All He Did Was Ask

arts-lead-1519-mlodinowTheoretical physicist and author Leonard Mlodinow investigates why we investigate in ‘The Upright Thinkers’

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live the science-nerd dream, just ask author and theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow. The coolness factor hovering over his long list of accomplishments is enough to give The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper pause. Often photographed in a rock-star black T-shirt, Mlodinow has graced the TED talk stage, debated science versus spirituality with Deepak Chopra, pestered his mentor Richard Feynman with quantum physics theories, and co-written two books with Stephen Hawking. For the cherry on top, he’s put words into Captain Jean Luc Picard’s mouth and gadgets into Angus MacGyver’s hands, as a screenwriter for both Star Trek: The Next Generation and the classic TV series that reinvented duct tape and swiss army knives as secret agent must-haves, MacGyver.

Mlodinow is the perfect argument that science, creativity, and imagination work best in tandem, and his bestselling books explore the myriad ways we seek out answers to our most puzzling questions. He’s coming to Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 14 for his new book “The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos,” which charts no less than the evolution of the human desire to know. But this is no dry treatise on the history of intellectual theory, or a whirlwind trip through its greatest hits. It’s a spirited survey of the scientific mileposts that have marked our way since the beginning, as well as an epic tale of curiosity and courage—not bad for 350 pages.

How did we go from thoughts of standing upright, killing dinner, lighting fires, and seeking shelter to comprehending the inner workings of the distant sun, as well as our own DNA?

The journey is embedded in our uniquely human capacity for wonder.

Mlodinow explores our questioning nature in building blocks that take shape as far back as archeology allows, and expand through the lives and minds of great scientific thinkers, but he never loses sight of the larger landscape. “The greatest triumphs of human intellectual history—writing and mathematics, natural philosophy, and the various sciences—are usually presented in isolation,” he writes, “as if each has nothing to do with the others. But that approach emphasizes the trees and not the forest.”

He makes no such mistake, noting instead the rich soil that binds ideas to circumstance, individuals to communities, and the world we see to the world we don’t. Along the way, he marvels at everything from lizard brains to libraries, and acknowledges the human failings of colossal icons like Galileo and Newton.

Long fascinated by the vagaries of chance (he wrote about it at length in “The Drunkard’s Walk”), Mlodinow points out that the development of human understanding has been anything but linear. Chance has intruded all along, for better and for worse—Paleolithic humans were once reduced to mere thousands, and Charles Darwin almost didn’t get the job on the famed ship the Beagle, where he formulated his theory of evolution. “Science teaches us a lot about the order of the universe,” says Mlodinow, “but it also teaches us that, despite our best efforts, it is the small chance occurrences that often count the most.”

Within the big picture, he writes poignantly about the role chance has played in his own life, through his parents, who survived the Holocaust separately and met in New York. He maintains a deep admiration for his seventh-grade-educated father, who lost his first wife and child in the Nazi camps, fought in the Jewish Underground, and never fully understood the complexities of his son’s vocation but took comfort in the knowledge that we are made of “the same stuff as the perfect and romantic stars.”

When asked how being a scientist has influenced his character, Mlodinow says, “Having the scientific knowledge of where the universe came from and who people are helps you to appreciate who you are, who we are as human beings, and how we should act.” Indeed, and in lighting our path to such knowledge, he reminds us that scientific inquiry begins with the oldest human question of all—and it’s only one word: Why?

Info: 7:30 p.m., Thursday, May 14, Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Free.

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