Thursday, June 13, 2013

Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Hugh Aldersey-Williams's books include Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements, which has been published in ten languages, and The Most Beautiful Molecule, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His new book is Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body.

Recently I asked Aldersey-Williams about what he was reading.  His reply:
I’m presently working on a book about Sir Thomas Browne and his relevance to the 21st century debates on science, society and religion. Sir Thomas who, you ask? He was a 17th century physician, philosopher, antiquarian and mythbuster of Norwich, the city near where I live. He tends to be known, if known at all, to English literature scholars for some beautifully ornate essays, such as Urn Burial, a disquisition on mortality and the places where our remains are deposited. (It’s more cheerful than it sounds.) For those new to Browne, and scientifically minded, I’d recommend quick dips into his vast catalogue of people’s ‘vulgar errors’, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, all available online.

My research involves looking into the strange things people believed at the time, as well as the keeping of physic gardens, the conduct of witchcraft trials, and so on. When writing Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body, I found myself repeatedly drawn to this period as the one where men first began the systematic investigation of the human interior, so I am already immersed in the medicine and science. All vital background, but I find that fiction also helps me...

I’ve been enjoying Rose Tremain’s Merivel, the long-awaited sequel to her highly praised Restoration. These novels describe the life of another East Anglian doctor, and they make for an interesting comparison. Both men are fatally prone to digression, which seems to be a characteristic behavior of the era. But where Browne's rovings are intellectual and philosophical, those of Sir Robert Merivel are decidedly more carnal; Browne once wrote that he wished that men might procreate like trees, which is certainly not the desire of Merivel, who is susceptible to every temptation of flesh and fashion. And whereas Merivel builds his life on pandering to the whims of King Charles II, Browne is entirely unconcerned with the allure of power. When he was knighted, it was largely by accident; the King was visiting Norwich in the mood to confer honours, and Browne was simply there at the right time.

I'm also at work on a book about the science and lore of the tides. For this, I’m mixing reading about astronomy and physics with the marine biology of Rachel Carson and stories of terrifying currents and whirlpools. Most seaborne writing tends to place the action far from the shore, where the tide is unimportant, but there are entertaining exceptions, such as Erskine Childers’s thriller The Riddle of the Sands. Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau contains beautifully nuanced description of the movements of the waters, while Susan Hill’s modern classic of a ghost story, The Woman in Black, shows how the confusion about the tides that many of us share contributes to our fears.
Visit Hugh Aldersey-Williams's website.

--Marshal Zeringue