In his forthcoming book, “The Hunt for Vulcan,” Thomas Levenson recounts the search for a planet that even the greatest minds were convinced existed until Einstein, of course, finally set everyone straight. Levenson is a professor at MIT and heads the science writing program there. “The Hunt for Vulcan” will be released in November.
BOOKS: What did you read this summer?
LEVENSON: I tend to read a lot of nature writing in the summer. Growing up, I spent my summers right on the border of Lassen national park in California so I love the mountains. Also summer is my time to read novels, both genre stuff and books that people around me have been talking about all year.
BOOKS: What were some of the highlights of this summer?
LEVENSON: I went back to a book that I hadn’t finished that I found incredibly moving, “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” a collection of essays by Rebecca Solnit. I read a couple of novels that a friend had been touting. I read “The Illuminaries” by Eleanor Catton, which I found absorbing and inventive, and “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan. I bought that book because the title is derived from the 17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho’s hiking journal. I have loved the Basho book for a long time. I liked the Flanagan, but it was a book I had to put down for a few days and pick up again because how much writhing around in utter misery in a Japanese POW camp can you take? I also read “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. He’s a real writer’s writer.
BOOKS: Are those books typical of what you read?
LEVENSON: I’m all over the map. I love the British fantasy writer Terry Pratchett, and I’m terribly sad we won’t have anymore from him since he died this year. I love Patrick O’Brien’s series. I love essay writing. A couple of weeks ago I finished Janna Levin’s “A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines,” a fictionalized exploration of the lives and minds of mathematicians Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing. I read a truly eccentric book, “The Birth of a Theorem” by Cédric Villani, a French mathematician who won the Fields Medal. Some of it is seriously advanced math, but there’s something really fascinating about learning how people who do work at the outer limits of human capacity do it. I just went back to Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life.” That’s more like the kind of reading I do for my teaching job.
BOOKS: Have you always been interested in reading about science?
LEVENSON: I read popular science from when I was really young, like 9 or 10. Like every American male science writer of a certain age I read Isaac Asimov. I loved the “I, Robot” books and the “Foundation” books.
BOOKS: Are there any books you read for research you’d recommend?
LEVENSON: Walter Isaacson’s biography of “Einstein” is well written and very comprehensive. If you want to get the whole life that is where you go. If you want a deeper dive into the science “Subtle Is The Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein” by Abraham Pais is the best of the tech biographies.
BOOKS: What makes for good science writing?
LEVENSON: Science writing should convey information, but in a literary form. M.F.K. Fisher wrote in an intro to one of her books about how early in her career, she was asked, “Why do you write about food instead of something that really matters, what humans care about.” Her answer was that she wrote about food because it reaches into all that. Science writing should do the same thing. The reason we revere Stephen Jay Gould as a model writer is not because he was always right about everything, because he wasn’t, but because he understood that whenever he wrote about something in science there was always something else going on.