Science writers: facts and fiction

May 31, 1996

There are a number of factual errors in an article about me by Jon Turney that appeared on page 15 of the THES on May 10.

1. Turney states that three of this year's Rhone-Poulenc science book prize nominees are Brockman authors. Four were. (Turney failed to mention Nature's Keepers by Steven Budiansky.) 2. Turney states that the Science Masters series has been "sold as a package deal in 50 countries and 18 languages". Deals have been made for translations in 24 languages.

3. Turney describes my book, The Third Culture, as a "collection of interviews with his favourite scientists". However, as my introduction clearly explains, The Third Culture is not a collection of interviews, and as I explained in the introduction, I invited the individuals in the book to participate because they exemplify the third culture in action.

4. Turney correctly names six scientists that appear in The Third Culture and states that "the same list has been signed up to produce Science Masters titles". Brian Goodwin, Niles Eldredge, Roger Schank, Nicholas Humphrey, Francisco Varela, Roger Penrose, Martin Rees, Alan Guth, Lee Smolin, Stuart Kauffman, Christopher G. Langton and J. Doyne Farmer are also included in The Third Culture, are not among the authors of the Science Masters titles.

5. Turney states that the advance received by George Smoot for Wrinkles in Time was $400,000. This is incorrect. (I am unable to provide specific numbers, which are confidential contract matters.) 6. Smoot's book did not sell fewer than 20,000 copies in the United States.

7. Turney says that our client Alan Guth "found he could not produce" a contracted book project.

Dr Guth did not "back out of a contract". Rather, his contract was cancelled because he did not deliver his manuscript on time; Dr Guth's The Ultimate Free Lunch, will be published internationally.

8. Turney's statement that "Murray Gell-Mann's The Quark and the Jaguar went through several ghost writers and two publishers before it finally appeared" implies that someone other than Dr Gell-Mann wrote the book. That is false. Dr Gell-Man's book was cancelled in the US by Bantam Books for failure to deliver on time.

The book, published by W. H. Freeman, has been successful, both in hardcover and in paperback. Fourteen translations have appeared or are scheduled.

The UK publisher, Little Brown, has now offered Dr Gell-Mann a new contract for his book.

9. Turney states that "there are not all that many scientific authors who can produce books that sell". This is wishful thinking. Two scientific books by Brockman, Inc. clients are high on London bestseller lists. Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins was No.1 on the May 21, Evening Standard bestseller list; Emotional Intelligence by research psychologist Daniel Goleman has remained on the bestseller lists for many months; and a 60p booklet, Science, Mind and Cosmos, excerpted from How Things Are, a book of original essays by eminent scientists, edited by Katinka Matson (my partner) and myself, was the No.2 bestseller in that category when I last looked a few months ago.

10. The figure of $500,000 for the advance paid for Frank Tipler's The Physics of Immortality is incorrect.

11. Turney did not attempt to verify his statements with me. I note, however, that many of the same errors appeared in an article last year in The New Republic in 1995.

Given these factual errors, Turney's thesis is unsustainable, but what are we to make of his statement that some of the best books "are not by scientists but by writers with a bit more distance from the research who can take a cooler look at its ultimate worth"?

Is he really saying that we should all be better off with writers like him rather than Dawkins or Gell-Mann?

John Brockman

Brockman, Inc New York

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