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David Bodanis - Four Way Interview

Photo by Fran Monks
David Bodanis is the bestselling author of The Secret House and E=mc2, which was turned into a PBS documentary and a Southbank Award-winning ballet at Sadler's Wells. David also wrote Electric Universe, which won the Royal Society Science Book of the Year Prize, and Passionate Minds, a BBC Book of the Week. His newest work, Einstein's Greatest Mistake, will be published in October 2016. David has worked for the Royal Dutch Shell Scenario Prediction unit and the World Economic Forum. He has been a popular speaker at TED conferences and at Davos. His work has been published in the Financial Times, the Guardian, and the New York Times, and has appeared on Newsnight, Start the Week, and other programs. 


Why science?

Einstein once used a wonderful image to describe how he felt about the world. It's one that's driven me in my interest in science as well. 'We are,' Einstein said, 'like a little boy entering a big library.' The room is dim: it's hard to see everything there. The walls are lined with many books, in many languages. How did they get there, and who wrote them? He doesn't know. But he does know there's some order in how they're arranged, and what they contain.

How this came to be we might never know. But trying to read even just a single page in one of those books? That we have a chance of doing....if we but work hard enough at it.

Why this book?

General Relativity is probably one of the greatest achievements of the human mind. Einstein was exultant when he cracked it, in the midst of war-torn Berlin, in the cold winter of 1915/16. But yet, the very success he had in creating it led him, just a few years later, to a deep psychological mistake. This kept him isolated from the community he loved: for decades on end. Who could resist a story like that?

What’s next?

There's a story, probably apocryphal, that the great physicist Niels Bohr had a horseshoe above the doorway to his study. A colleague said, 'Professor Bohr, surely you don't believe a simple bit of curved metal will create good luck!' To which Bohr replied, in his distinctive confiding whisper, 'I've been informed it works, even if you don't believe.'

So although I don't believe in superstitions, I do have a superstition that it's bad luck to talk about my next book before it's done! Having said that, I have two scientific projects on the go: one is another biography; the other is a more poetic account, looking at matters from a distinctive scientific angle.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

Writers are people who get excited when there's more than one person in their room, and so it's great to be released from my study, and to get to travel here and there doing publicity for my book; having the time not just to meet a range of people, but to share meals, or walks, and time to really connect. I love that.

I'm also struck at living through this moment in American political history. It's not a matter of being 'excited' of course; more of being forced to be exceptionally 'alert'; 'attuned'. I'd thought only a very few Americans - 5 percent? - would relish bullying and hatred; a world of constant resentment and vindictiveness. It's something Einstein lived through: when his books were publicly burned, and crowds in an advanced country, with the world's finest universities, relished public bullying and hate. I'd thought that was the past; forever locked away. Clearly I was wrong.

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