Some Big (and small) Questions

A while back, the BBC sent me a questionnaire that I had some fun with, and I was disappointed when they published only excerpts. But now that I have a blog, I get to post anything I want in its entirety! So here’s the whole thing. Do use the comments to suggest better answers.

What was the last popular science book you bought?
I haven’t the foggiest notion, because it’s my habit to buy books, put them on shelves and immediately forget about them. But the last popular science book I read was Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, which I managed to love, though the analysis seemed to teeter back and forth between brilliant insight and sheer illogic.

What’s your secret read?
That’s a secret.

What’s the most important book of all time?
Newton’s Principia of course. Is there another candidate?

What was your first spoken word?
Probably “more”.

What’s your favourite–and least favourite–word?
The great Cambridge economist Joan Robinson was famously delighted by her discovery of the word mumpsimus, for a person who clings stubbornly to an idea that has been thoroughly debunked. That’s a good one, and I have frequent occasion to use it, but in the end I’m rather partial to the word ambisinistrous, meaning left-handed with both hands. My least favourite word is No.

Bookmarks or corner turning?
Corner turning is vandalism and bookmarks are for the weak. It’s actually not that hard to simply remember where you were. I find it helps to factor the page number. If I’m on page 432, I just remember 16 times 27. (Added later: I filled out this questionnaire over a year ago, in the now seemingly ancient days when I was still reading books. Today I don’t need page numbers; my Kindle knows exactly where I left off.)

Skim or read every word?
Every word. Obsessively.

Paper or hardback?
Paper to carry on the plane; hardback to store on the shelf.

Will digital books replace the book?
I’m rather surprised this hasn’t already happened.

Which law of physics would you change and why?
Racism and xenophobia are products of psychology, which is a product of biology, which is a product of chemistry, which is a product of physics. That’s the part of physics I’d change. Also, I’d eliminate scarcity.

Are we alone in the Universe?
I’m not. Are you?

What’s the greatest threat to humanity?
Human nature.

Who would you clone?
I’d clone people at random, raise the offspring in entirely different ways, and settle some of these “Nature versus Nurture” questions once for all.

Who’s your science hero?
Isaac Newton. André Weil. Jean-Pierre Serre. Alexandre Grothendieck. The unveilers of Beauty Bare.

Who would you banish to a parallel universe?
The mumpsimi.

Who do you prefer–Stephen King or Stephen Hawking?
I always go for the creative types, so Hawking of course.

Who would win a fight between Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin?
Either Gottfried Leibniz or Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.

Would you have yourself cryogenically frozen? If so, when would you like to be thawed?
Yes and as soon as they can keep me alive forever. My great fear is that medicine will eventually cure everything, and I will be the last person in history ever to die.

Who would you be reincarnated as?
What’s the use of being reincarnated if not as yourself?

Which fictional character do you most identify with?
Myself.

What’s your idea of perfect happiness?
Mark Twain said it was a matter of good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience. That sounds about right.

What’s your most treasured possession?
My freedom.

What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
Don’t use plastic chain.

What would your epitaph say?
He took more vitamins than anyone else in history, but still not enough.

If you weren’t talking to us, what would you be doing?
Reading my secret read. Which is still a secret.

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14 Responses to “Some Big (and small) Questions”


  1. 1 1 Steve Reilly

    “Who would win a fight between Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin?

    Either Gottfried Leibniz or Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.”

    Shouldn’t this one be Leibniz or Wallace?

    Also, would you consider blogging on the Gilbert book, or on happiness studies in general? I enjoyed the book as well and I’m wondering what you found illogical in it.

  2. 2 2 Rowan

    I had this conversation once when buying a book and the checkout person tried to give me the obligatory bookmark:

    Me: No, thanks, I don’t use them.
    Him: You…*turn corners*!?!
    Me: Oh, no, I would never! I just remember where I am.
    Him: Oh, you remember the page number.
    Me: Um, no, I just remember where I am.

    I suppose that skill might slip now that my reading is also largely electronic.

  3. 3 3 Charlie (Colorado)

    Okay, I just love this list.

  4. 4 4 Steve Landsburg

    Steve Reilly: If I’d been blogging a year ago (when I read it, and when this list was compiled) I’d have blogged on the Gilbert book for sure. As it is, I’d have to refresh my memory about several points. On the other hand, that book is so much fun to read (and presumably to reread) that I might just get around to that.

  5. 5 5 Trent McBride

    I’d clone people at random, raise the offspring in entirely different ways, and settle some of these “Nature versus Nurture” questions once for all.

    Hasn’t twin adoption studies already done this? Or, is it not truly random?

  6. 6 6 Tim Moseid

    Of course there’s another candidate. Like it or not the most important book ever written has to be the Bible.

  7. 7 7 Ron

    I don’t use a bookmark because I need one; I use it because
    it’s *fast*. You can’t reliably turn to the page you left as
    fast as a bookmark will take you there.
    It’s the same logic as bookmarking web sites even though you
    know the URL. There are some web sites where I just type in the
    URL anyway, because it’s at least as fast as using the bookmark,
    but most of them, I do use the shortcut.
    BTW: In my case, there’s no doubt involved. My parents told
    me that my first word was “more”.

  8. 8 8 James Miller

    So, have you signed up for cryonics?

    Given that we might indeed cure death in the next century the expected benefits of cryonics seems huge even if the probability of it working is small. But given the possible advances humanity is likely to make over the next century, it does seem highly likely that if we don’t destroy civilization, someone frozen today stands a good chance of being revived within a century.

    I find it very puzzling that only about 1,400 people worldwide have signed-up for cryonics. As an economist, I think that signing up for cryonics is consistent with a lot more than 1,400 peoples’ revealed preferences.

  9. 9 9 Steve Landsburg

    James Miller: I haven’t signed up, but as my friends can tell you, I keep asking the same question about why it’s not more popular—and learning more about it is near the top of my agenda. And you?

  10. 10 10 ryan yin

    I’d clone people at random, raise the offspring in entirely different ways, and settle some of these “Nature versus Nurture” questions once for all.

    Hasn’t twin adoption studies already done this? Or, is it not truly random?

    One problem is that twin studies can have a lot of measurement error. Another is that they may not literally have the same “nature” in that twins do vary by birthweight, etc. And then there’s the problem with the (not adopted) twin studies — if identical twins are raised together but have different outcomes, where is the variation coming from? E.g., they use examples of twins who get different levels of education to back out the return to education without ability bias, but wait a second, why are they getting different amounts of education? Maybe they’re not truly identical after all …

    To be honest, I can’t see how economists can get involved in nature vs nurture arguments. What if people have different preferences? Shouldn’t that predict different outcomes? A non-economist might say preferences come from nature or nuture, but in economics they’re necessarily a primitive. (Certainly no one who talks about nature vs nurture as if there’s nothing else can then talk about optimal allocations or anything along those lines — “maximizing utility” makes no sense if the utility function is a choice variable.)

  11. 11 11 James Miller

    I’m a member of cryonics provider Alcor. I think that free market economists such as ourselves should be especially receptive to cryonics because (a) we are used to supporting things (such as legalized prostitution and sweatshops) that many others find repulsive, and (b) we tend to think that markets will do a fantastic job of promoting innovation in the future which should increase our belief that within a reasonable time period someone will have the technology to revive the cryogenically frozen.

    I have considered writing to Gary Becker to urge him to sign up. If he did I imagine it would go along way to reduce the “I think you are insane tax” that cryonics enthusiasts now must pay.

    I think that besides the insanity tax the main reason so few people have signed up is that because so few people have signed up it’s reasonable for most people to assume that cryonics really is crazy or else far more people would have signed-up.

  12. 12 12 Roger

    The term for corner turning is “dog ear”.

  13. 13 13 Scott Wood

    Why would you want to eliminate scarcity when scarcity is a function of human imagination?

  14. 14 14 Noumenon

    Quite fascinated by the implied story behind your “don’t rely on plastic chain” answer…

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