New Scientist had a good article in the 10 April 08 issue about the formative books of the youth of 17 leading scientists. I found the most compelling Sean Carroll’s recommendation of One, Two, Three… Infinity.
It reminded me of a book that I remember reading in 4th grade that had a huge influence on my development: The Curve of Binding Energy.
I was already interested in nuclear physics and was motivated to read it. I think the book either inspired or reinforced many things that have become central parts of me; in particular an appreciation that understanding how things actually work gives one the ability to manipulate reality in a way that people who are less aware of how things work expect. Understanding things is lifetime power and (ever more importantly as I get older) a source of amusement. It illustrated how much fun being able to solve problems could be; the subversive (not merely empirical) value of knowledge.
I also learned how to make a mediocre nuclear weapon. Something that has made me a bit of smart ass ever since: if you know how to make the most fearsome weapon on earth it’s hard to be too intimidated. I wrote a paper in 9th grade describing how to build a weapon based on what I remembered from the book. About that time a student at Princeton got a lot of press for making a model nuclear bomb but using toothpaste instead of U-235, coincidently reinforcing my sense of significance.
After high school and after working as a programmer at a health physics company for a summer (and spending some formative time at a nuclear physics lab at U-Penn in grade school) I was one of a small number of nuclear engineering students on the fusion track at MIT. The Curve of Binding Energy inspired a love and appreciation of Nuclear Physics (and a sense of knowing something special) that only an act of congress could crush. When I was a freshman congress canceled funding for TARA, the tandem mirror experiment at MIT that about half the grad students I had just met were working on. While I dropped my FORTRAN efforts in support of FULIB and turned to robotics and eventually computers, I still ended up getting a degree in physics, course 8, not too far in practice or theory from course 20. And in no small part thanks to John McPhee and Ted Taylor.