David Jay brown
Clifford Pickover is one of the most popular and prolific science writers in America. He is the author of over thirty popular science books, and science fiction novels, which investigate a diverse range of mind-expanding topics–such as time travel, black holes, extraterrestrial biology, mathematics, creativity and computers. Some of Dr. Pickover’s more popular books include Chaos in Wonderland, Surfing Through Hyperspace, Time: A Traveler’s Guide, The Science of Aliens, and The Paradox of God. What all of his books share in common is a transcendence of the ordinary world, and a fascination with the beyond. “My primary interest,” said Dr. Pickover, “is in finding new ways to continually expand creativity by melding art, science, mathematics and seemingly-disparate areas of human endeavor. I seek not only to expand the mind but to shatter it.”
Dr. Pickover received his Ph.D. from Yale University’s Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. He is currently a Research Staff Member at the IBM T. J. Watson Research Center, where he has received over 35 invention achievement awards, and three research division awards. Dr. Pickover is also the associate editor of Computers and Graphics magazine, and he holds over 30 U.S. patents for unusually innovative inventions, mostly in the field of computer hardware, software, and novel ways of interacting with computers. According to Omni magazine, “Pickover is van Leeuwenhoek’s 20th century equivalent.” Wired magazine said, “Bucky Fuller thought big, Arthur C. Clarke thinks big, but Cliff Pickover outdoes them both.”
Dr. Pickover published his first book in 1990, Computers, Pattern, Chaos and Beauty, an introduction to mathematics, filled with dazzling computer graphics and mind-challenging puzzles. “No human being should pass up the experience of stepping through the portals of this beautiful book,” said Martin Gardner in Scientific American. This was the first of a series of educational books designed by Dr. Pickover to make science and mathematics more fun and exciting. The latest book in this series, Calculus and Pizza, may be the easiest route there is to learning calculus.
Dr. Pickover has a strong passion for mathematical puzzles, as evidenced by his books Wonders of Numbers, Mazes for the Mind,The Mathematics of Oz, and The Zen of Magic Squares. He is also the “Brain-Strain” columnist forOdyssey magazine, the puzzle writer for Studyworks, and, for many years, he was the “Brain-Boggler” columnist for Discover magazine. He even produces an annual puzzle calender, so that puzzle lovers can test their wits against a different logic, word, math, or mazelike puzzle each day of the week. Dr. Pickover enjoys tinkering with complex mathematical brainteasers the way most people play with jigsaw puzzles. “Pickover just seems to exist in more dimensions than the rest of us,” said Ian Stewart in Scientific American. Some of Dr. Pickover’s other books which explore mathematics and physics include Computers and the Imagination, Keys to Infinity, Black Holes: A Traveler’s Guide, Circles and Stars, The Girl Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, The Alien IQ Test, and Dreaming the Future: The Fantastic Story of Prediction.
Dr. Pickover is drawn to enigmas of all sorts it seems, and one of the more puzzling associations that he has explored in depth is the peculiar relationship between psychopathology and creativity. He is the author of the classic book on the topic of how brain pathologies play a role in scientific and artistic creativity–Strange Brains and Genius: The Secret Lives of Eccentric Scientists and Madmen. On the surface, an association between genius and insanity seems paradoxical, yet Dr. Pickover uncovers quite a large and convincing pool of evidence for such a connection.
Some of Dr. Pickover’s more theological or philosophical books include The Loom of God, The Paradox of God and the Science of Omniscience, and The Stars of Heaven. Dr. Pickover is also the author of several science fiction novels. There are four books in his NeoReality series: The Lobotomy Club, Liquid Earth, Sushi Never Sleeps, and Egg Drop Soup. He is also the co-author of Spider Legs, which he wrote with the eminent science fiction and fantasy writer Piers Anthony.
Dr. Pickover lives in Yorktown Heights, New York. I met Cliff over the internet, where he has a very active presence, and we communicate regularly by email. His personal web site is www.pickover.com, where you can find his exceedingly popular Reality Carnival web log (RealityCarnival.Com), which “explores the edges of science, altered realities, near-death experiences, and unsolved mysteries, from parallel universes and exotic sushi to religion, science, and psychedelics.”
I interviewed Cliff in February of 2003, and then again in January of 2004. Cliff’s mind is a rare blend of intelligence and imagination, and the breadth of thought that he explores is simply brain-boggling. He’s unusually focused and curious–like a laser beam and a search light–and he balances his eyebrow-furling skepticism with a radical kind of open-mindedness. We talked about the possibilities of artificial and alien intelligence, extraterrestrial zoology, and about setting up a DMT machine-elf research center. We also discussed the role that the creative imagination plays in science, the relationship between scientific creativity and mental illness, and how religious experiences can be the consequence of unusual brain states.
David: What were you like as a child, and how did you become interested in science, mathematics, and writing?
Clifford: I’ve been interested in science and math since childhood. While growing up in New Jersey, my bedroom featured anatomical models of the heart, brain, and eye; posters of the human circulatory system; trilobite fossils, science-fiction books, and Ugly Stickers displaying those funny, alienlike creatures with names like ‘Bob’, ‘Sandy’, and ‘Iris’. My father would continually make mazes for me to solve with pencil and paper. Martin Gardner’s books were influential.
My childhood fascination with science and mathematics arose from my interest in knowing more about how the world works and also from my passion for science fiction. I remember that one of my favorite science-fiction tales was Henry Hasse’s “He Who Shrank,” originally published in 1936, which describes the exploration of subatomic universes filled with machine civilizations. I think that many scientists and science popularizers got kick-started by reading science fiction. Additionally, my parents encouraged scientific pursuits.
I should note that I have also been very interested in words and writing from an early age. In high school, whenever I came across an exceptionally colorful phrase or quotation in a book, I’d write it down in a notebook. I still have that notebook today and refer to it. Obviously, language is the primary medium with which we think and communicate ideas to others. When one reads language in written form, one is really decoding symbols. It is through the interactions of such symbols that we create new worlds, new images, new thoughts. For a long time, I have held a fascination with colorful symbols and words. Words are meant to be petted and stroked. They are meant to allow us to transcend space and time, and to inspire visions.
David: What kind of an effect do you think science fiction has had on the evolution of scientific research and the development of scientific theory?
Clifford: I like to think of science fiction as the ‘literature of edges’ because the topics are poised on the edge of what is and what might be. Certainly, science fiction is a literature of change. Moreover, our universe is a science-fiction universe, filled with mystery–constantly fluctuating and evolving. Isaac Asimov said that “science fiction is the only form of literature that consistently considers the nature of the changes that face us, the possible consequences, and the possible solutions.” Most scientists grew up reading science fiction, so how could science fiction not affect scientific research and theories? Note that many of my science books included science-fiction story lines to stimulate readers’ interest in the science. These science books with science-fiction plots include Black Holes: A Traveler’s Guide, Time: A Traveler’s Guide, The Stars of Heaven, Surfing through Hyperspace,