Hollywood's full of interesting figures with dreams — struggling actors and writers who wait tables, walk dogs or sell insurance on the side.
In the 1980s and early '90s, Leonard Mlodinow was likely one of the most unexpected: a theoretical physicist-turned-scriptwriter.
When TV action hero MacGyver or the Starship Enterprise crew needed new dilemmas to solve, the UC Berkeley-trained scientist was there to supply them.
"I just really loved films and thought I should be writing screenplays," said the bestselling science writer on a recent sunny afternoon at Caltech, where he's a lecturer. He was describing his early career at Caltech, in 1981, and why he left for Hollywood. "I was 25 and had really great opportunities in academia, but I kept thinking, 'I'm in L.A. Hollywood's not far away!' I had encouraging experience with a screenplay so I decided to take a chance."
Eight years of writing for the networks turned out to be more than just a youthful gamble. Already a comfortable writer, Mlodinow found that working in a popular medium gave him an even better understanding of how to reach audiences in books. The key? Make it personal.
"Whatever I've worked on, I've always tried to make my writing personal," he said. "I think that's what makes my books somewhat different from what other scientists are doing. You have to tie concepts into everyday life or they just won't be interesting for readers."
Start by examining the cover of his new book, "Subliminal," which lands in bookstores later this month, and you'll understand where he's coming from. There's a serious, formal subtitle in black letters, "How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior." Tilt the book under a lamp, however, and transparent lettering appears that whispers, "Hey There. Yes: You, Sexy. Buy This Book Now. You Know You Want It."
In jeans and a black T-shirt, Mlodinow's a fit 57, affable and good-natured — a far cry from the eccentric professor who's been stuck in the lab for too long. He returned to Caltech in 2005 after his Hollywood stint and several other ventures (including video game design).
A father of three, he's by turns serious and self-deprecating — qualities he has blended effectively in a series of well-received books, including "Feynman's Rainbow" (a memoir of his early Caltech encounters with physicist Richard Feynman), "Euclid's Window" (a history of geometry) and "The Drunkard's Walk" (how chance occurrences influence our decisions).
His success as a solo author has also led to some impressive partnerships in recent years. Mlodinow's the guy who made scientific visionary Stephen Hawking more accessible — after Hawking read "Euclid's Window," he wanted to work with Mlodinow: They collaborated on 2005's "A Briefer History of Time" and again with 2010's "The Grand Design," and each time enjoyed bestseller success.
"Stephen's extremely satisfying to work with even though he can be pretty stubborn," he said, chuckling. "Oh I think I'm safe saying that because Stephen's said that about himself. But, really, theoretical physicists need to be stubborn — they face so many dead ends, so much frustration, they have to be that way to keep going."
He also teamed with Deepak Chopra, a provocative, influential figure in the field of mysticism, to produce a vigorous project, last year's "War of the Worldviews," a book confronting aspects of human behavior and beliefs from the angles of science (represented by Mlodinow) and spirituality (represented by his co-author).
Like "War of the Worldviews," "Subliminal" is also preoccupied with the hidden "whys" of our behavior, although, in the new book's case, Mlodinow plunges into the realm of the unconscious mind accompanied by the latest scientific research.
"There's so much rich scientific material now about the way the mind works," he said. "I realized I could really sink my teeth into this."
"Subliminal" adheres closely to what experiments now tell us, for instance, about "blindsight" (how our vision is affected by the dynamic interplay between the conscious and unconscious mind) and how our brains help us get our bearings in every moment of the day, filling information gaps "before we are even aware of any perceptions."
We know so little about ourselves, readers will come to realize — there are nerve fibers in our skin, for instance, that seem to have no other purpose than encouraging us to act more social. They give us a pleasing subliminal sensation of touch, he writes.
"I really see this book as a complement to 'The Drunkard's Walk.' That book says we see the world in a distorted way because we misinterpret the randomness of the outside world," he explained. " 'Subliminal' is about how we misinterpret our behavior because we're unaware of what our unconscious minds are doing."
There's also plenty of his trademark humor. When, for instance, he describes how we construct our self-images (and these images, no surprise, overlook our faults but notice everyone else's), he quips, with a TV scriptwriter's sense of timing, that "the brain is a decent scientist but an absolutely outstanding lawyer."
Humor's a good ingredient for all writing, Mlodinow said. But what's an absolutely essential ingredient? Passion.
"You have to have passion for a subject to write about it," he explained, and he's challenging his undergrad students to do just that — tap into their passions — in a current writing course. "You can't expect your readers to feel any excitement if it's nothing but a boring writing exercise for you."