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Scientists' Nightstand: Michael Novacek

Greg Ross

Michael Novacek is senior vice president and provost of science at the American Museum of Natural History. His books Time Traveler (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) and Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs (Anchor Books, 1996) were New York Times Notable Books of the Year.

Michael NovacekClick to Enlarge Image 

I am a curator of paleontology and also the provost of science at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. My research primarily concerns the evolution and history of mammals. My interests have taken me on many field expeditions, to places such as Mongolia, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Africa and the Rocky Mountain region of the United States. The Mongolian expeditions have been very successful in unearthing both new fossil mammals and dinosaur skeletons, eggs and embryos. I am also very interested in the evolutionary implications of studies of DNA sequences in living mammals and am part of a big effort to piece together anatomical, gene and fossil evidence to gain a very enriched picture of mammal evolution and relationships.

As provost I have oversight of more than 200 scientists, whose responsibilities include care of one of the world's great collections, more than 32 million specimens and artifacts. The museum sponsors more than 125 scientific expeditions a year. In 2006 we were authorized by the state of New York to become the first museum in the Western Hemisphere to offer Ph.D. degrees (in comparative biology). I also oversee the exhibition programs, whose recent highlights include a new permanent hall on human origins, the traveling exhibition Darwin, and a new exhibit, Water, on the issues surrounding the availability, use and sustainability of fresh water.

I have also tried to bring my work and interests in science to popular audiences, notably through three books, Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs, Time Traveler and the current Terra: Our 100-Million-Year-Old Ecosystems and the Threats That Now Put It at Risk (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

I have had a lifelong interest in science (as a kid I was crazy about dinosaurs, mammoths and other fossils), but I am also interested in music, hiking, climbing, skiing and biking.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

Currently I am completely captured, and enraptured, by Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007). Ross seems to have succeeded at what I thought was impossible, an interlacing of the lives of the composers and their tumultuous societies with a vivid dissection of their music.

I just finished reading Tim Krabbé's novel The Rider (Bloomsbury, 2002), a spare, gut-wrenching, first-person description, meter by meter, of the 137-kilometer Tour de Mont Aigoul. Krabbé, famous for his disturbing story of psychological horror in The Vanishing (Random House, 1993), shows he is also good for drama and suspense when it comes to exhausting hill climbs, tire blowouts, cycle crashes and the combination of relentless drive, arrogance and race savvy that it takes to win, or even finish.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

It seems I am reading constantly, whether new scientific papers, exhibition text, or (gulp) administrative policies. At least some of this is for pleasure! But most of my "extracurricular" reading occurs in the wee hours in bed next to the night (or early morning) table. I also pick up a book again when my laptop batteries run out on long flights (sometimes nearly finishing a short book like The Rider before the plane makes its way through the queue for takeoff!). International expeditions present much downtime, where the frustrations of long embassy lines, delayed flights and desultory phone responses from dignitaries can be mitigated with a good book.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

Will Shakespeare—just about everything brilliant ever written was written first by him!

Herman Melville—and that great whale of a book (see below).

Joseph Conrad—Maybe it's something about the way he was late to embrace the English language, but he seems more like a sorcerer than a writer.

James Joyce—I was lucky enough to have a high-school literature teacher read Joyce aloud with an Irish accent! If you think Joyce is great for his fiction, read the diary of his Italian travels. Spare, occasionally acerbic, but always on point. It is the best travelogue I have ever read.

William Faulkner—I didn't know one could use words and change the structure of a story the same way that Schoenberg, Stravinsky or John Coltrane changed music.

And while I'm on that music theme, Bob Dylan, for what may be called, in gross understatement, "good lyrics."

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

Moby Dick (1851)—number one. It is as real as any real-life adventure, says more about nature than any naturalist ever could and, dare I say, in some passages, is more biblical than the Bible. A work of beauty, mystery and power—like that elusive white hump out there in the cold, gray sea.

Catch-22 (1961)—it may not be in the pantheon, but this book really hit me at a special time, when I needed someone else to describe to me what I was feeling about the waste, injustice and absurdity of war. Also, Joseph Heller's vocabulary is awesome!

Dubliners (1914)—and not just because of those last lines in "The Dead." With Joyce's art, Dublin, the setting for endless epiphanies, is transformed from a particular place and time to the eternal city.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Because I am a professional scientist, I would have to say James Watson's The Double Helix (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968). I read this as an undergraduate in college, and I suddenly realized scientists were bright, creative but flawed people who had a lot of fun and who were uniquely privileged to experience the emotions that come with solving a great mystery about the universe. I haven't discovered the DNA code, but I have discovered some very cool fossils, among other things, and I think I know what that feeling of elation and wonder is like.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

Bruce Barcott's new, highly praised book The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird (Random House, 2008). I share with this eloquent writer many of the same concerns and hopes for our environmental future.

Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)—the first page jumps, but I won't get to it for a few days.

Oliver Sacks's Musicophilia (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)—because everybody says I should! (And I really liked Uncle Tungsten [Alfred A. Knopf, 2001].)

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Jack London's The Call of the Wild (1903). It does call.

J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (1954)—Today it's: "You've seen the movie, now read the book."

Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1885)—who is part of all of us, especially young people.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

James Watson's The Double Helix—for the reasons given above.

Stephen Jay Gould's Ever Since Darwin (Norton, 1977)—a collection of essays that opened up evolution and related topics to a much vaster readership. Gould at his most pithy.

Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976)—for the other side of the story.

John Steinbeck's The Log from the Sea of Cortez (Viking Press, 1951). It takes a writer to show us what it is really like to be on a scientific expedition. Glad he was on board!

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

If by that you mean paleontology, I would recommend Richard Fortey's Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). Fortey covers just what he says he does with wit and authority. A great epic narrative on why we like fossils so much.

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