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Scientists' Nightstand: Read Montague

Greg Ross

Read Montague is a professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the Baylor College of Medicine. He is the author most recently of Why Choose This Book?: How We Make Decisions (Dutton).Read MontagueClick to Enlarge Image

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

As a kid in Georgia, I never had any desire to be a scientist, because I thought that they mainly wore white coats and read long numbers off the displays of analytical equipment—obviously I needed to get out more as a child. More importantly, I did not know anyone who made a living as a scientist. I didn't really know that people were actually paid to discover new knowledge—it still seems a little weird to me, even today.

I lettered in track and field at Georgia Tech and at Auburn University, but reality and injuries kept me from the Olympics, and at the last minute I decided to pursue my interests in the brain—working with a quantum chemist in college, I had been struck by the implications of quantum mechanics for how humans think.

For some murky reason that I can't quite reconstruct, I decided to pursue this interest by going to medical school! I found it unbearably mismatched to my interests (boring and painful), and so I dropped out to pursue a Ph.D. in physiology and biophysics. I stumbled into an opportunity to move to New York City and work with a Nobel Prize winner, Gerald Edelman, and I never looked back. I learned a number of things from Edelman, but mainly I learned how to think big, reach far and go out on a limb despite the number of people just delighting in the fact that I would probably fall. Since then I've evolved several times (in my interests, not my body), and now my work focuses primarily on how people make decisions and how and why their brains make them do so.

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?

For work, I am currently reading an introductory book on string theory by Barton Zwiebach, a collection of John Nash's original mathematical papers and a book on radioastronomy. For pleasure, I have just recently reread Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, and I'm currently reading Michael Crichton's State of Fear (HarperCollins, 2004) and have bought his new book Next (HarperCollins, 2006).

The science books were picked because of a new project that I'm working on to image brain activity from a distance without the big superconducting magnets that modern brain imaging devices require. The Crichton books I read for pleasure—I love the fast pace and his boldness in expressing his opinions, especially the politically incorrect ones.

Books in general fascinate me deeply. They give me a way to steal a bit of someone's experience or point of view without risk. What could be more exciting than to experience a near-death episode on a mountain without actually having to veer close to death? Generally, I have no real taste in reading. I read detective novels with the same eagerness as I do Faulkner. My taste in movies is similarly possessed of a low entry standard—I generally hate artistic movies, most likely because I lack the mental sensibilities to appreciate them. My favorite recent movie is Happy Feet.

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

I read very late at night (after 11 p.m. or so) and when I travel. I don't sleep that much, and so I have a lot of extra time to read broadly, including pulp fiction that would probably embarrass my colleagues and my parents.

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

My favorite fiction writers are Faulkner and Shakespeare. There is something very attractive about the lushness of their writing—for different reasons. I'm incredibly moved by Shakespeare's prose and poetry. In The Merchant of Venice, the speech by Portia ("The quality of mercy is not strained") is remarkably moving even after many readings and even at my advanced "post-40" age.

Faulkner's prose is rich and winding in an almost organic way. It reminds me of living in Georgia in my youth—humidity-drenched forests covered in vines, walks along dirt trails meandering through the woods, and of course the usual quirky, over-involved family interactions that I have found only in the South. His writing mirrors these images somehow. It's still hard to understand how all these complex feelings run in our brains, but the sheer richness of the experiences he portrays is so inviting to me.

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

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1880). Sons, fathers, bitter family disputes and how they shape everything in our worldview. The book captures the way that we are forever entangled with our families (for better or worse) and how we make really wacky decisions because of the confusion that family disputes bring. It also highlights how the most distilled disputes originate mainly from those closest to us. In short, the book puts on display how real life is always messy ... and so is real science.

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov (1951). In this book, the great science fiction writer introduces Hari Seldon and his invention—psychohistory. Seldon was a kind of mathematical architect who discovered the mathematical rules by which civilizations evolve and collectively make decisions. Psychohistory and its practitioners, the psychohistorians, would use complicated mathematics to predict the social evolution of the entire galaxy (and maybe the whole known universe). The fascinating part to me when I read this as a kid was the idea that it might even be possible to model the collective decision-making of billions of people. The idea had never occurred to me before, and its novelty (to me) was mind-blowing—of course, it was probably easy to blow my mind back then.

The third best book is anything written by Mark Twain, but I will include instead a specific alternative:

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams (Harmony Books, 1979). This is a wacky story of everything we care about—the nature of space and time, the meaning of life, the universe and everything, etc. I read this book just after I graduated from high school, and its carefree view of the deep issues of life is refreshing, inspiring and, in the hands of Douglas Adams, incredibly funny. My favorite invention of Adams is the Infinite Improbability Drive—something we should all own.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

The Holy Bible. Its influence directly and indirectly on my youth is incalculable, since it influenced everyone with whom I had contact. And these interactions brought many of my ideas into stark, unavoidable contrast with what other people thought, and why they thought about the mind in one way and not another.

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

The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, by E. O. Wilson (Norton, 2006)

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, by Michael Lewis (W. W. Norton, 2006)

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis (W. W. Norton, 2003)

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)

Flatland by Edwin Abbott (1884)

Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)

Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland by George Gamow (1940)

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (Ariel Books, 1962)

Any book by Mark Twain

A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1845)

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)

All these books communicate big themes or common themes that all children have or will face. Animal Farm shows the insidious nature of us-and-them distinctions and how easy it is for "us" to become "them." The life of Frederick Douglass (a true story, of course) illustrates the power of the human spirit to overcome unfairness and difficulties. A Wrinkle in Time, Alice in Wonderland, Mr. Tompkins and Flatland all show that there are always different ways to see the world. Flatland may be a bit sarcastic and ironic for younger children, but it still has some interesting lessons.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct (HarperPerennial, 1995) and The Blank Slate (Viking, 2002)

E. O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Harvard University Press, 1978)

Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus (Norton, 1991)

Antonio Damasio, Descartes' Error (Putnam, 1994)

Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea (Simon & Schuster, 1995)

Eric Kandel, In Search of Memory (W. W. Norton, 2006)

Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe (W. W. Norton, 1999)

Patricia Churchland, Neurophilosophy (MIT Press, 1986)

Petr Beckmann, A History of Pi (Golem Press, 1970)

Freeman Dyson, Infinite in All Directions (Harper & Row, 1988)

Steven Pinker, Antonio Damasio and Patricia Churchland present neuroscience, psychology and modern approaches to both in the most accessible scientific writing around. In many ways, Pinker has taken over for E. O. Wilson as one of the best science writers of a generation.

Of course as a counterbalance, one needs to read at least something by Stephen Jay Gould, an excellent writer and someone who takes an opposing view to Pinker and Wilson. Dyson and Beckmann both have a true love of their subject, and these feelings make it through their prose clearly. The book by Beckmann is solely devoted to the number pi (3.14159 ...), and as potentially boring as that might sound, the book is simply captivating. Dyson's love of knowledge, understanding and science in general is hard to resist.

Brian Greene is in my opinion the clearest popularizer of modern physics, and his enthusiasm for the subject is infectious. In my mind, his better book is still his first, The Elegant Universe.

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

How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker (Norton, 1997). The book covers the important ideas about the mind, the computational theory of mind and the way that psychology and neuroscience are different disciplines, and it outlines some of the outstanding problems. Pinker is a terrific science writer and takes readers through a lot of material without burdening them with too much detail or technicality.

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