Physics World (London), 2 June 2009.
PW: Why did you originally choose to study physics? Did you enjoy it?
SRS: I spent much of my childhood outdoors, exploring the woods and fields and creeks. I was drawn to science initially as a way of learning about the aspects of nature that I could actually see—rocks, bugs, clouds, fossils, birds, stars, and the like. As I grew up during the 1950s and 1960s, reading about nuclear weapons and satellite launches, I became more interested in the dimensions of nature that I could not see—the infinitesimally small and the unimaginably large—and in the evolution of the universe. This interest led me, as a high school student, to the passionate study of physics. I’ve written about this history in my book Secrets of the Universe.
PW: Why did you decide to shift from science into literature?
SRS: Much as I relished the study of science in general and physics in particular, I became preoccupied, during college, with questions that science could not address. I wanted to understand why racial prejudice divided our society, why women had for so long been subordinated to men, why our nation was at war in Vietnam. I brooded on perennial human questions about the ultimate source of things, about how to make ethical choices, about the meaning of life. Unlike physics, literature dealt with these messy, elusive, vital matters. I was also disturbed to learn how much of the funding for research in physics, at least in the US, is tied to the military. Militarism continues to distort our research priorities—as one sees today in the billions spent on the so-called missile shield and on the refinement of nuclear weapons.
PW: I note from your biographical sketch that you moved around a lot when you were young, including a stint in the UK as a grad student. How do you think that experience has shaped your writing?
SRS: Thanks to a Marshall Scholarship, a gift from the British people, my wife and I spent the years 1967-1971 in Cambridge, where I earned my Ph.D. in English literature. I had never traveled abroad before, nor had I ever encountered the depth of human presence—the strata of history—that I found everywhere we traveled in the UK and on the Continent. It was exhilarating for me to read classic works of English literature while visiting some of the places where these works were composed. Paradoxically, as much as I relished my sojourn in Cambridge, it had the effect of sharpening my awareness of myself as an American, and specifically as a Midwesterner. When I completed my degree in 1971, my wife and I returned to the American Midwest, where I took up a position at Indiana University, a position I still hold 38 years later. During those nearly four decades, I have published twenty books, including a memoir, A Private History of Awe, which records the impact of my time in the UK and my lifelong fascination with physics and the other sciences.
PW: There's been a lot of talk recently about "tipping points" with respect to climate change, and your latest book is about conservation. Did you experience your own personal "tipping point" that made you decide to devote a whole book to this topic?
SRS: I have been preoccupied with environmental issues since my graduate years at Cambridge. Early on, I thought of the problems as local—pollution in a river, say—or as isolable—the impact of DDT—and therefore as remediable in a straightforward way. We could stop dumping toxins in the river, stop using DDT. But gradually, during the 1970s and 1980s, I came to realize that human actions were destabilizing living systems on a global scale—through acid rain, depletion of the ozone layer, pollution and overfishing of the oceans, greenhouse emissions, spreading of deserts, destruction of rainforests, extinction of species, etc. Through a series of books, beginning with Staying Put and continuing through Hunting for Hope, I addressed these assaults on Earth’s living systems not as technical or economic problems but as cultural problems. My most recent book, A Conservationist Manifesto (Indiana University Press, 2009), brings these arguments together in one place, and calls for profound cultural change, above all in my own profligate country.
PW: What advice would you give to science students today who are concerned about the environment and the future of the planet?
SRS: Here’s what I would say to such
students: We need all the knowledge that science can offer concerning
every dimension of the planet, from tectonic plates to atmosphere, from
rotifers to watersheds. So whatever domain of science you pursue, it may
help us to grapple with environmental challenges. Your work is more likely
to serve this larger purpose if you always bear in mind the big picture,
instead of limiting yourself to a narrow specialty. Remember that our
disciplinary boundaries are arbitrary conveniences; nature is a whole.
Learn to work with the media to bring the widest attention to your findings.
Don’t be afraid to speak out about the implications of your research,
even when those implications range into politics, economics, and culture.
The planet needs your knowledge and your voice.
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