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Scientists' Nightstand: Douglas H. Erwin

Greg Ross

Douglas H. Erwin is senior scientist and curator in the Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and an external faculty member of the Santa Fe Institute. His research into the end-Permian mass extinction has taken him to China, South Africa and Europe and informs his book Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago (Princeton University Press, 2006).

Could you tell us a bit about yourself? Douglas ErwinClick to Enlarge Image

I am a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. I also have a part-time research professor appointment at the Santa Fe Institute, a private research group studying complex systems, and am also head of their Science Steering Committee. I have just published Extinction, which essentially completes some 20 years of work on the end-Permian mass extinction. I am now focusing on evolutionary innovations, a sufficiently broad topic that I can do whatever I want, but I am particularly interested in the origin of developmental novelties during the Cambrian radiation of animals (about 575-509 million years ago) and how they succeeded ecologically. But turtles seem interesting as well.

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?

I am finishing up The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher (Metropolitan Books, 2005), a very well-written discussion of how language evolves, with some interesting views into processes of destruction and creation of words and syntax. [American Scientist Online interviewed Deutscher in October 2005.] Like many paleontologists, I am fascinated by the history of science, so I have also started in on Martin Rudwick's wonderful magnum opus Bursting the Limits of Time (University of Chicago Press, 2005), his history of how early geologists realized the great age of the Earth at the beginning of geology. This is a really incredible book, full of insightful and surprising discussions of the birth of science from natural history and natural philosophy, and beautifully illustrated.

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

Usually in the evening in the living room or my study; when spring comes I move outside to a bench in the garden until the mosquitoes drive me onto the screen porch. When I am at the Santa Fe Institute I often take a book up to a particular bench on a trail above the buildings, where I can look out across the valley toward the Jemez Mountains and watch the sun set. Of necessity I also seem to do a lot of reading on airplanes.

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

P.G. Wodehouse—particularly any of the Bertie and Jeeves stories, which I read over and over (and anyone who has not read "Pig-Hooey" hasn't lived). A breath of sanity is particularly welcome for one living in Washington, D.C., and a half an hour with Jeeves puts a new shine on any issue. I am making my way through the Patrick O'Brian series [of Napoleonic naval adventures] but ration myself to two a year so I don't finish them too quickly, and I read each Tony Hillerman mystery as soon as it comes out, in part because  they are set in a region that I know quite well. However, most of my reading is history; archaeology, particularly of the Southwestern United States and the Maya; and a range of other scientific books where individual authors do not stand out as much as in fiction.

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

Tolstoy's War and Peace (1865), which I used to read every other summer from college through graduate school. In Natasha, Pierre and Prince Bolkanski, Tolstoy captured people as few novelists ever do. Mayordomo, by Stanley Crawford (University of New Mexico Press, 1988), is a book that few people beyond northern New Mexico will ever have heard of, but it is an exceptional chronicle of a year in the life of the people along an acequia, an irrigation ditch, in an old Spanish village between Santa Fe and Taos and their social dynamics. Finally, and not terribly surprisingly, I would have to add Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859). Pure genius.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

George Gaylord Simpson's Tempo and Mode in Evolution (1944) is probably the best book on evolution written in the 20th century and certainly the most insightful paleontological contribution to the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary biology in the mid-20th century. Beyond this, Simpson addresses a number of critical evolutionary issues which still have resonance today, particularly rates of evolutionary change and the discontinuity between micro- and macroevolution. Most importantly, however, Simpson, like Darwin, wrote so that anyone could read his book. Scientists, like historians, would be better off if we learned to "eschew obfuscation," in the words of Strunk and White.

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

I count 43 books in the "to be read" piles next to my desk, but here are three near the top: Hugh Thomas's Rivers of Gold (Random House, 2003), about the Spanish Empire from Columbus through Magellan; his Conquest (Simon & Schuster, 1993) was so outstanding that this should be a delight. Shield of Achilles, by Phillip Bobbit (Knopf, 2002), about the nature of the state and the role of war in creating the modern nation-state. Finally, Colin Calloway's One Vast Winter Count (University of Nebraska Press, 2003), a narrative history of Native Americans up to 1800.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

The Mad Scientists' Club (by Bertrand R. Brinley, Scholastic, 1965). It was my favorite book growing up. I suppose it wasn't great literature, but a wonderful yarn about the hijinks of a bunch of kids in a small town, where being a geek was about as cool as you could get (and before Bill Gates!). Now out of print, but I found a copy of this about 10 years ago. I often rode my bike down to the Western Regional Branch of the L.A. Public Libraries and came away with books on all sorts of things, so my main recommendation is to read books that are harder than you think you are ready for; you will learn more.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle (1839) is a fascinating look at a mind maturing and a great travel book as well. Since his bicentenary is coming in 2009, why not start early? Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner (Knopf, 1994), and Geerat Vermeij's Nature: An Economic History (Princeton University Press, 2004) ( reviewed in the March-April 2005 American Scientist).

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

Major Evolutionary Transitions, by John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry (Oxford University Press, 1995). Although I disagree with much of their thesis about the causes of these major transitions (they have evidently never heard of ecology, nor the environment), the scope and the issues they address make this a very thought-provoking book.

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