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Hello. I’m Brian Hayes. I’d like to explain how I came to write this book, which means I pretty much need to tell you the story of my life.

As a kid, I daydreamed of becoming a great novelist, but I also figured I’d grow up to be a nuclear physicist or an oceanographer. I had other passing fancies as well—scuba diver, airplane pilot, second baseman for the Yankees—but through it all the big clash of conflicting ambitions in my life was between literature and science. I fully expected that when the time came to choose, I’d have to struggle to make up my mind. As it turned out, however, the decision was made for me. Somehow I had neglected to pick up a college education, and I discovered that careers in physics and oceanography were not open to me. The writing life, on the other hand, required very little in the way of credentials.

At age 20, I went to work as a copy editor for The Baltimore Sun. A year or so later I took charge of the newspaper’s Sunday book-review section. This wasn’t exactly the fulfillment of my novelistic dreams, but at least I got to read and criticize other people’s novels. Meanwhile, my interest in science didn’t go away. Publishers would send me science books for review, and many of them wound up on my own shelves.

And then a miracle happened. Through luck and pluck I landed a job on the editorial staff of Scientific American, which was then a prosperous, elegant and distinguished monthly journal of discovery. Here was an opportunity to resolve the old conflict between literature and science; I could have both. By editing articles on scientific topics (including physics and oceanography), I finally got the education I had neglected earlier. My tutors were the illustrious authors of those articles. But most of all I learned from Dennis Flanagan, the editor of the magazine, who became my dear friend and mentor. He taught me how to write and he taught me how to live. (Dennis died in 2005, and I’ll miss him all the rest of my days.)

There’s another thread in the story that leads up to Group Theory in the Bedroom. My years at Scientific American—the 1970s and early 80s—were also the years when personal computers first came on the scene. Finally I got my chance to play with the toys of science, and not just to write about others’ adventures. I couldn’t have the particle accelerator I’d need to do experiments in high-energy physics, and I couldn’t buy a deep-submersible vehicle to explore the midocean ridges, but I could get my hands on a PC or (a little later) a Macintosh.

In 1984 I wrote a series of columns for Scientific American under the title “Computer Recreations.” Soon after, I left the magazine, but I’ve continued the column, carrying it from one publication to the next over the past 25 years. Since 1993 my essays have appeared under the rubric “Computing Science” in American Scientist, the elegant and distinguished bimonthly magazine published by Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society. In recent years, I’ve also been writing a weblog called bit-player that covers some of the same territory as the column. And I’ve published a book called Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape, which explores in words and pictures a different kind of technology. That book has its own web site.

Of the twelve essays collected in this volume, eleven first appeared in American Scientist. The outlier was published in The Sciences, the late lamented magazine of the New York Academy of Sciences.


How to reach me:

email: brian@bit-player.org

postal: 11 Chandler St. #2, Somerville, MA 02144 USA