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Scientists' Nightstand: Richard Fortey

Greg Ross

Richard Fortey is a senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was Collier Professor in the Public Understanding of Science and Technology at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Bristol in 2002. His books have been widely acclaimed: Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth (Knopf) was short-listed for the Rhône-Poulenc Prize in 1998, and Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution (Knopf) was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2001. His latest book, Earth: An Intimate History (Knopf, 2004), has been called "dazzling," "remarkable," "splendid," and "important and timely."Richard ForteyClick to Enlarge Image

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am a paleontologist working at the Natural History Museum in London. I have been there for more than 30 years. For most of that time I have been tucked away behind the scenes pursuing research on ancient fossils, especially trilobites. This may seem rather esoteric, but the fact that trilobites were around for nearly 300 million years and number many thousands of species (more are being discovered all the time) means that there is no shortage of new work to do. Nearly all this while I have been writing for a more general readership—mostly in my spare time—because I hate the "ivory tower" view of science.  The book that put me on the map was probably my biography of life, published in 1997—but from personal messages I get, it seems that many people's favorite is my book about trilobites, which is probably the nearest I will get to writing an autobiography. In the U.K. it was called Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution, but the exclamation point was dropped in the U.S. edition. (Why? I don't know—I had intended it as a kind of ironic reference to books about Tyrannosaurus rex.) I have always been an omnivorous reader, deriving pleasure from novels, poetry and other science books. If I could write a science book with the gripping power of a novel, I would regard my life as well spent. I am currently also Visiting Professor of Paleobiology at the University of Oxford.

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?

Purely for pleasure, I have just discovered a series of books by Alexander McCall Smith about a female detective in Botswana—the first in the series is called The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (Anchor Books, 1998). They are absolutely charming, and quite unexpected. The author manages the extraordinarily difficult task of writing about predominantly good people doing kind things—rather unusual in the current genres. He manages delicately to balance sentiment without sinking into sentimentality—and the fact that it is set in Africa and gives a quite different view of that continent is an added bonus. Work books tend to be those I have been sent to review for a newspaper or a journal, these days. Of course I usually choose books I would want to read anyway. Recently I read and reviewed James W. Valentine's magisterial compendium On the Origin of Phyla (University of Chicago Press, 2004), which touches on problems in the origin of the diversity of life, which has been a research theme of mine for more than a decade. If Valentine were in Japan, he would be declared a "living national monument"—at a time of life when most people are cultivating their roses, he is still doing new stuff. I read Richard Ellis's  good book about what disastrous things mankind is doing to the ocean, The Empty Ocean (Island Press, 2003), and Simon Lamb's entertaining book about the geology of the Andes (Devil in the Mountain, Princeton University Press, 2004). It is always a pleasure to give a positive review to a book I've enjoyed. Ones I haven't, I prefer to pass over.

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

I have a commute from the country town where I live into London, and I quite often read on the train. I usually try to read a little before going to sleep—perhaps a bit of poetry. For my recent book on Earth I reread John Keats, for example, finding lines I could use—a line of good poetry often saves you a hundred words. Long air flights are good for meatier novels—I just reread Philip Roth's American Pastoral (Houghton Mifflin, 1997) traveling to and from China.

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

I am devoted to the Irish writer Flann O'Brien, otherwise known as Myles na Gopaleen (and occasionally even Brian O'Nolan), because he has a kind of impish delight in narrative and false logic that is curiously like an adult Lewis Carroll. I also like the poet W. B. Yeats very much—for somewhat paradoxical reasons. Yeats's philosophical ideas were a mishmash, and thoroughly unscientific, yet he produced lines of extraordinary beauty. It is a salutary reminder that there are different ways of telling the truth.

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

I cannot possibly reduce it to a mere three, so I'll just mention the first three that come to mind. Of Flann O'Brien's work I think my favorite is The Third Policeman (1967), a loony peregrination around a kind of symbolic Ireland, with marvelous, surreal asides. I recall the theory that molecules were exchanged between man and bicycle because of prolonged contact, so that some people became, as it were, more bicycle than man—they could be recognized because of their propensity to lean against walls for long periods. Only at the end of the book do you discover that it is a circle of Hell. I took The Brothers Karamazov with me to Spitsbergen when I did my seminal fieldwork, and I remember that curious feeling in my tent at night of knowing that I was reading great literature. Then I recall laughing out loud when reading Evelyn Waugh's Scoop (1938), particularly at the travails of the luckless reporter, Boot. Waugh took a particular perverse pleasure in subjecting his innocent "Everyman" to grisly travails, so that your laughter is tinged with guilt, an irresistible combination.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Not a book that many would have heard of—it was a book called Principles of Paleoecology, by Derek Ager (McGraw Hill, 1963), professor at Swansea University. Ager wrote very well, and his account of what you could do with fossils—how you could bring them back to life—came to me at just that point in my undergraduate career when I could have been something other than a paleontologist. I had briefly become enamored of philosophy of science. It tipped the balance. As a writer, Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales [Summit Books, 1985]) has been my example, by showing how to combine the human and the scientific in good prose.

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

Finnegan's Wake (1939) (but then everybody says that, just to impress). I ought to read Steve Gould's last, massive tome (The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Belknap Press, 2002)—it sits there, unread, reproaching me. I started Terry Pratchett once, but it didn't engage, and I feel it must be my fault.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Of classics for reading aloud, Henry Williamson's Tarka the Otter (1927) still works to introduce a love of nature, as does Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) for introducing the wonders and pitfalls of logic (and humor). My daughter endlessly reread The Secret Garden (1909) by Frances Hodgson Burnett, so it must have something special.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Stephen Jay Gould's books of essays remain one of the most entertaining ways of getting the literate nonscientist into science (The Panda's Thumb [W. W. Norton, 1980], etc.). I prefer them to his books, where the rich style can prove too much, like eating excessive chocolate cake. For a book clearly explaining an important topic, Robert A. Weinberg's account of cancer research, One Renegade Cell (Basic Books, 1998), is excellent. Bill Bryson's latest (A Short History of Nearly Everything, Broadway Books, 2003) is a showcase for his usual charm and clarity, and covers—as he says—nearly everything.

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

If it is not too immodest, my biography of life covers the meaning and scope of paleontology comprehensively, from first cell to mankind, although the hominid chapter is now out of date; and the reader can compare and contrast with Richard Dawkins's latest book, The Ancestor's Tale (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), which runs the whole story the other way.

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