Lewis Dartnell wears many hats. First and foremost he’s a scientist – or an astrobiology researcher and professor at the University of Westminster, to be precise – which means he can routinely be found charting the possibility of life on other planets.
He's a TV regular, appearing on a number of well-loved documentaries including BBC Horizon, Wonders of the Universe, Stargazing Live, and Sky at Night, consulting as a resident space expert.
Finally, he is also a writer (an award-winning one at that). In his fourth and latest book, ORIGINS, he explores how the physical landscape of planet earth has shaped human life, from earliest evolution in East Africa to voting patterns in modern day America.
We spoke to Dartnell about his love of sci-fi and how he enjoys reading guilt-free on his kindle in his spare time.
Which writer do you most admire and why?
I admire many different writers for many different styles and genres of books. I’m a scientist, so it’s perhaps not a surprise that I grew up on a sci-fi diet of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Stephen Baxter, and Alastair Reynolds. More recently have been consuming the wonderfully immersive worlds of China Miéville and Neal Stephenson. Popular science writers such as Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and John Gribbin have also been hugely influential. But my single most treasured book of all is an edition of Jorge Luis Borges’ collected short stories, which I found in a second-hand shop in Peru 20 years ago.
What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?
I’m also a research scientist, studying some of the hardiest forms of bacterial life on Earth and the possibility of life on other planets or moons. This often seems to get me into strange situations… A few years ago, at a conference in Finland, I found myself discussing the most heat-tolerant organisms in a steamy, dimly-lit sauna with 20 other professors, all stark naked. And yes, I did jump in the frozen lake afterwards!
Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times.
One of my favourite books is Iain M. Banks’ Look to Windward. It’s part of his Culture series, so is a sci-fi novel set within a galaxy-spanning, multi-species, post-scarcity, libertarian civilisation. Space stations and AI provide the backdrop, but this story is a profoundly moving exploration of love, sacrifice, the horrors of war and the moral complexities of intervention. It’s one of the most inventive and heartbreaking books I have read. I’ve also got it as an audiobook and for several years this was my go-to listen when I was having trouble falling asleep: I must’ve heard it dozens of times over all.
What the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
JUST WRITE! Stop procrastinating and telling yourself you need to quickly double-check something on Wikipedia… Disconnect, turn off your phone and leave it in another room, and settle down in a quiet room. Make sure you’ve done the research first, so that you can have your notes by your side to refer to, and then just start writing. Your brain will soon warm up to it and you’ll beat the inertia so that it stops feeling like such a struggle. Ignore the nagging, internal editor in your mind, you can correct and rewrite and restructure the text later.
What makes you most happy?
I am utterly content on a lazy Sunday afternoon at home with my girlfriend, the papers spread across the sofa, the radio on softly in the background and a slow roast in the oven. Those are the sights, sounds and smells of total bliss! But my guilty pleasure is a hot bath, with my laptop perched on the sink so I can soak and watch an episode or two of whichever drama I’m currently streaming…
What’s your biggest regret?
I’ve always regretted not having paid more attention to learning new languages. I didn’t take French or Spanish beyond GCSE at school, and although I grew up in Nairobi, I only remember a few words of Swahili.
What’s your ideal writing scenario?
I get some of my best writing done first thing in the morning. As soon as the alarm’s gone off, I’ll pull on a dressing gown and sit down at my desk with a mug of coffee. I find that if I start writing before I’m fully awake, I can catch the procrastination imp off-guard and settle quickly into a satisfying writing rhythm without having to force it. And often my dreaming, subconscious brain has solved whatever sticking point I’d been struggling with the day before. I find it really hard to shift gears in between different tasks, so try to clear out a whole day at a time to focus on writing in one long block.
...and your ideal reading one?
I do a huge amount of reading for work, so it’s something of a rare joy to be able to carve out time to settle down and read for the sheer joy of it. I enjoy reading on trains, where I can relax guilt-free with my Kindle, and gaze at the landscape scrolling past the window. I normally have two or three different books on the go at any time, to suit different moods.
What’s your favourite book you’ve read this year?
Researching and writing ORIGINS drove me to read a huge range of dry academic research papers and historical records, but also some phenomenal examples of other popular science and world history books. The stand-outs were Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, Yuval Harari's Sapiens, Peter Frankopan's The Silk Roads, and Tim Marshall's Prisoners of Geography. But my favourite of all would have to be an engrossing, slim volume by Jan Zalasiewicz. The Planet in a Pebble tells the incredible story of the vast geological history of the Earth by examining a single pebble on a beach. It’s an impassioned invocation of William Blake’s lines [from 'Auguries of Innocence']:
‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
What inspired you to write your book?
For all my books, I write the book I would love to read myself. In ORIGINS, I wanted to zoom out the perspective and discuss how the planet we live on has itself had a defining influence on the grand themes and trends of human history. I wanted to write an expansive Big History book, but as a scientist.
ORIGINS by Lewis Dartnell is out now.