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

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …