Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Local Author Interview: Clint Sprott

It’s been a while since we added a new local author interview. University of Wisconsin-Madison Emeritus Professor Clint Sprott is a very prolific author and he was kind enough to answer a few questions for our blog. Some of his more recent books are Robust Chaos and Its ApplicationsElegant Chaos, and Physics Demonstrations.

What inspired you to write your books and what need do they fill?

I never intended to write books, but I've now authored six of them and coauthored four more. Each one has a story beginning with Introduction to Modern Electronics which to my amazement is still frequently used as the text in Physics 321. It came about when the excellent text by Wilmer Anderson and Bill Beeman went out of print while I was teaching the course, and I naively thought I could do even better. I won't bore you with the other nine stories.

Have you thought about writing a second edition to Introduction to Modern Electronics?

I stopped teaching the Electronics course shortly after that book was published and haven't much kept up with the modern developments in electronics. The subject is a bit peripheral to my research, and so I'm not very motivated to do a second edition even if the publisher asked, which they haven't.

Is there a connection between the Wonders of Physics and your book, Physics Demonstrations

Oh, yes, very definitely. That book was inspired by the five volume set of Chemical Demonstrations that Bassam Shakhashiri wrote. In fact he greased the wheels to get UW Press to publish it, and it has been selling very well despite their limited marketing. It helped that it got an excellent review in Physics Today and is being sold by the American Association of Physics Teachers. My aim was to document most of the demonstrations I have used in The Wonders of Physics over the years. It's now been ten years since I wrote it, and so there are some additional demonstrations that could be included in a second edition, but I have no plans to do that. I'm hoping that others will inherit The Wonders of Physics program and perhaps write a more up-to-date and comprehensive book.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing these books?

My first big surprise was how short the life was on my early books. I spent a few years writing, and then a few years later they were already out of print. This is less of a problem now with many publishers using print-on-demand.

Did you come across any unexpected challenges while writing, and how was it different than writing a journal article?

One the reasons I write books is that after a few years of writing only journal articles, I get tired of fighting with reviewers and editors. A nice thing about writing a book is that once you sign a contract, you can write almost anything you want and no one seems to care. I actually had to request that some of my books be reviewed before going to press. It's also really satisfying to see the finished book on the shelf and great to watch the royalties roll in year after year, long after the work is done, so long I don't think about dividing the total dollars by the total hours spent. But then journal articles are even less financially rewarding.

I'm surprised to hear that you don't fight with editors when writing a book.  Do you think it's different for non-fiction vs. fiction?

Absolutely. Everybody thinks they know how to write fiction, and there's a lot of competition in that market. I've never written any fiction and assume it would be hard to get that published. By contrast, for a technical book, the editors rely on the credentials and reputation of the author and usually don't have the knowledge to question what the author writes, although they can sometimes be picky about punctuation and adhering to their house style. If such a book is sufficiently specialized, there may be little or no competition, but the market may be limited mostly to libraries, especially with the current absurd prices of technical books.

Which of your books is your favorite?  Which one was the hardest to write? 

That's like asking a parent which is their favorite child. I like them all but each for a different reason. I suppose Chaos and Time-Series Analysis was my largest and most difficult project since it's a 500-page textbook with hundreds of end-of-chapter exercises and numerous computer projects. It was an outgrowth of a special topics course (Physics 505) that I taught three times, and it was solicited by a publisher who found my course notes on the Web. In many ways, writing a textbook is like teaching a course. Many of us do that as a way to work systematically through a body of material and fill in all the details. It's often said that the best way to learn something is to teach it, and I think that goes double for books since it's almost impossible to sweep your confusion under the rug when you know your words will still be on library shelves a hundred years from now.

What are some books that have inspired you, either professionally or personally?

I'm constantly inspired by Clifford A. Pickover who has now written 45 books on an amazing range of topics. We have become good friends, and I host his website ( on my web server.

Do you have any advice for the aspiring physicist or suggestions for the young student about further studies?

Sure, if you aren't very smart, make up for it by working really hard. Actually, that's good advice even if you are smart, and the combination produces Nobel Prizes.

What are you reading now?

I recently read The Beginning of Infinity by the physicist David Deutsch after reading a review in Physics Today. He offers a very optimistic view of the future to counter the doom and gloom of so many others. He agrees that we will always have problems, but as long as we are willing to learn, adapt, and change, they will eventually be solved. For him, sustainability is a curse, not a goal, since static societies have always eventually failed.

What do you enjoy most about Madison? Do you have a favorite restaurant, hangout spot, etc.?

With all this writing, I don't get out much, but the friends one makes is what makes any place feel like home, and I wouldn't want to leave Madison for that reason alone.

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

Retirement is great. Don't put it off too long. But don't expect that you will suddenly have a lot of free time. Nature abhors a vacuum.

Check out these and other items by Clint Sprott in the library catalog.

Physics Demonstrations     
Chaos and Time-Series Analysis


Elegant Chaos     
Robust Chaos and Its Applications



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