ROBERTS I liked your line in The Drunkard’s Walk about lotteries: “What would you think of a system where one person wins a million dollars; for hundreds of thousands of people nothing happens; and one person dies a violent death.”
MLODINOW Would you participate?
ROBERTS Yes, would you participate? That was great.
MLODINOW Most people would, it turns out. But you canâ€™t quite phrase it that way.
ROBERTS I thought, â€˜Well, youâ€™re not going to read that line in many descriptions of lotteries.â€™ Thatâ€™s just not the way the average professor of statistics would describe a lottery. But itâ€™s so much more interesting than the average way a lottery is described. I thought, â€˜This is brilliant science writing. This person isnâ€™t just copying or popularizing.â€™
MLODINOW Thatâ€™s a creativity that comes into writing as well as science. Science research takes a lot of creativity and the ability to look at things from a different angle and I think writing does, too. I think one of the things that sets this book apart from other books on probability is that sort of thing; I looked at a lottery and didnâ€™t just say â€˜Here are your chances of winning and look how small they are,â€™ but I think I looked at it from a unique, somewhat amusing, surprising angle. Thatâ€™s where the work comes in writing the book, is to find those angles rather than just explaining things.
ROBERTS I think the average science writer would grasp that if youâ€™re going to write about the lottery, youâ€™re going to have to find some interesting stories, but I donâ€™t think theyâ€™re going to be bold enough or creative enough to think of the way that I just said–the part I quoted. Thatâ€™s kind of a writer whoâ€™s more sure of himself. You should be sure of yourself–you have all these credentials–you did all this stuff in science but I donâ€™t think the average writer is that confident. You know, Malcolm Gladwell tries to do this sort of thing. He does these slightly counter-intuitive ideas but itâ€™s less successful, I think.
MLODINOW An idea like that would have been hard for someone who isnâ€™t trained in the field; someone who is trained in the field I think would have confidence, if they thought of that idea, to use it. Also, thatâ€™s the two areas of confidence you need. You need confidence in the field, and you also need confidence as a writer.Â You build the latter by writing.Â Sometimes Iâ€™ll write sections of the book or Iâ€™ll go on for a while in a somewhat absurd–Iâ€™m thinking–direction and I know enough now to know that it sometimes works and sometimes doesnâ€™t work. I think I know enough now to tell the difference.
When I was first writing, I was being a bit more hesitant about getting a wild idea and going there, thinking it was going to be silly and Iâ€™m going to embarrass myself. Then I learned, well, itâ€™s good to just do that and donâ€™t worry if you waste a day or two in that direction; you can just cut it and keep going but itâ€™s a good investment because sometimes it works and you get something really interesting. I also learned with time that I can tell the difference. If it really is silly and not working, I wonâ€™t embarrass myself by leaving it in the manuscript; I will notice it and cut it and not fret over the lost day or two and Iâ€™ll go on and write something else to take its place. Those are all lessons that you have to learn but it is interesting that you brought up the notion of confidence because I think thatâ€™s something that you do learn as you write. Itâ€™s really a dual lesson of confidence–that itâ€™s okay to go ahead and take chances with the writing–and the letting go of the possible wasted time youâ€™re going to have. So the confidence to know that you wonâ€™t embarrass yourself because if itâ€™s really stupid, in the end youâ€™ll cut it and also that youâ€™re not going to fret over the wasted time are two lessons that I think you might not know your first time youâ€™re writing a book. In letting go, you have to be naked and just let yourself go and not worry about what youâ€™re saying and how it comes off.
ROBERTS And you know that you understand the subject. You know that thereâ€™s not going to be some other person out there whoâ€™s going to say, â€˜This is all wrong.â€™ Thatâ€™s just not going to happen.
MLODINOW Right. You can make mistakes in details–everybody makes misstatements sometimes. Thereâ€™s so much in a book that itâ€™s hard not to have anything come about wrong. Even Stephen Hawkingâ€™s A Brief History of Time, the original, gave the wrong relation at one point between wave length and energy for photons.Â He knows the difference, but unless youâ€™re a computer you do make errors, so another lesson you have to learn is not be too embarrassed if something does come out that is a detail that you get wrong. Obviously not an important concept you get wrong.