can in fact be quantized to yield gravitons, it puts gravity on the same footing with other quantum forces, like quantum electrodynamics (i.e., electromagnetism). Sorry, it’s going to take me some time for me to adjust to being a “truth-teller.”

Jesse Stone

Jesse B. Stone loves science and writing. Apologies if you were looking for the "Jesse Stone" played by Tom Selleck in the CBS movies.

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