Cormac McCarthy is a literary icon. Winner of the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for his novel All the Pretty Horses, and the Pulitzer Prize for his apocalyptic novel The Road, Norma’s earlier novel, Blood Meridian has been labelled The Great American Novel.
Many people did not know that this cultural giant is also fascinated by, and amazingly knowledgeable about science. Reading his newest books, The Passenger and Stella Maris (released this week!), however, and that becomes obvious. The protagonists are mathematical and physics prodigies, and just as one may requires a dictionary to keep up with the the remarkably diverse prose in Cormac’s writing, some people may need to consult some popular books on science to fully appreciate the scientific asides sprinkled throughout both volumes.
I first met Cormac at the Santa Fe Institute back when I was considering a possible position there as its Director, some years ago. I was shocked to walk into the kitchenette there and discover him, as I had no idea that is where he spent his time. But, as we discuss in our dialogue, he moved to Santa Fe at the invitation of Nobel Laureate physicist Murray Gell Mann to join the new Institute.
Cormac and I became fast friends then, and have remained friends ever since. The best hour of radio I ever did was with Cormac and Werner Herzog, on the occasion of Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, where both Cormac and Werner talked with amazing authority about the evolution paleontology of early modern humans. Then later, he honored me by asking if he could copyedit the paperback version of my book Quantum Man, a scientific biography of Richard Feynman. He said he wanted to make the paperback version ‘perfect’, in part by removing all exclamation marks and semicolons.. Of course I said yes, and we added his name as copyeditor on the front page!
I have known that Cormac is extremely reluctant to appear in public or do interviews. He agreed to appear in our film The Unbelievers, which was a great gift, but has often demurred when I have asked him to appear in other public panels on subjects we love to talk about in private. So, when I asked him if, on the occasion of the publication of his new books, the first books in 16 years, if we could sit down and record a conversation about science for The Origins Podcast, I was shocked and thrilled when he agreed. He is 89 years old now, and I was so pleased to have the chance to record some of his thoughts on science for posterity.
He invited us into his home for an afternoon conversation after a long lunch, and the conversation that ensued was much like the conversations we have had over the years. Cormac loves to discuss science, but prefers to listen to physicists talk about their work rather than initiate conversations. He is, after all, notoriously laconic. But when he does speak about science, his insights are fascinating. Using some of the ideas discussed in his new books a launching points, our discussion ranged over quantum mechanics, the role of mathematics in science, and whether there will ever be a theory of everything.
There were a variety of challenges that day, including the difficulty of filming something in a sunlight room without window shades, but the end result was unique and memorable. I hope you agree.
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