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Scientists' Nightstand: Harry Collins

Greg Ross

Harry Collins is distinguished research professor of sociology at Cardiff University, where he directs the Centre for the Study of Knowledge, Expertise, and Science. With Trevor Pinch, he is coauthor of Dr. Golem: What You Should Know about Medicine, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press in fall 2005.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself? Harry CollinsClick to Enlarge Image

I'm a professor at Cardiff University and have just published a 900-page book, Gravity's Shadow (University of Chicago Press, 2004), about the sociology of gravitational wave detection. A few years back, my little coauthored book The Golem: What You Should Know about Science (Cambridge University Press, 1998) caused quite a fuss and a debate in Physics Today. I've also written about other scientific fields, including a couple of books about the implications of the social nature of knowledge for artificial intelligence. Everything, including follow-ups to The Golem, is listed in the books section of my gravitational wave Web site, I really enjoy being a sociologist.

The way I do sociology has its roots in philosophy. Sociology of science overlaps with, and in my view displaces, many of the problems of philosophy of science. The trouble with sociology is that as soon as you claim you have found something out, everyone says they knew it already; the sociologist's equivalent of the Nobel prize is to be told, "That's just common sense." Still, even that's quite refreshing after years of being told, "It's all completely wrong/evil/nuts." Sociology is also enjoyable because it gives one a license to roam widely. Nowadays, hanging out with the gravitational wave community is one of the things that helps me keep my faith in academe when I get tired of the politics of my own subject.

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?

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (McClelland and Stewart, 1985) is a terrific book, so I'm trying another of hers, The Blind Assassin (McClelland & Stewart, 2000). Years ago I laughed through Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (Random House, 1969), but I didn't get on with his more recent American Pastoral (Houghton Mifflin, 1997). Nevertheless, I've seen a lot of good reviews of Roth's latest stuff and am especially looking forward to reading The Plot Against America (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). While I wait for the paperback edition of that, I'm reading and enjoying his The Human Stain (Houghton Mifflin, 2000). I love watching cricket and used to play it badly; Derek Birley's A Social History of English Cricket (Aurum Press, 1999) is something for me to dip into from time to time. On the plane I've recently read Robert Harris's Pompeii (Hutchinson, 2003) and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (Doubleday, 2003), both of which shortened the journey nicely. Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Doubleday, 2003) is both an airplane book and something deeper.

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

I read for a short while before I fall asleep, but I tend to read more seriously in bursts—during the holidays, on foreign trips (of which I do many) and especially in airports and on airplanes. If the book is gripping, I'll continue to read while I wait in line at immigration.

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

I like authors who understand the beautiful simplicity of good English. I found out what this meant when I read Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy (1945). Arthur Miller, in a rather different way, can express profound thoughts so unpretentiously that they seem obvious—see, especially, his autobiography, Timebends (Grove Press, 1987); I like everything that I know of Miller's, including his novel Focus (1945).

The problem with a question about writers, as opposed to books, is that few can sustain the quality across everything they write. But you can't go wrong with Robert Graves's historical novels, and for distraction I also like Patrick O'Brian.

I rarely read poetry, but for a long time found I could not read aloud Wilfrid Owen's "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young" without bursting into tears; it's like a hammer blow between the eyes.

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

I like books that force me into unfamiliar ways of seeing the world—I think that is the sociologist in me. William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929) starts as a tough read, but as the book unfolds you slowly realize where you have been and that there was nothing difficult about it at all. Much easier is Thomas Berger's Little Big Man (Dial Press, 1964), which almost physically transforms you backward and forward between frontiersman and Native American (the film doesn't do it).

There are at least three great books that drag you into the horrors of the First World War: Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That (1929), Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man (1928) and Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). The still more profound dehumanization of the Second World War is harder to capture, but, in its understated way, Primo Levi's If This Is a Man (1959) takes you beyond the edge of endurance; one must also read The Truce (1965). Try not to touch them until you can read both in one session, interrupted only by sleep.

After Levi it seems frivolous to go on, but ... read John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1964) for a clever and gripping evocation of the Cold War (the film's even better). Franz Kafka's The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and "Metamorphosis" (1915) all fascinated me when I first started reading proper books. Another great book is Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961)—Kafka meets the Marx brothers, as it were.

With this motif in mind, Douglas Adams's superb The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Harmony Books, 1980) can be seen as the comic counterpart of Jorge Luis Borges's brilliant Labyrinths (1962).

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

This is easy—it is a little book, written in 1958 by the Wittgenstein-inspired philosopher Peter Winch, called The Idea of a Social Science. It's short, and the words are easy, but the ideas are so difficult when first encountered that, when I first read it in 1967, it took me months to understand. Nowadays its main point—the identity of thinking and doing—seems entirely clear, and most years I will spend a few weeks trying to induct students into this way of understanding the world. The book affected me as a professional so deeply that I cannot imagine how I would have had the same career without it. It is only fair to say, however, that Peter Winch, who died in 1997, was once in the audience when I gave a paper at the University of Illinois. I began by explaining how much his book had influenced my life, but as I read the paper I could see Winch, as they say, "shifting uncomfortably in his chair." In the question session, it became obvious that he hated what I was taking to be the implications of his ideas. I don't know what it means, but that is how it was.

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

Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, Gerd Gigerenzer's Calculated Risks: How to Know When Numbers Deceive You (Simon & Schuster, 2002) and Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (Anchor Books, 1998).

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Johann Wyss's The Swiss Family Robinson (1872): Learn the value of doing stuff with your mind and with your hands. Then relax with Tales of the Arabian Nights and Homer's Odyssey. When you get a bit older, unrelax with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four (1949). After this, read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), followed by Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch (1962): It is important to understand the sausage from both ends!

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

We need to escape the clichés—wild men (Francis Crick and James Watson), lovable eccentrics (Patrick Moore), holy geniuses (Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking), mysteries of the universe (string theory, the mind of God) and so forth. A book that doesn't seem stamped from a mold is Gary Taubes's Nobel Dreams (Random House, 1986), but I know a lot of scientists find it sensationalized. If it counts as a science book, Andrew Hodges's biography Alan Turing: The Enigma of Intelligence (HarperCollins, 1985) quite brilliantly relates the man's thoughts to his life. But to stop being worthy for a moment, I still find the most fascinating science story to be the Manahattan Project—as described in, say, Richard Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon & Schuster, 1986).

In my own field, Trevor Pinch's Analog Days (Harvard University Press, 2002) is a good read. It explains the sociology of the rivalry between the Moog synthesizer, with its keyboard, and the more radical theremin; among other things, the book nicely recaptures the frontier music scene of the sixties and its characters. Tougher going is Donald Mackenzie's Mechanizing Proof (MIT Press, 2001), which brilliantly explores the two-way relationship between computers and mathematics in all its social-logical (see remarks on Winch) depth.

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

I'm going to cheat here, because it depends on whether my discipline is counted as sociology or sociology of science. If it's sociology, then Peter Berger's little Invitation to Sociology, published in 1963, explains a subject that everyone thinks they already own—"two drinks and it's anybody's," as I sometimes put it. Berger's book can be read with benefit by the beginner, but gets deeper as the years go by and you work your way into the subject.

If my discipline is sociology of science, then, I blush to say, the easiest approach to an answer to the question I am often asked, "How can there be a sociology of science?", is found in my coauthored book The Golem: What You Should Know About Science. I dare to say this because it's short and cheap; because, quite unprompted, a number of scientists have told me they liked it; and because it continues to sell steadily, if modestly, more than 10 years after it was first published.

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