Caltech Professor Says a Lot of What You Know About Scientists Like Newton and Darwin Is Wrong
Leonard Mlodinow is worried about you. You’ve been fed a lot of nonsense about apples and Sir Issac Newton’s head and Charles Darwin and the island of Galapagos.
“The idealized view of science” — the one that says that brilliant insights happen to brilliant people in a brilliant flash — “is misleading and mythological and … I think that’s destructive,” he says between sips of his long pour espresso at Jones’ Coffee Roasters on South Raymond, not far from the Caltech campus, where lately the author has been teaching courses on the art of writing about science.
Once upon a time, Mlodinow earned his doctorate in theoretical physics, but that hasn’t stopped him from penning bestselling books on the unconscious (Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior), statistics (Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives) and geometry (Euclid’s Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace). In between, he's kept company with Deepak Chopra (with whom he wrote War of the Worldviews) and Stephen Hawking (with whom he wrote The Grand Design and A Briefer History of Time), as well as written for TV, including Star Trek: The Next Generation, Night Court, and the MacGyver episode in which Mac goes back to his alma mater to save everyone from a mad scientist. The large ambitions of his latest work of science non-fiction are right there in the title: Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos.
With it, he hopes to correct the record on a number of counts. For instance, in order to hash out his theory of evolution, Darwin spent years post-Galapagos shifting through research and churning out nearly 700 pages on barnacles before his big idea began to emerge. Rather than divine inspiration, Mlodinow says, achieving real innovation takes true grit, and a willingness to court failure, a lesson we’d all be wise to heed.
“People use science in their daily lives all the time whether or not its what we think of as ‘science,’” he continues. “Data comes in that you have to understand. Life’s not simple. It require patience to solve problems, and I think science can teach you that if you know what it really is.”
Scientists would agree. Recently, psychologist Angela Duckworth has begun overturning fundamental conventional wisdom about the role intelligence plays in our life trajectories with research illustrating that, no matter the arena, it’s often not the smartest kids in the room who become the most successful; it’s the most determined ones.
Throughout the book, Mlodinow’s thesis on the virtues of tenacity is paired with a fascinating anecdotes to trot out at the next dinner party. Upright Thinkers synthesizes evolution, archeology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, a spot of poetry and several character sketches, deftly capturing a handful of the oddballs who changed the course of human events, to create a breezy overview of the history of the human brain — specifically, how it’s propensity to ask bold questions first got us to bang rocks together into tools and then sent us on a quest to suss out the nature of reality itself.
“The nobility of the human race lies in our drive to know,” Mlodinow writes in the book’s opening pages, “and our uniqueness as a species is reflected in the success we’ve achieved, after millennia of effort, in deciphering the puzzle that is nature.”
Upright Thinkers’ early chapters are some of its finest, weaving disparate scientific threads into a tale of what came after our inefficiently oversized grey matter — at about 2 percent of our body weight, it nevertheless eats up about 20 percent of our calories — gave birth to the “one activity that has never been observed, even in a rudimentary form, in any animal other than the human[:] the quest to understand its own existence.”
Upon this self-awareness rests the whole of civilization, he posits. For instance, Mlodinow points out that humans switched from hunter gather mode to an agricultural model not for convenience sake — studies estimate hunter gathers work only about two to four hours a day — but more probably in order to satisfy a dawning spiritual urge. Evidence for that dates back 11,500 years, to a hilltop in prehistoric Southwest Turkey, where archeologists discovered the earliest known evidence of humans gathering to practice sacred rituals. That such a site would predate permanent settlements suggests that our unique understanding of our mortality, soon expressed as a need to remain close to our dead, is likely what drove the development of cities in the first place.
Mlodinow also upends some myths about famous scientists. When Newton’s quantitative view of the world — the idea that enough data will reveal laws for everything, a universe as mechanical as clockwork — upended the qualitative thinking behind Aristotle’s purpose-driven universe, it cleared the way for not just for the Wright brothers’ flying machines, but also an entirely new understanding of our relationships to the cosmos. Yet Newton, Mlodinow is quick to point out, harbored a fixation on alchemy and wasted reams of time calculating out the biblical end of days. Charles Darwin, far from an atheist poster boy, was a creationist before and after the voyage of The Beagle. It wasn’t until the death of his 10-year-old daughter that he painfully put aside his Christian faith.
Though Upright Thinkers reexamines many of the greatest hits of western science — names like Galileo and Heisenberg, Lavoisier and Mendeleev — it’s Mlodinow’s father, a man who left school in the 7th grade and worked as a tailor, who serves as the book’s true protagonist. Both of Mlodinow’s parents survived the camps during the Holocaust, meeting for the first time in New York after the war. The Nazis' insanity left Mlodinow, Sr. with little doubt that God indeed plays dice with the universe, yet somehow he never lost his driving curiosity about the physical world, and Mlodinow says writing the book was a means of investigating some of the questions his father posed. “My father shaped the person I am, which shaped the sort of scientist I became,” he says.
In many ways, it’s physicists who have shaped who the rest of us are today. Quantum mechanics underpins cellphones, the Internet, nuclear bombs and microwave ovens. It also has bequeathed to us ideas, both tantalizing and unsettling, about multiverses and the limits of what we can know.
Hard to believe that in the late 1800s, Harvard University was discouraging any new students from entering the field, as many of the top minds of the time were convinced that the outer limits of physics’ usefulness had been reached. What happened next, of course, was Albert Einstein. Yet just a few decades later, in the 1920s, Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli would declare, “Physics is very muddled at the moment; it is much too hard for me anyway, and I wish I were a movie comedian or something like that and had never heard anything about physics.”
Pauli went on to win a Nobel prize.
Leonard Mlodinow will discuss and sign Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos on tonight at Vroman's, 695 E. Colorado Blvd, Pasadena, 7 p.m. (626) 449-5320, vromansbookstore.com
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