Staying Nimble with a Diet of Jokes and a Pinch of Stephen Hawking: A Conversation with Leonard Mlodinow




WHEN IT COMES to things seen and unseen, Leonard Mlodinow has fashioned a successful career out of writing about the latter — in particular, about aspects of reality and the natural world that elude our comprehension but have a powerful influence on life as we know it.

No one, for instance, has ever seen a black hole — and never will — yet Mlodinow and his co-author, the late Stephen Hawking, in A Briefer History of Time, have taught us why these remote, crushing cosmic dynamos should matter to everybody, even the average Joe on the street. In his other books (nine so far) Mlodinow has examined a host of topics, including buried influences on human behavior (Subliminal); how chance affects our decision-making (The Drunkard’s Walk); the rise of String Theory and his discovery of a mentor (Feynman’s Rainbow); and, in Euclid’s Window, which Hawking really liked (more on that later), how geometry and our understanding of “space” have evolved.

At first, you might think a lay reader would be out of place in Mlodinow’s theoretical landscape — like the guy who stumbles into a fine French restaurant and asks for a cheeseburger — but he has always had a special knack for delighting critics and showing the rest of us why we should care about such seemingly esoteric topics.

His latest book, Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change, is no different. Again, Mlodinow applies his training as a theoretical physicist to examine the human mind and show us how its inner workings affect our daily lives. The Guardian calls Elastic “elegant and interesting” and “refreshingly free of the curious moralising” that one finds in other best-selling science books.

“Things are just changing fast now, really fast,” he told me in a recent interview. “I realized I needed to look at mindsets and all the hidden assumptions we have. I really wanted to write about that. At first, I thought I’d write a book about creativity because we all need it in life, but then I realized the subject was bigger than that. It was about how we think today, how we frame problems, how we accept and adjust to change. That is why I wrote Elastic.”

We were sitting at a table in Jones Coffee in Pasadena, not far from his house and the campus of Caltech, where Mlodinow taught until 2013 (he’s since shifted over to concentrating on his books). The last time we saw each other was in 2012, to discuss his best seller Subliminal, and the guy looked the same to me. The life of a successful author and researcher obviously suits him. Trim, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, sipping a latte, Len’s a fit 63.

When we sat down for our interview, he had just wrapped up a leg of his overseas book tour for Elastic in the United Kingdom (which included, unfortunately, a stop in Cambridge for the funeral of his friend Hawking, who died in March at the age of 76), and he was getting ready for another quick trip down to Brazil to deliver a lecture. In this age of Skype and other long-distance communications tools, Mlodinow still believes in hopping aboard a plane, flying off somewhere, standing in front of a real audience, and sharing what he’s discovered in the course of his latest explorations.

In the case of Elastic, Mlodinow doesn’t simply explore the awe-inspiring complexity of the brain (there’s plenty to be awed by) but also what “thought” really means at a time when technology is speeding up our daily experiences of everything, especially the flow of information.

That acceleration challenges the brain’s top-down, analytical thinking abilities. One result is that the brain’s bottom-up thinking structures — nonlinear, highly elastic — must compensate and pick up more of the slack. That is not a bad thing, though, because elastic thinking has frequently been the source of innovation.

Even if you’ve never heard the term “elastic thinking” before, you still know what it is, he said. Take, for example, computer games and programs.

“When I was younger, I had to read a big fat instruction manual to understand what I was supposed to do,” he said, smiling. “Today … forget it. You don’t spend time reading a manual. You just download the app or whatever and figure it out for yourself. This is where elastic thinking comes in. The designers of the games and programs try to make it all intuitive, but it doesn’t always work. You have to experiment and make mistakes, but that’s okay. That’s part of it, too. Don’t be afraid that you’re going to screw up. You have to play around and see what it does.”

Elastic includes some of the people whose creative risks and playful ideas have led them to produce important breakthroughs and revolutions — not just Mlodinow’s fellow scientists but others, like movie theater exec David Wallerstein (whose “jumbo”-sized popcorn paved the way for supersizing); the small tech startup Niantic that made a fortune having people use their phones to hunt Pokémon; writer Mary Shelley, who probably would never have dreamed up Frankenstein if she hadn’t let elastic thinking take over; and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, whose marijuana use may have unleashed his elastic musical vision at the expense of his sanity.

The book sets these and other figures in a framework of how elastic thinking and breakthrough ideas have produced major paradigm shifts throughout human history. Mlodinow tells us about neophilia (which sounds like a sick habit but really just means an attraction to change), the importance of dopamine in the brain’s reward system, scripted behavior that’s wired into every living creature’s brain (including ours, which kicks in even when we think we’re being original), the “virtuous circle” of positive mood and creative problem-solving, and how elastic thinking is vital, especially now, to accepting our changing world.

“If you work for a living, if you are part of a company, what you’re doing now is just figuring out how to keep up,” he explained. “You have to figure out new social media, new ways to get clients, new technologies, how to fight off competition and attacks, globalization, outsourcing … you name it. You have to accept what’s going on and be willing to stay nimble and ahead of the game. That’s what I hope my readers will understand.”

Mlodinow’s book also offers exercises and brief strategies to build up acceptance and mindfulness that made me think that Deepak Chopra, another of his co-writers (together they produced 2011’s War of the Worldviews), may have rubbed off on him.

He laughed.

“I don’t know, maybe he has,” he said. “My first objective was just to raise people’s consciousness about how they think so that they can, when appropriate, take more control to change their thinking. I want them to have a deeper understanding of themselves and then apply it to be more comfortable with change and happier in our society.”

Mlodinow sipped his latte and then offered a metaphor.

“What I want readers to understand is that you can’t stand at the ocean and think you’re going to stop the waves, you have to surf with them,” he said. “Hopefully I’m teaching them how to surf.”

¤

The reason why Mlodinow’s books appeal to so many readers is not just because he teaches them to surf accelerating waves of change — but also because of the writing itself.

Aside from his training as a physicist at UC Berkeley and his academic career at Caltech and the Max Planck Society, Mlodinow has conducted plenty of postdoctoral work … ahem … in Hollywood as a TV scriptwriter.

For a time, early in his career, he left the traditional academic path to write scripts and jokes for a number of shows, including Night Court, MacGyver (that one makes total sense), Star Trek: The Next Generation (total sense, too), and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. He also made an effort — ultimately unsuccessful, but that’s okay, he says — to write for Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.

Mlodinow later emerged from Hollywood at the perfect time — right as nonfiction books about science, history, and popular culture were enjoying a surge of popularity — with a style that blended his scientific expertise with a nuanced, humane narrative voice. “I’m grateful for that experience in Hollywood,” he says. “All of it gave me a sense of pacing and a good ear because you’re writing spec scripts and jokes all day and you work with very talented people who are doing the same thing. You’re constantly listening to them and learning from them.”

That background is everywhere evident in his books. It’s not that Mlodinow is a gag writer, but his quips and side comments put readers at ease, especially when the material seems abstract and difficult. When he describes the dopamine neurons in the brain’s substantia nigra region, for instance, he can’t help pausing, mid-explanation, to make a joke about that Latin phrase. It “may sound intimidating,” he tells readers, but don’t worry, “[i]n Latin, the phrase ‘employees must wash their hands’ would probably sound intimidating.”

Such humor is often lacking in other popular works of science because the writer focuses only on getting the science right, he said. The result: A dry text that no general reader will pick up. Mlodinow isn’t immune: he admits his first drafts are pretty dry, too. But in the revision process he makes them more informal and conversational, and he condenses (or eliminates) sections that bore or irritate him.

“If I’m getting tired of something, just think how my readers will feel,” he said. That process not only winnows out what’s tiresome but also makes room for the unexpected — autobiographical stories, for instance, like the ones in Elastic about his parents, both survivors of the Nazi camps. These stories range from the harrowing to the very funny, like the account of his ninetysomething mom using elastic thinking to outmaneuver Best Buy’s returns policy on a broken blender.

If he had been stuck with a hard deadline, Mlodinow said he would have overlooked such material. Too often deadlines force writers into a top-down, analytical box. That doesn’t diminish his respect for journalism, and he marvels at the ability of columnists and reporters to deliver thoughtful, developed pieces on a daily basis — it’s just not for him. Without a deadline, he said he is able to free associate and arrive at material that’s more organic.

“I rewrite myself, like, 47 times,” he said, smiling. “I don’t like the pressure of deadlines because when you have pressure you can’t let your mind expand and try new things. You can’t go down a path even if it’s a dead-end because now you’re out of time. I just don’t write like that. I’ve never liked it.”

Back in March, though, Mlodinow was confronted with a merciless deadline he couldn’t refuse. The New York Times contacted him shortly after the news of Stephen Hawking’s death and asked him to write 1,000 words on Hawking’s importance to the world of science and to him as a co-writer, colleague, and friend … in just three hours. Three hours.

“I was a little freaked out, but the editor and I had an agreement that was the key,” he said. “If I didn’t like what I wrote, he would run something else. That was good. I didn’t feel like I was put on the spot.”

When Mlodinow hung up with the Times editor, he decided to take his own advice in Elastic. He went out on the balcony with a pen, a pad of paper, and a good cigar. He took a few tucks of the cigar and started writing down everything and anything, with no apparent direction or pressure, about his feelings for Hawking.

“I sat there, still feeling emotional, still feeling pretty raw, and I just opened up my mind and wrote whatever came to me,” he said, “I didn’t think or judge or analyze. I just wrote.”

Even though Hawking’s health had been fragile for a long time, even though he had beaten the doctors’ grim prognosis that he wouldn’t live past the age of 24 by 52 years, his death was still a shock. Mlodinow couldn’t believe he was gone. And he couldn’t believe that he himself was the one, out of everyone in the scientific community, who was delivering the final word on one of the world’s most influential thinkers in the pages of one of the world’s most important newspapers.

Mlodinow moved quickly through the drafting process (far more quickly than he ever expected) and emerged with a tribute that is by turns poignant, poetic, and personal.

“I always thought that Stephen Hawking would outlive me,” his piece begins. “I broke into tears when I heard on Wednesday that he had not.” He goes on to relate how, on Hawking’s annual visits to spend a month at Caltech, the pair would sit elbow-to-elbow and write together, and Mlodinow would sometimes dab the sweat on Hawking’s brow or carry him from his wheelchair to the couch.

“The article turned out better than I expected. It was definitely so surreal to write it at that moment,” he said. “But I think it’s good it happened then because if I’d written it with more perspective maybe it wouldn’t have been as heartfelt.”

¤

Mlodinow’s friendship with Hawking started because of a book title Mlodinow really didn’t like: Euclid’s Window, his first book, in 2001.

Mlodinow said he had imagined another title instead, The Shape of Space. But his editor argued that Euclid truly provided a window onto the universe, and Mlodinow agreed with him … until he worried the title would scare away readers.

“I thought my editor’s idea was really cool, and then I realized the name Euclid is like poison for anyone who wants to read something interesting,” he said. “Can you imagine their reaction? Wait, a book about Euclid? Oh man, I loved high school geometry! I’m going to buy this book!!

But the book was a success, and one reader who especially enjoyed it was Hawking. He enjoyed it so much that he reached out to Mlodinow and suggested they write something together.

“You never know what’s going to be good or bad for you. Hey, in the end Stephen read it and liked it,” he said, “so that was good enough for me.”

Together they revised and updated Hawking’s best seller A Brief History of Time as A Briefer History of Time in 2005 before moving on to write 2010’s The Grand Design, a book that explores concepts of the multiverse and arguments about the universe’s design that don’t rely on a belief in a divine architect. That book also became a best seller.

In the process of writing with Hawking, Mlodinow noted his concentration and determination — how the words trickled out of him at an agonizingly slow pace that would have driven others crazy. As he waited for Hawking’s slow reply to some question or issue, Mlodinow learned to slow down his own thought processes and carefully assess and reassess his own ideas. It made him a better writer and thinker, he said.

Mlodinow described his late co-writer as “a true risk-taker, in every sense of the word.” He was brave enough to take a 2007 flight on the modified jet plane dubbed the “vomit comet” to experience weightlessness, and he was brave enough to go punting with Mlodinow, during one of his visits to Cambridge, on the River Cam.

“It was crazy. You ride on this flat boat that’s a little thicker than that rug over there, and some schmuck stands at the back with a big stick and pushes it along the bottom of the river,” he said. “We had one of his nurses with us in case the boat tipped over, but what would happen to Stephen? He couldn’t even hold up his head, but he wasn’t scared. He was so vulnerable but he still wanted to experience life. I received many lessons like that from him.”

One of the greatest has to do with intellectual courage. When Hawking first started working on black holes, the scientific community told him it was a dead-end and “that nobody cares,” Mlodinow said, “and Stephen said, ‘Oh really? You’re going to care about it when I’m done.’ Stephen was the quintessential elastic thinker.”

Hawking’s attitude to the naysayers remains an abiding inspiration for Mlodinow, who, in addition to writing his best-selling books, continues to publish scholarly articles about aspects of theoretical physics, like his recent work with USC’s Todd Brun that shows that the supposedly simplistic idea that time flows in one direction — as in the notion of “time’s arrow” — is really not so simple after all.

“It takes a certain brazen attitude to do what Stephen did, and I think that’s what great people have,” Mlodinow said. “It’s not a guarantee that you’re going to succeed, but if you don’t have that attitude you’re never going to discover anything surprising. Why would you want to spend your career working only on the stuff that people expect?”

¤

Nick Owchar is a PhD candidate in English at Claremont Graduate University and the founder of Impressive Content, an editing and content production service. He was formerly the deputy book review editor of the Los Angeles Times.


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