Andrew Knoll is the Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard University. Knoll received his B.A. in Geology from Lehigh University in 1973 and went on to receive his Ph.D. in Geology from Harvard in 1977. Andrew Knoll has been a member of the Harvard faculty since returning as an Associate Professor of Biology in 1982. His research focus is on the early evolution of life, Earth’s environmental history and the interconnection between the two. For the last ten years, Andrew Knoll has served on the science team for NASA’s MER mission to Mars. Andrew Knoll has been awarded numerous awards, including the Walcott Medal, the Mary Clark Thompson Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, the Phi Beta Kappa Book Award in Science (for his 2003 book Life on a Young Planet), the Moore Medal of the Society for Sedimentary Geology, the Paleontological Society Medal, and the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London. I was excited to learn about the reading habits of such a highly renowned science professor, such as Andrew Knoll. Please enjoy my interview with the wonderful, Andrew Knoll…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I’m a palaeontologist; that is, I study the history of life, as documented by fossils. I also think of myself as a geobiologist, interested in the interactions between Earth and life, both now and as they have played out through our planet’s long history.
What’s your earliest memory of reading?
I learned to read in the first grade and never looked back. One book I particularly remember was All about Archaeology by Anne Terry White. I was entranced by the idea that history lies just beneath our feet, if we know how to look. It isn’t hard to trace a line from that book to my own research – discovering our planet’s history in sedimentary rocks. I also have fond memories of Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling C. Holling. This book taught me that the world is large and adventures await those curious enough to travel. (My wife, who knows me well, gave me reprinted copy of Paddle-to-the-Sea for my 60th birthday.)
If you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be?
I’d encourage everyone, young and old, to read the beautiful and important book The Serengeti Rules by Sean Carroll. Sean, a distinguished molecular biologist, has written an elegant account of ecology – the rules of nature, if you will – and the biological consequences of human activities. If you want to think clearly, act responsibly and vote intelligently, read this book.
What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
I’ve never had a really terrible job. I painted school buildings for two summers in high school, which brought a welcome paycheck, while reinforcing in my mind the value of education yet to come.
Do you read as much as you’d like to?
I read all the time. By day it is mostly scientific articles, dozens each week. For this reason, I look elsewhere for reading pleasure in the evening – the New Yorker, the Economist, history, mysteries, and, occasionally, other novels.
The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin is the foundational text of modern biology. That said, what recommends it 150 years after publication is the quality of Darwin’s writing. He was a superb communicator as well as a bold thinker. I’d also recommend The Meaning of Fossils by Martin Rudwick, an illuminating account of how scientists learned to think about the paleontological record.
Is there a book that you’ve read more than once? What is it and why did you revisit it?
I seldom reread books, but every now and again I’ll dip back into a book I enjoyed as a student, mostly to see how my perceptions have changed through time. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens proved as good as remembered, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque – even better. Hesse’s ventures into Eastern philosophy, not so much.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
Over the past year or so, that would be All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, an original and compelling story, beautifully written.
What’s your favourite genre of book?
When reading for pleasure, I gravitate toward European history and mysteries. The former helps me to understand the modern world. The latter is simply fun and relaxing.
What do you think a world without books would be like?
I can’t imagine it. Language allows humans to communicate with one another, and the written word enables us to communicate across generations. Socrates, we are told, said that the unexamined life is not worth living. That’s a wonderful phrase, whoever uttered it, and the thoughts and experiences of others stimulate the required self-examination.
Is there an author whose writing you’re such a fan of, that you’ll read everything they release?
For years, I eagerly awaited each new mystery by P.D. James. These days, Donna Leon can’t write fast enough to keep me occupied. Leon’s wonderful Guido Brunetti novels blend mystery, food, family life, and social criticism in the world’s most intriguing city.
Do you think digital books will ever completely replace real books?
I hope not. I do enjoy having hundreds of books on a device that fits easily in a drawer, but the physical act of holding a book and turning its pages retains a special charm.
What book do you feel humanity needs right now?
Right now we need all the help we can get. One book that helps us to understand ourselves and our changing relationship to nature is The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. It is common to hear people air the belief that humans cannot impact the vastness of nature, but they can and, in the 21st century, do. The urgent message of The Sixth Extinction is that, over the coming century, humans may diminish biological diversity to a degree matched only in geologic history by giant meteorites and volcanism a million times greater than anything ever experienced by our species. Sobering reading, but important.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life?
As an undergraduate, I read the then new and controversial book, The Origin of the Eukaryotic Cell by Lynn Margulis. In it, she detailed her revolutionary ideas about how complex cells evolved and – importantly for me – discussed equally revolutionary research by Harvard palaeontologist Elso Barghoorn, whose fossil discoveries established the deep microbial history of life. Inspired by Lynn’s book, I applied to study with Barghoorn as a graduate student and was accepted, strongly influencing the trajectory of my professional life. By the way, during my first year of graduate school, Elso introduced me to Lynn, who became a supportive and inspiring friend for nearly forty years.
My favorite books also include:
and pretty much everything by Scott Fitzgerald.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I’m gearing up for a new book of my own and so plan to read more history of science. And happily, a new Donna Leon novel will be published this spring.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
A friend once told me that the only thing worse than writing an autobiography is reading one. While I don’t agree with the second part of that line, I can’t imagine writing my own story.