Scientists' Nightstand: Mark Bowen
Physicist, mountain climber and science writer Mark Bowen's articles and photographs have appeared in Climbing and Natural History. For Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World's Highest Mountains (Holt, 2005), he accompanied Ohio State University geologist Lonnie Thompson on two expeditions to drill ice cores from disappearing high-altitude glaciers in the world's tropical and subtropical regions.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
My interests are embarrassingly broad. This is probably the reason writing is a good profession for me—or maybe it's simply the last resort. In high school, my main interest was acting. I played the leading role in every major production at my small school all four years I was there. This sparked an interest in writing: I still maintain that there is no better way to understand the power of the language than to memorize the words of a great playwright and speak them to an audience as you hold them in the palm of your hand. Then, for some strange reason, for I had shown no interest in science in high school, I went to MIT and got a Ph.D. in physics. Meanwhile, I have always had a deep love for the great outdoors. My early interest in hiking and canoeing turned me into a fanatical rock climber. I spent virtually every weekend and every vacation for about 25 years climbing either rock, ice or both, eventually graduating to the great mountain ranges around the world; and it was climbing that supplied the material for my first magazine articles. Both my parents are great readers—my mother used to teach English—so I've got catholic tastes in literature. And for the past nine years I have pursued an active practice of meditation and study in a secular tradition within Tibetan Buddhism.
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?
On my bedside table at the moment lie a hardcover version of Moby-Dick (1851), replete with lovely woodcuts, along with the third of the eight volumes of the Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa (Shambhala, 2003), the meditation master who more or less single-handedly brought Tibetan Buddhism to North America. Although English was his adopted language, few can match his ability to put the ineffable into words; he developed the language that all Buddhist teachers use in the English-speaking world. I'm working through the Collected Works volume by volume, usually whenever I wake up in the middle of the night. Right now I'm on the classic Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.
I am somewhat hesitant to admit that the reason I chose Moby-Dick was that the person who reviewed my book for Kirkus noted its similar structure. Since I'd never read it, this seemed like a good time. (The reviewer was spot-on.) I'm nearly done and loving it. It's especially fun to read out loud. I'm also reading Boiling Point, by Ross Gelbspan (Basic Books, 2004), an eloquent explanation of the arch tactics the fossil fuel industry has used to fool the public into doubting the solid science of global warming—and how politicians, the media and even activists have helped them do it. Also, Einstein's Dreams, by Alan Lightman (Pantheon, 1993). I've made Alan's acquaintance recently—an intelligent and remarkably generous man. Earlier this week I attended a staged reading of a play based on this exquisite novel.
When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?
Any time; any place; not enough.
Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?
Hard question. Shakespeare, Twain, Conrad, Faulkner. Also Thomas Pynchon, Ken Kesey, Wallace Stegner, Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs; N. Scott Momaday is especially close to my heart. These are more from my youth, though I'll still pick them up every once in a while, especially Momaday. Chögyam Trungpa is right up there.
I discovered Peter Matthiessen about ten years ago. Every place I've been, I've found that he got there first and wrote the definitive book about it decades ago: New Guinea, South America, Asia, Africa, even Florida. (The only place I may have beaten him to is Antarctica.) His language may be the richest of any living American writer, and no one I have read has his feeling for and knowledge of the natural world. He simply tosses out direct insights that make the spine tingle. Also W. S. Merwin, both his poetry and his nonfiction. There's an inscrutable, silent quality. (I now realize both he and Matthiessen are Buddhists.) Gabriel García Márquez: laugh-out-loud funny, tears-down-the-cheeks sad, dazzlingly rich. I love the dreamy quality of Latin American fiction, the way it walks the edge of "reality." Pat Barker walks the same edge in an austere British setting in her magnificent trilogy about the First World War. And Michael Ondaatje does it anywhere he decides to write about.
What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.
Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (Harper & Row, 1970), Matthiessen's Killing Mr. Watson (Vintage, 1991) and Huckleberry Finn. Ask me tomorrow and I'll name three different ones.
What book has influenced you most? Explain how.
Well, probably The Tree Where Man Was Born, by Peter Matthiessen (Collins, 1972). I read it on top of Kilimanjaro, the first time I climbed it with Lonnie Thompson, and it was still with me as I wrote the proposal for Thin Ice.
Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.
Believe it or not, I've never read The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben (Random House, 1989), the classic book on global warming. And I need to read Ulysses (1922) again. I was too young the first time, so it didn't count. Also, Anil's Ghost, by Michael Ondaatje (Knopf, 2000). I bought it when it came out, but I was just starting my own book at the time, so I never got to it.
What book recommendations do you have for young readers?
I asked my kids for advice on this one. My 14-year-old daughter recommends The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd (Viking, 2002), and The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold (Little, Brown, 2002). My 18-year-old son recommends Animal Farm, by George Orwell (1945), Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut (Delacorte Press, 1969) and Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card (T. Doherty Associates, 1985).
What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?
The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes (Simon & Schuster, 1986). An incredible work of literature and research that teaches nuclear physics at the same time that it tells what was probably the most dramatic story of the 20th century. Both my son and I enjoyed T. Rex and the Crater of Doom, by Walter Alvarez (Princeton University Press, 1997), which is about the discovery of the impact crater from the meteor that probably killed off the dinosaurs.
Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.
Probably The End of Nature. Now that I'm out and about discussing my own book, I meet many people who were touched and whose minds were changed through reading this one. Amazing how little progress we've made in addressing what is arguably the most important issue of our age, more than 15 years after McKibben's book was published.
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