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Scientists' Nightstand: Sean Carroll

Greg Ross

Sean Carroll is a senior research associate at the California Institute of Technology and a contributor to the popular physics blog Cosmic Variance. His most recent book is From Eternity to Here (Dutton, 2010); the prologue appeared earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal.

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

I'm a theoretical cosmologist at Caltech. It's a great job to have; my professional duty is to think about where the universe came from and how it works, which very few people can say. I was one of those lucky people who figured out back in elementary school what I wanted to do for a living, and I'm lucky enough to be doing it. I live in Los Angeles with my wife, Jennifer Ouellette, who is a science writer. We own a lot of books.

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 just finished A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin (Bantam, 1996). It was recommended to me as one of the best fantasy novels of recent decades, but I didn't really get swept up in it. Before that I read David Plouffe's memoir of running Obama's 2008 campaign (The Audacity to Win, Viking, 2009), which was interesting but not revelatory. And before that I read Alistair McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism (Doubleday, 2004), a historical look at the development of atheism. It was intellectually interesting, especially as I disagree with the author's underlying point of view.

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

Either late at night at home, or on airplanes. I do a lot of traveling, and probably at least half of my reading time comes in transit.

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

For fiction, off the top of my head: Jane Austen, Thomas Pynchon, Iain Banks, Julian Barnes, Jeanette Winterson, Tom Stoppard, George Bernard Shaw. I tend to like fun ideas, witty dialogue and active characters. But then again, I like Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus, who don't always have the most active characters.

For nonfiction I don't have favorite writers so much as favorite individual books. These include Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct (Morrow, 1994), any of Stephen Jay Gould's essay collections, and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (Norton, 1997).

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

I can't possibly pick three "best," but in the running might be Pride and Prejudice (1813), with its wonderful insights into how people think and fool themselves; Mason and Dixon (Holt, 1997), which combines Thomas Pynchon's fondness for elaborate, chaotic constructions with a warm and entertaining story; and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein (Putnam, 1966), a gripping yarn about revolution on the moon. Heinlein was my favorite author growing up.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

That's very hard to say, but a good choice would be George Gamow's classic One, Two, Three ... Infinity. The book was published originally in 1947, and I stumbled across it as a kid and fell in love with it. Gamow was a theoretical physicist (one of the pioneers of nuclear fission), but he had wide-ranging interests and a madcap sense of humor. In this book he covers physics, math and even biology, and he illustrates it all with his own drawings. It was certainly one of the books that got me interested in science.

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

Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon & Schuster, 1986); Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Viking, 2006); Carol Tavris, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) (Harcourt, 2007).

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?
What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?
Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

I'm grouping these three questions together, because the distinctions aren't very clear. There really aren't any books I would recommend for scientists in other fields that I wouldn't also recommend for nonscientists—and there aren't many books I'd recommend for adults that I wouldn't also recommend for younger readers, if they were ambitious enough!

I still recommend Gamow's books, although they are now somewhat out of date. More recently, there are a handful of great books that really present the state of the fields I'm interested in from the perspective of people who are scientists in the trenches: The Fabric of the Cosmos, by Brian Greene (Knopf, 2004); Black Holes and Time Warps, by Kip Thorne (Norton, 1994); The Inflationary Universe, by Alan Guth (Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1997); Warped Passages, by Lisa Randall (Ecco, 2005); and The Black Hole War, by Leonard Susskind (Little, Brown, 2008). For the view of an interested nonscientist, I highly recommend Dennis Overbye's Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos (HarperCollins, 1991).

For a somewhat more personal angle, I'm extremely fond of Janna Levin's How the Universe Got Its Spots (Princeton University Press, 2002). And for the pop-culture fan, you can't do better than Jennifer Ouellette's The Physics of the Buffyverse (Penguin Books, 2006). (Which brings me back to the very first question.)

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