25 Books to Read Before You Die

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Original Essays | August 18, 2014

Ian Leslie: IMG Empathic Curiosity

Today, we wonder anxiously if digital media is changing our brains. But if there's any time in history when our mental operations changed... Continue »
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Q&A | August 19, 2014

Richard Kadrey: IMG Powell’s Q&A: Richard Kadrey

Describe your latest book. The Getaway God is the sixth book in the Sandman Slim series. In it, the very unholy nephilim, James Stark, aka Sandman... Continue »
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Tech Q&A

Leonard Mlodinow

Describe your latest project.
My new book is called The Drunkard's Walk. In it I show how an understanding of randomness reveals a tremendous amount about our daily lives, and discuss the psychological illusions that cause us to misjudge the effects of randomness in the world around us. Successes and failures, for example, are often attributed to clear and obvious causes, when in actuality they are more profoundly influenced by chance. In The Drunkard's Walk I talk about why the rise and fall of movie stars or of the most famed or reviled CEO — in fact, of all our destinies — reflect chance as much as planning and innate abilities. I show why even the legendary Roger Maris, who beat Babe Ruth's single-season home run record, was in all likelihood not great but just lucky, and how it could have happened that a wine was given five out of five stars, the highest rating, in one journal, and in another could be called the worst wine of the decade. From wine ratings to school grades to political polls, my aim is to change the way people view their lives, and the world around them.

My next book after that will be The Grand Design, co-authored with Stephen Hawking. Why is the universe the way it is? Why is there a universe at all? The Grand Design is meant as a sequel to A Brief History of Time. It contains a discussion of the remarkable discoveries and observations that have been made since A Brief History, but its main purpose is to explore the existence and meaning of a Grand Design for the universe.

  1. The Drunkard
    $10.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "A science geek's delight, and useful reading for the inveterate gambler of the house." Kirkus Reviews

    "[A] magnificent exploration of the role that chance plays in our lives. Often historical, occasionally hysterical, and consistently smart and funny, this book challenges everything we think we know." Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness

  2. Feynman
    $6.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Mlodinow's accessible style manages to convey Feynman's cantankerous appeal...while his deft, funny, novelistic portraits of its practitioners...bring this seemingly gray sub-culture to vivid life." Publishers Weekly
  3. A Briefer History of Time
    $12.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    A Briefer History of Time

    Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

What inspires you to sit down and write?
Whether it's fiction or nonfiction, writing takes me to another world. It's like going to see a movie. I enjoy it. Theoretical physics research does the same thing, by the way, which sounds weird, I think, but I find that I end up having adventures in some abstract world of ideas, and forget the "real world" for hours on end. Maybe I just like escapism.

Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
I had a few. One was my third grade librarian, who encouraged me to write short stories, and then always pretended to like them. I've been writing ever since. Two others were my high school chemistry and physics teachers, who were wild and crazy and made the subjects exciting. My chemistry teacher also let me build my own private lab in a corner of the room. I especially liked making bombs and rockets. I guess that wouldn't go over so well today — not just for the obvious reasons but because you might get hurt and sue. I did in fact get severly burned when one "experiment" went wrong, but I never thought of suing! I just learned to be more careful, that burns are very painful, and that I am allergic to sulfa drugs!

Chess or video games?

What do you do for relaxation?
Play basketball or read or drink martinis.

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
Douglas Adams.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
There were a few. In grade school I loved science fiction — my favorite was called Beyond the Farthest Star by Edgar Rice Burroughs, though when I was older I also loved Dune and Stranger In a Strange Land; in eighth grade I obsessed over a book called, simply, Non-Euclidean Geometry — that the usual properties of flat space, such as that the sum of the angles in a triangle is 180 degrees, might not apply fascinated me. And in high school i loved this book that had dozens of recipes I used to identify mysterious unknown chemicals — it was called Qualitative Analysis and Electrolytic Solutions. There, i guess now i qualify as a true geek.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
I think the most beneficial new advances will be in medical and biological science — they will help us diagnose diseases and design better drugs, thus reducing discomfort and suffering. But I worry that, in the long run, such new technologies might end up making our lives worse. New powerful biological techniques, for example, can go wrong or be misused. I fear that, eventually, just as individuals can create car bombs or computer viruses, they will be able, with relative ease, to create new deadly diseases.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
I guess it is no surprise, but I would choose Einstein. I have always idolized him because he was able to start from a few simple ideas, and with the power of his mind alone, change the way we view the world.

What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
My best subjects were chemistry and math. Re bad subjects, as I recall the only subject in which I didn't get an A, other than gym, was horticulture. My teacher said he lowered my grade to a B because I missed more than half the classes, which is ironic, because the most devoted students were only taking the class so they could learn how to grow their own pot. I admit I used to ditch a lot, but I always brought a note signed by my parents, or at least with a reasonable facsimile of a parental signature, and no other teacher objected, so that made horticulture my weakest subject.

÷ ÷ ÷

Leonard Mlodinow received his doctorate in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, was an Alexander von Humboldt fellow at the Max Planck Institute, and now teaches about randomness to future scientists at Caltech. Along the way he also wrote for the television series MacGyver and Star Trek: The Next Generation. His previous books include Euclid's Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace, Feynman's Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life, and, with Stephen Hawking, A Briefer History of Time. He lives in South Pasadena, California.

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