ROBERTSÂ How is it possible that Cal Techâ€™s basketball team was considered better than UCLAâ€™s basketball team in the 1950s? That was the part I was amazed at.
MLODINOW At least the early part of the decade.Â That was harder to understand than the Girl Named Florida Problem. I think in those days basketball was nothing–imagine saying that the Cal Tech curling team is better than the UCLA curling team. Since nobody really cares about curling itâ€™s just a quaint fact that someone at Cal Tech, probably in the faculty, would care about curling well enough to organize a team. Maybe Iâ€™m exaggerating a little bit, but in the 50s I think it was a much different sport and a much different sports world. Not to belittle their team; I think they had some really good players from the looks of it and maybe Cal Tech cared more about recruiting players for sports than they do today. Maybe our world in general is a little looser about things and you could invest the time to play sports more even if you were at a high-powered place like Cal Tech; not to be as pressured–to just study. I guess it was just a different world in some ways–a nice world–back then that could happen. Now college basketball is just a huge and money generating industry that no one would allow a school like Cal Tech–by allow it I donâ€™t mean that thereâ€™s some individual disallowing it but the world will not allow, itâ€™s not loose enough to allow, a school thatâ€™s not completely focused on that sport to have a good team in that sport. Everything is too high-powered today.
ROBERTS Yes. Of all the things in your book, that was the most staggering.
MLODINOW You should see the movie Quantum Hoops; itâ€™s a documentary about the Cal Tech basketball team. I recommend it.
ROBERTS I didnâ€™t know there was such a movie.
MLODINOW Itâ€™s on DVD; Iâ€™m thinking it must be available from NetFlix.
ROBERTS Yes, Iâ€™ll get it.
MLODINOW Itâ€™s very amusing–it is for me because of my connection to Cal Tech–but I think for the general public, itâ€™s a very amusing film.
ROBERTS We were talking about unexpected things. If you looked at the Cal Tech basketball team, if you just looked at basketball in the 1950s, you would think, â€˜Well, Cal Tech–thatâ€™s as it should be.â€™ But then all of the sudden, 20 years later, itâ€™s so very different.
MLODINOW I think in those days it was more like a club, like a sport, like what you think of as a kidsâ€™ fun activity and now the athletes for basketball are heavily recruited and bribed in one way or another, and the huge amounts of money at stake for the school for them. Itâ€™s a totally different calculus and itâ€™s sad in a way, isnâ€™t it? I think everything is like that today.
ROBERTS I guess what Iâ€™m saying is that there was something–youâ€™re in the 1950s, itâ€™s 1956–very few people saw that there was something hidden in basketball that could lead to what it became.
MLODINOW And if you were the superstar of that time you also didnâ€™t get the rewards of what became today and itâ€™s a little bit late for you now, right? I know in the bathroom in the Cal Tech cafeteria there was a framed article about him, I canâ€™t remember his name, one of the superstars of the 50s who was one of the best basketball players to ever live–I think they claim that even today–who basically probably never even made a living from it, or not a good living.
ROBERTS Yes, that kind of brings us back to the very beginning. I feel like somehow the times have changed and people are smarter. Now you can make a living from what youâ€™re doing. Youâ€™re writing this very entertaining intellectual history; finally thereâ€™s a market for it. Finally people are smart enough to be at your level so that you can write a book that you respect but you can get a wide enough audience.
MLODINOW Are you saying that in the 50s that couldnâ€™t have been done? I donâ€™t know.
ROBERTS Well, nobody did it; letâ€™s put it that way.
MLODINOW No, nobody did it. I donâ€™t know why.
ROBERTS As I said before we started recording, youâ€™re the first person to ever do this. Will you be the last? I donâ€™t know but youâ€™re the first. Youâ€™re the first person to write intellectual histories that actually are popular and that people want to read, that theyâ€™re not forced to read by their teachers. Itâ€™s not just a tiny group of people reading them. Professors of course write them but theyâ€™re not well written and itâ€™s just their job to write them; they get a salary from the government to write those books. Youâ€™re not getting any salary. Youâ€™re an entrepreneur and itâ€™s just so different. Your books have to be popular or your job goes away. Itâ€™s just a different level of competence; your books are just infinitely more accessible, infinitely better than a professor would normally write. A professor is subsidized and thatâ€™s what is basically comes down to. Practically everybody who writes about science is subsidized but youâ€™re not.
When the TV show The Simpson came along I would talk about IQ scores in my class and I talk about the fact that they had been rising and so forth. And I say, â€˜Well you know there is evidence that people are getting smarter and one example is The Simpsons; this is at a higher level than other TV shows that came before it.â€™ Now maybe thatâ€™s not so important, how intelligent is an animated show, but I think what youâ€™re doing is very important and I think it may be a sign of increased intelligence. Thereâ€™s enough of a market now for what youâ€™re doing. There wasnâ€™t before.
MLODINOW Iâ€™m certainly glad that there is and that people appreciate the way I put things.
ROBERTS Iâ€™m glad because that means you can do so much more of it.
MLODINOW Yes, and I look forward to that. Itâ€™s a great privilege to be able to do that.
ROBERTS When I was a freshman at Cal Tech I was always looking for books like yours but they just didnâ€™t exist. So I ended up reading The New Yorker for my intellectual history. That was very narrow; they never did a good job of covering science. They never talked about geometry or DeMoivre, Laplace, or Gauss. They didnâ€™t cover those people. But those people are important. But you do; finally we have someone. Itâ€™s great.