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

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

Lost Solace (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

There was a time when you would be hard pushed to find a science fiction novel with a female main character. As I noted when re-reading Asimov's Foundation, in 189 pages, women appear on just five pages - and they're very much supporting cast. But the majority of new SF novels I've read this year have had female main characters, including The Real Town Murders, Austral and Andy Weir's upcoming Artemis.

That's certainly the case in Karl Drinkwater's engaging Lost Solace. It's really a two hander between military renegade Opal and her ship's AI, Clarissa. There are a few male characters, but they are either non-speaking troops she battles or a major with whom she has a couple of short video conversations. That summary gives an unfair military flavour to the whole thing - in practice, the majority of the action, which is practically non-stop throughout the book, involves Opal trying to survive as she explores a mysterious, apparently abandoned liner in a de…