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Scientists' Nightstand: Tom Siegfried

Greg Ross

Tom Siegfried served as science editor of the Dallas Morning News for two decades. His journalism has been recognized with awards from the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union and the National Association of Science Writers. He is the author of The Bit and the Pendulum (John Wiley & Sons, 2000), Strange Matters (Joseph Henry Press, 2002) and A Beautiful Math (Joseph Henry Press, 2006).Tom SiegfriedClick to Enlarge Image

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I'm a freelance science journalist, living in Los Angeles at the moment, where my wife, Chris, fortuitously has a job. I grew up in Ohio but went to college in Texas and stayed there until recently. For 20 years I was the science editor at a daily newspaper in Texas, where I trained many young science writers. I've written three popular science books and write a regular column for the science news Web page The Why Files.

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've been reading The First Scientific American, by Joyce Chaplin (Basic Books, 2006), a biography of Benjamin Franklin focusing on his scientific side. It's illuminating to explore the scientific thoughts of a brilliant man during a time when so much of today's science was in its embryonic stages. I've also recently read Eric Kandel's memoir about his life and research into memory (In Search of Memory, W. W. Norton, 2006), which I think provides an excellent description of how the scientific mind works and how research evolves over time. I chose them, as I choose all the books I read, to learn things I didn't know and to acquire insights that hadn't occurred to me.

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

Usually I read books at night before going to sleep, but I read articles (particularly technical ones from journals) in the morning, when I am awake.

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

I read very little fiction (other than Harry Potter books), because I decided long ago I would read fiction only after I finished reading all the nonfiction. Among my favorite writers are the late Stephen Jay Gould, because he was able to make science engaging while providing deep insight and without sacrificing its substance. I also liked H. G. Wells, whose writings (both fiction and nonfiction) reflected deep and imaginative thought.

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

Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Belknap Press, 2002). It is excessively verbose but provides enormous insights into the history of evolutionary science and the complications involved in understanding evolution today. And it's the best in-depth exploration of the nature of scientific reasoning I've ever encountered.

Kip Thorne's book Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy (W. W. Norton, 1994). It's a paragon of clarity and depth in describing relativity and modern cosmology. In much the way that Gould illuminates how science understands life, Thorne shows how science understands the universe.

Walter Lippmann's book on Public Opinion (1922). It was written when he was very young but nevertheless offers an incredibly insightful grasp of human thought processes. Or perhaps I should have said Islandia (by Austin Tappan Wright, 1942), a utopian novel that cultivated an appreciation for nonconformity (something which is not sufficiently appreciated in the world today).

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

I can't pick just one. As a writer, I'd say Rudolf Flesch's The Art of Readable Writing (1949) and S. I. Hayakawa's Language in Thought and Action (1949). Flesch instilled an awareness of the importance of clarity, along with excellent advice about how to achieve it. Hayakawa inspired a lot of thought about the nature of communication and how language works. As someone interested in science, I'd say George Gamow's One, Two, Three ... Infinity (1947) was a book that really sparked my enthusiasm for pursuing scientific knowledge. As a person, I'd say Babbitt (by Sinclair Lewis, 1922), an early influence warning against mindless conformity.

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

One is Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) (and perhaps Descent of Man [1871] also). I've read passages, but would like to read the whole thing.

Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) would also be a good idea, but I may settle for the Opticks (1704).

I probably should also read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (by Edward Gibbon, 1776), but probably won't.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

I would recommend Flatland, by E. A. Abbott (1884). It's the sort of book that can help keep imagination from ossifying after puberty. And then they all should read Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy (1951) and related sequels and prequels.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Besides my own books (naturally), I'd suggest something by Richard Feynman, probably Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman (W. W. Norton, 1985).

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

Since my discipline is science journalism, it encompasses all the disciplines (or perhaps none of them), so this is tricky. I'd have to recommend a book that hasn't been written yet (I'm thinking about it) on all the flaws in the way science is done, interpreted and communicated, having mainly to do with misuse of statistical inference and other number issues. During the more than 20 years that I have followed science, it has become more and more obvious to me that many scientists are insufficiently aware of methodological considerations that undermine their conclusions—and journalists reporting those conclusions are more clueless still. It seems to me that a book raising awareness of those issues would be a good idea.

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