Describe your latest project.
I have written The Telescope: Its History, Technology and Future as a means to inform interested readers on this incredible invention. The telescope will be 400 years old in 2008 and it was responsible for ushering in the Enlightenment. This simple device has allowed us to see beyond our Earth to experience the true vastness of our universe. But beyond astronomy, this same instrument is used in spy satellites, optical communications, and laser weapons. And new, improved telescopes are being created all the time. What sort of technologies do they use and what can they see? This is all part of what I am hoping to convey in a readable manner.
What inspires you to sit down and write?
Usually getting stuck in the middle of a really bad book does the job. In the case of this book I was inspired by the lack of understanding in the general population as to what telescopes can and can't do. This is particularly disturbing given the huge amount of money invested in astronomy, so I thought it would be helpful for people to get a sense for where their tax dollars go and why these facilities are so expensive.
Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
I took one right after reading this question. I measured up as 30% geeky or "total geek," which is about right. But hey, I'm a physicist so it goes with the territory.
Chess or video games?
Neither, really. I play chess badly and burned out my video game tendencies throughout my PhD.
What do you do for relaxation?
Golf and billiards. Some would say they both involve physics, but even the deepest understanding of what's going on doesn't necessarily make you any better at either. Personally I think that any "sports" that allow you to drink while playing them can't be all bad.
What's your favorite Blog right now?
The Huffington Post.
Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
Douglas Adams (but I still read Dilbert every day).
What was your favorite book as a kid?
This is a tough one which I'll dodge by discussing my current favorites instead. By genre they would be: Science non-fiction: The Code Book by Singh, The Demon-Haunted World by Sagan, Studies in Optics by Michelson (more of a textbook).
Science fiction: Contact by Sagan, The Giants Trilogy by Hogan, The Truth Machine by Halperin, Neverwhere by Gaiman, and most anything by Douglas Adams, Tolkien, Asimov, and Wyndam.
General fiction: Lamb by Moore, Harry Potter by Rowling, The First Casualty by Elton, Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book).
General non-fiction: Daughter of Time by Tey, Endurance by Lansing.
What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
Fusion. Right now there is nothing more important than a clean source of energy to replace fossil fuels. Fusion has the potential to be a limitless source of energy while at the same time cutting down on carbon dioxide emissions. Perhaps most importantly, fusion would become a great enabler for third world countries.
If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
I don't know about living the life of another scientist, but I'd definitely enjoy talking to some of them. Obviously I have a soft spot for Galileo. He is something of a rock star to scientists and this might be why he is the only one to be known by his first name something like Madonna. Just like her, he also had his issues with the Catholic Church, but at a time when heretics were regularly tortured and killed for opposing dogma. His work in describing what he saw with telescopes was the first step for reason and rational thought.
What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
Mathematics was my best and English my worst. I assure your readers that my writing has improved a lot since then.
What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
Help me with these questions. Actually, what we really need are computer programs better designed to assess the sense of the answers they provide. Such software exists today as applied to searching for unusual spending patterns in credit cards to warn of fraudulent use. We need to start developing similar software to check for errors in calculations done elsewhere to avoid the garbage in/garbage out syndrome. One example is when NASA scientists mistakenly used imperial units instead of metric for a Mars probe which was subsequently sent off course. Common sense software would help us avoid critical errors such as that but would also be a boon to daily life where mistakes are made not by the computers themselves but the users who force them into doing so.
Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you've ever visited and what made it great.
The Smithsonian is always great to visit. The breadth of displays and information is far better than any other I have visited. In the Air and Space Museum you get to touch a moon rock! By far the best library is the British library. The small museum in it is worth the visit alone. It will mean a lot to me to have my book in it.
By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of new science and technological advancement?
It's hard to imagine just what would be possible by then. Improved computers will make all the world's information available to us everywhere we go and make it possible to communicate with anyone at any time in any language. How this will affect education and learning is anyone's guess but it will require a change in the way we learn. The problem then becomes one of teaching people to understand and best utilize the information and knowledge at their fingertips. To understand what I mean, it is quite possible that learning how to add, subtract and multiply is not necessary even today; ubiquitous calculators are in our phones, watches and of course our computers. But more information doesn't make people any smarter so we'll still have to work on that problem.
Which country do you believe currently leads the world in science and technology? In ten years?
Currently I think there is little doubt that the U.S. leads the world, but that is changing. China and India are rapidly capitalizing on vast intellectual reserves which will help them change this situation. Already the work ethic is there, and large increases in scientific budgets show that there is the will, too. It is now simply a matter of whether or not the different political and social frameworks are able to adapt and capitalize on these changes.