...a companion blog to "Math-Frolic," specifically for interviews, book reviews, weekly-linkfests, and longer posts or commentary than usually found at the Math-Frolic site.

"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show." ---Bertrand Russell (1907) Rob Gluck

"I have come to believe, though very reluctantly, that it [mathematics] consists of tautologies. I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-legged animal is an animal." ---Bertrand Russell (1957)

******************************************************************** Rob Gluck

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Clifford Pickover... One-Man Carnival

Math-Frolic Interview #13

"I do feel that there are facets of the universe we can never understand, just as a monkey can never understand calculus, black holes, symbolic logic, and poetry. There are thoughts we can never think, visions we can only glimpse. It is at this filmy, veiled interface between human reality and a reality beyond, that we may find the numinous, which some may liken to God." -- CP

Cliff Pickover, computer scientist/mathematician/prolific-writer/creative-thinker/curiosity-seeker with a wide-and-wild-ranging array of interests... hopefully needs no introduction here (because I wouldn't even know where to start!).
Dr. Pickover answered a few questions I sent him recently (hope he doesn't mind being interview #13...):


1) Most (but not all) of the folks I interview are active math bloggers; you are quite active on the internet with webpages and on Twitter (which some people call "microblogging"), but you don't have a conventional blog. Have you ever considered doing one, or does that not fit your interests or time constraints?

Shecky, wonderful to hear from you. Your math blogs are great. [hmmm... I should interview this guy more often! ;-)] You raise an excellent question about blogging. I regularly tweet here, and I update my Reality Carnival blog every day. Also, Pickover.com and its various sublinks receive millions of visits. However, I don’t regularly post essays at any web page. Perhaps most of my creative writing is redirected to the various books I write.

2) With your recent Math, Physics, and Medicine books you've developed an almost formulaic presentation mode that has wide appeal… I assume you have another such volume in the works, just can't guess what the next topic might be! (several possibilities). Can you say what you have in store for readers and fans in the near future? And do you work on multiple books at once, or one-at-a-time?

I believe that The Math Book, The Physics Book, and The Medical Book trilogy of books -- which cover key milestones, breakthroughs, and curiosities -- are among my most popular books.  I really enjoyed trying to condense a vast amount of information into page-sized nuggets, each accompanied by a photo or artwork.  I am currently working on the next book in this series.  Perhaps I can tell you more about the project in a few months.  It follows the same kind of colorful format, but the book is more eclectic in terms of science, history, art, and culture.
To answer your other question, whenever possible, I try to work on only one book at a time.

[Okay, I'll take a wild stab-in-the-dark and guess that Cliff's next book is on "Music" ...maybe we'll hear in a few months.]

3) How many hours a day do you spend writing or doing writing-related work/research? And seriously, how many hours a day/night do you sleep!? (And, how much coffee do you drink... no, just kidding on that one).

I started drinking coffee about three years ago. Writing is not too difficult if one is willing to give up other activities. Some people play golf on the weekends. I would prefer to write.

["three years ago"... you got a LOTTA coffee-drinkin'-catching-up to do fella! How many more books would you have written by now, if only...]

4) What were some of your main interests as a child growing up that led to the career you now have?

My childhood fascination with science was partly due to my parents' emphasis of science as a topic of study, as well as my budding interest in science fiction.  I fondly recall watching the old black-and-white Outer Limits and Chiller Theater shows on Saturday-night TV, which featured such notables as Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman and Attack of the Crab Monsters. Wow!  I can still remember the scenes in which scientists discover a pair of giant crabs mutated by atomic tests on a remote island. Many scientists and science popularizers got kick-started in life by reading science fiction.

5) What is the most interesting aspect of mathematics for you?

At first glance, some math classes may appear to involve a long catalogue of isolated concepts.  But as we learn more, we begin to see many linkages.  Obviously, the final goal of scientists and mathematicians is not simply the accumulation of facts and lists of formulas, but rather they seek to understand the patterns, organizing principles, and relationships between these facts to form theorems and entirely new branches of human thought. For me, mathematics cultivates a perpetual state of wonder about the nature of mind, the limits of thoughts, and our place in this vast cosmos.

6) Out of all the books you've written do you have a personal favorite? Also, so far as I'm aware all your writing has been nonfiction… have you ever thought of writing a piece of fiction (…or correct me if you already have)?

In addition to The Math Book, The Physics Book, and The Medical Book trilogy, I really enjoyed writing Sex, Drugs Einstein and Elves.  In this nontraditional book, I explore the borderlands of science. Part memoir and part surrealistic perspective on culture, I attempt to give readers a glimpse of new ways of thinking and of other worlds as we reach across cultures and peers beyond our ordinary reality.
I have written a few novels. Your readers can always visit my page that lists most of my 45+ books to learn more.  The titles of the novels include: Liquid Earth, The Lobotomy Club, Sushi Never Sleeps, Egg Drop Soup, The Heaven Virus, Spider Legs, and Jews in Hyperspace.

[I'm embarrassed that I wasn't aware of all this fiction... I don't read novels so it's somewhat understandable, but still surprised (and impressed)!]

7) Who are some of today's math authors/popularizers that you most enjoy reading? Other than math & science, what is some of your other favorite reading?

I enjoy all of the famous math popularizes, including, and not limited to, Ian Stewart, Ivars Peterson, Steven Strogatz, Rudy Rucker, Keith Devlin, and so many more.  Of course, Martin Gardner’s books still provide a goldmine of joy and information.  For other favorite reading beyond science, I enjoy reading and rereading the multivolume graphic-novel treatments of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past by Stephane Heuet, and some of the later novels of Robert Heinlein, including The Number of the Beast. In this novel, the protagonists can access 10,314,424,798,490,535,546,171,949,056 universes.

8) You're often referred to as a "polymath" because of your wide interests, and in fact I once said that "poly-polymath" was perhaps a more apt description! I can't help but think there's a strong genetic component to your far-flung talents/interests. Going back again to childhood, do you have a sense of where those mind-stretching proclivities stem from -- were your parents so inclined, and do you have any similarly-predisposed siblings?

While growing up in New Jersey, my bedroom featured plastic anatomical models of the heart, brain, and eye; posters of the human circulatory system; and trilobite fossils, science-fiction books, and Ugly Stickers displaying wild-eyed, grinning creatures with names like “Bob, “Sandy,” and “Iris.”  My childhood interest in science also was stimulated by my desire to learn how the world works and from my passion for science fiction. Today, my books are motivated by my interest in bringing science, mathematics and creativity to the broader public.
To answer your other question, I have one brother.  He’s a medical doctor.  He doesn’t write books, but we have similar interests.

9) I think it's accurate(?) to say you have very strong interests in both science and religion. Of course, a lot of scientists (vociferously) feel the two topics are mutually exclusive of one another. Can you say a little about how you hold both of them together in your own thinking and reflection? Do they mix together in some interactive way, or are they more like separate compartments?

Sometimes readers of my books ask me why I have also written on God, strange realities, and religious subjects. I tend to be skeptical about many claims of the paranormal. However, I do feel that there are facets of the universe we can never understand, just as a monkey can never understand calculus, black holes, symbolic logic, and poetry. There are thoughts we can never think, visions we can only glimpse. It is at this filmy, veiled interface between human reality and a reality beyond, that we may find the numinous, which some may liken to God.

10) You have several interviews and/or videos on the Web… If folks want to get to know you still better is there a specific one you would point people to, to learn more about you?

Visit Pickover.com and RealityCarnival.com.  Also, your readers can easily read my latest tweets, for free, here.

[There was a lengthy, wide-ranging audio interview with Cliff I heard on the Web not too long ago, which was what prompted me to ask this question, but unfortunately I can't re-locate it now.] 

11) Any parting words, not covered above, you'd care to pass along to a math-oriented audience?

Yes, the following spooky-looking number is a prime number.  Enjoy: 1000000000000066600000000000001
Belphegor's Prime


Thanks for taking time to participate here, Dr. Pickover, and may you keep exploring that 'filmy, veiled interface between human reality and a reality beyond,' and reporting back to us! (Ohh, and I'll recommend this coffee for you.)
You can check out all Dr. Pickover's books at Amazon here:

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