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Scientists' Nightstand: Matthew Cobb

Greg Ross

Matthew Cobb is senior lecturer in animal behavior at the University of Manchester. He is the author of Generation: The Seventeenth-Century Scientists Who Unraveled the Secrets of Sex, Life, and Growth (Bloomsbury, 2006) (published in the United Kingdom by Free Press as The Egg and Sperm Race).Matthew CobbClick to Enlarge Image

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

My academic career has been shaped by three snap decisions. First, in 1974 I realized I wanted to study animal behavior. Then, two years later, I read a summary of Yadin Dudai and Seymour Benzer's discovery of the first Drosophila learning mutant, dunce, and decided in an instant that I wanted to work on flies. Finally, in 1997, I opened a book by the 17th-century scientist Jan Swammerdam, and that inspired me to know more about the history of science. I did my degree and my Ph.D. at what, at the time, was one of the few places in the world that worked on Drosophila behavior genetics (Sheffield, U.K.). After a first postdoc at the Institute of Psychiatry, London, getting twins drunk (a behavior-genetics study of the effects of a challenge dose of alcohol on human twins), I fled Margaret Thatcher's attacks on U.K. science and went to France to study fly behavior again. I ended up staying 18 years, which was a surprise matched only by my return to the United Kingdom in 2002, where I now live with my companion and our two daughters. I do research on the sense of smell in Drosophila maggots, lecture on chemical communication and on animal behavior, and am in charge of Manchester University's zoology degree. Probably the best description of my outlook is that I'm an evolutionary neurobiologist—I'm interested in how evolution has shaped the sensory systems and behavior of animals through genes and neuronal networks. I'm also interested in history, particularly the history of science, which was the subject of my recent book. Books tend to be undervalued in my research field—because of the pace of discovery, papers are the focus of everyone's work. And, as everyone knows, these are generally not literary works!

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?

Richard W. Burkhardt's Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology (University of Chicago Press, 2005). Burkhardt has been working on this for years—it is an incredibly rich account of a key period in the history of 20th-century science. I read this out of interest, and also as background to an article I have just written on the early history of Drosophila behavior genetics.

I am reading Human Evolution: A Very Short Introduction, by Bernard Wood (Oxford University Press, 2005), which does exactly what it says on the tin. We're running a series of inquiry-based learning tutorials on human evolution for our first-year zoologists in which the students investigate primate skulls and DNA sequences, culminating in a lecture by Professor Wood. If his talk is as good as his book, the students will be very satisfied!

I have been reading tons of books in French for a project I'm working on, which deals with the French Resistance during World War II. The most moving was the memoir by André Calvès, Sans bottes ni médailles: un Trotskyste Breton dans la guerre (Editions La Brèche, 1984); the most impressive was a memoir by Jacques Baumel, Résister: Histoire secrète des anneés (A. Michel, 1999); and the most thought-provoking analysis was in La Résistance sans De Gaulle, by Robert Belot (Fayard, 2006).

I have been browsing through Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity, by Stephen A. Marshall (Firefly Books, 2006). I was inspired to buy this by a review in American Scientist earlier in the year. It is fantastic and will be much used on a two-week field course I run in the French Alps every year, even if it does concentrate on North American insects.

I bumped into Fred Turner's recent book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (University of Chicago Press, 2006) and am finding it engrossing. He describes the links between the Californian "communalist" counterculture of the 1960s and the development of the Internet—the connection between the Grateful Dead and Google. Very thought-provoking.

Finally, I'm slowly reading two very different books just for fun: White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s (Serpent’s Tail, 2005), by record producer Joe Boyd (great music, great times), and Elmore Leonard's Collected Western Stories—most of them written in the 1950s, when he was in his 20s. They are fantastic vignettes, carefully crafted examples of pulp fiction.

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

It's probably easier to put it the other way round—about the only time I do not read is when I'm on my bicycle riding to and from work, and at mealtimes (except breakfast, when it's allowed). But that reading is mainly newspapers, magazines and scientific articles. I read books in our study at home, and in bed.

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

Balzac, for his incredible grasp of the human condition and his ability to make you empathize with the most unlikely characters.

Iain M. Banks, for the breadth of his imagination, in particular in his Culture science-fiction novels. His nongenre books (written as Iain Banks) are equally gripping.

Richard Dawkins, the greatest living popularizer of evolutionary biology. I don't agree with every word he says, but he is a writer with a tremendous voice that comes over in every sentence.

Elmore Leonard, the ultimate modern stylist. Simple, direct, yet amazingly evocative. How does he do it? Plus, his stories are great!

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

The Goblin Reservation, by Clifford Simak (Putnam, 1968). I've read this science-fiction novel over and over again since I was a teenager. Enchanting, witty and great fun to read, it's also a fantastic story. If only it were true!

The History of the Russian Revolution, by Leon Trotsky (1930). An insider's account of one of the most decisive events in the 20th century, written with panache and wit. An unrivaled insight into one of the great spasms of history. Even Winston Churchill acknowledged the power of Trotsky's writing.

The New Encyclopedia of Mammals, edited by David MacDonald (Oxford University Press, 2001). I was sent a copy of the second edition to review a few years ago (a new edition has just been published). I was simply astonished by it. The depth of knowledge is inspiring, the pictures and illustrations are beautiful, and every time I open it, I get the same sense of wonder and fragility. I also nearly sprain my wrists (it is huge).

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

I'll have to choose two, I'm afraid. First, Perry Anderson's Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (NLB, 1974). I read this in my first term at university in 1975, and it not only showed me that history could be explained by struggles between and within classes over resources and power, it also gave me a glimpse of the huge sea of academic knowledge that anyone can swim in, if they so wish. Second, Jan Swammerdam's The Book of Nature (written in the 1670s). I bumped into Swammerdam's name in about 1997 and went to the library of the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle in Paris to look at the English edition (1758—still available in facsimile from Arno Press). I was absolutely astounded by the illustrations, and by the writing. That encounter led directly to my work on 17th-century science.

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

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Like Dawkins, I am increasingly worried and annoyed by the rise of religion around the world. Atheists need to come out fighting, and this polemical book is an example to us all.

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1857). Some time ago I gave up on this when I was one-third of the way through. At the time I was "Dickensed out," having read virtually every one of his books in the space of a year. I really must go back to it.

Jonathan Israel, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752 (Oxford University Press, 2006). I read Israel's previous book, Radical Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2001), as part of the background to my study of the 17th-century history of science. I want to find time to read the next installment.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials trilogy (Northern Lights [Random House, 1995], The Subtle Knife [1997], The Amber Spyglass [2000]). A brilliant antidote to the lack of imagination and the literary dowdiness of the Harry Potter books, and it is militantly atheistic as well. Highly recommended for older readers, too—I was grabbed and enraptured by these three books, and for around a week in 2001 I did nothing else but read them.

Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals (1956). A classic account of how a natural historian is made. Durrell's apparently idyllic childhood on the Greek island of Corfu is guaranteed to inspire every reader—and to make you very jealous!

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976). One of the most important popular science books of the second half of the 20th century. Dawkins explains in terrific prose some of the most influential ideas since Darwin. I don't agree with everything he says—in particular his ideas about "memes," which I think are silly—but anyone who is interested in modern biology should read this.

The New Encyclopedia of Mammals, edited by David MacDonald. (For reasons, see above.)

Lifelines: Life Beyond the Gene, by Steven Rose (Oxford University Press, 2003). This is an excellent antidote to the "gene-centered" view of behavior that predominates in popular views of science. Lucid, entertaining, accurate and, above all, profoundly right!

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

I have two disciplines (animal behavior and the history of science), so I get to choose three books ...

Pheromones and Animal Behaviour: Communication by Smell and Taste, by Tristram Wyatt (Cambridge University Press, 2003). Tristram summarizes our understanding in the fast-moving and fascinating field of chemical communication. Clearly written, accurate and exciting.

Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 by Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park (Zone Books, 1998). This fantastic account of pre-scientific views of the world is both a cracking read and a beautifully produced book. It will change the way you look at our predecessors.

Experiments on the Generation of Insects, by Francesco Redi (1668). The original is written in Italian, but there is a 1909 translation into English that is in many libraries and can still be picked up from secondhand booksellers. Redi was one of the heroes of my recent book, and the one I would most have liked to chat with over a pint. He was a physician, a scientist and a poet, and this book describes how he demonstrated that insects are not spontaneously generated but come from eggs. The science is bold and astonishing, and the light, humorous tone comes rippling down the centuries.

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