Who are your favorite science writers? Anyone new and good we should be paying attention to?
In no particular order: Dava Sobel, Timothy Ferris, Cornelia Dean, Bill Bryson and Michael Lemonick. And I just recently discovered the delightfully irreverent books of Mary Roach. I take this occasion to note that Agnes M. Clerke, writing in the late 19th century and the turn of the 20th, was one of the most prolific science writers in any field, although her specialty was astrophysics, then a male-dominated area. Her titles include “The Concise Knowledge Library: Astronomy” (1898), “Problems in Astrophysics” (1903) and “Modern Cosmologies” (1905).
If a parent asked you for book recommendations to get a child interested in science, what would be on your list?
Kids are naturally interested in science. The task is to maintain that innate interest, and not get in their way as they express it. Early on, my favorite children’s book is “On the Day You Were Born” (1991), written and illustrated by Debra Frasier. I’m often asked by publishers whether I will ever write a science-based children’s book. My answer will remain no until I believe I can write one better than Frasier’s. It hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t see it happening in the foreseeable future. Also, I remain impressed how fast the Dr. Seuss “Cat in the Hat’s Learning Library” series updated Tish Rabe’s book “There’s No Place Like Space: All About Our Solar System” (1999, 2009) to reflect the official 2006 demotion of Pluto to “dwarf planet” status.
What are the greatest books ever written about astronomy?
Because the field of study changes so rapidly, any book that’s great in one decade becomes hopelessly obsolete by the next. But if I am forced to pick one, it would be Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” (1980). Not for the science it taught, but for how effectively the book shared why science matters — or should matter — to every citizen of the world.
And your favorite novels of all time?
Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” (1726). I often find myself reflecting on the odd assortment of characters that Lemuel Gulliver met during his travels. We’re all familiar with the tiny Lilliputians, but during his voyages he also met the giant Brobdingnagians. And elsewhere he met the savage humanoid Yahoos and the breed of rational horses — the Houyhnhnms — who shunned them. And I will not soon forget the misguided scientists of the Grand Academy of Lagado beneath the levitated Island of Laputa, who invested great resources posing and answering the wrong questions about nature.
What kinds of stories are you drawn to? Any you steer clear of?
Not enough books focus on how a culture responds to radically new ideas or discovery. Especially in the biography genre, they tend to focus on all the sordid details in the life of the person who made the discovery. I find this path to be voyeuristic but not enlightening. Instead, I ask, After evolution was discovered, how did religion and society respond? After cities were electrified, how did daily life change? After the airplane could fly from one country to another, how did commerce or warfare change? After we walked on the Moon, how differently did we view Earth? My larger understanding of people, places and things derives primarily from stories surrounding questions such as those.
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
I have multiple shelves of books and tracts on religion and religious philosophy, as well as on pseudoscience and general fringe thinking. I’m perennially intrigued how people who lead largely evidence-based lives can, in a belief-based part of their mind, be certain that an invisible, divine entity created an entire universe just for us, or that the government is stockpiling space aliens in a secret desert location. I find this reading to be invaluable in my efforts to communicate with all those who, while invoking these views, might fear or reject the methods, tools and tenets of science.
What book has had the greatest impact on you?
George Gamow’s “One, Two, Three . . . Infinity” (1947) and Edward Kasner and James Newman’s “Mathematics and the Imagination” (1940) are both still in print. I have aspired to write a book as influential to others as these books have been influential to me. The closest I have come is “Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries” (2007), but while I think it succeeds on many educational levels, I’m quite sure it falls short of what these authors accomplished. For me, at middle-school age, they turned math and science into an intellectual playground that I never wanted to leave. It’s where I first learned about the numbers googol and googolplex (a googolplex is so large, you cannot fully write it, for it contains more zeros than the number of particles in the universe). It’s also where I learned about higher dimensions and the general power of mathematics to decode the universe.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?