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Scientists' Nightstand: Frank Wilczek

Greg Ross

Frank Wilczek is one of the world's most eminent theoretical physicists. At age 21, while still a graduate student, he helped define the properties of color gluons, which hold atomic nuclei together, and he went on to work at Princeton and at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, California. Currently Wilczek is Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at MIT. His most recent book is Fantastic Realities: 49 Mind Journeys and a Trip to Stockholm (World Scientific, 2006).Frank WilczekClick to Enlarge Image

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I'm a theoretical physicist by trade, a mathematician by training. The two literary characters I've most identified with are Olaf Stapledon's Odd John and Homer's Odysseus—both of them curious by temperament and always open to new adventures, intellectual and otherwise. I got the Nobel Prize in 2004.

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?

One book I'm reading now is The First Scientific American, by Joyce Chaplin (Basic Books, 2006). It's a biography of Benjamin Franklin, one of my heroes, with special emphasis on his scientific work. I've read other biographies of Franklin, including Carl Van Doren's classic, but I'm still enjoying this one very much, because it is gracefully written, rich in detail and deep in historical perspective. My daughter Amity, who's a gifted gift-giver, got it for me.

Another I'm working through, little by little, is The Art of Mathematics , by Béla Bollobás (Cambridge University Press, 2006). It's a collection of pretty problems that are not too easy. Many have surprising, beautiful solutions. I try to solve a problem as I go jogging, or in the process of getting to sleep. I found this book by browsing at the Harvard Coop.

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

I have a big red chair that I like to sink into. Another favorite spot is the bathtub—with or without water. During the summer I like to sit on our porch overlooking Northwood Lake in New Hampshire.

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

As pure stylists, my favorite prose writers include Benjamin Franklin, David Hume and Bertrand Russell. I have a soft spot for subtlety, wit and clarity of thought. In poetry, Shakespeare, of course, and John Donne. In fiction, Flaubert. These authors make music with words.

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

I'll interpret this question to mean the books that have had the most lasting effect on the way I look at the world. Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker (1937) and Hermann Weyl's Philosophy of Mathematics and the Natural Sciences (1948) top the list. Stapledon's book is a sweeping work of imagination. Every time I look into it, it sets my mind voyaging. I lost my faith in conventional religion in my early teens but still yearn for some kind of transcendence. For that, Star Maker may be on the right track. Weyl's book is a sweeping survey of the whole field of mathematics and science as it stood in the mid-20th century, by one of the greatest and wisest mathematical physicists. I love it for its ambition to see the world whole, as well as for the depth of its insights. There are many close contenders for my third spot, but today I'll pick William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples (Anchor Press, 1976). It convincingly traces major trends of human history to their sources in nature. That perspective, viewing ourselves as part of the world, will become ever more important and fruitful. This book is an impressive, pioneering effort.

As promised, in the preceding answer I've interpreted "best" as "most effective." Another interpretation would take "best" to mean "most perfect". Then my answer would be P. A. M. Dirac's Principles of Quantum Mechanics (1930), Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1856) and James Watson's The Double Helix (Atheneum, 1968).

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1945). As a teenager, I was trying to find my vocation. I wanted to contribute to figuring out "what it's all about." I thought that might mean I should become a philosopher. Reading Russell's book convinced me that to get at the big questions it was necessary to study mathematics and science, which I liked anyway. At the same time, this book introduced me to the classical philosophers and their insights. Over the years, I've enjoyed deepening that acquaintance.

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

I'm looking forward to reading Brian Hayes's Infrastructure (W. W. Norton, 2005) this summer. Someday I'd like to read Proust's Swann's Way (1913) and Adams's The Education of Henry Adams (1918), to see what all the fuss is about.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Read things that will expand your mind. The books by Stapledon and Russell I mentioned above are good for that. Read the classics of literature and books by great scientists (see below) to acquaint yourself with the heights of style and intellectual power. Read biographies and history to put yourself and your surroundings in perspective.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

I think the most interesting science books are the ones by the great scientists themselves. Examples include Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle (1839) and Origin of Species (1859); Watson's Double Helix; Richard Feynman's Character of Physical Law (MIT Press, 1965) and QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Princeton University Press, 1985); Steven Weinberg's The First Three Minutes (Basic Books, 1977); and Alan Guth's The Inflationary Universe (Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1997). Isaac Newton's baroque prose is extremely beautiful, I think. There's a nice collection, Newton's Philosophy of Nature, edited by H. S. Thayer (1953). I mentioned one of Weyl's books above; another is Symmetry (1952).

In a category of its own is Richard Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon & Schuster, 1986), a magnificent account of that great and terrible scientific/technological achievement.

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

Abraham Pais's Subtle Is the Lord (Oxford University Press, 1982) is a unique biography of Einstein, which goes into considerable depth on his scientific work and its legacy. Pais was quite a distinguished scientist in his own right. It's not for sissies, but you can learn a lot of modern physics from Pais's book, and its narrative exposition has the advantage of emphasizing how people had to struggle to get there.

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