Skip to main content

Richard Cohen – Four Way Interview

Richard Cohen is a former publishing director of Hutchinson and Hodder & Stoughton. He is the author of By the Sword: a history of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers and Olympic Champions, has written for the Times, the Guardian, the Independent and most other leading London newspapers, and has appeared on BBC radio and television. He lives in New York City. His more recent book is Chasing the Sun.
Why science?
— a question I used to ask when I was at school, which in fact I managed to get through without taking a single class in chemistry, biology, botany or zoology. I did have one year of physics, at the end of which I got 83% in the exam. My teacher, a Mr Richards, look at me suspiciously and said, ‘You were lucky. But from now on you won’t have to do any more physics. Putting you in for O level would be a waste of time.’ But eight years ago I became suddenly aware of an overwhelmingly gap in what I knew, and in writing about the Sun have had to teach myself something of physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, cosmology, oceanography, geography, ecology…. Truth to tell, it was great fun. And I don’t ask ‘Why science?’ now.
Why this book?
Because a comprehensive study of the Sun, with all the science but also examining the star’s impact in literature, music, art, architecture, myth – even in modern politics – had never been covered in a single volume. People tend to specialize, and a trip to the New York Public Library revealed that there were nearly 6000 books about the Sun – but none was the one that I wanted to read. Luckily, I’ve been fortunate to have been given advice by a daunting number of specialist experts, and now at least there exists the book that I coveted. I also received a grant from the Sloan Foundation, which changed the range of what I was able to cover, enabling me to travel to more than 20 countries asking questions about the Sun.
What’s next?
I like looking at large themes that range across centuries and cut across cultures. My next book is titled ‘The History of Historians,’ and will probe into the major works of history – worldwide – written over man’s time on Earth, and what influenced their authors, from their love lives to their rivalries to their health or the cultural conditions of the day. I start with Herodotus and end with modern TV historians. Already the research is fascinating.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
I teach creative writing at the University of Kingston Upon Thames, which I greatly enjoy, and which has prompted me to start a book about how to write. I’ve also just returned from the Commonwealth Fencing Championships in Melbourne (held every four years, like the main Commonwealth Games that just ended in New Delhi, but no longer part of the main games, sadly). I represented Northern Ireland at sabre, while my 23-year-old daughter Mary fenced for England at epee. She almost got a medal, while I came 12th (but then I am 63). For the two of us to be in the same championships was a special thrill. Being on holiday in Australia was pretty cool too. Plenty of sun, only this time I wasn’t writing about it.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…