Jack of all trades, Tony Rothman, uses his educational background to write sci-fi novels

A Pulitzer Prize nominated author, theoretical physicist, playwright, and musician, Lawrence resident Tony Rothman defies categorization.

“People are very compartmentalized, but sometimes I like to remind them that our word for interesting is from the Latin interesse, which means, essentially, neither one thing nor the other; between essences,” Rothman said.

Rothman, a lecturer in Physics at Princeton University, has always been at the intersection of various disciplines. Rothman’s father Milton, like Rothman, was a physicist and a science-fiction writer, sparking Rothman’s passion for both science and writing at a young age.

“I kind of grew up at the Plasma Physics Lab,” Rothman said. “I think I must have known I was going to be a physicist at the age of 12, if not 9.”

Rothman also grew up surrounded by famous science-fiction authors such as Isaac Asimov and Lester del Ray.

“My father actually didn’t write much science fiction, but since everyone else I knew did, it was kind of natural,” Rothman said.

Rothman’s father was the co-founder of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, holding the world’s first science fiction convention in 1936 in his living room at the age of 16. As a result, many of his father’s friends were prominent science fiction writers.

“I don’t think my writing style is much like my father’s—I write many things that he didn’t—but I just grew up in that atmosphere,” Rothman said.

Now 60, Rothman recalls writing his first novel, an unpublished work of science fiction, when he was a student at Lawrence High School. His first published book, a work of science fiction titled The World is Round, was written just after graduating from Swarthmore College, at the age of 22.

As a physicist, Rothman informs his science fiction writing with his own knowledge and passion for science.

“I’m one to write a book based on real science,” Rothman said. “And that proved to be quite a challenge because popular fiction is supposed to be fast and quick-moving, but science is slow. Scientific research is slow.”

Firebird retains this commitment to scientific accuracy.

“It’s entertaining because it’s a great work of fiction, but it’s also educational as it gives the reader a lot of insights into fusion,” said Alfred von Halle, Head of Electrical Engineering at PPPL, who helped Rothman with verifying the scientific accuracy of the book.

For Rothman, the book was a culmination of years of work. He first had the idea for the book 30 years ago, when his father’s colleague, William Hooke, suggested he write a mystery novel set in a plasma physics laboratory. However, it wasn’t until 1996 that Rothman wrote the first version of the story, which he did not sell.

Seven years later, with the official establishment of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, Rothman decided to revisit his story. Changing the novel from present tense and first person to past tense and third person, Rothman rewrote the novel as a race between ITER and a fictional laboratory in Texas, where Rothman had lived for 8 years.

Unfortunately, the book met resistance among publishers and agents. One agent told Rothman that she didn’t think the book could be published because it was too pro-nuclear.

“In any case, it’s not even about nuclear power, or conventional nuclear power. It’s not about nuclear fission,” Rothman said. “It’s about a future source of energy that hasn’t even been achieved yet.”

After waiting a few years, Rothman decided to shorten the book and publish it himself through AuthorHouse, a self-publishing company. Firebird marks Rothman’s 10th book.

While Firebird and several of his earliest books were in science fiction, Rothman stresses that not all of his works are related to his passion for science.

“I’ve written a lot of things that have nothing to do with science,” Rothman said. “In some ways, since I spend so much time with physics, when I write, I try to get away from it.”

Rothman notes, however, that since his first book was published over 30 years ago, his pace of writing has slowed. He finds himself more selective of the ideas he chooses to pursue. Indeed, according to Rothman, finding an idea is only the fourth hardest aspect of writing a book.

“The third hardest thing is starting it. The second hardest thing is finishing it. The hardest thing is being satisfied with it,” Rothman said.

Despite Rothman’s own apprehensions, Rothman’s friends and colleagues are effusive in their praise of his work.

“He’s very good at taking complicated scientific principles and getting them down into lay terms where an interested reader can understand the science,” von Halle said.

Several of Rothman’s books have won awards, including A Physicist on Madison Avenue, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The book is a collection of popular science essays written by Rothman, many of which that were published in Discover. Rothman’s book, Sacred Mathematics: Japanese Temple Geometry, written with Fukagawa Hidetoshi, was awarded the 2008 American Association of Publishers Award for Professional and Scholarly Excellence in Mathematics.

“I think his writing is terrific. I’ve known his work, or at least some of his work, long before I knew him,” Lieb said.

Beyond his work in fiction and nonfiction, Rothman has also written five plays.

Three of his plays are part of a “classical musical trilogy” that draws upon another one of his interests: music. Rothman had been a serious oboe player for 30 years, before transitioning to singing for the past 10 years. He currently takes voice lessons with a local heldentenor.

With his appointment at Princeton coming to an end this year, Rothman is already working on his next endeavor—opening a science center in Trenton.

Friends, Trenton locals, and others who had been involved in a previous effort to start a science center, which had collapsed in the face of the 2008 recession, had convinced Rothman to take on the project given his experience in engaging the public as a writer.

“For some reason, people think I’m the person to do it,” Rothman said.

While the project is still in its early stages, Rothman hopes that the center will be able to introduce the public to real science, mirroring his dedication to scientific accuracy in his novels.

“I would like people to just walk in and have opportunities to participate in real scientific activities,” Rothman said.

In addition, he hopes to include art exhibits that lead to scientific questions, envisioning the center’s opening event to be a performance of Ballet Mécanique by George Antheil, a famous composer from Trenton. According to Rothman, such a performance could then lead to a discussion on cryptology, spread spectrum technology and modern communications.

“There’s lots of ways of linking science and art,” Rothman said.

Firebird is available online at amazon.com. For more information about Rothman and his work, go online to physics.princeton.edu/~trothman.