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Scientists' Nightstand: Simon Lamb

Greg Ross

Simon Lamb is a lecturer in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St. Cross College. He is the author of Devil in the Mountain: The Search for the Origins of the Andes (Princeton University Press, 2004), coauthor of Earth Story: The Shaping of Our World (Princeton University Press, 2003) and a contributor to a number of BBC television documentaries.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born and educated in England, and I am a geologist at Oxford University. Simon LambClick to Enlarge ImageMy main research interest is the origin of mountain ranges and the fate of continents at the edges of tectonic plates, and all my research today is concerned with the active earthquake-prone parts of the Earth. But I began my research career in the 1980s, studying some of the oldest rocks on the planet, preserved in the small southern African kingdom of Swaziland. I subsequently made the leap across the aeons of geological time to look at a newly born mountain range in New Zealand. For the past decade or so, I have been trying to work out the origin of the great Andean ranges on the western side of South America, visiting the high Andes of Bolivia almost every year. To complete my experience of the planet's great mountain ranges, I have been on geological expeditions to Tibet and the Himalayas. However, I am convinced that all this effort will have been worthwhile only if I can manage to interest a more general audience. And so I have been closely involved in the writing and production of a number of BBC television science documentaries on geological stories. In the same spirit, I recently wrote up my research in South America as a popular science book.

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?

The two most recent books I have read are Life on the Mississippi (1883), by Mark Twain, and Lark Rise to Candleford (1945), by Flora Thompson. I first read Life on the Mississippi a few years ago, and I thought of it then as a wonderfully evocative account of travel in the 1850s. Recently, I suddenly had the urge to escape the cramped, overpopulated and car-dominated world of southern England, with its road network in a permanent state of near-gridlock, and experience a more leisurely and open time in the vast expanses of North America, and I have always been fascinated by the idea of living on a river. So I revisited Mark Twain's account of his own youth on the great Mississippi. I suppose my decision to read Lark Rise to Candleford came from the same desire for escape, this time to the quiet pre-traffic days of rural Oxfordshire in the 1880s and '90s. Flora Thompson wrote about her childhood in a tiny remote village with a sense of story and detail that one usually finds only in novels, making the reader feel that they have somehow been allowed into this world themselves. Recently, I have also been fascinated by the linguistic background to J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, described in The Road to Middle-Earth (Houghton Mifflin, 1983), by the Anglo-Saxon language scholar Tom Shippey, whose academic career parallels that of Tolkien himself.

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

I prefer to read at night in bed. To me, reading is a way of disengaging myself from the real world and entering a place of my choice. I therefore tend to choose books depending on my mood and the sort of experience I want, and I find that lying in bed, virtually floating on a comfortable mattress, with the soft cozy glow of my bedside lamp as the only source of light, is the best way to do this. I like to read until I can hardly keep my eyes open—usually, after a tiring day, this is not very long after I have started. I do the same thing when I am camping out during fieldwork, this time lying on my back in a sleeping bag with a head torch for light. And I like to read very long books, so that I can enjoy them over a long period.

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

I suppose my number-one favorite is Jane Austen. I have read all her novels many times over, and I intend to keep on reading them in the future. I don't know why I like Jane Austen so much. Perhaps it is because there is something confident and unspoiled about the world she describes—something I find very settling—and, of course, all her stories have happy endings. Mark Twain is certainly the funniest writer I have come across, and I can read his travel books over and over again. It is the combination of his dry and surreal humor—sometimes it is not even clear whether he is joking or deadly serious—and the genuine accounts of travel before the time of mass mobility and tourism that I find so enjoyable. And for the sheer thrill of reading a detective story in really well-written prose, I think it is hard to beat Martin Cruz Smith. I have read his Russian trilogy—Gorky Park, Polar Star and Red Square (Random House, 1981, 1989 and 1992, respectively)—more than once. But I am pretty voracious in my reading, and a great fan of 18th and 19th century novelists, such as Henry Fielding, Elizabeth Gaskell, William Thackeray, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Thomas Hardy. Much to my surprise, I have also developed a taste for reading classical authors in translation, especially when they are translated by the likes of Robert Graves, and I am always amazed by the immediacy of writers such as Herodotus, Plutarch, Tacitus and Julius Caesar. Caesar's The Gallic Wars is an extraordinary glimpse of the battles for France and Britain, fought more than 2,000 years ago and described by one of the leading protagonists.

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

This is a pretty hard question to answer. I can't limit myself to three, because I feel I would be being unfair on the others. So let's say (in no particular order): Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, H. E. Bates's Fair Stood the Wind for France (1944) and Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. Excepting Mark Twain's work, which must be the funniest book ever written, all these are novels, and somehow the richness of the stories makes the characters in them old friends whom I look up when I am feeling in need of company. They are all essentially love stories, but stories where the love, as Thomas Hardy writes at the end of Far From the Madding Crowd, is not instant and wild passion, but grows slowly and unexpectedly through everyday and shared experiences.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Again, I can't limit myself to one. It was the frustration of not being able to read Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat books, but instead having to listen to my best friend reading them out loud, that eventually drove me to learn to read for myself. So Dr. Seuss's books were pretty important in my reading career. But the first book I actually read right through for myself was Edith Nesbit's The Railway Children (1905). The sense of achievement of reading this book (though there were still many long words in it that I had to skip, and I was a little hazy about some of the details of the story) really launched my reading career. So this book must be pretty important for me too.

But I suppose the book that actually changed the way I thought was Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene (1976). I read this in my final year at school, just before I went to university. For some time I had been struggling with whether or not I believed in God. I was very enthusiastic about biology—this was the subject I wanted to pursue at university—and so I was particular receptive at that time to anything about the theory of natural selection. I think Dawkins's reduction of evolution and animal behavior to a strategy for the perpetuation of DNA convinced me that we are truly alone in the universe—there is no benevolent force out there that is looking after us; rather, we are simply subject to the laws of chemistry and physics, and the outcome of the quirky behavior of some extraordinary molecules. Perhaps one can recast this in a religious framework, but it would not change things very much for me.

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

Truly, I can say I don't know. I have a tendency to read over and over again books I have enjoyed, and usually come across new books purely by chance, with no well-defined reading strategy.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

My recommendations are based on the books I have enjoyed in my own childhood. I remember when I was about 11 my father presented me with the set of C. S. Forester's Hornblower books about naval life during the Napoleonic Wars. On the back cover of the first book of the series—The Happy Return (1937)—my father listed the other books of this series in the order I should read them. The same had been done for him in his childhood, and I felt privileged to follow in his footsteps. I was enthralled by the books, and entered into the fictional story of Hornblower's naval battles and private life, partly based on Nelson's career. Patrick O'Brian has done a similar thing with Jack Aubrey. I was always fascinated by the Romans and always trying to get my parents to take me out to visit Roman remains, especially Hadrian's Wall in the North of England. And so Rosemary Sutcliffe's adventure story The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), about rescuing the famous eagle mascot of the Ninth Legion, lost when the tribes north of the wall slaughtered the Roman Legion, has always had a peculiar appeal. In some ways connected, Rudyard Kipling's Kim is another story that I have always loved, about the great game of spying in the remote Himalayan mountainous kingdoms north of the border with the British Raj. And Kim's relationship with the Tibetan lama, who befriends Kim while on his own search for the River of Enlightenment, is particularly moving (especially as the lama comes to realize through his experiences with Kim that there is no one particular river to be found, but that it is everywhere). Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is another wonderful adventure story that every child should read.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

I think the science book that has most inspired me in my own attempts to put science across to nonscientists must be Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (W. W. Norton, 1997). I read this book only a couple of years ago, but I was overwhelmed by Diamond's relentless pursuit of the fundamental causes of human civilization by asking, then attempting to answer, simple question after simple question. At first sight, many of his questions seemed to me stupid. But I quickly realized, especially when Diamond proceeded to answer them, just how profound they really were. Diamond's book is a wonderful demonstration of how the power of scientific investigation lies in the simplicity of its approach. For this reason, everybody is in some sense a scientist, because everybody is capable of asking questions. It is merely a matter of being prepared to search for answers. And the best answers are those that are readily understood.  After all, we are all human, and, in my view, human beings are only capable of thinking about and coping with very simple ideas.

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

Curiously enough, I find this a particularly tricky question to answer, because I find it difficult to step outside my field and look in at it as an outsider. I was initially going to say either Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle or Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology. Both books were written for a general audience, and both describe clearly and beautifully how simple observations about our world can slowly build into a profound understanding of the geological forces that govern it. But then I thought that Stephen Jay Gould's Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (Harvard University Press, 1987) in some ways does this in a way that is even more engaging, by describing in beautiful prose how the great early geologists, including Lyell and Darwin, struggled to understand the meaning hidden in the bedrock of our world, and how this led to the most extraordinary idea of all: the vastness of geological time extending over millions, hundreds of millions, and even billions of years. This, to me, is one of the main contributions of geology to human understanding.

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