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Scientists' Nightstand: Massimo Pigliucci

Greg Ross

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. His most recent book is Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?Click to Enlarge Image

I began my academic career as an evolutionary biologist, first at the University of Tennessee, then at Stony Brook University. However, when my midlife crisis hit I decided to switch to philosophy, went back to graduate school, got a proper degree in the field, and started publishing in philosophy of science. As a result, now I am the Chair of Philosophy at Lehman College in New York and a faculty member at the City University of New York's Graduate Center.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

Let me check my Kindle list . . . I am about to finish Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Illustrated Novels (Chancellor Press, 2001), because I always wanted to do that. I have been endlessly fascinated with the hyperrational detective, and I often quote from him (yes, I know he is fictional) in my classes on the nature of science. I am also reading Kathryn Schulz's Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (HarperCollins, 2010), a delightful book about how and why we are so often wrong about things, and what is the best attitude about it. Recent readings include Noam Chomsky's Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (Metropolitan, 2006); Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next (Houghton Mifflin, 2006); and Sunnyside, a novel by Glen David Gold (Knopf, 2009).

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

Pretty much everywhere and at any possible time, but especially in the subway, at the airport and before going to bed. These days my entire collection resides on my Kindle apps, which run on my iPad as well as my Droid phone. I'm literally never without something to read or a way of reading it.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

Tough question. Of fiction, probably Philip Roth. He has a dark sense of humor mixed with a proper degree of understanding of the tragedy of life. His latest novels have turned darker (if possible) during his ongoing exploration of the human condition in old age. Then again, I absolutely love Douglas Adams and pretty much anything he has written—I still deeply regret his premature departure from this world.

As for nonfiction, I rarely read more than one book by the same author, although the philosopher Bertrand Russell ranks very high in my pantheon. He wrote a lot of accessible essays about politics and life that are still very current. Carl Sagan would probably be my next choice: a brilliant communicator about science, without becoming pedantic or condescending.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

Oh, c'mon, that's next to impossible. All right, here we go: Why I Am Not a Christian, by Bertrand Russell (1927), because it really makes you think about so many common assumptions about religion; The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan (Random House, 1995), a stupendous example of how science should be explained to the general public; and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams (Harmony, 1979), because the answer is 42.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Possibly the above-mentioned Why I Am Not a Christian. It's not that it turned me into an atheist (I pretty much already was one when I read the book in my teenage years), but because it taught me that one can have very good reasons for one's gut feelings.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

My waiting list is a heck of a lot longer than three, but at the moment the next three are all novels: I, Lucifer, by Glen Duncan (Grove, 2002); The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick (Putnam, 1962); and Solar, by Ian McEwan (Doubleday, 2010).

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

One of the classics mentioned above: Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World. Also, my daughter is greatly enjoying The Science of Doctor Who, by Paul Parsons (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010) (although I guess one would have to be a fan of the TV show first—and why not?).

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Assuming that recommending my own stuff is not cool, I'd say The Varieties of Scientific Experience, by Carl Sagan (Penguin, 2006), an insightful collection of essays about the nature of science and the relationship between science and religion, published recently by his wife, Ann Druyan. Also, Mistakes Were Made, but Not by Me, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (Harcourt, 2007), a delightful journey into the cognitive science of self-delusion.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

What Is This Thing Called Science?, by Alan Chalmers (University of Queensland Press, 1976). It is a very accessible and highly thought-provoking tour de force on the nature of science.



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