Eminent American Theoretical Physicist, Screenwriter and Popular Science Writer
DEBANANDA S. NINGTHOUJAM, PhD
There are great scientists. There are equally famous artists. But as, C P Snow famously said, the two cultures usually don't meet, i.e. the scientific and the artistic worlds don't intersect.
Some scientists however have shown that sciences and arts are two intersecting sets and the two worlds are bridgeable areas of human creativity and not separated by a permanent chasm.
Here, we shall profile the life and career of Leonard Mlodinow, who is a multi-faceted scientist par excellence: theoretical physicist, screenwriter, and writer.
Mlodinow was born in 1954 in Chicago, Illinois, USA.
Both his parents were holocaust survivors. They were incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps in Poland till they were freed at the end of the 2nd world war. They later met in Brooklyn, New York, in 1948.
Leonard had his early education in Chicago.
As a child, Mlodinow had strong predilections for both mathematics and chemistry. While in high school, he was tutored in organic chemistry by a professor from the University of Illinois.
Mlodinow began his college education at Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts but dropped out for some time in 1973 to travel to Israel to work on a kibbutz. As he had little to do at night he began reading the book "The Feynman Lectures on Physics", one of the few books available in the kibbutz library. This ignited his interest in physics.
He obtained a BS degree in physics and math and an MS degree in Physics from Brandeis University.
Mlodinow did his doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley and earned his PhD degree in theoretical physics in 1981. His thesis advisor was Eyvind Wichmann, an expert on axiomatic quantum field theory. During his PhD work, Mlodinow developed a new type of perturbation theory for nonrelativistic quantum mechanics, based upon solving the problem in infinite dimensions, and then correcting for the fact that we live in three dimensions.
Scientific career and contributions
After obtaining his PhD, Dr. Mlodinow obtained a faculty position at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1981 as Bantrell Research Fellow in Theoretical Physics. He then became an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Max-Planck-Institute for Physics and Astrophysics in Munich, Germany. In this period he was interested in quantum field theories inside dielectrics. At that time, people created quantum theories of electromagnetic interactions in dielectrics by simply carrying over certain mathematical constructs from the vacuum theory. Along with Mark Hillery, Mlodinow showed that this approach is incorrect, and they developed the correct procedure.
Mlodinow has also done pioneering and innovative work on the quantum theory of nonlinear optics.
In 1986 Mlodinow was bitten by the Hollywood bug and moved to Los Angeles with a screenplay in his pocket, and no job. He managed to sell his first script six months later. At the time he had $110 left in the bank. Over the next several years he wrote for television series such as: Hunter, MacGyver, Star Trek: the Next Generation, and the comedy series Night Court etc. Meanwhile he continued to conduct physics research as a hobby.
In 1993 Mlodinow joined those leaving the television and film business for computer gaming, and became producer, executive producer and designer of several award-winning games developed in coordination with Stephen Spielberg, Robin Williams, and the Walt Disney Company. Among the array of awards won by his games are the Consumer Electronics Software Showcase Award; Home PC Magazine Editor's Choice Award; and the National Association of Parenting Publications Gold Medal.
In 1997 he moved to New York, and during 1997-2003 he was Vice President for Software Development and then Vice President and Publisher for Math Education at Scholastic Inc., the New York publisher of the Harry Potter series. As head of Scholastic software, he created a children's games division and catapulted it into one of the top five in the United States.
While at Scholastic he wrote his first popular science books, Euclid's Window: The story of geometry from parallel lines to hyperspace, which has now been translated into 16 languages.
In 2005, Mlodinow came full circle, and returned to the Caltech faculty, to teach physics, while continuing to write books.
He also wrote the screenplay for the 2009 film Beyond the Horizon.
He left Caltech to devote full time to writing in 2013.
Mlodinow's latest work in physics deals with the arrow of time, quantum decoherence, the relation between discrete quantum random walks and the relativistic equations of quantum theory.
Popular Science Books
Mlodinow has authored several popular science books including Euclid's Window (2001), Feynman's Rainbow (2003), A Briefer History of Time (with Stephen Hawking, 2005), The Drunkard's Walk (2008), The Grand Design (2010), The War of the Worldviews (2011), Subliminal (2012), The Upright Thinkers (2015) and Elastic (2018).
Euclid's Window deals with the idea of curved space and the history of geometry, The Drunkard's Walk with people's inability to deal with randomness in their daily lives; The Grand Design argues that God isn't necessary to explain the origins of the universe, Subliminal contends that many of our so-called conscious choices are in fact governed by our subconscious mind; while The Upright Thinkers is a history of human evolution from our hunter-gatherer times in the African savannah to the invention of modern quantum physics in the modern times.
Elastic is a thought-provoking book that elaborates on how flexible thinking can help us thrive in a world that's changing faster than ever before.
He has also authored some children's books.
Awards and honours
Mlodinow received several awards for his scientific and literary contributions including the Robert P Balles Prize (2008), Liber Press Award (2010), and PEN/E O Wilson Literary Science Writing Award (2013).
His scientific papers, popular articles, and popular science books are Mlodinow's best legacy to the scientific, the intellectual, and the cultural world.
Mlodinow is married and has two children: Alexei and Nicolai.
Leonard Mlodinow (1954-) has left lasting trails in the intellectual and the scientific world as a trailblazing theoretical physicist, a screenwriter and as a popular science writer.