Dr. John Gribbin trained as an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge before becoming a full-time science writer. He has worked for the science journal Nature, and the magazine New Scientist (for which he is now physics consultant) and has contributed articles on science topics to the Times, the Guardian and the Independent. Gribbin has received awards for his writing in both Britain and the United States and is currently a visiting Fellow in astronomy at the University of Sussex.
His books include The Little Book of Science, The First Chimpanzee, In Search of Schrödinger's Cat, In Search of the Big Bang, In the Beginning, In Search of the Edge of Time, In Search of the Double Helix, The Stuff of the Universe (with Martin Rees), The Matter Myth (with Paul Davies), Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science, Richard Feynman: A Life in Science (with Mary Gribbin) and Einstein: A Life in Science (with Michael White). His latest book is The Universe: A Biography. Many of his books are published by Penguin. John Gribbin is also the author of several science fiction works including Innervisions.
Winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the World Conference of Science Journalists 2009,
He is married with two sons and lives in East Sussex.
John Gribbin talks about his latest book, The Universe: A Biography
The Universe is a big subject to tackle. What made you decide to write its whole history?
This seems like an ideal time to sum up what we know about the Universe - and what we don't know - because, as I explain in the book, several exciting new experiments are likely to improve our understanding dramatically over the next ten years. My book provides a benchmark against which to understand the new discoveries, then in ten years' time I can write a second edition explaining how things have (hopefully) improved. Besides, I like a challenge!
Why did you decide to write it as a biography?
I have been writing other biographies recently, and the subject seemed to lend itself to being a life story rather than a history. It has a "birth," vigorous youth, quiet middle age and (eventually) a death. I also feel that in the wake of Stephen Hawking all the "histories" of time have exhausted the potential of that approach. So I started out with ten questions of the kind I would use for a human subject, such as "how did it all begin?" and used them to construct the biography.
It is a wonderful 'story' but there is also lots of very complex science. How do you think most of your readers will respond to the most difficult parts of the book?
From the outset, I decided to explain everything as clearly as possible but not to pull my punches. Some of the subject matter is complex, but I have kept maths out of the book and explained it all in words. I think too many science books have too low an opinion of the intelligence of their readers. The Universe is not intended as a quick read and throw away book. On the first run through, a reader can skip the more technical bits and get a feel for the whole subject, then go back and look in more detail. They should find that once they have even a rough idea of the outlines of the whole picture the details are easier to understand. I am writing for people who enjoy a bit of a challenge and will go back to the book time and again, as the new discoveries referred to above come in. Anyway, it's no harder than Suduko.
There is a lot of work being done all over the world on astronomy today. Can you tell us something of the most recent and most exciting discoveries that are in the book.
The single most exciting thing is the way everything hangs together. This is dramatic proof that the scientific enterprise is telling us Deep Truths about the Universe. At a more parochial level, there have been great strides recently in understanding the origin of planets like the Earth, and the origin of life, involving a complex chemical mixture brewed up in interstellar space.
You have a background in astrophysics, but I wonder if you still discovered any surprises when you were writing the book?
The most surprising thing is also the most speculative idea in the book - the idea that our Universe may be embedded in an 11-dimensional space along with a possibly infinite number of other universes. I wouldn't put the odds of this being right better than 50:50, but it is a great idea!
Is there a particular book or author that has had a significant influence on The Universe: A Biography?
Bill Bryson and A Short History of Nearly Everything. That's a great book if you know nothing about science; if you've read it and want to know more, The Universe is the place to go.
As John Gribbin reaches his one hundredth book he takes a look back at the journey to this point and the history of science that so fascinates him.
John, The Fellowship: The Story of a Revolution is your 100th book. 100 is a fantastic achievement. How do you feel about it?
I don't actually keep count, and when it was pointed out, I was particularly pleased that it should by chance be one of the books I'm most proud of. I'm not exactly ashamed of any of them, but you only get to a hundred by writing a lot of more ephemeral books (like The Little Book of Science, which was great fun but not one for posterity). The Fellowship, I hope, is not one of those. I don't really regard the number as an achievement - I used to be a journalist, and my friends on newspapers have written at least as many words as me in the past 30 years, it's just that their words don't get stuck between hard covers and put on bookshelves.
How did you originally start out as a science writer?
When I was a PhD student in Cambridge, and desperate for money to buy such luxuries as food. I started doing short items for New Scientist, and one thing led to another. I spent five years on the staff of the science journal Nature, and wrote my first couple of books during that time. But books only really took over from journalism in the mid-1980s.
Are there books that you have particularly enjoyed writing, or that you think have been the most significant in your output?
I have the fondest memories of In Search of Schrodinger's Cat, which was the first book I wrote for myself, without a contract before starting. It was turned down by eight publishers (including Penguin) before becoming my breakthrough title, and is still in print after 21 years. I enjoyed The Little Book of Science in a different way, as a chance to present science in an offbeat fashion. But like most writers, I usually think my current project is the best and most significant.
What books have particularly influenced you over your career?
Very few books have influenced me as a writer. Going way back (1950s), my early career influences were George Gamow's Mr Tompkins series, and Isaac Asimov's non-fiction. Slightly later, Richard Feynman's famous Lectures on Physics. The writers who did influence me, as a result of collaborating with them on science fiction, were Douglas Orgill and D. G. Compton. My wife, Mary, has been a big influence in getting me to write more crisply (but she still thinks I use too many parentheses).
Have your interests changed over that time?
I've always been interested in everything to do with the way the world got to be the way it is. That's why I did astronomy rather than any other science, and why I became a science writer instead of a scientist. But, as you see from The Fellowship, I have become increasingly interested in the people who did (and do) the science, and what drives them to do it.
Do you think that The Fellowship marks a particular point in your work?
See above. The latest book is always the best! It was really Science: A History that was a bit of a turning point (and credit to Stefan McGrath for suggesting it), and that gave me the confidence to try something even more "historical." I hope people will see this as a history book about science, rather than as a science book with a bit of historical context.
You have done a lot of research for the book. What are the most intriguing things that you have discovered?
Everything in the book! But as a few examples: just how well William Gilbert understood the scientific method more than 400 years ago, and that he influenced Galileo; the incredible range of interests of the founders of the Royal Society, with Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke as prime examples; and the founder who fought on both sides in the Civil War, spied for the French, and was knighted by the English. Not many modern Fellows can match that!
And finally, on a different track, how do you like to relax when you are not hard at work.
Watching cricket or taking advantage of our latest acquisition, a beach hut in Hove (conveniently 10 minutes walk from the cricket ground). "Real" holidays usually involve travelling in France. I also play at Astronomy - the Sussex University astronomy group let me go along to their seminars and keep up to date with latest ideas. This is definitely not work; but the last piece of research I ever did was in a team that measured the age of the Universe, which seemed a good note on which to end.