The Sant Chair of Marine Science at the Smithsonian, Nancy Knowlton has spent more than 40 years studying coral reefs and is the author of Citizens of the Sea. In April, she co-hosted the Smithsonian Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C., a conference aimed at highlighting recent solutions and successes in the area of conservation. We asked her to share with us a few of the non-technical books that have influenced her the most. These seven books, drawn from a variety of genres, styles, and traditions, represent works that have stayed with Knowlton long after she first read them. “With books,” she says, “after a long time, you may not remember the exact details, but something stays with you that can bubble up years later. My brain can turn information into a watercolor that got rained on, but I retain the emotional reaction.”
This book is the extraordinarily powerful story of the relationship between a woman and a hawk. It’s a wonderful natural history book, but it’s so much more than that. Partly about coping with grief, partly a story about the history of falconry, this book is one of the most elegant and eloquent discourses about the relationship between people and animals that I’ve ever read. It’s the very personal story of Macdonald’s difficult and challenging relationship with a hawk. Her telling of the story pulls out of her all this emotion and subtlety. She captured all these inchoate feelings I have about the natural world. I’m a biologist, and I feel much of what she describes when I walk along the shore or go bird-watching, but I never could have expressed it as powerfully as she did. She put it on paper!
Both these books explore why things are different from each other, how things got to be different. They are about evolution. There’s a famous quote from a 1973 essay by the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” These books are also about scientists as people and how science gets done.
Darwin is the Einstein of evolutionary biology. If I had to choose one scientist to be my hero, it would be Darwin. He did lots of things that weren’t even biology per se, but in terms of his evolutionary work, he had an extraordinary grasp of the variety of life. He wanted to know what it meant and how it came to be, to understand how organisms with different characteristics compete with each other and how who wins determines what ends up being passed on to the next generation. This is the essence of evolution. The Power of Place is a very detailed exploration of how Darwin came to make his discoveries. The author grounds the book in the details of how Darwin worked – not just the theory of evolution itself but also how it happened, how he achieved what he achieved. That’s almost as interesting to me as the theory itself. The theory of evolution seems so grand and unapproachable, but after all it’s the work of a human being.
The Beak of the Finch is the true story of two scientists, Rosemary and Peter Grant, who for decades have been studying Darwin’s finches – birds whose ancestors arrived in the Galapagos and then evolved there. These finches have all these different beak sizes; this came about through the process of natural selection. There didn’t used to be all these different kinds of finches, and over generations we have ended up with this incredible variety of species – a process called adaptive radiation. The Grants’ study variation incredibly closely, in much the way Darwin did. And they showed that, even on a micro scale, you can see evolution working. Because they kept such careful track, they could see the process of evolution taking place in real time. The Beak of the Finch is also a story of what science is, how science and scientists work, what they do. They showed such dedication over so many years, made so many careful, detailed measurements, and through that process they showed how evolution works.
I like these two books for the same reason I like the Japanese film Rashomon: There are all these different ways of seeing something. And with the planet, there’s no single way looking at it. You learn something by taking many different approaches and looking at questions and problems from many different perspectives.
36 Views of Mount Fuji explores Japan and the way in which, when you’re there, it’s like stepping into another world. I went to Japan for the first time to visit a friend who was spending the year there on a fellowship. On some levels, the country is very Western and on other levels, it’s completely not Western. When you visit, you’re constantly learning that your way is not the only way. Davidson gives us a portrait of Japan through a series of personal experiences. Instead of telling a linear story, the book tells the story by dropping down on many different sides of its subject.
Einstein’s Dreams tries to create for the reader who is not a physicist the topsy-turvyness that occurs when you upend your ideas of how time works. The book is presented as a series of dreams. It imagines what Einstein was thinking while developing his theory of special relativity – what would happen if you took his ideas and made them part of your everyday life, if you took the way we normally experience time and turned it on its head.
I’m increasingly interested in how to move the human enterprise onto a more sustainable path, and I’ve become obsessed by people who are making a difference for the environment and for us all. And I keep thinking about how best to communicate this. In Houston We Have a Narrative, Randy Olson talks about the power of story, how scientists tend to be really bad at telling stories.
Olson’s analysis of narrative is important beyond science, but the book does serve as a how-to manual for scientists who are struggling to take what they know and make it compelling for people who aren’t scientists. How do you create a narrative out of what you’re trying to do or what you have discovered? After all, everyone understands story – but only nerds understand graphs.
Most scientists tend to just strings facts together with no narrative – they say “and,” “and,” “and.” But, as Olson explains, you have to construct a narrative by building and then resolving emotional tension. You need to use not only “and,” but also “but” and “therefore.” Then you have the makings of a story! The “and/but/therefore” structure is hard-wired into our DNA of how we process information. Watson and Crick’s hyper-influential paper on the structure of DNA, the Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech: all used this structure.
The books I talk about here are powerful because they tell a story. The question is: How do you think about narrative when you’re not trained to do that? Every scientist should read this book if they’re trying to communicate with the outside world – or even with other scientists.
This is on one level the story of rugby in South Africa, a traditionally whites-only sport, a sort of symbol of apartheid. But what it’s really about is the unshakeable ability of Nelson Mandela not to indulge in anger and how that made the new South Africa possible. He had to push back so hard against the victims of apartheid who didn’t want to celebrate the game. He brought his country together through this game.
I’m interested in this is because I’m now engaged in trying to change the conversation about conservation. There’s so much anger out there about what’s happening to the planet just broadly speaking – and then also the sense that we’re moving backward rather than forward, which is increasing the anger. My conviction is that we’re never going to make progress on the environment with just a small choir of people, and you can’t persuade anyone with anger.
Mandela spent all those years in prison and yet did not let himself be consumed by anger. I think that’s why he succeeded. So the lesson of his life is very powerful and inspiring to me. Not that I put myself in the same category as Nelson Mandela, but the struggle for the future of the planet is a big struggle.