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Scientists' Nightstand: Deborah Blum

Frank Diller

Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum has been a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1997. She is president of the National Association of Science Writers and a member of the Committee on Public Understanding of Science and Technology of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Her most recent book, Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection (Perseus), which was reviewed in the March–April 2003 issue, was a finalist for the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the Science and Technology category and was named a 2002 best book of the year by Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, Discover magazine and NPR's Science Friday. Blum is also the author of Sex on the Brain (Penguin), which was a 1997 New York Times Notable Book, and The Monkey Wars (Oxford University Press), which was named Best Sci-Tech Book in 1994 by Library Journal. She is coeditor of a Field Guide for Science Writers (Oxford University Press, 1997).

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Blum worked for a series of newspapers before becoming a science reporter for the Sacramento Bee, where she won the Pulitzer in 1992 for a series of articles on ethical issues in primate research; these also won the 1992 AAAS science writing award and led to Blum's being named an honorary member of Sigma Xi for her service to science. She continued with the Bee until moving to the University of Wisconsin. She has also written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Discover, Psychology Today, Life, Health, the Utne Reader, Mother Jones and

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure?
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel; Atonement, by Ian McEwan; and The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen.

Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?
In the periods when I'm not writing a book, in particular, I love to read fiction. I'm a nonfiction science writer, but science writing, to be any good, requires a strong sense of storytelling. Novelists are not hobbled by the formulas of journalism, and I think writers like myself have much to learn from them. Plus, they are fun to read!

I read Life of Pi because it was recommended, Atonement because I admire Ian McEwan, and The Corrections because it was recommended. Frankly, I hated The Corrections. It was too long, neurotic, and too long. Atonement is just beautifully done, walking this fine silken line between writing and reality. That was what I liked about Life of Pi as well, the ability of the writer to play with what's real. When I sit down to write, I want my facts lined up in perfect order, completely anchored, but I'd like them to be threaded together with elegance.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?
Usually in the evening and at night, in a big fat armchair or in bed.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?
Oh, I lean toward novelists for the reasons I mentioned above. But it's great nonfiction that makes me dream and push myself harder to be better. I really admire Dennis Overbye's book on cosmology, Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, because he uses details so perfectly. I think Robin Marantz Henig has a beautiful sense of timing, and you see it in her book The Monk in the Garden, about Gregor Mendel. Matt Ridley, who wrote Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, has an extraordinary gift for making complicated subjects understandable. I keep analyzing his work and trying to figure out how to match it.

There are a few scientists who write so well that they could put science writers like me out of business. Fortunately, there aren't many of them. But I hugely admire the writing of Frans B. M. de Waal, Robert Sapolsky and the late, great Lewis Thomas.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. I read this in high school and it sent me off on a Steinbeck junket. He created moments more vividly than any writer I've read. East of Eden has the most compassionate suicide scene I've ever read. It still gives me chills.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. I'm a sucker for social commentary and this is the all-time classic. Perfect, understated pitch throughout.

My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell. A memoir of a childhood in Crete. Durrell grew up to be a naturalist, and I've never read a book that shone with such affection for creepy-crawler animals, from insects to lizards. It's just absolutely gorgeous in its sense of wonder.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.
As a science writer? There are really two. One really famous one, James Watson's The Double Helix, not for its writing as much as its perfectly cynical, completely human look at a great scientific discovery. You can't read it and not appreciate that all good science writing derives from an understanding of science as a human enterprise. The other is less famous—but was also a bestseller—and that's Paul Hoffman's The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth. It's beautifully told, but it is a wonderfully nontraditional biography, with both the love of a mathematician and of the intense affection of mathematicians for numbers. It makes you see why they find numbers beautiful. I love that, and I used that kind of model for my most recent book, Love at Goon Park, which is both the biography of a wildly eccentric and brilliant psychologist, Harry Harlow, and the biography of an idea that he championed—that love matters.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.
Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, which just came out, because I thought he did such a wonderful job with his earlier book, Isaac's Storm, which brought together a hurricane, the science of prediction and the people involved.

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox.

Of Moths and Men: An Evolutionary Tale, by Judith Hooper.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?
How young? For middle schoolers, the book of Durrell's that I mentioned is a wonderful read, and I still like Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters. I really like the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness series that takes books like Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and wraps the real science all through them. My favorite elementary school dinosaur book—I have sons, so this has been a big one in my house—is Brian Floca's Dinosaurs at the Ends of the Earth—about an early expedition for dinosaur bones. And I like Elizabeth Kimmel's Ice Story, which is about the Shackleton expedition to Antarctica but is told as a children's book.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?
Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which is an incisive look at the clash between Western medicine and other cultures; Michael Capuzzo's Close to Shore, which seamlessly combines shark attacks and marine biology; and Robert Park's Voodoo Science, because it is such a realistic, hardheaded, commonsense look at science.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.
I'm not sure I qualify for this, because I'm a science journalist. But in the area I cover, biology of behavior, I recommend Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. And for thinking about writing, Jon Franklin's Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner. Franklin is a science writer who does a wonderful job of making you think about the job of writing itself. It's always, of course, much more fun to read than to write!

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