Author and Scientist Nick Pyenson shares the books that influenced him

Today Nick Pyenson, author of the recently released Spying on Whales, discusses the books that made an impact on him. For a chance to win a copy of his book, sign up for the Read More Science Book Club, a monthly newsletter for readers of popular science and nonfiction.

Nick Pyenson - credit Carolyn Van Houten

Photo by Carolyn Van Houten

Nick Pyenson is the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. His work has taken him to every continent, and his scientific discoveries frequently appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Popular Mechanics, USA Today, and on NPR, NBC, CBC, and the BBC. Along with the highest research awards from the Smithsonian, he has also received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the Obama White House. He lives with his family in Maryland. @PyensonLab 

Author bio courtesy of

Which books inspired or fueled your interest in paleobiology?

You can’t go too far in paleobiology without finding Stephen J. Gould. He was the closest person our discipline has ever had to a cultural celebrity. Gould is never shied from sharing the big ideas in evolution — the graduate school-level issues like tempo, mode, and agency of evolutionary change. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to ask a reader to confront major intellectual debates, and Gould was great about humanizing this challenge by way of baseball, art, or funny moments in history. Put another way, paleobiologists are not really stamp collecting; instead all of the work is ultimately in service of bigger questions about how life on work has evolved. For me, his Wonderful Life wrapped up all of that quintessential Gould into a book about the record of the first animal life half a billion years ago that still needs to be read.

Neil Shubin’s Inner Fish also has a place in my pantheon for a variety of reasons. It’s completely accessible and its fundamental conceit — that the human body tells us about evolutionary history — will never cease being relevant. It’s also one of the more prominent contributions in a wave of new literature that blends science with first-person narrative in a compelling way. Shubin covers historical advances, findings in his own career, and brings the reader to the field as well. It’s also a work that hangs on a career of the highest quality science. In many ways, it’s obvious that this kind of book was a necessary step for sharing the importance of discoveries like Tiktaalik — a 375 million year-old fossil fish with limbs — with the broadest possible audience.

Also, I have a lot of time for Richard Fortey, who writes so much about what museum scientists do, from the field work to natural history collections. His Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms is delightful. Other paleobiologist-autobiography books well worth reading include Michael Novacek’s Time Traveler, and Gary Vermeij’s Privileged Hands.

Lastly, a major influence for a book about whales is Carl Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge. Although many of the evolutionary chronicles in the book are now out of date — a testament, in fact, to how much science can change in 20 years — Zimmer’s mirrored premise still resonates with me because we can best understand a phenomenon such a whale evolution by thinking broadly about other episodes in the history of life where these transitions have happened. Zimmer frames these episodes by emphasizing the distinction between transition (as in land-to-sea) and transformations (what happens to anatomy), which remains a valuable rubric for students of macroevolution.

How has publishing your book Spying on Whales shifted or altered your career as a scientist? 

Writing a book intended for a general audience is a very different task compared with my day job as a scientist. Most of what I accomplish on a daily basis would probably seem esoteric and quietly mundane to the outsider: examining numbered specimens in a museum drawer; downloading datasets and images; or drafting scientific articles for peer-reviewed journals, though I might spend a rare stretch of time on a boat or walking rock outcrop. But all of those small things add up over the years, which makes a book seems like a good place to land all of those story arcs. The small things, after all, should fit under broader themes and questions that investigate the natural world. I think many of my colleagues understand the inclination to write a book, but rightfully balk at the toll and time away from research.

For one thing, the process of book writing happened on top of my day job — in other words, there were still scientific papers to write, committee work, and the usual expectations of being a museum scientist. I downshifted some tasks, but I still organized and led expeditions for international field work. I would say that the process of book writing gave me a better vision, from a broad vantage, of how to communicate the important stuff from the academic world to the curious layperson. For example, every marine mammal scientist knows that whales are mammals and once lived on land, but that’s not a given for a general reader — and that says a lot about where you can start with readers and where you can take them. Book writing has also made me far less tolerant of sloppy technical writing in scientific papers, for better or worse. Bad writing is annoying and cheap; writing well takes the effort of applying a harsh rubric. Aside from those fresh lessons, I’m most dedicated at the moment to clearing my long backlog of technical manuscripts — I have quite a few colleagues that are waiting on comments and edits — and preparing for future projects.

“The process of book writing gave me a better vision, from a broad vantage, of how to communicate the important stuff from the academic world to the curious layperson.”

What did the process of moving from scientist to writer look like for you? Were there any challenges you encountered, or surprises you would like to share?

Well, that’s a tricky question because I still think I’m a scientist! Or maybe, I should say, still trying to figure out what it means to be a book author. I think the best answer might be that I’m still trying to navigate the unusual terrain of scientist-author; fortunately, there are so many great role models out with right now with Hope Jahren, Neil Shubin, and many others, who balance the demands of running a research laboratory and communicating to the public. There are, of course, a lot of different kinds of scientists out there (not just principal investigators running labs), and lots of different kinds of book authors — there’s so many ways to potentially combine those two modes.

In some ways, being a museum scientist prepared me a lot for book writing because museums are places where a lot of informal learning happens (in other words, it’s not a classroom and you can’t a degree from it). I’ve spent a lot of my professional career testing different ways of talking about the parts of my research that I think are important to share, especially using different modes whether it’s live-streaming behind-the-scenes activities on social media, 3D printing at large scale, or reporting from the field. Book writing has been special and different from these other ways in scope and method: it was a big platform where I could see how different contributions in my career fit together into a narrative; it allowed me to reflect on what I’ve done and how I did it (namely, with lots of help from colleagues); and it was all an endeavor that was mine alone to accomplish (although I had a great supporting team). I’m happy with the result because it’s very much the book I had wanted to write.

I think anyone who writes a lot will tell you that writing well is hard. Book writing is very different from technical writing in that there’s a real need to think big and small at the same time: invent and refine (and sometimes obliterate) a narrative structure; just get words on a page; and then finesse sections, paragraphs and sentences, sometimes down to specific word choices. It’s demanding and it requires lots of applied effort. I followed a key piece of advice early on in setting aside chunks of time physically away from everyone else to simply do those writing tasks. At times it was tremendously isolating, in a self-imposed way, and so you learn to lean on your support network, especially family and friends — they’re writing the book with you, in many ways.

Book writing also taught me how to edit harshly, on the fly. In the final stages of writing, I felt like I had achieved a kind of editorial superpower, channeling my editor’s voice in my head as I churned out the last few major sections of the book in nearly one go (the prologue and epilogue, actually). I’m not sure that’s persisted, though, because you need to write a lot to stay sharp, like any sport. Lastly, one big piece of advice that’s really hard to swallow: kill your darlings. There’s always a great sentence (in my case, a whole character sketch and side story) that really just gets in the way of the bigger story that you’re trying to tell. It’s for the better. Again, I worked with a great editorial team that really understood me.

What was the most interesting part about moving from reader of science books to author of a science book?

I wrote my book because I wanted to explain, in a clear way, why I spend long periods of time away from my family in remote places to people who may not ever have the opportunity or access to see a living whale. I thought a first-person narrative structure was a good way to accomplish that goal; I really tried to write as if I was explaining various challenges or problems to someone who had never heard of them before, or never had a background in science. Finding that voice — the one that’s you, that’s authentic — was both easy and hard at the same time.

As a long-time reader of science books, I was frustrated by small errors on the easy details: how and when to spell, capitalize, and italicize scientific names; nailing down geologic time periods; or explaining processes clearly, without resorting to cliches or analogies that obscure instead of illuminate. So, in my book, I spent a lot of time getting the facts right, and anchoring statements on published research. There’s quite a long endnotes section with references to original scientific literature, so readers don’t have to take my word for it, but instead can read the scholarship themselves. Put another way, don’t surrender the facts!

“Finding that voice — the one that’s you, that’s authentic — was both easy and hard at the same time.”

What would you say to encourage others to read more science?

There are more great science books out there than ever before, so it’s a great time to discover just the right kind of science book that inspires you. If you’re looking for science books as a gateway drug, I think there ones that highlight discoveries or protracted quests tend to work the best. In many cases, children’s book nail the scope perfectly: Markus Mokum’s Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover is a great example of focusing on a single robot and what it tells us about Mars. Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir is probably the best example of a science book narrative focusing on a basic premise — the fate of a troop of baboons — because it’s actually embedded in story about Sapolsky and his own development as a scientist. I think the “life of a scientist” sub-genre is great for people who may not know what a scientist does or who they can be — Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is an unflinching examination, in that way. One last thing I’d suggest is read authors who have first-hand experience: they don’t need to be scientists, but as a reader you want to trust that they’ve seen the lab equipment, visited the field sites, or gotten to know the study organism in some real way. Avoid the armchair science storytellers.

And lastly, what’s on your own reading list? 

I tend to read several books at once. Right now, I am paging through Emily Watson’s translation of The Odyssey because I somehow skipped over fundamental books from Antiquity in high school; it’s also reassuring to know that some stories and personality types really persist throughout human history. When I need a pause from that, I read a few pieces from Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars collection. I’m trying — and failing — to get through Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach. But I’m also the kind of person who will stop reading a book more than half of the way through and pick it up years later (or never). You really don’t want me coming to your book club!

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Nick

Readers, stay tuned for a review of Spying on Whales and sign up for the monthly newsletter anytime this month for a chance to win a free copy!

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