Science Book a Day Interviews Gavin Pretor-Pinney


Special thanks to Gavin Pretor-Pinney for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – The Wavewatcher’s Companion

Gavin Pretor-Pinney is a renowned journalist and cofounder of The Idler magazine in England. A former science nerd and a graduate of Oxford University, he has been obsessed with clouds since childhood. His writing has appeared in The TelegraphEvening Standard, and elsewhere. Based in London and Somerset, Gavin is the founder and chair of The Cloud Appreciation Society. – From Penguin Books USA

Gavin’s Homepage:

#1 – What was the impetus for The Wave-watchers Companion?

Having written several books about clouds, I thought it was time to move on to a different natural phenomenon.  Waves seemed an obvious candidate.  You see a lot of wave forms in the sky; the rising and dipping of the clouds reveal the location of these invisible atmospheric waves.  Waves on the ocean feel rather similar to clouds.  Just as clouds reveal the “mood” of the atmosphere so do waves feel like an expression of the mood of the ocean.  They are also intriguing phenomena, like clouds are.  When you stop to think about what exactly an ocean wave is, you soon discover that the answer is far from simple.  It is all to do with the movement of energy.  So I think being a cloudspotter and being a wavewatcher are not so different from each other.

#2 – Your book talks about waves, ranging from the physical world to the social world. Do the same rules apply to waves across these domains?

No, I wouldn’t say they do.  In the physical world, waves are generally a means by which energy travels from one place to another.  In the social world waves, such as a stadium wave passing through an audience, tend to be more to do with the movement of information so we think of them both as waves because of the pattern of movement, but they are really quite different from a scientific point of view.  Of course, when you get down to a sub-atomic scale the distinction between energy and information becomes rather blurred!

#3 – How do people react when you describe the many different types of waves? Are they aware of the many waves in our lives?

Most people, when they think of a wave, think of them on the surface of water.  Ocean waves certainly are the most familiar to us.  They are, however, only a tiny proportion of the many waves that surround us.  When they stop to think about it, everyone knows that sound is a form of wave, as it light, but they don’t think of them in the same way as ocean waves.  So, yes, I have to explain to people that the book is about all waves, and not just for surfers! The fact is, that waves give us information about the world.  Much of what we experience reaches us via waves – whether sound waves or light waves.  We have evolved to pay attention to what these waves tell us about our surroundings, and not the fact that they’re waves.  In this sense, waves are like the invisible messengers, the go-betweens.  Every book we read, every conversation we have, every painting we enjoy reaches us via waves, and yet we are generally oblivious to them.

#4 – What was it like to win the 2011 Royal Society Prize for Science Books? Has it changed anything in your life as a writer?

It really was, genuinely, a complete surprise to me to win that award.  It is considered by many to be the most prestigious award for popular science writing, so it was a great honour.  It hasn’t changed much for me as a writer – not nearly as much as the current state of the publishing industry!  It doesn’t really make sense financially to write books these days.  There are plenty of good reasons to write them, other than money, but the effect of the internet on publishing has meant that you can’t make a living from writing books, even if you have the occasional best seller.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books that you can tell us about?

As a result of all this, I’m not working on a book at the moment.  I am sure I will write another eventually, but I’m concentrating on other things for the time being.  When I do return to writing, I’m sure it will be on a subject that is scientific.  I’m curious about the world around me, and enthusiastic about understanding how it works.  I enjoy helping others to understand it too, especially when the subject like clouds or waves, is one that is so commonplace, so everyday, that we’ve all become blind to it.

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Categories: Chaos, Interviews, Motion, Physics

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