Writing, Like Geology, Requires A Little Digging

45:50 minutes

a layer of fog partially obscuring a majestic canyon
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. Credit: Shutterstock

When author John McPhee first considered the piece of writing that would become his 1998 book, Annals of the Former World, he envisioned a short, un-bylined article in The New Yorker, in which he would visit a road cut on Route 80—a piece that could probably be completed in a few days. Instead, that idea became a 700-page coast to coast exploration of the geology of North America, a project that took over 20 years to complete.

In this archival interview, recorded in June 1999, McPhee talks with Ira Flatow about the process of reporting Annals of the Former World, which had just won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. They talk about rocks, maps, and geology, of course—but also about characters, nuclear physics, migrating fish, and the craft of writing. McPhee, who also teaches nonfiction writing at Princeton University, likened his teaching role to that of a previous job as a swimming coach.

“The people I was teaching swimming [to] all knew how to swim,” he said. “What I was trying to do was to help them swim better, to streamline them. And that’s very analogous to talking to people about writing. I’m not teaching anyone to write. I’m just helping people with little ideas that they may or may not pick up.”

Segment Guests

John McPhee

John McPhee is author of Annals of the Former World (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1998), a staff writer at The New Yorker, and the Ferris Professor of Journalism in Residence at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. This hour, we’re opening up the SciFri vault and setting the Wayback Machine to 1999, 22 years ago. Our destination– a conversation with writer John McPhee about his geologic epic, Annals of the Former World.

Let me set the scene for you. When this conversation was recorded, the UN was struggling with how to aid refugees from the war in Kosovo. Bill Clinton was president, and then Texas Governor George W. Bush had just announced his intention to seek the Republican presidential nomination. And the day after this conversation, the Dallas Stars defeated the Buffalo Sabres in triple overtime of game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Sad news for me– Buffalo is where I got started in radio.

But the good news, McPhee’s book– Annals of the Former World, first published in 1998– won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. So have a listen.

A literary legend is going to join us for this hour on Science Friday. John McPhee is a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine and the author of 25 books on subjects as diverse as oranges, the Pine Barrens, and nuclear physics. Two of his books, Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy, were nominated for National Book Awards in the science category. In 1977, he received the award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and more recently, the coveted Pulitzer Prize for his latest book, Annals of the Former World. He also teaches nonfiction writing at Princeton University and joins us today from the campus there. John McPhee, welcome to the program.

JOHN MCPHEE: Hello, Ira.


JOHN MCPHEE: Nice to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. Everybody is interested when they pick up this huge volume, and it’s a big one, and a lot of good reading in it– The Annals of the Former World. It started out very innocently, did it not, as a short, little piece you were going to be doing for The New Yorker?

JOHN MCPHEE: Yes, it did. I had the idea to do a “Talk of the Town” piece in The New Yorker– a short, unsigned article about a road cut outside New York City, somewhere– and go there, describe the history of that rock, its environment of deposition or whatever, and tell the story in the first person plural, and a couple of days later I’m all done. That’s how this started.

And while I was still thinking about it and talking to the professor in Princeton who was going to do it with me, I got the idea of going up the Adirondack Northway, through all those beautiful outcroppings and that really stunning road, and maybe extend the piece a little. And he said– his name is Ken Deffeyes, and he’s a Princeton professor who’s been with me through this whole project, counseling me– he said not on this continent.

He said, if you want to do that sort of thing, go west. Go across the structure, because the way North America is anatomically organized, all this stuff goes North and South– the physiographic provinces, the rock, the deformed Appalachians, and the Rockies, and so forth. And he said go across the structure. And so I got the idea to really go across it, to describe North America from one ocean to the other in a geological way, and that’s when I fell in so far over my head that I didn’t know what I was doing. And that was 21 years ago.

IRA FLATOW: Did you have to teach yourself everything about it? Because there are so many extensive references, you speak like you’re an expert geologist. Did it take a long time to learn all of these things?

JOHN MCPHEE: Well, I hope I learned something in 20 years that the project took. I had studied geology in school, and– in a very good course, it was basically geomorphology, I think. And all through the years, I’d talked with geologists about things in various books of mine, trying to get it right, where a little paragraph had come up describing something geological.

But basically, I didn’t know much at all. And I just found myself nervously in deep, but I learned a great deal. I went to courses, I went to– a lot of it was one-on-one. I traveled for years with geologists, and they taught me, right there in the field. And I read, of course, a great many scientific papers, and I have a shelf of basic textbooks that must be four or 5 feet wide. And slowly, something soaked in.

IRA FLATOW: One of the great things about your book is that you managed to take a science that most of us probably don’t know too much about or appreciate it, and you show us how it really shaped our world. And one example, in particular, you give is New York City– a place that seems about as remote from the natural world as you can get. I like to go out into Central Park and watch the stones that are left over from the ice sheets that used to be down here during the Ice Age. But you even have a more interesting story about how geology shaped New York in a different way– the skyline and why we have skyscrapers in certain places in New York.

JOHN MCPHEE: How about if I read that paragraph to you?

IRA FLATOW: That’s great.

JOHN MCPHEE: I was with Anita Harris. Anita Harris is a US Geological Survey paleontologist– a conodont paleontologist– who grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and she says that she went into geology to get out of there. She and I went to New York, one day, and as we were approaching the city from her cousin’s place in New Jersey and looking at the Manhattan skyline– now I’m going to start reading from the book.

“Anita asked me if I had ever wondered why there was a low saddle in the city between the stands of tall buildings. I said I’d always assumed that skyline was shaped by human considerations– commercial, historical, ethnic. Who could imagine a Little Italy in a skyscraper, a linoleum warehouse up in the clouds?

The towers of midtown, as one might imagine, were emplaced in substantial rock, Anita said– rock that once had been heated near the point of melting, and had recrystalized, and had been heated again, had recrystalized, and, while not particularly competent, was more than adequate to hold up those buildings. Most important, it was right at the surface. You could see it, in all its micaceous glitter, shining like silver in the outcrops of Central Park. 450 million years in age, it was called Manhattan schist.

All through midtown, it was at or near the surface, but in the region south of 30th Street it began to fall away, and at Washington Square it descended abruptly. The whole saddle between midtown and Wall Street would be underwater, were it not filled with many tens of fathoms of glacial till. The ice sheet brought it. So there sat Greenwich Village, SoHo, Chinatown, on material that could not hold up a great deal more than a golf tee– on the ground-up wreckage of the Ramapos, on crushed Catskill, on odd bits of Nyack and Tenafly, which the ice brought. In the Wall Street area, the bedrock does not return to the surface, but it comes within 40 feet and is accessible for the footings of the tallest buildings in town.

New York grew high on the advantage of its hard rock, and, New York being what it is, cities all over the world have attempted to resemble it. The skyline of nuclear Houston, for example, is a simulacrum of Manhattan’s skyline. Houston rests on 12,000 feet of montmorillonitic clay, a substance that, when moist, turns into mobile jelly. After taking so much money out of the ground, the oil companies of Houston have put hundreds of millions back in. Houston is the world’s foremost city in fat basements. Its tall buildings are magnified duckpins, bobbing in their own mire.”

IRA FLATOW: That’s a great description. I have to also mention that I noticed that, while you were reading some of your own work, you were actually editing some of it along the way. Does the writing process ever stop?

JOHN MCPHEE: Well, it doesn’t stop when you’re reading something on NPR and realize that, if you’re saying that they’re little bits of Tenafly and Ramapo in SoHo, you’d better explain it.

IRA FLATOW: I noticed– and anybody who reads the book can’t help but notice– that you have certain characters and they’re real-life people in the book– geologists that you find along the way who stand out and who become, almost, our friends.

I’m talking, in one case, here, about David Love, who is the geologist who guides you through Wyoming. And you say in your book that he is the only person in the history of American geology who has served as a senior author of a state map, twice. And that, I gather, is quite an accomplishment. Now, tell us about the work that goes on into making a state map.

JOHN MCPHEE: Well, as I said somewhere in this book, a geologic map is a textbook on one sheet of paper. Just a tremendous amount of geology goes into the representation that’s on that map.

Basically, a geologic map is a picture of the uppermost rock in a given area like, say, a state– Wyoming. If you are looking at it aerially, the top rock is the one depicted in the map. If soil is there, it’s still the top rock below the soil. If glacial stuff is there, that’s usually left off– stuff that the glaciers smeared over the bedrock. And so you see the relationship of the uppermost rock in the rock column, you don’t see everything going down below it.

It’s a synthesis, a geologic map, of pretty much everything that’s been written about the rock in the state. And so you can see the amount of work that’d be involved in it. And in 19– whatever, David Love was the senior author of the first one, and I think in 1985, the present map was published. He’d done this twice, which means he lives 300 years or something, in effect.

IRA FLATOW: Did you have to become a mapmaker to really understand how he does these things?

JOHN MCPHEE: Well not a mapmaker, but I’ve always loved maps. I can just get into a map room and lose all sense of time. And Princeton has a wonderful map room in the geology library– a really superb one– and I just go there, and I love to hang around and look at these maps. I don’t have difficulty figuring out where I am on them.

IRA FLATOW: Get inspiration from them?

JOHN MCPHEE: Yes. But also, if I’m doing a piece about anything– like, right now, I’ve been doing something that involves Holyoke, Massachusetts– and I’ll go down to that same library and look at the topographic maps, the largest-scale maps, of Holyoke so I can just see the layout. And, sometimes, you pick up wonderful place names that way, and you get accurate distances, and so on. But the maps always suggest something.

IRA FLATOW: We need to take a break. You’re listening to a conversation with writer John McPhee– recorded 22 years ago, in June of 1999– about his book, Annals of the Former World. More rock talk with John McPhee in just a moment– stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. This hour, we’re dipping into the Science Friday archives for a conversation with author John McPhee– recorded in June of 1999– about his wonderful book, Annals of the Former World, first published in 1998 and it became the 1999 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

Can you sit down and write something once, like Isaac Asimov used to do, and be happy with it? Or how many times do you have to go over and refinish it, and rework it, and rework it?

JOHN MCPHEE: Plenty. Isaac Asimov– whatever he did, I’m sure I don’t do. It’s a process of many, many, many revisions– basically, four trips through the whole manuscript, but there’s just countless subdivisions of that. But I work with about four full drafts– a first draft that takes a very long time, and then the others take less.

There’s a romantic idea about writers who are so facile that they, quote, “don’t have to blot a line.” But, boy, that is not this writer. And, actually, I feel that one of the basic fundamentals about writing is that you do have a chance to change things. You can work it over and improve it until you see something you want.

IRA FLATOW: It really is like sculpture and artwork, is it not? That you can just change it a little here, move a little there–

JOHN MCPHEE: Pushing words around, I guess.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, make it look exactly the way you want to. And then come back a little bit later and say, I didn’t like that, let me go back to the way it used to be. How do you teach your students to be writers– or can you teach people to be writers?

JOHN MCPHEE: Well, an analogy that I have used now and again about that is that– I think I see myself more as a coach or, say, a swimming teacher, which is something I used to do, years ago. And the people I was teaching swimming all knew how to swim. What I was trying to do was to help them swim better, to streamline them, to help them more efficiently to use their relationship with the water.

And that’s very analogous to talking to people about writing. I mean, I’m not teaching anyone to write. I’m just helping people with little ideas that they may or may not pick up from me. I have no way of knowing what it is that sticks with them. I just like talking to them privately about their compositions.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones to Nancy in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Nancy.

NANCY: Hi. I don’t have my radio on, so I can’t tell whether you can hear me or not– but I turned the mute on.

I don’t have a question for Mr. McPhee. I just want to tell him that I’m a fan of his, and have been ever since I read– oh gosh– The Survival of the Bark Canoe. Having been raised in Canada– born and raised in Canada, I was thrilled with that. I think the thing that I really wanted to thank him for was the purity and beauty of his writing. I can get as lost in his nonfiction as I can in a good fiction book.

I think the fun thing for me was, when I moved from Ohio to Portland, my son joined me in Laramie, Wyoming as I came along In my car. And he happened to have with him– and I don’t know whether it was Rising from the Plains or Basin and Range– but he had borrowed the book from a friend. And, as we drove from Laramie up through to the Tetons, I read aloud to him and myself about the terrain we were going through, and it was just terrific. It was fun. It was interesting to see what he was describing.

I guess, maybe, he can tell me whether it was Rising from the Plains or Basin and Range. I have Basin and Range here, but it’s been some years since I’ve read it.

IRA FLATOW: Well, thank you for calling, Nancy.

NANCY: You’re welcome.

JOHN MCPHEE: Thank you, Nancy. Thanks very much. It was Rising from the Plains.

IRA FLATOW: And Annals of the Former World– it’s a compendium. It’s five volumes. Four of the volumes are pieces you’ve done before, right?


IRA FLATOW: And the fifth volume is an original– is new stuff.

JOHN MCPHEE: It happened like this– when I got together that project and got the idea of traversing the entire continent, I did so for the next year and a half, thinking I was doing a piece of writing that I would do in a year or two, and that was going to be it. And when I piled up all my notes, and I traveled with Anita, and David Love, and Eldridge Moores in California, and Ken Deffeyes, I realized that I couldn’t cope with this in less than 10 years and that I wouldn’t be doing anything else. And I’m a general nonfiction writer, so–

I had built a structure for the whole piece of writing, and it separated itself into several parts well enough, still following that same structure. And so I decided to write them separately, and then go off to other things in between, and that’s how it developed. Parts of it were published along the way, always saying in the flaps that these titles were gathering under the overall title, Annals of the Former World. And so I finally completed it in 1998, but what I was doing was following the outline that had been developed in 1979.

IRA FLATOW: You think you’ve got geology out of your system, now?

JOHN MCPHEE: No. I don’t think I have it out of my system, but I’ll tell you that I’m writing about fish.

IRA FLATOW: You’re writing about fish?

JOHN MCPHEE: That’s right. The only rocky thing in a fish is an otolith.

IRA FLATOW: Are these fish marine animals, or lake fish, or all fish?

JOHN MCPHEE: They’re anadromous fish.

IRA FLATOW: You write in such great detail. Do you carry– how do you keep track of the detail in your book? Do you have a tape recorder with you? Are you taking notes as it’s going on? How do you–

JOHN MCPHEE: Both. Both. First of all, notes in a notebook are my preferred way of soaking things up. But if someone speaks too rapidly, and is also articulate, and doesn’t seem to care about it, I use a tape recorder– because if I can’t keep up, what can I do? The tape recorder does.

Or I’m in Vermont, say– as in one of the passages in Annals of the Former World– and there’s 14 celebrated Appalachian geologists arguing over an outcrop. Can I take down all this? So what you do is put the little tape recorder on the outcrop, and let them argue, and the tape recorder listens to them. So I do supplement the note taking with a tape recorder when I have to.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Aileen in Oakland, California. Hi, Aileen.

AILEEN: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I’m a big fan of Mr. McPhee. I’ve always wondered, though, why he doesn’t put more maps in his books. I’m a geologist and I always thought that it would–

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I agree with you on that one. I’d like to see more maps.

AILEEN: So I’m going to take the answer off the air. Thanks so much.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks. Yeah, put some more maps in those books.

JOHN MCPHEE: Well, I’m cranky. First of all, I always assumed that a map was handy to a person who wanted to look something up. And in Annals of the Former World, we did do maps from a US Geological Survey base map of the landforms and drainages of North America. With Stuart Allan, a cartographer in Medford, Oregon, we made 25 maps to specifically address certain places in the book. So I hope that that helps, Aileen.

IRA FLATOW: We’ll find out after she’s done reading it. Let’s go to Ian in San Diego. Hi. Hi, go ahead.

IAN: Hi, Ira. I understand that your guest, Mr. McPhee, wrote The Curve of the Binding Energy. Is that true?

IRA FLATOW: That’s right.

IAN: Well, The Curve of the Binding Energy was one of the more influential books I’ve ever read. I think it might be instructive to your listeners to hear how I came across this book.

I originally was given a book by my wife– who is a librarian– called The Mushroom or Mushroom, or something like that, written by a student at Princeton who had Freeman Dyson as his instructor. And he proposed to do a term paper– he was not the brightest, in fact he was at the bottom of the class, almost– a paper on a terrorist group building a nuclear device. And Freeman Dyson– who was one of the physicists on the Manhattan Project– thought this was rather funny, and this guy wouldn’t come up with anything. But when the guy came to pick up his paper, he found that it had been classified. Not only had this guy figured out how to build a bomb, but he had thoroughly figured out how to build one which could have a yield in the multi-kiloton range.

And one of the references that he cited was The Curve of the Binding Energy. And so I tracked down this book to find out, and sure enough– I believe it was about Teddy Taylor, who was one of the foremost builders, or at least designers, of fission bombs shortly after the Second World War. And you gave a complete description there of how to build a bomb, and all the things you had to watch for, and all that stuff, which was a real revelation.

So my question to you is this, following up on that– one of the things that that student mentioned was [INAUDIBLE] that he was tracked down by the Pakistani government in order to get the mechanisms for building the bomb and all of that. And now that’s become a reality– Pakistan now has a fission device. And what are your thoughts about nuclear devices being built by terrorist groups and small groups in the 21st century, following a lot of the descriptions given in the now public domain– material in things like The Curve of the Binding Energy, the released Manhattan Project, and so on?

JOHN MCPHEE: Well, the reason the Curve of Binding Energy was written was because of that fear, among other things. Your account of all this is not wholly– it suggests that one could read The Curve of Binding Energy and build a bomb from that. That’s just not so. And nor was it true of– I think it was David Michaelis’ thesis, here in Princeton. But the general idea that a small group of people, or even one person, can do it was Taylor’s idea and he felt that it was not being given credence, and so this is why that he talked to me about it.

And, of course, I would fear that in the future, like anyone else. But they wouldn’t learn how to do it from my book because the book stopped short of that, in all respects.

IRA FLATOW: So you don’t feel guilty that you had anything to do with someone building a bomb?

JOHN MCPHEE: No. I thought long and hard about whether to discuss this subject at all. And as a matter of fact, in the interviewing that I did at Los Alamos, and Brookhaven, and everywhere, I spent more than half of my interviewing time asking people to tell me why I should not write this versus why I should. And the net of it was that it seemed to be a good idea to do it.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In case you’re just joining us, you’re listening to a 1999 conversation with author John McPhee about geology and the craft of writing.

One of the more fascinating parts of geology, and you talk about it lots in all your works, are the road cuts that you find. And you’re able to become an instant geologist by studying them and actually going back and– you mentioned that, in a few places, you can go back billions of years in some of these road cuts that you find around the country. I remember, many years ago, stopping by– I think, outside of Denver– on my way back from Boulder, Colorado. There was actually an exit ramp onto a road cut, with a whole diarama of what you’re looking at across the whole basin there, and the whole flatlands of Colorado.

JOHN MCPHEE: That is one spectacular place above Denver, where–

IRA FLATOW: You know where I’m talking about?

JOHN MCPHEE: Well, it goes through the so-called hogback, which is Cretaceous rock that a curious sort of Stegosaurus-looking– it looks like the back of a dinosaur or something– that crawls along the mountain front and parallels the Rockies for hundreds of miles. And that road cut is spectacular outside Denver, and there’s actually geological exhibits there.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And you know, I don’t think enough people– enough states or localities– pay enough attention to these, that turn them into learning centers or educational points for people who are interested in them.

JOHN MCPHEE: Well, I wish they did in more places. For example– in Wyoming, where the Wind River goes into Wind River Canyon, and it comes out the other end and is the Bighorn River. And the reason is that nobody understood, for a long while, that it was the same river, that it– like the Lincoln Tunnel or something– it goes in one side and comes out the other. And the state of Wyoming has labeled the rock in Wind River Canyon with its age and its type, and it’s extremely interesting to do. And this could be done in many more places in the country.

IRA FLATOW: You know, when the astronauts went to the moon, they looked back on Earth and they saw the tiny, little, blue marble there, so to speak. They had a feeling about the fragility of Earth. And you go in just the opposite– you go get closer and closer to the rocks and look very closely at their makeup. Is there a different kind of sense of awe? What is the feeling you get when you come away from traversing the whole country, looking at the basement of the Earth, here?

JOHN MCPHEE: Well, I don’t know, because everything, over all those years, involved rock outcrops exposed by the interstate or exposed somewhere else, and– I guess unconformities are a place where you can be moved. If you can put your finger– as you can in the Delaware Water Gap, for example, as you can in thousands and thousands of places– you put your finger in one spot and there’s two sides. There’s a break there, and the two sides are, say, 10 million years apart. And your finger covers the 10 million years. It’s impressive in its own up-close way.

You mentioned the astronauts looking at the little thing– you know, when plate tectonics was more controversial than it is now– the theory is pretty much in place and people argue about it somewhat less– but in the 1970s, when it was brand new, it was much argued. And one of the early astronauts was the trained geologist Harrison Schmitt. Now, he’s up in the air, and he is in space, and he’s looking down at the Afar Triangle, he’s looking at Africa and Arabia, and he’s looking at the Red Sea– and you can see, just like a jigsaw puzzle, you can see the Earth coming apart there. It’s about 5 million years that it has taken for the Red Sea to develop. So it’s all very new and he said, one look at that and it’ll make a believer out of anybody– a believer in plate tectonics.

IRA FLATOW: I’m talking with author John McPhee. We need to take a short break. Stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. In case you’re just joining us, you’re listening to a 1999 conversation with author John McPhee. He’s talking about writing, geology, and more.

Let’s go to the phones. Lots of folks want to talk to you, and let’s go to Ben in Dallas. Hi, Ben.

BEN: Well hello, there. First, I want to thank John for the hundreds of hours of pleasure he has given me, being able to read his books. In fact, he’s inspired me to go do some research on my own. I guess the last place I went was to the Atchafalaya Basin there, where nature is being fought– and the Corps tells me they’ve got it under control now, so hopefully that’s the case.

The question I have is, John, you’ve got such a variety of topics that you cover, so you’re obviously doing a great deal of research. What is the ratio of time you spend on the road, doing your research and visiting with people, compared to the amount of time that you spend actually doing the writing?

JOHN MCPHEE: Well, I do have an answer for that and it may surprise you, but if I’m on the road– I once figured out that, for every day that I was out on the road researching things out there, I spent 10 in my office at home. The first phase is to go out with people, travel with geologists, travel in Alaska, whatever it is. But then, of course, before I start writing, there’s a great deal of time at home reading about the subject, and sorting over those notes, and doing background reading, and so on. So that’s all part of being home.

But the Alaska project was, other than this one, the longest I remember. It was about three years that I worked on that. And in that time, I would go up to Alaska for four months, for three months, for two months, and back to Princeton, and back up there after several months. So in the three year period, there were, maybe, four trips, more or less, like that. I wanted to be there in the four seasons.

BEN: You really seem to have a penchant for finding the right people to talk to, also. Is that through referral or your research?

JOHN MCPHEE: It’s referral and I’ve always felt that it was luck. Of course, you don’t know who you didn’t meet, right? I mean, you don’t know what– but they, indeed, have been an amazing array of people. If you get into a subject and then you just start talking to people and hanging around the subject for a while, sometimes that leads to the person– as was the case with Ted Taylor in the Curve of Binding Energy.

IRA FLATOW: I want to ask you to read another chapter from your book– another passage from your book– about the concept of geologic time. It’s really something very difficult for people to understand, is it not, about how long geologic time is and how it’s hard for us to get a handle on it?

JOHN MCPHEE: Yes, indeed, it is. And geologists are forever trying to find metaphors to cope with this question, to try to give a sense of time. The relationship between our sense of time and the Earth’s, the vast difference, how to express that, and so on– this passage attempts to address that as follows.

“When a volcano let’s fly or an earthquake brings down a mountainside, people look upon the event with surprise and report it to each other as news. People, in their whole history, have seen comparatively few such events, and only in the past couple of years have they begun to sense the patterns the events represent. Human time, regarded in the perspective of geologic time, is much too thin to be discerned– the mark invisible at the end of a ruler.

If geologic time could somehow be seen in the perspective of human time, on the other hand, sea level would be rising and falling hundreds of feet, ice would come pouring over continents and as quickly go away. Yucatáns and Floridas would be under the sun one moment and underwater the next, oceans would swing open like doors, mountains would grow like clouds and come down like melting sherbet, continents would crawl like amoebae, rivers would arrive and disappear like rain streaks down an umbrella, lakes would go away like puddles after rain, and volcanoes would light the earth as if it were a garden full of fireflies.

At the end of the program, man shows up– his ticket in his hand. Almost at once, he conceives of private property, dimension stone, and life insurance. When a Mount St. Helens assaults his sensibilities with an ash cloud 11 miles high, he writes a letter to the New York Times recommending that the mountain be bombed.”

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHING] That really happened?

JOHN MCPHEE: Yes, I read the– I remember the letter.

IRA FLATOW: Boy, we really think we’re something. That’s part of the thing– we really think we’re something. And then you go and you look at, as you mentioned before, how many billions and millions of years you can cover with just the palm of your hand when you go to a good outcropping of rock, and see how short a time we really occupy on this earth.

Ted in– is it Rosedale, New Jersey?

TED: Yes.


TED: Hi. What a pleasure it is to talk to John. You’ve given me so much pleasure over the years. From The Pine Barrens, through Basin and Range, and Assembling California, through Alaska– I’m mostly housebound, but I travel with you and I appreciate it so much. I would like to ask you a question about a book that you don’t talk much about– The Lemon Yellow Deltoid Pumpkin Seed.

JOHN MCPHEE: Yes, what–

IRA FLATOW: What did you want to ask?

TED: Whatever happened to that project?

JOHN MCPHEE: That project is still where it was when the book was finished in 1973 or 1974, whenever it was. The flight tests occurred. The company still exists. The president is still trying to interest people in the data.

However, the mission has changed over the years, and they were– he was attempting to do some aircraft that would do radar picketing, and so on. So it isn’t really quite the same, anymore. But if there was one word that characterized that story, it was perseverance. They’ve been going on for 40 years, or whatever.

TED: Well, it was a remarkable story and I had to admire the will to keep on going that the man exhibited. But I guess it’s just another one of those great inventions that didn’t pan out, like the electric tuning fork.

JOHN MCPHEE: Right. And recently, there’s been an announcement from a major company– Lockheed or something like that– saying that they’re going to be doing something like it. That is, using helium to lift big loads in a machine– something like that.

TED: Well, I thank you for talking to me. I appreciate it, greatly.

JOHN MCPHEE: Thanks for your remarks, Ted.

TED: You’re welcome. Goodbye.

IRA FLATOW: There’s always a lot of talk about bringing back helium-powered– all types of blimps, and dirigibles, and things like that.

What do you read for– you? You have to have some time to do some reading, I’m assuming. Who are some of your science writers or some natural history writers that you really admire?

JOHN MCPHEE: Well, Jonathan Weiner. I read the books of my former students, which are now proliferating so much I can’t have time to keep up with that. And I read very miscellaneously. What am I reading, right now? I’m reading Stephen Ambrose’s book on Lewis and Clark.

IRA FLATOW: Ah, that’s what I’m reading– one of my favorite authors, Stephen Ambrose.

JOHN MCPHEE: The answer is that I read completely miscellaneously, and more for recreation than anything else, now. In my work, there’s always a great pile of things that need to be read and studied in order to get ready for the next piece of writing. And so I will seek things quite different– historical subjects, and novels, and so on– that are recreational for me.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you said that you’re concentrating on fish now. Why fish?

JOHN MCPHEE: Well, I have an interest in certain fish that run up rivers to spawn, and I’m just trying to do an article about that subject– about ocean fish that come into fresh water.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to David in Durham, North Carolina. Hi, David.

DAVID: Hi. How are you? I’m a big fan and, actually, a teacher of scientific writing, and I’ve used Mr. McPhee’s work a number of times as examples. My question is this. My sister is a geophysicist– actually, she gave me the Annals as a present last year. And with that in mind, I’d like to ask whether the narrative thrust of the work– the kind of road trip angle– paints geology too descriptively and shortchanges the more theoretical, computational work that is the source a lot of interesting stuff that’s being done today.

JOHN MCPHEE: Well, I guess someone would have to say that who felt that.


The people in this latter category that you describe have told me that, if they are not in touch with field geologists, they feel they’re not in touch. The great bulk of very important work in geology is being done in geophysics and in places where you don’t go out and hang on an outcrop, but it’s all related. And remember, my purpose is not to teach fundamental geology in all respects, but to describe the geology of North America at about this latitude– the New York latitude– from ocean to ocean, and that’s what I set out to do. There’s a passage on the tension between so-called black box geologists and field geologists somewhere in Rising from the Plains. But I don’t think it’s that these things are incompatible.

DAVID: No, no.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling, David.

DAVID: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Would you not consider, then, your books reference books, John McPhee?

JOHN MCPHEE: Well, to the extent that they serve as– to the extent that they can serve as reference books, that’s fine. In fact, Annals of the Former World does touch on a great many geological subjects, including the one that we’ve just been mentioning. A whole lot of what’s in Annals of the Former World, to go back to David’s question, rests on seismology and geophysics. The whole of Book Five in here is in that category and you don’t understand plate tectonics without it, and so forth.

For this reason, when we were preparing Annals of the Former World, we did an index. I worked for three months, on email, with a wonderful person named Julie Kawabata in Medford, Oregon– no, sorry, in Portland– who is an indexer. And we went back and forth because her knowledge of geology was not quite mine, and my knowledge of indexing was nil– and this index is not short. And it helps the reference aspect.

Also, the book begins with 14 pages which describe the whole project– it’s a roadmap to the whole thing. And thus, you could either read it through if you wanted to, or use it as a reference– because in those 14 pages and the table of contents that recapitulates them, all the subjects that are covered in the book, and where they are, are mentioned. So it would serve as a reference, given that item up front.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. You’re listening to a 1999 conversation with author John McPhee, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book, Annals of the Former World.

Holly in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Hi.

HOLLY: Hi. I’m so happy I got through. I got in my car with a few minutes left of your program, and realized my favorite author was on. I’m honored to speak with you.

JOHN MCPHEE: Thank you, Holly.

HOLLY: I wanted to say– I was a liberal arts major in college 10 years ago, and I was assigned to read The Curve of Binding Energy. And I thought– I groaned because it was nuclear fission. That’s something that didn’t interest me at all. And, I tell you, not only did it open up that whole world for me, but it opened up the power of nonfiction literature and essays, and introduced me to John McPhee, and I came away with an understanding of nuclear fission, as well. So I just wanted to relay that– that it really was a moment in college that I dreaded, and now I have come to appreciate.

IRA FLATOW: John, do you have a vision of people reading your book as you write it– who they are or what they’ll get out of it?

JOHN MCPHEE: No. I have no idea, except that I always have an attitude toward readers that they know more than I do.

IRA FLATOW: Is that right?


IRA FLATOW: Does that mean that the style that you use is to readers who you think know more than you do?

JOHN MCPHEE: Well, I just think it makes sense. If you publish a book and x thousand people read it, there’s going to be people in there– and a lot of them– who are swifter, and subtler, and more sensitive, and everything else, than you are. It just has to be. And I have that reader in mind.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re afraid of criticism, it sounds like.

JOHN MCPHEE: No, not at all. I mean that you stop short of nudging the reader in the ribs and saying, get it? You don’t do that. Oh, no. It’s not being afraid of criticism. It’s a matter of what is in, and what is not in, the composition.

IRA FLATOW: Well, it’s a fantastic book, Annals of the Former World, and I thank you very much for joining us and talking about it this hour.

JOHN MCPHEE: Thank you, Ira. It’s a pleasure.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome– John McPhee, who is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of Annals of the Former World, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and it’s a great book to pick up.

That conversation was recorded 22 years ago– hard to believe– in June of 1999. And if you like taking a look back at science history, then check out our newsletter series, Science Friday Rewind, in which we look back on the decades of discovery recorded in Science Friday’s 30 years of archives. From the career of Jane Goodall to the rise of the Earth Day environmental movement to the history of HIV and AIDS research, hop into our audio time machine for a trip through science history. You’ll find that and more, all at ScienceFriday.com/rewind.

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