Trefil, James S. 1938–
Trefil, James S. 1938–
PERSONAL: Born September 10, 1938, in Chicago, IL; son of Stanley (a personnel manager) and Sylvia (a social worker) Trefil; married Elinor Pletka, September 2, 1960 (divorced, January, 1972); married Jeanne Waples, October 20, 1973 (divorced, June, 1997); married Kim Gareiss, June 21, 1999 (divorced); married Wanda O'Brien, April 24, 2005; children: James Karel, Stefan James, Dominique Katherine, Flora Jeanne, Tomas. Education: University of Illinois, B.S., 1960; Oxford University, B.A., 1962, M.A., 1962; Stanford University, M.S., 1964, Ph.D., 1966.
CAREER: Writer, physicist, public speaker, radio broadcaster, commentator, and educator. Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Stanford, CA, fellow, 1966; European Center for Nuclear Research, Geneva, Switzerland, fellow, 1966–67; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, fellow at Laboratory for Nuclear Science, 1967–68; University of Illinois, Urbana, assistant professor of physics, 1968–70; University of Virginia, Charlottesville, fellow, Center for Advanced Studies, and associate professor, 1970–75, professor of physics, 1975–88; George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Physics, 1988–. Phi Beta Kappa visiting scholar, 2003–04. National Public Radio (NPR), science advisor and commentator.
MEMBER: American Physical Society (fellow), World Economic Forum (fellow), American Association for the Advancement of Science (fellow).
AWARDS, HONORS: Marshall Scholar, 1960–62; Air Force Office of Scientific Research postdoctoral fellow, 1966–67; President and Visitor's Research Prize, University of Virginia, 1979; American Association for the Advancement of Science/Westinghouse Science Journalism Award, 1983; Andrew W. Gemant Award for science and humanities, for outstanding and sustained contributions in bridging the gap between science and society, 2000; Guggenheim fellow.
Introduction to the Physics of Fluids and Solids, Pergamon (Elmsford, NY), 1975.
Physics as a Liberal Art, Pergamon (Elmsford, NY), 1978.
From Atoms to Quarks: An Introduction to the Strange World of Particle Physics, Scribner (New York, NY), 1980.
(With Robert T. Rood) Are We Alone? The Possibility of Extraterrestrial Civilizations, Scribner (New York, NY), 1981.
Living in Space, Scribner (New York, NY), 1981.
The Unexpected Vista: A Physicist's View of Nature, Scribner (New York, NY), 1983.
The Moment of Creation: Big Bang Physics from before the First Millisecond to the Present Universe, Scribner (New York, NY), 1983, Dover Publications (Mineola, NY), 2004.
A Scientist at the Seashore, Scribner (New York, NY), 1984.
Space, Time, Infinity: The Smithsonian Views the Universe, Pantheon/Smithsonian Books (New York, NY), 1985.
Meditations at Ten Thousand Feet: A Scientist in the Mountains, Scribner (New York, NY), 1986.
Meditations at Sunset: A Scientist Looks at the Sky, Scribner (New York, NY), 1987.
(Contributor and coauthor of appendix) E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, Houghton (New York, NY), 1987, published with an updated appendix, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 1988.
The Dark Side of the Universe: A Scientist Explores the Mysteries of the Cosmos, Scribner (New York, NY), 1988.
(With E.D. Hirsch, Jr.) Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1988, revised edition, 1993, published as The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2002.
Reading the Mind of God: In Search of the Principle of Universality, Scribner (New York, NY), 1989.
(With Robert M. Hazen) Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991.
1001 Things Everyone Should Know about Science, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1992.
The Facts of Life: Science and the Abortion Controversy, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1992.
Sharks Have No Bones: 1001 Things You Should Know about Science, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1993.
A Scientist in the City, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1994.
(With R. Hazen) The Physical Sciences: An Integrated Approach, Wiley (New York, NY), 1995, 2nd edition published as The Sciences: An Integrated Approach, Wiley (New York, NY), 1998.
The Edge of the Unknown: 101 Things You Don't Know about Science and No One Else Does Either, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1996.
Are We Unique? A Scientist Explores the Unparalleled Intelligence of the Human Mind, Wiley (New York, NY), 1997.
Other Worlds: The Solar System and Beyond, National Geographic Society (Washington, DC), 1999.
Other Worlds: Images of the Cosmos from Earth and Space, with a foreword by David H. Levy, National Geographic (Washington, DC), 1999.
(Editor) Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, Rout-ledge (New York, NY), 2001.
Cassel's Laws of Nature, Cassell (London, England), 2002, published as The Nature of Science: An A-Z Guide to the Laws and Principles Governing Our Universe, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003.
(With Margaret Hindle Hazen) Good Seeing: A Century of Science at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Joseph Henry Press (Washington, DC), 2002.
Human Nature: A Blueprint for Managing the Earth—By People, for People, Times Books/Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2004.
(With Robert M. Hazen) Physics Matters: An Introduction to Conceptual Physics, Wiley & Sons (Hoboken, NJ), 2004.
Contributor to periodicals, including Smithsonian, Washington Post, and Astronomy. Author of column, "Ask Mr. Science," USA Today, 1996–99. Smithsonian magazine, consultant; Science and USA Weekend, contributing editor.
SIDELIGHTS: Author and popular science writer James S. Trefil is a theoretical physicist who is one of the originators of modern theories about quarks as fundamental components of the universe. Through his books and articles, Trefil has clarified such subjects as atomic theory and the big bang for popular audiences; in his "Natural Philosopher" series, Trefil explores everyday questions about man's surroundings and applies physical theory in obtaining the answers. In A Scientist at the Seashore, the first book in the series, Trefil begins at a beach and investigates the influence of physics on tides, waves, sailing, skipping stones, and other topics. Similarly, Meditations at Ten Thousand Feet: A Scientist in the Mountains includes examinations of geology, such as the formation of mountains and glaciers, plate tectonics, and the age of the earth. A theoretical approach to such topics as light, clouds, and thunderstorms characterizes Meditations at Sunset: A Scientist Looks at the Sky, while A Scientist in the City explores the urban setting. All of these books have been praised for explaining scientific concepts without being condescending or oversimplified.
One reason for the success of Trefil's books is that they "are lucidly written in a style that is personal and discursive rather than technical," commented Gerald Feinberg in the New York Times Book Review. "Whether he is writing about the oceans, the cosmos or the Earth itself," observed Lee Dembart in the Los Angeles Times, "he exudes awe and wonder that things are as they are. He is the best kind of teacher," continued the critic. "His knowledge of the subject is expert, but he conveys it with the enthusiasm of a beginner." Jonathan Weiner similarly remarks upon the author's approach: "Trefil … seems to be an ideal physics teacher: clear, affable, and as pleased by the beauty of natural laws as most people are by sunsets," the critic wrote in the New York Times Book Review. "He holds your attention without begging for it, and he almost always knows when a point has been made or when an analogy is needed. I enjoyed reading even stories I already knew well … because of the superb clarity of the explanations," added Weiner.
Analyzing the proficiency of Trefil's explanations, Ellen W. Chu stated in the New York Times Book Review that they "omit nothing crucial and, most important, engage our active participation. Without patronizing," continues Chu, "he makes the 'scientific method' a real step-by-step process of discovery he invites us to share with him, not a rigid intellectual exercise performed only by fully registered scientists." Part of this process includes connecting the various elements of his analyses so that they form a coherent whole. "This is science writing at its best," commented Dembart, "a broad sweep over many disciplines that helps make the outlines of the jigsaw puzzle of the universe clearer." Chu similarly observed that "no matter how far afield [Trefil] takes us, he ties everything back to something familiar; his direct, unpretentious style makes the book painless and enjoyable reading." "Taken as a whole," wrote Feinberg, "I found Meditations at 10,000 Feet an impressive achievement in science writing for the general public." The critic concluded that Trefil's readers "will learn a good deal about science. They will also have a chance to see something that is much less common in science writing than clear exposition—how a scientist can use his training to understand his everyday experience."
In The Edge of the Unknown: 101 Things You Don't Know about Science and No One Else Does Either, Trefil gathers information from a wide range of scientific disciplines and presents it in an entertaining, brief format. Each topic addresses a new discovery, an age-old question, or a scientific development that has had, or will have, far-reaching societal implications. Many of the three-page essays are about health matters; seven of the ten problems Trefil designates as the most important facing mankind today are related to the human body. A Publishers Weekly reviewer found The Edge of the Unknown to be "a competent and sometimes fascinating tour of the frontiers of scientific inquiry" and noted that "Trefil has a gift for constructing useful analogies" Readers will have "respect and awe" for those who have made the great scientific advances.
Are We Unique? A Scientist Explores the Unparalleled Intelligence of the Human Mind examines the characteristics that differentiate humans from other living creatures and from computers. Another Publishers Weekly reviewer found that Trefil "demonstrates his skill in translating academic notions into language accessible to the educated general reader," yet he cautioned that the author's "fine science writing … is undercut at times by Trefil's tone." This "self-importance" is offset by the author's "insight and clarity," conceded the reviewer.
Trefil turns his attention to the beginning of it all with The Moment of Creation: Big Bang Physics from before the First Millisecond to the Present Universe. Trefil describes in depth current scientific theories about the nature, process, and results of the big bang, and then explores "how what we think may be wrong," commented a reviewer in SciTech Book News. Trefil brings his considerable knowledge of quarks and subatomic particles to bear on the issues, explaining how such particles are critical to the construction and continuation of the universe. He discusses scientists' attempts to construct a grand unification theory that explains the function of the universe, and theorizes on what might happen to the universe when, eventually, everything comes to an end.
Trefil next assembles a compendium of information on the most basic patterns and structures that emerged following the initial big bang that created the universe. The Nature of Science: An A-Z Guide to the Laws and Principles Governing Our Universe, published in England as Cassel's Laws of Nature, contains Trefil's explanations of the fundamental laws of nature, what is currently understood about them, and how they developed. Trefil's essays on each subject range from two to four pages, and each includes a statement of the law or theory; results from pivotal experiments in a variety of scientific disciplines; and biographies of scientists, timeline, and other useful information. He also explains the basics of scientific advancement and how science progresses through observation and experimentation. Wade M. Lee, writing in the Library Journal, commented that Trefil's "introduction itself is a gem," and noted that his "personal interjections convey a sense of his enthusiasm and of the dynamic nature of science into the present day."
Human Nature: A Blueprint for Managing the Earth—By People, for People, offers Trefil's insights into how humans and nature interact, and how nature can be harnessed—as opposed to exploited—for the greater good of humanity. He asserts that nature is neutral to the existence of humans, and that it is not a transcendent force or delicately balanced system that needs to be saved or overused. Humans, he notes, can protect themselves from the worst effects of nature, and can utilize the best nature has available, but in the end, it will be the planet that survives, not people. However, as science progresses and greater understandings are reached in genetics, artificial intelligence, experimental ecology, and complexity theory, humans will be better able to stave off threats to their existence while better managing the resources that the planet has to offer. In contrast to other scientists, Trefil believes that massive food shortages, global warming, and other man-influenced disasters will not wipe out humanity, and that the "world's population will be able to feed itself and maintain Earth's temperature in the future," noted a Science News reviewer. Instead, Trefil asserts that humans will be able to get around the limitations imposed by nature to ensure their survival. "It's a vision of planetary terraforming imbued with bravura and optimism," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Trefil encourages careful stewardship of nature, and "stresses a practical, responsible approach that could serve people and sustain a livable environment," observed Gregg Sapp in the Library Journal.
Trefil once told CA: "I regard my writing as an outgrowth of my work as a teacher. Both involve explaining concepts clearly. I write about physical science, which is the area of my research, and about energy, a subject which I teach. I am particularly interested in wood heating, as I have used it myself for a number of years.
"I feel that science has come to play such a large role in our lives that it is absolutely crucial that the general public know what is happening. Unfortunately, very few scientists involve themselves in this sort of work. The situation may be changing, but not fast enough."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
BioScience, July-August, 1993, Walter G. Rosen, review of The Facts of Life: Science and the Abortion Controversy, p. 495.
Booklist, September 15, 1996, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Edge of the Unknown: 101 Things You Don't Know about Science and No One Else Does Either, p. 194; December 1, 1996, review of The Edge of the Unknown, p. 664.
Library Journal, December, 1991, Harold D. Shane, review of 1001 Things Everyone Should Know about Science, p. 190; March 15, 1997, Laurie Bartolini, review of Are We Unique? A Scientist Explores the Unparalleled Intelligence of the Human Mind, p. 86; June 1, 2003, Wade M. Lee, review of The Nature of Science: An A-Z Guide to the Laws and Principles Governing Our Universe, p. 110; April 15, 2004, Gregg Sapp, review of Human Nature: A Blueprint for Managing the Earth—By People, for People, p. 120.
Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1986, Lee Dembart, review of Meditations at Ten Thousand Feet: A Scientist in the Mountains, p. 10.
National Review, November 25, 1983, Gay Behensky, review of The Unexpected Vista: A Physicist's View of Nature, p. 1500.
New Scientist, December 21, 2002, "Keep It Nearby," review of Cassell's Laws of Nature, p. 75.
New York Times Book Review, February 24, 1985, Ellen W. Chu, review of A Scientist at the Seashore, p. 9; May 11, 1986, Gerald Feinberg, review of Meditations at Ten Thousand Feet, p. 27; July 12, 1987, Jonathan Weiner, review of Meditations at Sunset: A Scientist Looks at the Sky, p. 7.
Publishers Weekly, December 14, 1990, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy, p. 58; August 5, 1996, review of Edge of the Unknown, p. 422; February 3, 1997, review of Are We Unique?, p. 86; September 20, 1999, review of Other Worlds, p. 59; March 8, 2004, review of Human Nature, p. 60.
Science Books & Films, July-August, 2005, Paul K. Grogger, review of Human Nature, p. 155.
Science News, November 29, 1980, review of From Atoms to Quarks: An Introduction to the Strange World of Particle Physics, p. 349; April 23, 1983, review of Are We Alone?, p. 258; October 8, 1983, The Moment of Creation: Big Bang Physics from before the First Millisecond to the Present Universe, p. 227; October 7, 1989, review of Reading the Mind of God: In Search of the Principle of Universality, p. 226; June 26, 2004, review of Human Nature, p. 415.
SciTech Book News, June, 2005, review of The Moment of Creation, p. 36.
Washington Monthly, March, 1991, Gregg Easterbrook, review of Science Matters, p. 60.
American Scientist Online, http://www.americanscientist.org/ (November 12, 2006), biography of Trefil; "Scientist's Nightstand: The Bookshelf Talks with James Trefil," interview with Trefil.
George Mason University Web site, http://www.gmu.edu/ (November 12, 2006), biography of James S. Trefil.
Mason Gazette, http://gazette.gmu.edu/ (August 21, 2006), biography of Trefil.
WFPL Radio Web site, http://www.wfpl.org/ (November 12, 2006), biography of Trefil.