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Scientists' Nightstand: Brian Hayes

Greg Ross

Brian Hayes is senior writer for American Scientist. He recently completed Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape (W. W. Norton, 2005).

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

I write the "Computing Science" column for American Scientist.

I grew up in the era of Sputnik and the New Math, and I always expected, as a matter of course, that I would become a scientist or engineer of some kind. For a while I thought I'd be a physicist, and then an electrical engineer building computers, or maybe an oceanographer—which looked like a good excuse to do lots of scuba diving. All along, though, I was also going to be a famous novelist. Choosing among these divergent paths might have been difficult, except for an accident of fate: Somewhere along the way I neglected to collect a university education, or even a high school diploma. Lacking those credentials, I found it a good deal easier to get a job as a writer than as a physicist or oceanographer.

The paths converged again anyway. After a brief interlude of working for newspapers, I joined the staff of Scientific American, which in those days was a splendid place to learn both science and writing. I came to American Scientist 15 years ago, briefly serving as editor but mostly hanging around and writing my column.

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?

Just finished: Remembering Babylon (Pantheon Books, 1993), a novel by the Australian writer David Malouf. I was sucked in by the opening scene: A scrawny figure wanders into a remote settlement and gets a hostile reception. He raises his hands and pleads: "Do not shoot. I am a British object."

Just starting: The Big Problem of Small Change, by Thomas J. Sargent and François R. Velde (Princeton University Press, 2002). The "big problem" is how a government can figure out what proportions of nickels, dimes, quarters and other coins to put in circulation. Such recondite details of monetary theory are not my usual diet. I was drawn to this book partly because I may eventually write a column related to the subject, but mostly because I've sometimes puzzled over the Little Problem of Small Change, namely, how to optimize the proportions of nickels, dimes and quarters in my own pocket.

Just browsing: Statistics on the Table, a collection of essays by Stephen M. Stigler, subtitled The History of Statistical Concepts and Methods (Harvard University Press, 1999). Statistics on the Table has been on my table for some time, and I pick it up at intervals to read a chapter or two. If you think of statistics as a dry and dusty discipline, this is the book that could change your mind.

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

I try to refrain from reading while driving an automobile, riding a bicycle or operating dangerous machinery; other than that, anything goes.

In addition to all the usual places to curl up with a book (bed, the beach), I spend a lot of time in libraries. When I was a truant schoolboy, I would lounge all day on one of the broad, sunny windowsills of the Free Public Library in Philadelphia. Now you can find me in one of the carrels on the sixth floor of the D. H. Hill Library at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

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

The writer I envy most, whose works I would most like to be able to claim as my own: Anton Chekhov. Two writers I wish I had never read, so that I could have the pleasure of reading them for the first time all over again: George Eliot and Edith Wharton. Among my contemporaries, a writer who I wish would write more: Andrea Barrett.

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

Sorry, can't do it. If I were to fail to mention any of the books of my friends, they'd never forgive me, and I have more than three friends.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

When I was 12 or 13, I bought a paperback book called The Collier Quick and Easy Guide to Electronics, by Jesse Dilson (Collier Books, 1962). (The price tag is still on it: $1.50.) It was a very practical-minded manual on vacuum-tube circuits, mostly for radio and television, though there was a final brief chapter on computers. Looking back, I can't really say whether or not it was a good book of its kind, but I learned something important from it. All science rests on the premise that the universe is comprehensible; but it's one thing to acknowledge that someone can comprehend it, and it's quite another to realize that you yourself can master the basic principles of a field. I spent many weeks poring over that "quick and easy guide" with a pencil in my hand—sometimes with a soldering iron—and the experience gave me the confidence to believe that certain mysteries of the world might yield to my own intellect, if I worked at it hard enough. That was a life-changing discovery.

In the years since, I've had similar close encounters with half a dozen other books. One summer it was Spacetime Physics, by Edwin F. Taylor and John Archibald Wheeler (W. H. Freeman, 1966), a textbook on the special theory of relativity—a topic somewhat more challenging than fixing TVs. Another that I remember with great fondness is An Introduction to the Principles of Transformational Syntax, by Adrian Akmajian and Frank Heny (MIT Press, 1975). The subject in this case is grammar, as conceived by Noam Chomsky and his followers. I already knew a bit about the subject, but, again, "knowing about" is not the same as knowing.

Then there's The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, by Harold Abelson and Gerald Jay Sussman with Julie Sussman (McGraw-Hill, 1985). I happened upon this title one day in a Minneapolis bookstore. I went across the street to McDonald's for lunch and started reading. I was there all afternoon, and I didn't really come up for air until weeks later, when I finally finished the book and its exercises.

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

I feel a little like George W. Bush when he was asked to name his three biggest mistakes and couldn't come up with even one. I don't have a backlog of books I feel guilty about neglecting. On the other hand, I do have a long list of books and articles I'm looking for. Some of them have been on the list for years, because I haven't been able to track them down at any of the libraries I frequent. So perhaps you'll allow me to publish three items from my most-wanted list. If anyone has seen the following, please drop me a note at

Kátai, Imre. 1995. Generalized Number Systems and Fractal Geometry. Monograph, Janus Pannonius University, Pécs, Hungary.

Malinovskii, Boris N. 2001. Red Computers: How the Russians Lost the Computer Cold War. Translated from the Russian by Emmanuel Aronie and Lev B. Malinovskii. M. E. Sharpe.

Papentin, F., and H. Roder. 1975. Feeding patterns: The evolution of a problem and a problem of evolution. Neues Jahrbuch fur Geologie und Palaontologie, Monatshefte 1975:184-191.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

I'd recommend taking the kids to the library and setting them loose; trying to steer children toward "good" books deprives them of the chance to discover for themselves what they like and what they need.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

I guess this is where I get to plug my own book. It's called Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape, and it should be in the stores by the time this interview appears. It's a big book with lots of pictures—a nature guide to everything that isn't nature.

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

I have no discipline, but since I write mostly about computing and mathematics, I'll choose one book from each of those fields. Abelson and Sussman's Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, mentioned above, is one clear choice. They write in their preface: "Underlying our approach to this subject is our conviction that 'computer science' is not a science and that its significance has little to do with computers." Nevertheless, there's no better way to learn computer science. In mathematics I would suggest T. W. Körner's The Pleasures of Counting (Cambridge University Press, 1996). I believe that counting is one of life's underappreciated pleasures, and there's more to it than you might think.

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