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Scientists' Nightstand: Clifford A. Pickover

Greg Ross

Clifford A. Pickover is the author of more than 40 books on computers and creativity, art, mathematics, physics, religion and science fiction. A prolific inventor with more than 50 patents, he currently serves as editor of the IBM Journal of Research and Development. His most recent book is The Math Book (Sterling, 2009).

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?Clifford A. PickoverClick to Enlarge Image

I'm a popular-science and science-fiction author.  One of my primary goals is to raise public awareness of the utility and beauty of science and math. By making science and mathematics accessible to nonspecialists, and by frequently melding topics in art and science, I can stimulate creativity and lateral thinking in readers of all ages.  My colleagues sometimes wonder why I'm also so curious about the fringes of science and about smart people who play at the borderlands of science. I believe that "fringe" research is crucial—not just for its educational value but because significant discoveries can come from such study. Play is important everywhere in science, and many significant breakthroughs in science have been discovered accidentally.

I am also author of hundreds of technical papers in a variety of fields, including scientific visualizations of fossil seashells, genetic sequences, cardiac and speech sounds, virtual caverns, synthetic lava lamps and fractals. Many of my books go beyond traditional technology, mathematics and science and delve into parallel realities, quantum immortality, alien life, religion and cultural curiosities. Readers can learn much more about me by poking around my Web site,

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 am rereading my favorite novel, Robert Heinlein's The Number of the Beast (Fawcett, 1980). The book not only provides a sense of adventure and what I refer to as mystic transport, but also kindles creative thinking with respect to multiple-universe theory. In the novel, the protagonists can access 10,314,424,798,490,535,546,171,949,056 universes. Heinlein goes further and promotes the creative theory called pantheistic multiple-ego solipsism, or world-as-myth, which posits that universes are created by the act of imagining them. Thus, his characters can access fictional worlds such as the Land of Oz and perhaps even the Martian landscapes of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Clifford A. Pickover's writing loft

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

Typically, I read nonfiction books on a couch in my writing loft (pictured here), and I read novels in bed before falling asleep. I develop most ideas for my own books in dreams at night, which is pretty common for authors and scientists. Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) used dreams for gaining mathematical insight. He was an ardent follower of several Hindu deities. After receiving nightly visions from these gods, Ramanujan saw scrolls containing very complicated mathematics. When he woke from his dreams, he wrote down only a fraction of what the gods showed him.

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

I have already mentioned Robert Heinlein. In terms of pure mind-boggling concepts, such as higher dimensions, imaginative alien life, cellular automata and the future of humanity, science-fiction author Greg Egan has produced some marvelous works in this area, including Permutation City (HarperPrism, 1994) and Diaspora (HarperPrism, 1998). Connie Willis's Passage (Bantam, 2001) instills a sense of wonder at research conducted at the edges of science, in particular in the area of near-death experiences.

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

Aside from Heinlein's Number of the Beast, the numerous popular mathematics books by Martin Gardner are always a treat. For example, see his book The Colossal Book of Mathematics: Classic Puzzles, Paradoxes, and Problems (Norton, 2001). Gardner is an American author who wrote the "Mathematical Games" column in Scientific American from 1957 to 1981. He has also published more than 65 books and has perhaps brought more mathematics to more people than anyone else. Many individuals were inspired to obtain advanced degrees in mathematics because of Gardner, and several famous concepts in math were first brought to world attention through Gardner's works before they appeared in other publications.

I would also recommend The Story of Mankind (1943), written and illustrated by Dutch-American historian and journalist Hendrik Willem van Loon. The warm, personable tone of this book encourages a mystic transport and love of learning that textbooks can rarely achieve.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

All of the previously mentioned books have had an immense influence on me.  I would also like to add  I. Asimov (Doubleday, 1994), the autobiography of one of my heroes, the science popularizer Isaac Asimov. One cannot help being moved and motivated by the man who emerges from these pages, who was witty, intelligent and kind.

I don't know how writers like Asimov were so prolific before the age of the computer. I would have a very difficult time writing books, and performing all the necessary text rearrangements and editing, without a word processor. According to legend, Asimov would work on multiple books with multiple typewriters. If he ever became bored or stuck on one project, he simply swiveled his chair and worked on another project. The New York Public Library Desk Reference notes that Asimov wrote more than 400 books and is the only author with a book included in every major Dewey-decimal category. I sit in awe of him.

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

I first began reading the works of Marcel Proust for background material for my book Sex, Drugs, Einstein, and Elves (Smart Publications, 2005). Proust asserted that great works of art, and significant books, have little to do with their subject matter but more to do with the treatment of that matter. He thought everything was a fertile subject for books. He peered into all aspects of mind, the fringes of reality, the beauty of nature, and the quirks of pop culture of his time.

I would also like to read more of German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), who was similar to Proust in some ways. His mind seems as if it were about to explode as he pondered all aspects of life simultaneously: urban exploration, street signs, prostitution, apartment interiors, psychoanalysis, catacombs, boredom, shopping malls, Walt Disney, railway stations, Baudelaire's poetry, strange realities and language.  Benjamin assisted in the translation of Proust's In Search of Lost Time so that it could reach a broader audience and then spent 13 years taking notes for the "Arcades Project," 1,200 pages of insight that he called "an experiment in the technique of awakening."

Sometimes I imagine myself stuck in a room with Proust's volumes at one end and the Arcades Project at the other. Perhaps I could be happy for the rest of my life in this self-imposed exile. For Benjamin, the enclosed shopping malls of the 19th century were a material replica of a human collective unconscious. Contemplated along with Proust's novels of involuntary memory, we'd enter wonderful realms of thought and imagination.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

The Math Book is my first all-color popular math book. The color plates and short entries provide something for readers of all ages. My goal is to reveal the magic and mystery behind some of the most significant mathematical milestones as well as the oddest objects and ideas humanity has ever contemplated, beginning centuries ago and ending with the latest cutting-edge breakthroughs.

For a wonderful book on Einstein and some ramifications of his strange theories, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Einstein (Alpha Books, 2000), by Gary F. Moring, is a special treat.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Some of the most mind-expanding material for the education and delight of anyone who is the least bit interested in mathematics is the set of three DVD sets by The Teaching Company: Zero to Infinity: A History of Numbers, by Edward Burger of Williams College; The Queen of Sciences: A History of Mathematics, by David Bressoud of Macalester College; and Chaos, by Steven Strogatz of Cornell. No set of math books can be more enlightening and fascinating than these three magnificent multimedia works.

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

The answer to this question is the same as above. The three DVDs, which may be considered as multivolume books, will also enlighten scientists from all fields. As with my own popular math books, these lectures will instill a love and reverence for mathematics as readers begin to glimpse how the concept of number has evolved over the centuries and how mathematics is still, in fact, quite mysterious. Because of the predictive power of mathematics in physics and the fact that profound aspects of nature seems to have rather compact mathematical descriptions, I believe that mathematics is showing us glimpses of a deeper reality. Although we invent mathematical notations, we do not invent mathematics. We discover mathematics. I do not know if God is a mathematician, but mathematics is the loom upon which God weaves the fabric of the universe.

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