Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 1)

Leonard Mlodinow’s most recent book is The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The first book of his that I read was Feynman’s Rainbow. It was so good I wrote him a fan letter. He came to talk at Berkeley in connection with A Briefer History of Time (which he co-wrote with Stephen Hawking). After his talk I told him how much I had liked Feynman’s Rainbow. Because I was a psychology professor he asked my opinion of the parts of The Drunkard’s Walk that involved psychology. That’s how we met.

ROBERTS  You’re a scientist but you also are a good writer and you appreciate the science–no one’s telling you, “this is good and this is bad,” you can figure it out for yourself. Is that fair? Is that accurate?

MLODINOW I hope so. As a scientist I like to think I have good taste in judging what is good science, at least. It’s not always so easy to judge which directions are the ones that are going to be fruitful, obviously, but certainly in judging what’s good science, or more importantly I think, in judging what science is crucial for the public to understand and how to make it exciting for them. That’s one thing that I think a lot of scientists don’t know how to do, which is how to look at from the point of view of a person who isn’t a scientist and explain it in an interesting and amusing, entertaining and most of all exciting way. One of my pet peeves is that, among the general public, people think that science is dry and boring and done by nerds who wear accountant-type thick glasses and white coats.  Really it’s done by people who experience huge ups and downs and have as much passion for their subject as other professions that are considered more romantic, like artists.

ROBERTS Unlike other people who write about science, I think you’re writing intellectual history. I mean, you’re not saying, “Oh, this is a popular topic; this came up in the last ten years as a new popular topic I’m going to write a book about.” You’re writing about things like geometry and probability, which are ancient topics. That’s really unusual. Am I right?

MLODINOW When I write about something, it’s because that excites me and I see a relevance to our world today. When I wrote Euclid’s Window about geometry, it was really about the idea of curved space and curved space is so important in modern physics and even in technology. If you look at, say, global positioning systems, you have to use Einstein’s Theory of Gravitation which is based on curved space and I thought that no one really sat down before and explained, taking their time, what is curved space and what is un-curved space and how do we get that idea and where did it come from and looking at fascinating stories, so that’s where Euclid’s Window came from. In The Drunkard’s Walk it was similar in the sense that there had been other books about probability or other books about statistics and other books about randomness, but I don’t think there had been any book on all three of them, but what propelled me was the idea that not just to write about these concepts but the realization that they’re very important in everyday life, and really the focus on everyday life and how these concepts can help us see it differently.

ROBERTS And it’s better written than the other books, I have to say.

MLODINOW Thank you.

ROBERTS That’s really important, I mean, what good is it to write a book if it’s hard to read?

MLODINOW I think that’s what I bring to this field, is both knowing the science and being able to write well, and with a sense of humor.  There are plenty of people who know the science and plenty of people out there who write well, but there are few who can do both.

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