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Scientists' Nightstand: James Trefil

James Trefil is the Robinson Professor of Physics at George Mason University. He has been a contributor to Smithsonian and Astronomy magazines and a regular commentator for National Public Radio, and is the author or editor of more than 30 books, including Are We Unique? (J. Wiley & Sons, 1997) and the best-selling Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (Houghton Mifflin, 1988). A fellow of the World Economic Forum, he lives in northern Virginia.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

My background is in theoretical physics (I began my career working on quark models), but my main interest these days is in scientific literacy—explaining all of science to everyone. I've had diverse life experiences, including building a house with my own hands in the Blue Ridge Mountains and living on a ranch in Montana. Today I live in a suburb of Washington, D.C. My interests outside of writing include rollerblading (six miles a day), opera and reading.

When I am writing a book, I usually read a couple of other books as background for each chapter.  I also read journals and periodicals to keep up with things. For relaxation I read light fiction, almost always mystery novels. I do not read other science writers if I can help it—my creative writing friends tell me I am preserving my "voice" by doing this.

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?

I read books for one of three reasons: (1) for my work, (2) for general education or (3) for relaxation. I usually read more than one book at a time. Right now under (1) I am reading Henry Petroski's Pushing the Limits (Knopf, 2004), which I will review for The Washington Post. Under (2) I am reading Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August (Macmillan, 1962), about the outbreak of World War I, and under (3) I am reading  a collection of John Mortimer short stories featuring the character of London barrister Horace Rumpole—"Rumpole of the Bailey."

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

I save scientific journals and books being reviewed for travel—there's nothing like being bored at an airport to stimulate reading. Since I live in a suburb and spend significant time in my car each day, I "read" by listening to books on tape. Even a series of 15-minute trips to the supermarket can get you through a serious book in a couple of weeks. Finally, for recreational reading, I most enjoy getting a fire going in my fireplace, putting a snifter of brandy next to my chair and curling up with a good mystery.

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

My "favorite author" tends to be the author of the best book I've read in the last six months. Right now, that would be Brian Greene, author of The Fabric of the Cosmos (Knopf, 2004); Elizabeth Peters, author of the Amelia Peabody mystery series; and Tony Hillerman, author of a series of mystery novels set on the Navajo reservation. Ask me in six months and you'll get a different answer.

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

I'll interpret "best" to mean the books that influenced me most. In chronological order, they are (1) anything by Isaac Asimov, but especially the Foundation series (Gnome Press, 1951). These books, naive by today's standards, nevertheless present a beautiful example of the logical, scientific mind at work. They helped to steer me toward a career in science. The next would be Darwin's On the Origin of Species. It's still the best book to read if you want to understand the way living things on this planet work. Tolstoy's War and Peace is the third. I read it in graduate school, and it gave me a sense of the sweep of human history that has stayed with me all my life.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

As above, the work of Isaac Asimov.

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

In general, if I want to read a book, I read it. The only thing on my list at the moment is Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower (Macmillan, 1966). I want to read it because the end of the 19th century was an important turning point in the history of science and I'd like to know more about the general cultural background.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Isaac Asimov: Foundation as well as I, Robot (Gnome Press, 1951).

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Steven Jay Gould's The Panda's Thumb (Norton, 1980) and Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos.

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

Brian Greene, as above—it's the best nontechnical discussion of relativity, quantum mechanics and ideas about space, time and modern cosmology you're going to find anywhere.

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