Interview With Clifford Pickover

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Interview With Clifford Pickover

Clifford Pickover is probably the coolest scientist and science writer on the planet. He has written dozens of science-related books on just about everything, from time travel to Mobius strips — even a book that helps you come to grips with calculus from the setting of a pizza parlor (okay, I know that sounds weird, but like so many of Pickover’s books, it’s hard to explain. Just read it; you’ll love it). His latest book is The Medical Book (see review on the book reviews page). When it comes to talking about science, Pickover doesn’t know the meaning of dry and boring. He also refuses to color within the lines. He is willing to go wherever thinking takes him — and fortunately his readers get to go along for the ride. But don’t bop off to the library to stock up just yet. Dr. Pickover was kind enough to take a few minutes for a Strange Enough interview.




SE: At Strange Enough, we have a lot of fun with science and tend to think of science as a way of exploring the wonder of the universe. This means our definition of science is pretty broad and flexible, and that is one reason we are so excited to hear from you. You are interested in almost everything and seem willing to look at and explore anything interesting that comes along. Can you share with us your definition of “science”?


CP: Scientists often attempt to organize knowledge, discoveries, and ideas in ways that can be tested and in ways that can make predictions about the world around us. The famous physicist Sir William Lawrence Bragg also reminds us, “The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.” Most scientists I know are very curious people.

SE: As you can tell from the name of this web site “Reality is Strange Enough,” we like to explore the edges of things. In your opinion, what are the advantages of exploring the fringes of science?


CP: My colleagues sometimes wonder why I’m 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 this kind of study.


Dr. Pickover’s writing loft

Play is important everywhere in science, and many important breakthroughs in science have been discovered accidentally. Science is filled with hundreds of great discoveries that have emerged through chance happenings and serendipity, for example: Velcro, Teflon, X-rays, penicillin, nylon, safety glass, sugar substitutes, dynamite, and polyethylene plastics.


The great thinker W. Mark Richardson wrote, “As the island of knowledge grows, the surface that makes contact with mystery expands. When major theories are overturned, what we thought was certain knowledge gives way, and knowledge touches upon mystery differently. This newly uncovered mystery may be humbling and unsettling, but it is the cost of truth. Creative scientists, philosophers, and poets thrive at this shoreline.”


SE: What made you want to become a scientist? Did you love science when you were a kid?


CP: My childhood was happy, conventional, and middle class. Both of my parents helped me with my homework as I grew up — my dad worked with me on mathematics, and my mom helped me with presentations and posters. My father also continually drew mazes for me to solve with pencil and paper.


I’ve been fascinated by science since childhood. While growing up in New Jersey, my bedroom featured plastic anatomical models of the heart, brain, and eye; posters of the human circulatory system; trilobite fossils, science-fiction books, and Ugly Stickers displaying wild-eyed, grinning creatures with names like “Sandy,” “Stan,” and “Iris.”


My childhood interest in science arose from my desire to learn how the world works and from my passion for science fiction. As a teenager, one of my favorite science-fiction tales was Henry Hasse’s “He Who Shrank,” originally published in 1936. This story describes the exploration of subatomic universes filled with machine civilizations. Many scientists and science popularizers got kick-started in life by reading science fiction.



SE: How do you manage to keep your openness and sense of wonder in a world that often tries to keep us thinking in straight lines?


CP: Many of my books, along with the subjects at my web site, meander from one far-flung topic to another to test your curiosity and powers of lateral thinking. Robert Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.” This also applies to the joy that writers experience when letting their minds drift and when wondering about humanity’s place in the universe.


Author Richard Powers wrote, “Science is not about control. It is about cultivating a perpetual condition of wonder in the face of something that forever grows one step richer and subtler than our latest theory about it. It is about reverence, not mastery.”


SE: Do you have any advice for young people who are excited by science, but are not sure what they want to do with it — if anything?


CP: Young people should try to do the best they can in all school subjects. Life is unpredictable, and the world is moving at a face pace. It is very difficult for young people to truly know what they’ll want to do in the future. As an example, I’m so happy I tried to do well in all subjects, because as a book author, I have found it useful to be generally knowledgeable and also to be familiar with the writing process.



SE: School can be wonderful, but sometimes school doesn’t take us as far as we’d like or in the direction we want to go. Do you have any advice for young people who want to learn on their own.


CP: Personally, I enjoy many graphical (comic-book-like) guides that have been published on science and math topics. Also, the books in my latest series (The Math Book, The Physics Book, and The Medical Book) offer a visual feast for curious readers of all ages. I learn visually, and so my books often have pictures to stare at….


Additionally, I would think that the opportunities for learning and exploration are now greater than ever, with the rise of the Internet. Could previous generations of students imagine that they could ask scientists and authors questions, and receive answers in minutes! Wikipedia gives useful information in seconds.


SE: I love your comment: “I seek not only to expand the mind but to shatter it.” Can you tell us what is the value of having one’s mind shattered?


CP: I think that the most creative people enjoy having their minds stretched. They are often lateral thinkers — reasoning in directions not naturally pointed to by society or by the discipline in which they work. I also use the term “lateral thinking” in an extended way to indicate action motivated by serendipitous results, and the deliberate drift of thinking in new directions to discover what can be learned. Each day, as I survey the world, I look in all directions. In many of my books, I often have one mental eye on a person or subject while the other is considering related quirky facts. You’ll find these digressions throughout my books.




SE: I read somewhere that you said you get a lot of your ideas for your books and articles from dreams. Do you have a theory of what dreams are? Random neural firings? The royal road to the unconscious? Doors to an alternate reality?


CP: In my books, I mention several important people who were able to successfully mine their dreams for inspirational gems. For example, Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887 – 1920) saw scrolls containing very complicated mathematics in his dreams. When he woke, he wrote down what the dream gods had revealed to him.


Paul McCartney said that the melody for the famous Beatles’ song “Yesterday,” one of the most popular songs ever written, came to him in a dream. Apparently, the song seemed so beautiful and haunting that for a while he was not certain it was original.


Danish physicist Niels Bohr conceived the model of an atom from a dream. Elias Howe received in a dream the image of a needle design required for a lock-stitch sewing machine. René Descartes was able to advance his geometrical methods after flashes of insight that came in dreams. The dreams of Dmitry Mendeleyev, Friedrich August Kekulé, and Otto Loewi inspired scientific breakthroughs.


SE: What is the coolest thing you’ve discovered or invented?


CP: One of my interests is in finding new ways to expand creativity by melding art, science, mathematics, and other seemingly disparate areas of human endeavor. I am not sure what discoveries are coolest, but I have done some fun and creative visualizations of fossil seashells, genetic sequences, cardiac and speech sounds, and virtual caverns and lava lamps.  I really enjoy computer graphics as a vehicle for understanding the world. Additionally, my past visualization work includes topics that involve breathing motions of proteins, snowflake like patterns for speech sounds, cartoon-face representations of data, and biomorphs. Some of my work with fractals and recreational math has proven to be exciting, pretty, and curious.


SE: What is one of your favorite science books? What is one of your favorite fiction books?


CP: For a wonderful book on Einstein and some ramifications of his strange theories, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Einstein by Gary F. Moring is a special treat. If we focus on mathematics and science, I often enjoy the famous “Introducing” series of graphic guides covering topics in philosophy, mathematics, and science. Books in this series are written by an expert in the field and illustrated, almost like comic books, by an imaginative artist.


For mathematically curious readers, I would suggest Introducing Mathematics by Ziauddin Sardar, Van Loon, and Jerry Ravetz.  Students of all ages can also watch DVDs or listen to CDs from The Great Courses. As with my own popular math books, lectures from The Great Courses will instill a love and reverence for math and science.


As for fiction, my favorite novel is Robert Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast. 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 in which universes are created by the act of imagining them. Thus, his characters can access fictional worlds such as the Land of Oz. In terms of pure mind-boggling concepts, such as higher dimensions and the future of humanity, science-fiction author Greg Egan has produced some marvelous works in this area, including Permutation City and Diaspora.


SE: Thanks so much, Dr. Pickover, for taking time to talk with us. It has been inspiring. Okay, science lovers, you can go to the library now.

And when you get back you can find more cool things from Dr. Pickover by visiting  his web site and Cliff Pickover’s Reality Carnival.

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