Interview with Leonard Mlodinow, author of "Euclid’s Window" and "Feynman’s Rainbow", and co-author of "A Briefer History of Time"

sandammeer: Your biography is rather unique for a physicist. You discovered your love for physics by reading some of Richard Feynman's books, studied physics, wrote a doctoral dissertation which was so outstanding that you got a scholarship at the renowned Caltech, where you came to know Feynman - whom you portrayed so gently in "Feynman's Rainbow". You became the author of the "Star Trek - The Next Generation" episodes, you produce TV programs on science, and you wrote a wonderful book together with Stephen Hawking. Which episode of your professional life did you like most, and why?

Leonard Mlodinow: I have realized now, later in life, that of all the things I have done I liked being a physicist most. The most rewarding thing to me is making new discoveries, and working in a collegial environment with others who share the same interests and values. I also enjoy very much doing mathematics.

sandammeer: Together with Stephen Hawking, you wrote "A Briefer History of Time". How much Mlodinow, and how much Hawking does the book contain?

Leonard Mlodinow: The original book and ideas within it were Stephen's and so I have to give the credit to him. My role was almost that of a translator - making it understandable to a broad audience. But that is what I have tried to do with all my books - to explain science in an understandable and very readable fashion.

sandammeer: And - considering Stephen Hawking's severe physical handicap - how was your cooperation technically achieved?

Leonard Mlodinow: We had a few meetings but mostly communicated via e-mail.

sandammeer: Whose idea was it to create an "easier" and even briefer, though more up to date version of Hawking's bestseller?

Leonard Mlodinow: The idea was Stephen's. He decided he wanted to write the book and to do it with a co-author. I've been told he had trouble finding someone whom he felt understood the physics and could also write well, but then he read one of my earlier books, Euclid's Window, and decided I was the right guy.

sandammeer: You have come to know several fascinating physicists, among them Nobel laureates like Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann, but also John Schwarz, who has fought for the string theory for decades, and Stephen Hawking, who has been considered the greatest genius of our days. Is there a historical scientist whose acquaintance you really would have liked to make? If yes, why?

Leonard Mlodinow: Well its not a very original answer, but I would choose Einstein. There was no one else like him, except Newton, but from what I've read about him, it seems he wasn't a very pleasant fellow!

sandammeer: Could you tell us "in a nutshell" what makes physics so beautiful and fascinating to you?1)

Leonard Mlodinow: The thing I find most fascinating is that a few mathematical equations can describe a vast array of phenomena in the universe. Why is that? What makes nature obey? No one knows, but it boggles the mind to fiddle with the math and then get an answer and see that nature obeys it.

sandammeer: In the German-speaking countries (our online-magazine is read by Austrians, Germans and Swiss) and, although probably not quite to that extent, also in other countries, people have developed a deep distrust towards technology and natural sciences. Moreover, lack of basic knowledge concerning these subjects is considered more or less fashionable and not at all embarrassing (whereas ignorance concerning Picasso or Hemingway certainly makes you appear dumb). To understand, discuss and judge the chances and risks of new technologies, we need to know about physics, biology, and chemistry. What can schools do to render those subjects more interesting from the start? What can, what should parents do?

Leonard Mlodinow: I know something about this from my work as a vice president at Scholastic, the children's publisher. We need science teachers who are trained in science , and have a passion for the subject. If we can find those people, the classes will be guarenteed to be interesting, because science is fascinating, and their passion will come through. But, at least in this country, science teachers often know little about science, and often treat it as a collection of facts to be drilled into children's heads. Actually it is more like the opposite - it is about the art of questioning rather than accepting. By the way, I worked at the Max-Planck-Institut in Munich for several years, and learned German while there. I found the respect for the sciences to be much greater there than here in the U.S.

sandammeer: During those last couple of years, quite a few renowned physicists - like yourself - have written fabulous, highly entertaining but also challenging books about their science, books that don't require much, if any, former knowledge about physics. Some of them have become bestsellers. One starts to wonder why chemists do not write popular books like these about chemistry or engineers give us an insight in engineering - and only few biologists e.g. in genetics. What makes physicists so ready to share their fascination by their subjects? Or, what makes other natural scientists so much less communicative?

Leonard Mlodinow: Well I am biased, but I happen to think physics is far more interesting. It is pure, and beautiful , a distillation of the most fundamental things in the universe. Other sciences are conncerned less with principle and more with application.

sandammeer: Do you have any recent book projects which we might expect to be translated into German, too? If yes, what are they about?

Leonard Mlodinow: My first two books, Euclid's Window (Das Fenster zum Universum), and Feynman's Rainbow (Feynman's Regenbogen) have appeared in German. My next book won't be out for a couple years, so it's not really worth discussing yet - hard to say what an unborn child will be like.

sandammeer: Dr. Mlodinow, sandammeer thanks you very much for this interview!

Leonard Mlodinow: Bitte!

The interview was conducted by Regina Károlyi per e-mail in December 2005 /January 2006.

1) In his book "Feynman's Rainbow" Leonard Mlodinow explains what makes physics so fascinating to him, and portrays one of the most interesting physicists of the 20th century.

Zur deutschsprachigen Version des Interviews ...