Recorded: 09 Sep 2003
Is it easy to write? It’s a very difficult question. I think there’s no question that, you know, good writers find writing easier than bad writers. And the ability to put yourself into the mind of the reader, know what it is that he doesn’t yet know, does want to know and see how he is going to understand something that you write is a key part of writing. And I think a lot of people who have difficulty writing well or fluently, have trouble turning themselves around and seeing it from the readers’ point of view. I think that’s a key thing.
I think one of the important things, particularly about science writing, is the ability to use metaphor, figurative language rather than literal language; metaphor, analogy, allegory, all those kind of things, which a lot of scientist train themselves not to be comfortable with. So, I think, you know, it is a different task that—and then there’s the ability to know what to leave out essentially. A key part of science writing in particular is to know which bits don’t have to be in there; which bits, you know, you don’t have to go through all the detail of.
But it’s vital also, to put some detail in. I mean I think the kind of science writing that simply says [that] they’ve made a breakthrough and it might lead to a cure for cancer, is really boring unless you give some kind of understanding of how or why. So it’s a balancing act. And I don’t know what makes a good book and what doesn’t. It’s never quite that easy. You know, there are so many different ways of writing a good book, but those are some of them.
I think there’s no doubt that the scientist and the writer often approach a subject differently. There’s a difference between people who’ve come out of science into writing, and people who’ve come out of writing into writing about science. I mean they can meet and they can overlap. But there’s always a difference in style.
You know, the most exciting writers are people who’ve done it. You can never quite as a writer coming in from the outside, be quite as good as the people who’ve actually the research and are writing about it. So I think that we reporters will always be one step behind those who have done it.
I think probably my favorite book is Genome because it’s the one that’s done [the] best, and because of the conceit, if you like, the gimmick that makes it work, which is to take a chapter for each chromosome and to take a gene on that chromosome and use it to tell a story about something in the genome. It’s a structure that I borrowed from Primo Levi, who wrote a book about his own life in which chapter was named after one of the elements in the periodic table. The book’s called The Periodic Table. And which had some relevance to that period of his life.
So I called mine an autobiography of a species as well for the same reason. And I was very lucky with Genome. I wrote it—it came out in 1999 [and] Craig Venter and others caused the genome project to accelerate its first major announcement in the year 2000. That was just when my paperback came out, so the book took off like a rocket and sold millions of copies, not millions, hundreds of thousands of copies. And so I was very fortunate and was very grateful to the human genome project for deliberating engineering some publicity for my book.
Matt Ridley is a journalist and a leading science writer. He earned his Ph.D. in zoology from Oxford University in 1983. He worked as a correspondent and editor for The Economist, a columnist for Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph and as editor of The Best American Science Writing 2002.
His books include Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature; Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation; Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters ; Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human; and Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code. His books have been short-listed for many literary awards.
He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. Ridley is the honorary life president of the International Centre for Life, Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s park devoted to life science that he founded in 1996. He is chairman of Northern Rock plc, and other financial services firms.
In 1996, Ridley first visited Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and made James D. Watson’s acquaintance. In 2006 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and is a visiting professor at the lab.