Finding the Next Einstein

Why smart is relative

How Science Writing Can Save Lives

A conversation with distinguished science writer Tim Folger

Tim Folger
Anne Casselman shares the following story in Discover:

“On December 26 an English teacher named Munwan was buying fish on the ferry dock of his town on the east coast of Sri Lanka when he noticed the ocean suddenly rise—just what an American magazine he had read described water doing before a tsunami strikes. He ran inland, shouting at people to follow him. Many thought he was out of his mind, but the 20 to 30 people who followed survived—and now think he is a hero. Munwan, who collects American and British magazines, was interviewed 10 days later by CNN correspondent Harris Whitbeck and held up the magazine that saved his life. It was the May 1994 issue of Discover.”

the best american science and nature writing
The writer of the article—Waves of Destruction—that helped save these lives was Tim Folger.  Tim is a contributing editor at Discover and the series editor of The Best American Science And Nature Writing.  In 2007, he won the American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award for his article If An Electron Can Be in Two Places At Once, Why Can’t You?  He has written about everything from the drought in the Southwest to a profile of a physicist who believes time does not exist.  For a taste of his writing, I highly recommend his website, which can be found here.  Two of my favorites are Stephen Hawking is Making His Comeback and Einstein’s Grand Quest for a Unified Theory.  Tim is currently working on a book about resource scarcity.

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I had the pleasure of talking with Tim about everything from what it was like to interview Stephen Hawking (he had to wait for long periods between his questions and Hawking’s answers), how he became a science writer (his physics background and a love for writing), and whether he thinks we will find another Einstein (he thinks it will take a century or two).

WAI: I understand you called up Stephen Hawking for your article The Ultimate Vanishing.  What was it like to interview him?

FOLGER: I never expected that he would consent to a telephone interview. This was in 1993, and the software he used to communicate was rather cumbersome. He needed at least ten minutes to compose replies to my questions, so for most of the interview I was just sitting in my office, waiting for him to type answers that his text-to-speech software would then translate. After the interview, while reading his replies, I realized that he had made a joke about quantum mechanics, but I didn't realize it during the phone call, partly because I was somewhat overawed, and also because a computer-generated voice isn't the best medium for communicating humor.

Who is the most interesting scientist (or scientists) that you have interviewed?

That's a tough question. David Deutsch, an independent physicist who lives in Oxford, stands out, both for his brilliance and his quirkiness. His interests are so wide-ranging that I am reluctant to pigeon-hole him, but he is most famous for fundamental theoretical work that helped launch the field of quantum computation. And he champions the “Many Worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, which postulates an essentially infinite number of concurrent realities. He seldom travels, works all night long, sleeps for most of the day.

Some of my research shows that physicists and mathematicians tend to be extremely smart.  What are your thoughts on the brainpower needed to become an outstanding physicist or mathematician?  What about other qualities needed to become an outstanding physicist or mathematician?

I think immersion in (and fascination with) mathematics from an early age, along with natural talent, are two important factors. But there must be so many other considerations: a home life where curiosity isn't smothered; the opportunity to attend good schools; contact with teachers who recognize and encourage talent.  Andrei Linde, a great cosmologist, told me he wanted to find answers to the big questions: Why are we here? Where did the universe come from? He said physics was the only discipline that would allow him to pursue such questions rigorously. 

Did the physicists or mathematicians you have interviewed tend to be polymaths or have interests in areas beyond their specialty?  Did they ever talk about their early education?

I think many of the physicists I've met could be considered polymaths, with interests in philosophy, art, and history. A few physicists have spoken with me about their early educational experiences. Roger Penrose, one of the greatest living physicists/mathematicians, told me he was held back in elementary school because of his poor performance in a math class. I suspect the early educational experiences of physicists and mathematicians are extremely varied.

How did you become a science writer?  Were you a gifted writer as a child?

I majored in physics as an undergrad, and happened to enroll in a science-writing course during my junior year. I really enjoyed the course—I hadn't realized at the time that you could make a living writing about science. After graduating, I moved to New York City, entered a graduate program in science writing, and then got lucky and landed a job at a magazine called Science Digest, which tanked about two years after I was hired! Was the universe trying to tell me something? If it was, I ignored it. I've always enjoyed writing, and got good feedback from teachers on my writing assignments throughout junior high, high school, and college.

Could you tell me about the books you are currently working on?

Long term: A book about Navajos who used a coded version of their language in the second world war. More immediately, I'm working on a book about resource scarcity.

What are you currently reading?

Just finished Wuthering Heights, which I had never read before. Now I'm starting The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest!

Do you think we will ever find another Einstein?

I'm sure we will. But it might take another century or two.

© 2012 by Jonathan Wai

You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or G+. For more of Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative go here.

Jonathan Wai, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, and research scientist at Duke University.

 
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