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Scientists' Nightstand: Steven Weinberg

Greg Ross

Steven Weinberg is Josey Regental Professor of Science and a member of the physics and astronomy departments at the University of Texas, Austin. In 1979 he received the Nobel Prize in Physics with Abdus Salam and Sheldon Glashow for their contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles. His latest book is Lake Views: This World and the Universe (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?Click to Enlarge Image

I am a theoretical physicist. I don't work in a laboratory, but at home, at my desk, looking at Lake Austin or at old movies on television. I grew up in New York City, went to school at Cornell, Copenhagen and Princeton, taught at Columbia, Berkeley, MIT and Harvard, and since 1982 have taught in the physics and astronomy departments of the University of Texas at Austin. My research has mostly been in the theory of elementary particles and the related quantum theory of fields, together with occasional forays into cosmology. I also do some writing: treatises for physicists on general relativity, quantum field theory and cosmology, and books and articles on all sorts of things, from religion to missile defense, for general readers. My essays for The New York Review of Books and other periodicals have been collected in two books: Facing Up and, this year, Lake Views. I have a number of honorary degrees, belong to several academies and have won some prizes. I like going out with my wife to plays, ballets and classical music concerts, and I read a good deal, but aside from that I have no hobbies to speak of.

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'm a member of a book group that recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. This gets me to read novels—a good thing, because otherwise I would tend to read nothing but history. With the book group, I recently read Wuthering Heights (1847). I thought I had read it years ago, but I evidently hadn't, because I was surprised at how great it is. Heathcliff is not just a romantic hero, looking something like Laurence Olivier; he is also satanically evil. More recently we read Paul Auster's recent novel Invisible (Holt, 2009), which I didn't like as much as his earlier novel Moon Palace (Viking, 1989). In history, I am now reading Paul Kennedy's excellent The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (Scribner, 1976). I recently finished rereading The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (by Edward Gibbon, 1776), which I try to go through every 30 years or so. I almost never read books for work, just preprints and journal articles.

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

I read books before going to bed at night, when my compulsion to stay at my desk shuts off. During the day I read by listening to audiobooks on my iPod, while doing boring things like shaving, dressing and driving.

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

In English-language fiction, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, E.M. Forster, Edith Wharton, Herman Melville, Jane Austen, W.M. Thackeray. As you can see, I'm more at home in the 19th than the 20th century, let alone the 21st. I've enjoyed the great 19th-century French and Russian novelists, but unfortunately I have to read them in translation. In nonfiction, I read mostly history: Gibbon, Thomas Macaulay, G.M. Trevelyan, Thucydides, Tacitus, Winston Churchill, Allan Nevins, Samuel Eliot Morison. And memoirs: Ulysses S. Grant, the Duke of Saint-Simon, Churchill again, Henry Adams. In poetry, William Shakespeare, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, John Milton, John Keats, Lord Tennyson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Butler Yeats, Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin, Robert Frost, John Crowe Ransom.

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

I have to include at least one novel by Trollope. I suppose I'd pick Barchester Towers (1857). It has a great cast of wonderfully drawn characters and is very funny. The language in Moby-Dick (1851) bowled me over when I read it years ago. And The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire lays out an amazing panorama, spanning 13 centuries, with both sympathy and sarcasm.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Probably it was one of the popular science books I read in high school, like James Jeans' The Mysterious Universe (1930) or George Gamow's One, Two, Three ... Infinity (1947). What I learned from them was that physical theory is both esoteric and powerful, an attractive combination for a teenager.

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

There's one novel of Henry James that I haven't read, and have been meaning to read for years: The Princess Casamassima (1885). I'd like to read Henry Adams' History of the United States During the Administration of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1889). And from what everyone says, I ought to finish Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (1913). With some effort, I recently got through the first book in the series, Swann's Way, and I'm working myself up to read the next one, Within a Budding Grove.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

The only advice that I think applies generally is to try to find things to read that the world thinks great, and that you enjoy. What that is will be different for everyone.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

I recently had the pleasure of reading Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859). It's completely accessible to nonscientists, wonderfully well written and one of the greatest books in the history of science. I believe that there are some excellent books for nonscientists on physics or astronomy, but I haven't read any in years, so I'm not in a position to recommend one. But you can't go wrong reading books by me.

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

Books written by physicists for physicists tend to be excruciatingly technical. I can't think of any that I would recommend to readers who are not in physics, or in closely related fields.

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