Science Book a Day Interviews George Johnson


Special thanks to George Johnson for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery

I am a writer working from my office in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My newest book, The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery, has just been published. I appear on for a show called Science Faction and my blog, Fire in the Mind, is at My previous book, The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, is out in paperback, and foreign rights have been sold in 15 languages.  Two of my books have been shortlisted for the Royal Society book prize. – Adapted from George’s Homepage

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#1 – Some of your previous books deal with physics. What made you write a book on cancer? How was it different writing about biological vs physics concepts?

I became interested in cancer — and then fascinated by its intricacies — 10 years ago when my wife (we are no longer married) was diagnosed out of the blue with a rare stage-4 cancer. Writing about biology is hard because there are few general principles, and sometimes, it seems, more exceptions than rules. Richness of detail is key to understanding the sciences of life and death. But my background in writing about physics was a great help in sorting out cancer’s complexity — in driving me to look for generalities and, as far as possible, to be a lumper instead of a splitter.

#2 – As a science writer, how do you try to convey abstract and sometimes very complex ideas in your writing?

I try to make the ideas as visual as possible and to draw on the art of metaphor — making interesting connections between the familiar and the strange.

#3 – What response have you had to your book from the general public and from the medical community?

It has been very encouraging to receive appreciative emails and reviews both from general readers — some of whom are now dealing with cancer — and with medical researchers, including a Nobel prize winner.

#4 – What message do you want your book, The Cancer Chronicles, to leave with your readers?

Cancer is both a human tragedy and a fascinating intellectual problem. To a great extent it is ingrained in the very nature of multicellular life — an inevitable consequence of being complex creatures in a universe ruled by entropy. A cancerous tumor is like an alien creature, mutating, adapting, and evolving in the ecosystem of your body. Often cancer can be controlled, prevented, sometimes even cured, but it can never come close to being eliminated as has happened with some infectious diseases.

#5 – Are you working on a new project/book that you can tell us about?

I am concentrating now on writing articles for The New York Times, National Geographic, and other publications. I’m still looking for the next big idea that I want to immerse myself in for the years it takes to write a book.

[Image Credit: Kerry Sherck, ]


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