Deeply scientific —but not completely rational

David Rabkin likes science books that unravel and novels that weave complex systems. David Rabkin likes science books that unravel and novels that weave complex systems. (Museum of Science)
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / February 13, 2011

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After a major yearlong renovation, the Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Science reopens today. Few are more excited than planetarium director David Rabkin, who is also the museum’s director for current science and technology. Rabkin, who describes himself as “an engineer at heart,” holds a doctorate in technology and innovation management from MIT. Originally from Milton, he lives in Cambridge.

What books do you read to keep up with innovations in science?

I go through different science phases, punctuated by fun novels. I went through a phase where I read a lot of biology. I was a really good physics student but a terrible biology student. It didn’t make sense to me, and that drove me nuts. But a lot of current science and technology is about biology, so I started reading. I realized that when you look at cell biology, and genetics, and evolution, there’s this incredibly elegant logic to it. I finally found the “F = ma” of biology, and then it became fascinating.

One of the most impactful books I read was “The Agile Gene” by Matt Ridley. It’s so revealing of the intricacy of biology and yet also of deep underlying patterns.

What makes for great science writing?

Well, one of my favorite science writers is Jerome Groopman. His chapters introduce you to a doctor-patient situation, and then he brings you into the science. Some stories end happily and some don’t, and it feels very real.

Another masterful book is Simon Singh’s “The Code Book.” The first part is about the battle between code makers and code breakers. The second is how that balance of power has made a difference historically. The third is the math! And it’s beautifully written, so you can understand the math.

I’m a systems thinker — I like understanding the systemic nature of our planet. The book that comes to mind is “Cradle to Cradle,” by [William] McDonough and [Michael] Braungart. It looks at how in nature, the waste from one process is fuel for another, and asks: Why can’t we organize our society that way? That’s a profound systems perspective, and I find that deeply satisfying.

Another book that affected me is a total classic called “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.” To manage the complexity of our world, human beings simplify tremendously. From an evolutionary perspective, that’s been insanely successful, but when our assumptions are wrong, we can fall prey to those same cognitive systems. To radically paraphrase, the book says, “You don’t know what you don’t know. You’re not fully aware of what your mind’s doing. And you better watch out for it.”

Tell me about the fiction you read.

I love detective stories, and fiction that makes me laugh. I’ve read everything by Robert Parker. And I love Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder novels. There are all these parts of the story spinning in space, and as you approach the end you realize, “That’s what’s going on here! What a train wreck!” The other person I just discovered is Carl Hiaasen. I recently picked up “Skinny Dip,” and I was just laughing in the bookstore.

All these three writers are weaving together complex systems that in the end make sense. So I think there’s some part of my brain where the serious stuff and fun stuff connects.

Do you still read in paper format?

Yes, and I’m not sure why. I’m inclined to like the Kindle, because its display is so fantastic. But the truth is, I like to take a book and lie down on my bed with a whole bunch of pillows. Partly because of “Judgment Under Uncertainty,” I know I’m not a rational person — and I’m not there yet.


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