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Scientists' Nightstand: Lee Smolin

Theoretical physicist Lee Smolin is a long-term researcher at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and an adjunct professor of physics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. His most recent book is The Trouble With Physics (Houghton Mifflin, 2006).Lee SmolinClick to Enlarge Image

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born in New York City. I miss living there, but I love Toronto, which has the creative vitality of New York at its best. I love the visual arts and have spent a lot of time with artists as well as musicians, which was very helpful for my own work. My mother is a playwright and I also love theater. I am wild about sailing, and thought I was not bad at it until I started trying to sail a contender.

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 recently read Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle [Quicksilver (William Morrow, 2003), The Confusion (2004), The System of the World (2004)], which I loved for its portrayal of Newton, Leibniz and many of their contemporaries. I read a lot, all kinds of things.

One novel I really loved recently is Ian McEwan's Saturday (Doubleday, 2005). I also enjoy very much the novels of Arturo Perez-Revert, especially The Queen of the South (Putnam, 2004).

For work I have going, books on topos theory and also Alain Connes' book on noncommutative geometry (Academic Press, 1994); I struggle slowly through these. I have also been reading a new book by the philosopher Roberto Mangiebera Unger, someone whom I've had some discussions with that have given me a great deal to think about.

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

Late at night, mostly.

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

Too many to say: One I've recently gone back to is the New York novelist Ted Mooney. His Easy Travel to Other Planets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981) captures the quirkiness and conflicts a scientist feels between his or her personal life and work. I also like very much Donna Tartt's novels, especially The Secret History (Knopf , 1992).

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

I don't have a best list. I read not to optimize my experience but for enjoyment and also to try to understand our culture and period. So I'll read anything that gives me a new view of this very singular time we live in. For example, at one point I read all the postmodernists because I wanted to understand what it was all about. I can't say I enjoyed it, but it added some essential insight into my understanding of the predicaments of our culture.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Reading Albert Einstein's autobiographical notes in a book of essays, Albert Einstein, Philosopher-Scientist (by Paul Arthur Schilpp, Library of Living Philosophers, 1949), in one sitting, as a high school dropout, made me instantly decide to do theoretical physics rather than architecture.

In graduate school, Paul Feyerabend's Against Method (Humanities Press, 1975) changed my understanding of science and resolved a crisis that almost made me change subjects. A bit later, Roberto Unger's Passion (Macmillan, 1984).

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

I would love to get all the way through any book on topos theory.

I'd love to sometime have the quiet and leisure to read or reread the ancient books of the great cultures, like Homer, Confucius, the Bible, the Quran, Plato, the Mahabharata ...

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Read whatever you want, wander through libraries and bookstores, don't listen to any recommendations.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Start with the classics and read the original thinkers rather than popularizers. Read Darwin, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Newton, Galileo, etc. They all took the time to write for the public.

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

Roger Penrose's The Road to Reality (Knopf, 2005), because he really explains everything from the beginning and he has, in his critique of the field, a combination of great wisdom and generosity.

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