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Scientists' Nightstand: John Gribbin

Greg Ross

John R. Gribbin studied astrophysics at the University of Cambridge before beginning a prolific career in science writing. He is the author of dozens of books, including In Search of Schrödinger's Cat (Bantam, 1984), Stardust (Yale University Press, 2000), Ice Age (with Mary Gribbin) (Penguin, 2001) and Science: A History (Allen Lane, 2002).

Could you tell us a bit about yourself? John GribbinClick to Enlarge Image

Although I trained as an astronomer, I have made my living writing books for the past 30 years and describe myself as a writer who happens to have a background in science, not a scientist who happens to write books. But I have an honorary post of Visiting Fellow at the University of Sussex, where I get a chance to see, and talk to, real people instead of spending all my time staring at a computer screen. My best-known book is In Search of Schrödinger's Cat, which is now 21 years old. The alarming implication is that I have been going downhill ever since 1984. In my early days in astronomy, I worked on pulsar models; in my last fling in research, at the end of the 1990s, I was involved in a determination of the Hubble parameter, which tells us the age of the universe. My latest book is Deep Simplicity (Random House, 2005).

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 fascinated by history, and am currently absorbing The Command of the Ocean, by N. A. M. Rodger (Norton, 2005), and Civil War, by Trevor Royle (Little, Brown, 2004) (that's the English civil war, by the way!). Both are masterly tomes which are helping to put a lot of things I half-knew into perspective. Rereading an old favorite, Trustee from the Toolroom, by Nevil Shute (Morrow, 1960). Just finished The Infinite Book, by John Barrow (Pantheon, 2005), which I was reviewing and strongly recommend.

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

Always when traveling, on trains, planes and so on. When I am at home, I may go for long stretches without reading anything except things specifically related to the book I am writing, then devour nonwork books all the time during a break from writing. If there is a regular reading time, it is in the evening. Never in bed—it either causes frustration having to stop and put the book down, or I'd end up reading all night!

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

There are so many that it is hard to make a shortlist, but any such list would have to include John Irving (especially The Cider House Rules [Morrow, 1985]), C. S. Forester, Philip Pullman, Nevil Shute, Isaac Asimov before he began to believe his own propaganda, John Le Carré, Jane Austen, Greg Bear and Terry Pratchett. I'd hate to try to analyze why I like them, for fear that would destroy the pleasure. But maybe somebody can see a common thread there!

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

Fiction: The Cider House Rules. No explanation—see above.

Nonfiction: The Origin of Species (1859). The most important scientific discovery of all time, explained in beautifully written prose.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

In terms of affecting my life, not one book but the series of "Mr. Tompkins" books by George Gamow, which I read when I was very young and which introduced me to the excitement and wonder of science. As an adult, The Feynman Lectures on Physics (Addison-Wesley, 1963), which appeared just as I was starting my first degree.

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

Only three?  These are actually in the pile at home waiting to be read: The Time Traveler's Wife (by Audrey Niffenegger) (Harcourt, 2003) (because I once published a short story, under the pseudonym Lyn Murray, using the same premise from the male perspective!); Collapse, by Jared Diamond (Viking, 2005); and How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, by Francis Wheen (Fourth Estate, 2004).

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Anything by Philip Pullman.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

On Natural Selection, by Charles Darwin, in the Penguin Great Ideas series (short and accessible).

Six Easy Pieces, by Richard Feynman (Addison-Wesley, 1995).

And, if I'm allowed to be immodest, my own The Scientists (Random House, 2003), a history of science since 1543.

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

Given that I used to be a physicist and taking that as my discipline, QED, by Richard Feynman (Princeton University Press, 1985), because it explains, with Feynman's usual clarity, the most important idea in the physical sciences since the time of Newton.

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