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Scientists' Nightstand: Keith Thomson

Greg Ross

Keith Thomson is emeritus professor of natural history at the University of Oxford, a senior research fellow of the American Philosophical Society and a frequent contributor to American Scientist. His most recent book is The Young Charles Darwin, forthcoming from Yale University Press.Keith%20ThomsonClick to Enlarge Image

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I have had a wonderful career as a professor of biology and dean (at Yale) and a museum director (Yale, Philadelphia and Oxford), but I have never had so much sheer pleasure in work as now, when I am a full-time writer. I started out as a biologist interested in the evolution of fishes such as lungfishes and the living coelacanth and the origin of major features, concentrating on the transition between fishes and tetrapods. That inevitably drew me more and more into both paleontology and understanding skeletal mechanics (feeding and swimming mechanisms). From that it was a short step to what is now called (rather unhappily) "evo-devo," or the study of the roles that developmental processes play in evolution. Having been supported by NSF continuously for some 20 years, I cheerfully stepped off the grant treadmill, and in recent years I have focused more and more upon the history of science and writing for a popular audience. My current interests range from Thomas Jefferson and 18th-century science to Charles Darwin. Recent books include Treasures on Earth (Faber and Faber, 2002), Before Darwin (Yale University Press, 2005), Fossils: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2005), The Legacy of the Mastodon: The Golden Age of Fossils in America (Yale University Press, 2008), A Passion for Nature: Thomas Jefferson and Natural History (Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2008) and The Young Charles Darwin (Yale University Press, 2009).

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?

For pleasure and sheer escapism, I love reading an eclectic range of mysteries and thrillers. Just now I have been reading Henning Mankell's Before the Frost (New Press, 2005) and John Lawton's Old Flames (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003). I found Mankell by accident on the shelves of Borders. He has created a Swedish detective named Wallander who suffers more than most of us from human frailties and foibles; his plots keep you on edge right to the end, even when you have guessed how it will come out. Lawton writes brilliantly about England immediately after World War II, which is where and when I grew up. The detail is superb, and I share his jaundiced view of those supposedly happy days. More seriously, I have been enjoying Gordon Wood's essays in The Purpose of the Past (Penguin Press, 2008); he has an old-codger-ish way of sticking pins into the ballooning fads of modern historical writers. I recently met the English author Andrea Wulf, whose The Brother Gardeners (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008) is beautifully researched and equally well written. Finally, I have just reread Joseph Ellis's American Sphinx (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), simply because he explains Thomas Jefferson better than anyone else.

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

The wonderful feature of being retired is that you can read whenever you like; the downside is the pressure not to waste a precious moment of working time. For serious reading I tend toward a particular sunny window seat and try not to be interrupted by the birds in the garden. Casual reading is done in bed, and I have to read a chapter or two before I can sleep. For research there is no substitute for a really quiet library with a friendly staff, and I am lucky to have both the American Philosophical Society and the Academy of Natural Sciences at my disposal.

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

For "serious" reading, I suppose my tastes were fixed a long time ago on people like Auden and Dylan Thomas. I have little patience for anything too complexly and (worse) self-consciously "arty," so I enjoy writers like John Banville, Ian Pears and Penelope Fitzgerald, and my daughters have introduced me to some wonderful modern authors, such as Orphan Pamuk (Snow, Random House, 2004), Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants, Algonquin Books, 2006) and the hilarious A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka (Penguin Press, 2005).

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

There are just so many great books, so I choose three that introduced me to the pleasures and hardships of the intellectual life. Peter Medawar's Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought (American Philosophical Society, 1969) is a simple, beautifully written introduction to what science is all about. I read it first as a graduate student, just when I needed it. Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy (1957) is a brilliant exposition of modern culture that influenced me greatly when I was an undergraduate.

Sven Horstadius' The Neural Crest (1950) is a classic example of a scientific monograph that is both superbly written and technically complete. None of the vast amount of work that has been done since on the subject has been described with anything matching its timeless elegance.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

That is simply impossible to say. My whole life has been driven by books and reading. Perhaps one of the first to have shown me how reading could precipitate me into a different world from my own was T.E. Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922), which I read when I was 10. History, excitement, philosophy, politics, danger, heroism, war, mystery and intrigue, exotic lands and peoples: What else could one want? But I would also add Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet (Dutton, 1962), which, in addition to being great writing, taught me to look at a problem from every side.

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

Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello (W.W. Norton, 2008); Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (Crown, 2006); and N. A. M. Rodger, Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (W.W. Norton, 2005).

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

This is hackneyed, of course, but sooner or later you must read, or listen carefully to someone reading, portions at least of the King James version of the Bible and Shakespeare. They are the foundations of our language.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Brian Cathcart, The Fly in the Cathedral (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), a journalist's account of the first splitting of the atom by Rutherford in Cambridge. John C. Greene, The Death of Adam (1959), a dated but a wonderful exposition of the history of evolutionary ideas. And Richard Fortey, Trilobite (Knopf, 2000)—Fortey explains better than anyone the fascination of collecting and working with fossils.

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

In the history of science: Janet Browne's two-volume Charles Darwin (Random House, 1995). In order to understand natural selection and the place of Darwinian evolution in our intellectual history, you have to understand the man himself and the world in which he worked.

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