Peter Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard” brought the scientific search for a remote and wild carnivore into a language only the massive Himalayans and one man’s search for a soul could transcend. Two of my favorites are Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, one leading us into the inner sanctum of our selfish genes and the other to the very precipice of the event horizon. The language of each is a beautiful and precise math of nouns and verbs. No adjectives required.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
I am inspired by breathtaking descriptions of nature or place, descriptions that know when to stop, but push a compelling story forward, not letting you rest. For example, those found in “White Oleander,” by Janet Fitch, or “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini. My heart races when prose is laced with phrases simulating poetry. In perfect measure.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I read more nonfiction (biology and physics) than fiction. So when I read novels — to break away from the precision of science writing — I choose those with compelling story lines written descriptively. I’m drawn to creative and inspiring language, spiced with the colors and curiosities of the surroundings and characters. “Shantaram,” by Gregory David Roberts, for example, and “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” by Tracy Chevalier. I’m not sure a particular genre describes my choices, but I do not read heavy crime books or science fiction. There is too much great, real science to be had.
How do you organize your books?
The books on my shelves are organized into nonfiction (sociobiology, physics, zoology and old textbooks) and fiction according to authors, except for my favorites of both, which are lined up together: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee, “The Origin of Species,” by Charles Darwin, “A Sand County Almanac,” by Aldo Leopold, and “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.”
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
All of Jane Austen’s books. I don’t read any modern romance novels, but I dive occasionally into the classics. Austen is, of course, a master of trickery and twists, which I admire greatly.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
My twin brother gifted me Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” when the two of us visited the LIGO laboratory just after the first gravitational waves were detected. Inside the facility, we studied the computer graphics and listened to a recording of the sweet, little chirp — like the sound of a bird — produced by the wave as it hit the earth and passed through the detector, providing the final proof for Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. An astounding moment in time for a scientific principle that redefines time. An astounding time for twins.
Also astonishing is the book he gave me. Carlo Rovelli fuses literature and science into a new discipline that takes us to “the edge of what we know. … And it’s breathtaking.”