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Forced to Choose

et al., Roald Hoffmann

What would a highly unscientific survey be without strong anecdotal evidence? Bookshelf editor William J. Cannon asked Edward O. Wilson, Kurt Vonnegut, Carl Djerassi, John McPhee, Steven Pinker, Timothy Ferris and other luminaries—many with titles on the Top 100 list—which books influenced them most and why.


Nobel Prize winner in chemistry; author of, most recently, Old Wine, New Flasks and co-writer (with Carl Djerassi) of the play Oxygen

In a 1993 book (Chemistry Imagined: Reflections on Science) I write about the time in 1947 when I was 10 years old. We were in a DP ("displaced persons") camp in Wasseralfingen, then in the French Occupation Zone of postwar Germany, waiting for a visa to come to the United States. I read much, and somehow there came my way two books, biographies of scientists. One was of George Washington Carver, the black agricultural chemist, the other of Marie Curie by her daughter Eve. I read both in German translation.

In the story of Carver I was fascinated by the transformations he wrought with the peanut and the sweet potato. Ink and coffee from peanuts, rubber and glue from the sweet potato! Perhaps part of the romance was that I had never seen or tasted either peanuts or sweet potatoes.

My Polish background certainly provided a ground of empathy for watching Manya Sklodowska transformed into Marie Curie. But Eve Curie's story touched something deeper. I remember to this day the scene when Pierre and Marie completed the painstaking isolation of a tenth of a gram of radium from a ton of crude pitchblende. They put the children to bed and walked back to their laboratory. I must quote now, from Vincent Sheean's translation:

. . . "Don't light the lamps!" Marie said in the darkness. Then she added with a little laugh, "Do you remember the day when you said to me 'I should like radium to have a beautiful color'?" The reality was more entrancing than the simple wish of long ago. Radium had something better than "a beautiful color": It was spontaneously luminous. And in the somber shed where . . . the precious particles in their tiny glass receivers were placed on tables or on shelves nailed to the wall, their phosphorescent bluish outlines gleamed, suspended in the night?. Their two faces turned toward the pale glimmering, the mysterious sources of radiation, toward radium—their radium. Her body leaning foward, her head eager, Marie took up again the attitude which had been hers an hour earlier at the bedside of her sleeping child . . . .

Years have passed. The boy whose interest in science was stirred by German translations of a story of a black American applied scientist and a French-Polish woman chemist is older. He rereads these books, and sees that they are hagiographies. The romance is off the radium. But Marie Curie still makes him cry.


Gaia hypothesis co-proponent and author of several acclaimed books, including the one that made our list (with Karlene V. Schwartz), Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth

It seems I have always had my nose in a book. Classics are raised to classic status for a reason: Winnie-the-Pooh, Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger, Emily Dickinson's poetry. Although I understood very little about "aperiodic crystals," at an extremely young age I read Schrödinger's What is Life? and marveled at the fact that he could pose the question and grope for an answer. Even more bizarre was the week I spent with heavy-duty and little-known scientific detective tales: Andre Lwoff's Morphogenesis in Ciliates, Pontecorvo's rare masterpiece on parasexuality in fungi and Stanier and Van Neil's book The Microbe's Contribution to Biology. Like E. B. Wilson's Cell in Development and Heredity and Jean Brachet's cell monograph Biochemical Cytology, these have in common a first-person authenticity. In the one-voice science book, an author poses the question, ferrets out possible answers and bases his statements on evidence, strong inference and good taste.

Very few scientists write these one-voice books anymore. The articles and grant proposals of today's scientific establishment seem indistinguishable from advertising copy or newspaper hype. I seek in a book new ideas and scientific propositions that may be of lasting value. Only one such new book, just published by Cornell University Press, comes to mind: Reg Morrison's Spirit in the Gene: Humanity's Proud Illusion and the Laws of Nature. It is exceptional. This well-illustrated book is the single best science-based original statement that I have seen in a decade. Perhaps Morrison's observations are so keen and unfettered because he is both a professional photographer (who sees things as they are) and an Australian (who sees landscapes and niches different from those familiar to us Europeans and Americans). He claimed in a recent letter that he does not much care how his book is received. After he spent some 25 years "field testing my genetic-spirituality ideas," he is well satisfied that he has come very close to "pinning down the true nature and origin of human behavior."

Morrison says he wrote the book to record his ideas "in semi-permanent form." Indeed any book is a prolonged conversation far less chatty than any telephone call or Internet message. I invite you to converse with him. He is open to criticism and suggestion. Do you want to know why some obscure, small group of East African apes, unlike other members of the genus Homo, did not become extinct? Why instead did we big-headed Africans in fewer than a million years become a "plague mammal" some 6,000 million strong, at the expense of everyone else's habitat? If you are curious, read Morrison's thesis. Fully in the realm of evolutionary biology, he teaches not only to infer the behavior of our ancestors but also to ask why they (we, all of us) still act the way we do.


Longtime New Yorker writer and chronicler of the North American continent, whose Annals of the Former World appears on our list

Bates & Jackson's Glossary of Geology (American Geological Institute). Literally, they set a standard.



Institute for Advanced Studies astrophysicist and one of the world's foremost authorities on neutrinos

Two books have been most important in my scientific career. The first is well known; the second is not. After my first year of graduate study at Harvard, I spent much of the summer reading carefully P. A. M. Dirac's book on The Principles of Quantum Mechanics. It made thinking about quantum mechanical problems simple and natural for me, which was not always the reaction among students more than 40 years ago. In 1961, I was a postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University, and E. J. (Emil) Konopinski was giving a wonderful lecture course that became the basis of The Theory of Beta Radioactivity. I sat in on the course. I taught myself the subject by working out problems I made up. Several of these problems I published, and they are among my first research papers (for example, one on the experimental implications of the muon neutrino having a mass is quoted in Emil's book). Emil gave me copies of his lecture notes to comment on and make suggestions about for the book version. Willy Fowler was the referee for one of the papers I wrote on problems that I made up while learning this subject (beta-decay under the extreme conditions that occur in stars) and as a result invited me to Caltech to work as an astrophysicist. It changed my career.


University of Oklahoma assistant dean of engineering and former manager of the Mars Exploration Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Science-fiction books were very influential for me as a teenager. Although I read some early fantasy (like Bradbury's Martian Chronicles), my real love was hard science fiction, especially books by Arthur C. Clarke, Issac Asimov, Andre Norton (a pseudonym for a woman writer) and Robert Heinlein. Their books inspired me to go into aerospace engineering, leading at last to being part of the team that built Sojourner Truth, the Mars rover that was landed by the Pathfinder mission in 1997, and, finally, to leadership of the U. S. Mars Exploration Program.


University of Colorado chemical engineering professor, mountain climber, inventor of the life-saving altitude-sickness device the Gamow Bag and son of Big Bang theorist George Gamow

Father dedicated his most popular book, One, Two, Three . . . Infinity, to "his son Igor who wants to be a cowboy." In later editions he changed "wants" to "wanted," but perhaps that was only wishful thinking on his part? Well this "want" came straight from the books of Will James. His best known work, Smokey, was about a horse. For almost 20 years I have had at home a snow white Arabian stallion, Pegasus, who is and will always be a reincarnation of Smokey! So you have it. In later years I read Nikos Kazantzakis, and although his Zorba the Greek inspired me, his major work, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, sent me down some new and magical pathways. Fritjof Capra's Tao of Physics introduced me to Benjamin Hoff's Tao of Pooh, which always accompanies me on my many trips to the Himalayas. The last book I read, again in Nepal, was Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, published in 1932. How did he know? I also need to add: I am a great fan of Freeman Dyson, and I use his Imagined Worlds as a text both for my students and myself.


Paleontologist whose books include On Methuselah's Trail, The Call of Distant Mammoths and, most recently (with Donald Brownlee), Rare Earth

As a boy I was just knocked out by the Roy Chapman Andrews books about dinosaurs and the Gobi Desert, and as a teenager the greatest influence was Loren Eisley. I was also very moved by the travel books of Richard Halliburton and saw how travel writing and science writing were often the same genre.


Writer to the stars, whose books include Coming of Age in the Milky Way, The Mind's Sky and (on our list) The Whole Shebang

It happened to be a history book—A Child's History of the World, by the schoolmaster V. M. Hillyer—that kindled my lifelong fascination with astronomy, and for some reason I've since been influenced at least as much by literature in general as by scientific books.

Hillyer's account began, reasonably enough, by describing the formation of the earth, and I was astonished to learn from it that the earth hadn't always been here but had come into existence at a specific time, as the result of astronomical processes. Hence there is no real division between here and out there. Pondering this point, I started reading all the astronomy books I could get my hands on, particularly the works of Patrick Moore, the eminent British amateur astronomer, and, later, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Bohr and Wheeler. These authors taught me more than astronomy; in a sense they helped connect me with the wider culture, showed me how to think like a worthy human being.

Yet most of the lessons came from the wider world of books. From Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu I learned the value of the unknown and the overlooked (as in Reginald Blyth's remark, "The back of the picture, the unheard melodies, the dull and the stale, and cheap and vulgar are all of infinite value") and was made skeptical of those philosophers who claim to have explained everything. From Virgil and Dostoyevsky and other Russians I learned how far writing can go—that its limits are like the horizon, made not of space but of perspective.

Looking over the battered old books, I can feel lessons rising from them like the breath of slumbering beasts. From Epictetus, courage; from Homer, strength; from Petrarch, constancy; exuberance from Whitman, Blake and Su Tung-P'o; wit from Shakespeare and Voltaire; grace from Proust; imagination from the early Kant, rigor from the later Kant. Humanity from all. I wish I'd learned all these lessons better, but at least I learned to keep reading. To me the books on the library shelves are alive; they rustle like the living trees from which they—and us, in a sense—originated, calling to us like the old forests, forever full of promise.


Pioneering molecular biologist and president of the National Academy of Sciences

I know that many, if not most, scientists of my generation will cite the same two books as being the most influential in beginning the glimmer of a dream that they might some day be a scientist. These are Arrowsmith and Microbe Hunters. I read both of these books when I was 15 or so. They correctly expressed the adventure and challenges of science, with seemingly real people in real settings. (Although Arrowsmith is fiction, it is of course loosely based on the Rockefeller Institute of the time, with Dubois having originally been a co-author with Sinclair Lewis). To me, they also made scientists seem not only admirably idealistic but also critical of an American culture that I myself found much too materialistic. I had spent my entire life in a suburb north of Chicago, which was very business oriented and pretty homogeneously Republican and upper middle class. Looking back, I suppose that, from these books, science was so attractive because it represented to me both a path to a meaningful, productive career and an escape from an environment that I found confusing if not intimidating.


Marine microbiologist, prodigious author, science documentary film producer and director of the National Science Foundation

The library at the Colwell residence numbers in the thousands of volumes, and there is a little of everything. One book I have been rereading is C. P. Snow's The Search, originally published in 1934. It depicts the way science was done back then—it was obvious no woman was going to succeed in that crowd. A more recent book I've enjoyed is the Carl Djerassi novel Cantor's Dilemma, about a scientist who has to decide whether to reveal a possible error in an experiment for which he is about to receive a Nobel Prize. Of course, I'd have to throw Paul de Kruif's wonderful science detective story Microbe Hunters into the mix, and I have read Arrowsmith and all of Sinclair Lewis. And then there's The Double Helix for a sleazy inside view of how science is done. For a glimpse at the peripatetic life of the scientist, I like Arthur Koestler's The Call Girls. It sounds like something that should be in a brown paper cover, but it's really all about scientists going around and around to meetings.


American scientific icon, author of The Ants and a host of other classics including one that made our list, The Insect Societies

The books I would consider most influential in my scientific life were all read while a teenage student at the University of Alabama, during my intellectually most formative years. They were, first and foremost, the canon of the New Synthesis of evolution, notably Theodore Dobzhansky's Genetics and the Origin of Species, Ernst Mayr's Systematics and the Origin of Species, and George G. Simpson's Tempo and Mode in Evolution, which together brought the study of evolution back to nature and made natural history scientific in the modern sense. I was also enchanted by Erwin Schrödinger's What is Life?, which opened a romantic vista of reductionistic biology and influenced many molecular biologists to come, but I did not follow.


Eclectic zoologist and author of, among others, The Thermal Warriors, Ravens in Winter, The Trees in My Forest and Bumblebee Economics

Naming the book that has been most influential to me is like trying to name the most important cell in the body or the best tree in the forest. However, being forced to make a choice, I suppose that the earliest exposure in one's embryonic development may ultimately have the largest effect. I never owned so-called children's books. The first book I owned (and still possess) and pored through eagerly and often was Hans Wagner's 1922 little Taschenbush der Käfer (Pocketbook of Beetle). It is primarily identification keys with color plates. I was nine years old and collecting carabid beetles at the time. The book connected what I'd found with science, and it opened my imagination to new wonders of other species that I had not yet found and that I could then dream about and search for, to make little discoveries on my own. The book influenced me to connect the contents of pages with concrete nature. It taught me that books have something real to offer, as opposed to describing figments of the imagination that most other kids were exposed to.


Author of The Language Instinct (on our list) and more recently the provocative bestseller How The Mind Works

I've been influenced professionally by three clusters of great books:

The first, which I read as a college student, introduced me to the "cognitive revolution," which overthrew behaviorism and set out a research agenda for the study of memory and language. They include George Miller's The Psychology of Communication, Eric Lenneberg's New Directions in the Study of Language and Noam Chomsky's Language and Mind and Reflections on Language. Almost as influential was a delightful textbook that summarized the first burst of science inspired by the revolution: Peter Lindsay and Donald Norman's Human Information Processing.

The second, which I read on sabbatical in 1987–88, introduced me to evolutionary biology and its applications to human psychology. Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker is brilliantly reasoned and written, and first allowed me to think systematically about evolutionary theory. (Previously I had gotten my evolution from Stephen Jay Gould, but he was more intent on revising evolutionary theory according to his own agenda than on explaining it, and I had always been confused by his arguments but attributed the confusion to my own lack of expertise. Dawkins's rigorously logical approach clarified everything.) His book The Selfish Gene was equally eye-opening for the asides he made about human psychology, which were developed in much greater depth and rigor in two brilliant (and beautifully written) books: Donald Symons's The Evolution of Human Sexuality and Martin Daly and Margo Wilson's Homicide.

The third bunch, which I have read in the past five years, helped remedy my woeful ignorance of economics, after an education and professional ambience in which Marx was considered to be the only academically correct economist. Thomas Sowell's Knowledge and Decisions, Robert Frank's Choosing the Right Pond and, in a lighter (but basically serious) way, Stephen Landsburg's The Armchair Economist are lucid introductions to classical economics and modern revisions of them. Frank's book Passions Within Reason, an economist's look at human emotions, completely changed my view of emotions and influenced my discussion of them in How the Mind Works.


American literary icon, whose Cat's Cradle made our list and whose latest book, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction has just been released

About books that knocked my block off when I was young: I can think of only two, neither a work in the physical sciences: Candide, by Voltaire, and Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorsten Veblen. One book, which I know only in its version as a movie starring Boris Karloff, possibly the most provocative and presently most influential novel of all time, written by a woman only nineteen years old: Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus.


Inventor of the birth-control pill, dramaturge and science-in-fiction author of Cantor's Dilemma, The Bourbaki Gambit and others

As a teenager, I was influenced by a book that has also influenced several other budding scientists such as Joshua Lederberg, a very romanticized or even glamorized account of medical research: Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters. And as a budding graduate student, just out of college at age 19, Louis Fieser's Chemistry of Natural Products Related to Phenanthrene (a few years later reissued under the title Steroids and co-published with his wife, Mary Fieser) made an indelible impression on me. That is what caused me to choose a Ph.D. supervisor at the University of Wisconsin who was active in steroid chemistry, and I have subsequently pursued research in that field for 40 or more years!

In the area of fiction, again as a teenager who had just arrived as a refugee in the USA, I adored the early novels of Arthur Koestler (starting with The Gladiators, which few people know and which came out before his famous Darkness at Noon) and especially of Aldous Huxley (Chrome Yellow, Eyeless in Gaza, Antic Hay, Time Must Have a Stop and Brave New World).

And in my autobiography (The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse), you will find no less than five entries to Huxley in the index. One records a personal experience with mescaline based on his Doors of Perception. Another demonstrates my pleasure at having discovered that the terminology "the pill" was really coined by Huxley in Brave New World Revisited—something that nobody else seems to have realized.


Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Sex on the Brain

When I was in the sixth grade, I pulled a copy of George Orwell's Animal Farm off my parents' bookshelf. Being a literal-minded 11-year-old, I thought it was about animals on a farm, of course. When Boxer the Horse died, I sat on my bed, sobbing about the poor worn-down beast. I had no idea that he was a symbol of the Russian peasantry or that, in fact, Animal Farm had nothing to do with barnyard drama at all. I learned that I had been conned some years later, in high school when we were assigned to read Orwell's satire of Communist ideals. In retrospect, I had to laugh. I had cried all over a symbolic horse? But it wasn't until I started college and read Nathaniel West's Day of the Locust that I recognized the real problem: I had not grown out of being a linear thinker. My dilemma with West's acclaimed tale of a decadent Hollywood was a question posed by the instructor: "What is the meaning of the horse in the bottom of the swimming pool?" I couldn't believe it. Another symbolic horse. To this day, I have never figured out any meaningful answer beyond, "Apparently, the (poor) horse drowned." I date my hostility toward heavy literary symbolism to the body-in-the-pool experience. Did those two books turn me in the more literal direction of science writing? I'm not that linear. But they did teach me that I was always going to appreciate the direct more than the indirect, the real over the symbolic. The year after the Day of the Locust, I switched my major to journalism. As a science writer, I've developed a new affection for fiction, because writing about science demands so much grace in storytelling. There's much to learn in the purely beautiful turn of phrase. I once tried to model a story about a rare genetic disorder partly upon the brilliant writing in Timothy Findley's novel, Not Wanted on the Voyage. It's both a joy and humbling experience to follow this direction in science books, to read Dennis Overbye's Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, E. O. Wilson's Journey to the Ants or to reread the elegant essays in Natalie Angier's Beauty of the Beastly. These are books in which even the tiniest life is tangible, stars blaze with literal heat, and horses, if they appear at all, graze peacefully in the pasture.

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