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Scientists' Nightstand: Rudy Rucker

A professor emeritus in computer science at San Jose State University, Rudy Rucker is best known as a popular author in science and science fiction. (He is also the great-great-great-grandson of the philosopher Georg Hegel.) Widely translated, his nonfiction books The Fourth Dimension and Infinity and the Mind have remained in print for 20 years, and the novels in his Ware series, about intelligent robots, have won two Philip K. Dick awards. He lives in Northern California.Rudy RuckerClick to Enlarge Image

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I'm a writer, a mathematician and a computer scientist—in that order. I've been in Silicon Valley for the last 20 years, and I recently retired from my computer science professorship at San Jose State University. I've published 26 books, primarily science fiction and popular science. My most recent book is nonfiction, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, the Meaning of Life and How to Be Happy (Thunder's Mouth Press, 2005). Readers can learn much more about me by poking around my Web sites, accessible at

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'll mention a science-fiction book, a science book and a work of mainstream literature.

For several years now, science-fiction writers have been concerned about a possible future event known as the Singularity (with a capital S). The idea is that if at some future time computers become as intelligent as us, then they can set to work designing still more intelligent devices, bringing about an explosive feedback process that will leave us in the dust. It's a bit hard to write about the Singularity and its aftermath, but in his linked series of stories Accelerando (Ace, 2005), Scottish SF writer Charles Stross goes after the task with wonderful humor and zest.

Brian Goodwin's How the Leopard Changed Its Spots (Scribner, 1994) argues that the major features of plants and animals are generic forms that arise naturally in three-dimensional tissues made up of cells. I find this relevant to the current "intelligent design" discussion of how it is that the blind workings of evolution manage to hit upon such pleasing and efficient forms. Goodwin's thesis is that the kinds of forms we see in plants and animals are not at all rare or obscure; these forms are, rather, things that nature likes to do, as ubiquitous and readily made as the vortex pairs that appear in the wake of an object moving through a fluid.

A recent high-literature success, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (Random House, 2004), is at the same time somewhat science-fictional—something one sees more and more often these days. The novel consists of six long short stories arranged in an onion-like way; that is, five of them are cut in half and nested, so that the book's structure is: 1a 2a 3a 4a 5a 6 5b 4b 3b 2b 1b. Each story takes place a few years later than the one before, and by the fifth story, "An Orison of Sonmi-451," we're well into the future. This tale is presented as being a kind of video of a testimony by a condemned rebel clone slave named Sonmi; the number at the end of her name indicates that there have been 450 previous instances of her. She works in a future fast-food place that has a "beloved logoman" called Papa Song; he's a hologram who stands on a plinth and gives exhortatory morning sermons to the workers. Papa Song also entertains the customers—for instance, by pretending to surf on waves of noodles. The tale is a rich science-fictional satire—that is to say, a serious extrapolation from our current time into a future or alternate world.

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

Typically I read lying on the couch in the living room in the evening, with my wife doing the same thing on the other couch or possibly knitting. I may read a bit more when I get into bed.

In the mornings I just read the paper, although last year I got so tired of the news that for a few months I was reading The Letters of Kingsley Amis (Talk Miramax Books, 2001) every morning. It's a mammoth tome by an enjoyably curmudgeonly modern British writer.

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

Thomas Pynchon is the James Joyce of our time; he uses the richest language, and he plumbs the deepest feelings. For a science writer, Pynchon is rather congenial, as he has a nice way of integrating scientific modes of thought into his texts.

Jorge Luis Borges has wonderful ideas, fine language and a bracing dryness. Borges has a phrase that's of comfort to all struggling writers (he's writing of Melville and Edgar Allan Poe): "Vast populations, towering cities, erroneous and clamorous publicity have conspired to make unknown great men one of America's traditions."

When I was young, my favorite science-fiction writer was Robert Sheckley. When I was 15 I was injured when the chain of a swing broke and I ruptured my spleen. I was in the hospital, and my mother brought me Sheckley's Untouched By Human Hands (Ballantine, 1954). Somewhere Nabokov writes about the "initial push that set the ball rolling down these corridors of years," and for me it was Sheckley's book. I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen, and I knew in my heart of hearts that the greatest thing I could ever become was a science-fiction writer. For many years, it seemed like too much to dare hope for. I've been lucky; not only am I an SF writer, I am a science writer as well.

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

Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (Viking, 1973) gave me a real sense of how the world works, a feeling that life is an ongoing mysterious adventure. I recently reread the book, and it's still my all-time favorite. Edwin Abbott's Flatland (1884) is unequaled in its combination of social satire and explication of profound mathematical ideas. And I might as well mention the funniest book I've ever read, Beat author William Burroughs's The Yage Letters (City Lights Books, 1963).

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science (Wolfram Media, 2002). Really, it was meeting Wolfram in 1984 and reading his papers that influenced me, but this wonderful book includes all of his relevant ideas. It was thanks to Wolfram that I moved to California and found a job teaching computer science. I wanted to be able to program his style of cellular automata simulations for myself.

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

I just ordered David Skrbina's Panpsychism in the West (MIT Press, 2005). "Panpsychism" is the notion that everything is in some sense conscious. Certainly it's the case that ordinary objects are carrying out complex computations. Wolfram convincingly argues that most of these computations are in fact universal and are thus (at least in principle) capable of simulating something like a conscious human mind.

I'm looking forward to reading Paul Di Filippo, The Emperor of Gondwanaland and Other Stories (Thunder's Mouth Press, 2005). Paul is perhaps the leading contemporary master of the science-fiction story; it'll be fun to see what he gets up to in his latest anthology.

I'm also eager to see the cosmological high jinks in Lisa Randall's Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions (Ecco, 2005).

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

I'd recommend my fat SF-epic children's book, Frek and the Elixir (Tor, 2004), a fun transgalactic romp featuring a 12-year-old boy who saves Earth's ecology.

For younger children, Beverly Cleary's books are wonderful (even though they have nothing to do with science). I grew up on these books, and so did our three children. The earlier ones about the character Ramona are particularly wonderful. Beverly Cleary had an amazing ability to describe the way that children actually think. I had a chance to ask her about this once; she said it wasn't so much that she'd observed her own children, but rather that she had a very good memory.

For a high-schooler interested in math and logic, you can do no better than to get hold of one of the beloved math writer Martin Gardner's compendiums. The Colossal Book of Mathematics (Norton, 2001) is a fine print collection, and the full 4,500-page run of his columns for Scientific American is available as Martin Gardner's Mathematical Games on CD-ROM (Mathematical Association of America, 2005).

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

I always recommend my own book, The Fourth Dimension (Houghton Mifflin, 1984). The notion of the fourth dimension has a wonderfully rich set of links to human intellectual history: mathematics, physics, mysticism, spiritualism, religion and, of course, science fiction. And my treatment has yet to be improved upon. In recent years, it's seemed as if cosmologists are getting more and more committed to immersing our world into large-scale higher dimensions of space, so the study of the basics is particularly relevant.

A more recent science book I liked a lot was David Deutsch's The Fabric of Reality (Allen Lane, 1997). Deutsch has a very nice way of thinking about quantum computation as a process that spreads across multiple parallel worlds, and he makes a valiant effort to couch all this in layman's terms.

Philip Ball's The Self-Made Tapestry (Oxford University Press, 1999) is a fascinating and detailed discussion about instances where natural systems behave very much like computations. What makes this book particularly valuable is that Ball pushes past the superficial observance of similarities to analyze exactly how well the correspondences hold up. The science gets a bit heavy at times, but there are several illustrations on nearly every page.

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

I think my single most beloved book of mathematics popularization is David Hilbert and S. Cohn-Vossen's Geometry and the Imagination (Chelsea, 1952). The book is so offbeat and unexpected, coming at geometry from all sorts of new angles. Certain of the sections shade into being technical, but a lot of the material is very simple and visual.

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