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Scientists' Nightstand: Phillip Schewe

Greg Ross

Phillip F. Schewe is the chief science writer at the American Institute of Physics and the leading public information contact for the American Physical Society. His most recent book is The Grid: A Journey Through The Heart of Our Electrified World (Joseph Henry Press, 2007).Phillip ScheweClick to Enlarge Image

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Much can be explained by saying that I am a playwright trapped in the life of a physicist. My main job is explaining physics. I write a weekly newsletter and run press conferences at big meetings devoted to physics. For this I must scan numerous science journals and magazines and consult with high-tier experts. My other job is writing plays and books. For this I must read an even larger number of books, and am obliged frequently to test out ideas by visiting museums and attending the theater.

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?

Parallel reading is what I do. At work right now it's Lawrence Krauss's book Atom (Little, Brown, 2001), an exhaustive but enlightening history of a single oxygen atom. I'm reading the book not so much for the cosmological part as for the latter-day epoch, when the atom plays a crucial role in the development of life on Earth. Charles Mann's 1491 (Knopf, 2005), a survey of the Americas on the eve of Columbus's arrival, supplies the valuable gift of opening your eyes to realities you hadn't thought of before; did you know, for example, that in the year 3000 B.C.E., the largest city in the world was probably not in Mesopotamia or China but in Peru? [Editor's note: 1491 was reviewed in the July-August 2006 issue of American Scientist.]

Airplane book? Yesterday it was Kenneth Clark's biography Leonardo da Vinci (1939), thus combining a compelling subject with exquisitely graceful writing. At home the book pile includes Lloyd Motz's The Story of Physics (Plenum, 1989), a large, rather prosaic tome, the kind that provides slabs of facts I need for doing my own writing; in this case I needed to rehearse some subtleties in the second law of thermodynamics. A more nicely written book is Aristotle's Children, by Richard Rubenstein (Harcourt, 2003), which supplies me with background information I need on the decline in Islamic science and the rise of science in the West, probably beginning around the 13th century. Even more smartly written are T. S. Eliot's critical essays. Eliot was one of my favorite writers when I was in my 20s. His stock has fallen since then, and his prose is somewhat prickly, but he is incredibly shrewd and makes a lot of sense. Example: "Art never improves, but the material of art is never the same." Finally, Franz Kafka's Letters to Felice (Schocken, 1973), the strangest and maybe the most interesting large block of love letters ever written.

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

My schedule is predictable. During the week I write the literary stuff in the morning (when my head is clearest), the science stuff in the afternoon, and read in the evening. On the weekend, it's morning read, afternoon write and evening read. I can't read in bed. For me it ought to be a comfortable chair with a bright light, but reading in unusual places like laundromats and airport queues can also be conducive to imaginative thinking. Best reading place of all: my own backyard on a nice day, with a large sky overhead in which to mull the ideas on the page below.

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

This being a science magazine, I'll start with scientists. Among physicist/writers: Freeman Dyson, Steven Weinberg, Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Philip Morrison and Frank Wilczek. From the life sciences: Steven Pinker, Edward Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks, Jared Diamond and James Watson. Other science writers: Isaac Asimov, John McPhee and J. B. S. Haldane. In the arts the scope for greater writing and author attachments spirals out of control. Poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins (incandescent: you have to read his poems out loud), Emily Dickinson (line for line perhaps my favorite writer; typical line: "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry"), Christopher Logue (his current serial adaptation of the Iliad is the best there is) and Walt Whitman. Critics: Harold Bloom (who knows more about literature and tells you so). Wisest writer I know: George Bernard Shaw; his letters are the best there are. I won't even start enumerating novelists and playwrights.

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

My selections are supremely orthodox:

1. James Joyce's Ulysses (1922). It's the most humane book I've ever read.

2. Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851). It's like taking a pulsed shower: The words and feelings keep pelting you. I read it every couple of years.

3. The complete Shakespeare. Among writers he has the richest language, the deepest psychology and (with the possible exception of the Greek tragedians) the most exciting plots. Every time I see or read a play I learn more and am more astonished at the artistry.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

1. The Physical Science Study Committee high school physics textbook (Physics, Heath, 1960): It's what made me want to become a physicist.

2.  Ulysses: It's what made me want to be a writer.

3. The Greek Theater, by Leo Aylen (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985): It's what made me want to be a playwright.

I would also mention the enjoyable compulsion of acquiring comic books at an early age, and of reading pulp fiction (Sherlock Holmes, James Bond novels, etc.) in establishing a reading/writing habit.

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

1. I haven't yet read War and Peace (1865) all the way through. It's just eluded me. And the prospect of 1,000-page books is always daunting.

2.  The Bible: I've read huge chunks, some of them repeatedly, but not the whole thing.

3. The third volume of Taylor Branch's study America in the King Years (Simon and Schuster, 1988). The first two volumes made me conclude that Martin Luther King is the American who (since Abraham Lincoln) has most changed this country for the better.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Restricting myself to science books, I recommend the works of Isaac Asimov, whose prose is somewhat homely but always consistent and gently comprehensive. Arthur Koestler's biography of Kepler, The Sleepwalkers (Macmillan, 1959), is an excellent study of how scientific thinking came about.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man (BBC, 1973) is an excellent survey (book and TV show) about how science and clear thinking came to prominence.

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

The discipline of writing doesn't really have an inside or outside to it. For an all-purpose exemplar of meditative thinking about how the world works and how we live in the world, I recommend Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854).

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