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Scientists' Nightstand: Tim Flannery

Greg Ross

Paleontologist Tim Flannery has served as principal research scientist at the Australian Museum, visiting chair in Australian Studies at Harvard University and an adviser on environmental issues to the Australian Federal Parliament. Currently he directs the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, South Australia. He speaks frequently on ecological issues, particularly global warming; his newest book, The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change, will be released next month by Atlantic Monthly Press.Tim FlanneryClick to Enlarge Image

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I have always tried to embrace both science and the arts. My B.A. was in English and history, my M.Sc. in geology, and my Ph.D. in zoology. Most of my professional career has been spent in museums. My first real job was curator of mammals at the Australian Museum, Sydney. While there I spent 15 years doing fieldwork in remote parts of New Guinea and the Pacific Islands. It was great fun, and I learned a lot about both the region and myself. The highlight was discovering around 20 new species of mammals, including spectacular tree-kangaroos, an echidna (an egg-laying mammal), giant rats and bats. Then in 1998 I got the chance to spend a year at Harvard, in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. Being in the same department as Ernst Mayr, Dick Lewontin, Steve Gould, Ed Wilson and Fuzz Crompton was enormously stimulating. While at Harvard I was recruited to run the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, Australia. I've done that for the past six years, and I've learned a lot about people and management. All the while I've tried to keep up my writing and research. As long as I'm learning, I'm happy.

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've just completed Geoffrey Blainey's Triumph of the Nomads (Macmillan, 1975). It's a history of Aboriginal Australia written in the '70s and is interesting as much for what it reveals about 1970s attitudes as about Aborigines. I read Almudena Grandes' The Ages of Lulu (Grove Press, 1994) at the same time. It's splendidly written Spanish erotic fiction which has quite a lot to say about the dying days of the Franco regime. And I'm halfway through George Smoot's 1993 Wrinkles in Time (Morrow). It's basically autobiographical and focuses on the COBE project's investigation of the origins of the universe. It taught me a lot about what it takes to get big science done, as well as about cosmology, which is a subject I've not had the chance to study previously. In between, I'm dipping into the Sydney Gazette (1803-1810), which is thankfully available in fascimile. It was the first newspaper published in Australia, and its editor, George "Happy" Howe—a West Indian—really tried to make it interesting and informative.

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

I read pretty much whenever I get the chance—over coffee in the morning, in bed in the evening, at lunch, when traveling.

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

There are a lot more interesting dead people than living ones, which is perhaps why I read a lot of older books. John Aubrey's Brief Lives is something I return to again and again. His potted biographies of the greats of Restoration England is simply un-put-down-able, covering as it does founding members of the Royal Society and the likes of Shakespeare. And, because it was never meant to be published, it's shockingly candid. Then there's Shakespeare himself, of course, and Chaucer. No one comes near them. I love Bruce Chatwin; the 18th-century African explorer Mungo Park; and the 18th-century chronicler of Australia's First Fleet, Watkin Tench. Bernal Diaz is pretty good on the conquest of Mexico. The Puritan chronicler of early New England, William Bradford, is also worth a read. From Herodotus on, if you can't find 20 authors who change your life, then you're not trying.

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

Well, Brief Lives is really up there. It's not written in fine style, but it's terribly entertaining and insightful. Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is another book I turn to repeatedly. I love it in the original Middle English. Alfred Russel Wallace's The Malay Archipelago (1869) would make up the third. But I'm sure if you asked me tomorrow then another book might take third place.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Probably Watkin Tench's 1791 A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson. It really taught me about the origins of my country and how it was before European settlement. And that knowledge is vital as we Australians edge our way toward sustainability.

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

I'd love to read Darwin on worms and the vegetable mould [Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, 1881]; Charles Montagu Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888), which is reputedly the greatest travel book of all time; and Sir Richard Burton's report on the secret homosexual brothels of India. Even though he did the work under orders, he was cashiered from Her Majesty's Imperial Forces in India for writing it, which makes me wonder what it contained! Unfortunately I'm not sure that a copy survives!

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Harry Potter recommends itself. And you can't go past Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped (1886) and Treasure Island (1883).

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Andy Knoll's Life on a Young Planet (Princeton University Press, 2003) is a wonderful account of the first few billion years of Earth history as well as an investigation of life's origins, and George Smoot's Wrinkles in Time is also excellent. Then there are the timeless classics like Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle (1839) and Harvey's On the Circulation of the Blood (1628). All wonderful stuff.

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

Tom and Patricia Rich's Dinosaurs of Darkness (Indiana University Press, 2000) is a special book. It tells of the 23-year-long search by this husband-and-wife paleontological team for mammals of Cretaceous age in Australia. This might sound obscure, but the book is the most gripping account I've read of just how hard-won much paleontological knowledge is.

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