Author and Journalist

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ANDREW ROBINSON

   Writing is among the greatest inventions in human history, perhaps the greatest invention, since it made history possible.

This sentence opens my global history of scripts, The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs and Pictograms (1995), a bestseller

translated into twelve languages, including Chinese and Japanese.

 

"I don't know how to thank you for your fascinating book", wrote Henri

Cartier-Bresson--the iconic photographer, also a fine graphic artist and an engaging writer (The Decisive Moment)--in a handwritten letter to me in 1995. "Graphology ... gives such a pleasure by the link between the eye, the mind and the fingers handling a little tool, instead of the

des humanisation (sic) in communication through electronic systems":

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many of us are fascinated by writing--whether handwritten, printed or electronic. By its uncertain pictographic origins, maybe in Ice Age art. By its five millennia of development, from proto-cuneiform inscribed on a Mesopotamian clay tablet (shown right) to the World Wide Web. And by its revolutionary, as yet little understood, capacity to render evanescent speech, thought and feeling visible and readable.

 

As the author of some 25 books--six of them on scripts, decipherment and the evolution of writing--I've ranged over five millennia, exploring

both the humanities and the sciences of many periods and cultures, from ancient Egypt, Greece and the Indus Valley to modern Europe, the USA and India. For example, Einstein on the Run: How Britain Saved the World's Greatest Scientist (Yale UP, 2019), discusses Albert Einstein's lifelong entanglement with the physics, politics and culture of Britain: his refuge from Nazi threats in 1933. The books include:

        (Oneworld/Pi Press)

 

As a journalist (once literary editor of The Times Higher Education

Supplement), I've written articles on equally varied subjects, e.g.:

        --review of a Science Museum exhibition on Ada Lovelace

        --feature on the forgotten British earthquakes of 1750

​        --review of a book about Stalin and Soviet science

        The Wall Street Journal--feature on the solar eclipse of 1919

 

As outlined above, my books and journalism have discussed in detail:

  • Archaeology, Decipherment, Geology, Measurement and Physics
  • Art, Cinema, History, Linguistics, Literature and Writing Systems
  • Biography, Creativity, Genius, Innovation and Polymathy

 

 

BOOKS: OVERVIEW AND REVIEWS

 

Together, the books embrace three main subjects:​

  • Science and History of Science

        e.g. Earth-Shattering Events:

        Earthquakes, Nations and Civilization

  • Archaeology and Scripts 

        e.g. The Man Who Deciphered Linear B:

        The Story of Michael Ventris

  • Indian History and Culture

        e.g. India: A Short History 

They include six biographies, covering both arts and sciences, about:​

  • JEAN-FRANCOIS CHAMPOLLION: decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphs, the world's first professional Egyptologist
  • ALBERT EINSTEIN: physicist, musician, peace campaigner
  • SATYAJIT RAY: film director, writer, artist, music composer
  • RABINDRANATH TAGORE: writer, song composer, painter,

        freedom fighter (alongside Gandhi)--India's first Nobel laureate​

  • MICHAEL VENTRIS: decipherer of Minoan Linear B, architect
  • THOMAS YOUNG: medical practitioner and polymathic scientist, who deciphered the physics of light, human colour vision and part of the Rosetta Stone, named the "Indo-European" languages, and more: "The Last Man Who Knew Everything"

Their English-language publishers are both general and academic:

  • Abrams, André Deutsch, Bloomsbury, Faber, McGraw-Hill, Macmillan, Oneworld, Palazzo, Penguin India, George Philip, Pi Press, Picador, Plume, Rand McNally, Reaktion, Thames & Hudson
  • University of California Press, Cambridge Univ. Press, Oxford Univ. Press, Princeton Univ. Press, I.B. Tauris, Yale Univ. Press

with translations into thirteen European languages, as well as

Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Taiwanese, Vietnamese. 

 

Reviews/comments on the books have come from some leading

artists and scientists, including Nobel laureates in economics, literature and science: film director Lindsay Anderson, film director/actor Richard

Attenborough, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, photographer

Henri Cartier-Bresson, science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke,

archaeologists Michael Coe and Brian Fagan, historian Diana Kormos-

Buchwald, song-writer Tom Lehrer, environmentalist James Lovelock,

astronomer Patrick Moore, writer V. S. Naipaul, chemist Ilya Prigogine,

poet Kathleen Raine, film director Satyajit Ray (read his foreword to

The Art of Rabindranath Tagore), astronomer Martin Reeswriter

Salman Rushdie, economist Amartya Sen, physician David Weatherall.


For instance, from the arts and humanities:

  • Lindsay Anderson, film/theatre director and writer

        on Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye (André Deutsch, 1989/I.B. Tauris/

        Bloomsbury)

        "A signal salute to integrity"

        --review in The Spectator

 

  • Richard Attenborough, film director and actor (directed by Ray)

        on Satyajit Ray: A Vision of Cinema (I.B. Tauris, 2005)

        "Quite magical"

        --letter to author (2005)

 

  • Arthur C. Clarke, science-fiction writer

        on Lost Languages (McGraw-Hill, 2002/Thames & Hudson)
        "Andrew Robinson has now followed up his beautifully       
        illustrated The Story of Writing with a highly appropriate sequel: 
        Lost Languages, on undeciphered scripts. Many, it seems likely, 
        will never be deciphered—which raises an interesting question.  
        If we cannot always understand messages from our fellow 
        humans—how successful will we be when we receive the first
        communication from Outer Space?

        --comment on hardback edition

 

  • Brian Fagan, archaeologist and writer

        on The Indus (Reaktion Books, 2015)

​        "Everyone interested in ancient civilisations should read this

        eloquent, closely argued biography (it is nothing less) that brings

        the Indus people in from the historical shadows." 

        --comment on hardback edition

 

  • Patrick French​biographer and historian of India

        on Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore (Cambridge UP,  

        1997)

        --with a foreword by Amartya Sen (Nobel laureate)

        "A triumphant work of scholarship, expertly annotated and

        beautifully designed"

        --review in The Daily Telegraph

  • John Keay, writer and historian of India

        on India: A Short History (Thames & Hudson, 2014)
        "Pithy, admirable ... a most refreshing résumé"

        --review in The Times Literary Supplement

 

  • Tom Lehrer, song-writer and performer

        on The Last Man Who Knew Everything (Oneworld/Pi Press,

        2006)
        "I must confess that—to my shame—I was unaware of the career
        of Thomas Young. Clearly he was an extraordinary man. (If I 
        may paraphrase myself: When Thomas Young was my age, he

        had been dead for 22 years.) And this is clearly an extraordinary

        book."
        --letter to author (2006)

 

  • Torsten Meissner, classicist

        on The Man Who Deciphered Linear B (Thames & Hudson, 2002)

        "Excellent: well researched and clearly presented ... compelling

        reading"
        --review in The Times Literary Supplement

 

  • V. S. Naipaul, writer (Nobel laureate)

        on Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye (André Deutsch, 1989/I.B.Tauris/

        Bloomsbury) 

        "An extraordinarily good, detailed and selfless book"

        --comment on paperback edition       

 

  • John Ray, Egyptologist and writer

        on Cracking the Egyptian Code (Thames & Hudson/Oxford UP

        USA, 2012)

        "This is a spirited account of a fascinating subject: the birth of

        Egyptology ... written with verve, elegance and perception."

        --review in The Financial Times

 

  • Salman Rushdie, ​writer

        on Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye (André Deutsch, 1989/I.B.Tauris/

        Bloomsbury)

        "Extremely thorough, often perceptive and at times highly

        entertaining"

        --review in the London Review of Books

 

And from the sciences:

  • Philip W. Anderson, physicist (Nobel laureate)

        on The Last Man Who Knew Everything (Oneworld/Pi Press, 

        2006)

        "It is wonderful to have such an elegant biography of this

        remarkable man."

        --comment on hardback edition

 

  • Jocelyn Bell Burnell, astrophysicist

        on Einstein on the Run (Yale UP, 2019)

        "A well-researched and very readable book about a less well-

        known ​​period in Einstein's life"

        --comment on hardback edition

 

  • Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, cosmologist (Nobel laureate)

        on Rabindranath Tagore (Bloomsbury, 1995/I.B. Tauris)

        "The entire book was a revelation to me ... It brings out very

        clearly that Tagore was intellectually more perceptive than

        Gandhi."

        --comment on paperback edition

 

  • Diana Kormos-Buchwald, historian, general editor and director of the Einstein Papers Project

        on Einstein on the Run (Yale UP, 2019)
        "A jewel of a book, to be read by anyone interested in Einstein,

        his science, his peripatetic existence, his joys and travails."

        --comment on hardback edition

 

  • James Lovelock, geochemist, environmentalist and writer

        on Earthshock (Thames & Hudson, 1993)

        "A wonderful compilation of the things that can happen when 

        our planet does no more than turn in its long sleep"

        --comment on paperback edition

 

  • Chris McManus, psychologist, medical clinician and writer

        on Sudden Genius? (Oxford UP, 2010)

        "a beautifully written book about [the science] of creativity"

        --comment on hardback edition

 

  • Patrick Moore, astronomer, broadcaster and writer 

        on Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity (Princeton UP, 2015) 

        "By far the best book about Einstein that I have ever come

        across"

        --review in BBC Sky at Night

  • Amos Nur, geophysicist

        on Earth-Shattering Events (Thames & Hudson, 2016)

        "A truly welcome, and refreshing, study that puts earthquake

        impact on history into a proper perspective"​​

        --comment on hardback edition

 

  • Ilya Prigogine, physical chemist (Nobel laureate)

        on Rabindranath Tagore (Bloomsbury, 1995/I.B. Tauris)

        "A fascinating book about a fascinating man, a work that

        addresses the profound conflict between eastern spirituality and

        western rationality"

        --comment on paperback edition

 

  • Martin Rees, astronomer, writer, former Royal Society president 

        on Einstein on the Run (Yale UP, 2019)

        "Robinson's evocative account of a transitional phase in Einstein's

        life offers a valuable new perspective on this great scientist's

        personality."                      
        --comment on paperback edition

 

  • David Weatherall, physician and geneticist 

        on The Scientists (Thames & Hudson, 2012)

​        "This excellent celebration of the evolution of science over the

        centuries should be of broad interest to scientists and non-

        scientists alike—it will also be a wonderful stimulus to young

        people thinking about a career in science."

        --review in The Lancet

 

See Books and Book Extracts pages for further details and reviews.

 

 

BOOKS: CURRENT

Five recently published updated editions epitomise my main subjects:

        The Scientists

        The Indus

 

EINSTEIN ON THE RUN (2021)

Einstein on the Run: How Britain Saved the World's Greatest Scientist  appeared in hardback in 2019 in the UK and USA. According to Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, the book offers "a valuable new perspective", while writer Ali Smith calls it "an inspiration" for one of her novels--as quoted on the paperback cover shown here (see the full cover). The paperback appeared in 2021, the centenary of Einstein's inaugural visit to Britain in 1921 (see the press release). Read an excerpt, "I shall never forget the kindness", published in Time magazine in 2019. 

 

Here is a sketch of the book, which is the first to be devoted to Britain and Einstein. British science inspired Einstein's physics from the 1890s. Then, in 1919, British astronomers made him world famous. In 1933, a British MP saved Einstein from Nazi assassination by offering him sanctuary in Britain, as suggested in three 1933 images opposite: a Nazi caricature, a British caricature and a photograph of Einstein under armed guard in rural Norfolk. In 1955, just before his death, he worked with Bertrand Russell on a famous joint peace manifesto. The book is a biographical study, narrating Einstein's scientific, political and cultural relationship with Britain over half a century. It was published during the centenary of the 1919 solar eclipse that confirmed his theory of general relativity and launched him as an international star.

 

About the 1919 eclipse centenary, I wrote "The experiment that made Einstein famous" (download article) in The Wall Street Journal, and two reviews of related books: "The eclipse that made Einstein famous" in Science, and "A relative revolution" in Physics World. Other aspects of Einstein--such as why the world loves to quote (and often misquote!) him--appear in these articles, published since 2018:

 ​

Reviews of Einstein on the Run include these comments:

  • "Robinson’s thrilling new book on Albert Einstein’s relationship to Britain, Einstein on the Run, is the very first study of its kind."(Ze'ev Rosenkranz, editor of The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein)
  • "This is certainly an engaging book, written by a seasoned biographer, Andrew Robinson, and filled with interesting insights backed up with pictures, poems and quotes from the main protagonists. ... [It] feels a curiously timely book, looking at what it meant to be politically outspoken in a time of political uncertainty."

        (Emily Winterburn, BBC Sky at Night)

  • "A sparkling study"

        (Barbara Kiser, Nature)

  • "Besides the scientific and political contexts of Einstein's life, Robinson's writing beautifully invokes the free-spirited professor's playful personality, charm and good humour ... Robinson's superb work remains compelling throughout."

        (Ian Randall, Physics World)​​

  • "Robinson's study of Einstein offers a fascinating account of his relationship with Britain. It is rich in unfamiliar and memorable anecdotes from his visits, that cast fresh light on his personality

        --a beguiling mix of idealism and down-to-earth opinions, free of

        pretensions or pomposity."

        (P. D. Smith, The Times Literary Supplement)

  • "Highly readable ... with [Einstein's] stint hiding out in Norfolk serving as an entertaining climax."

        (Andrew Crumey, The Wall Street Journal)

     

Hear my interview "Einstein on the run" on Cool Science Radio, KPCW.

 

THE INDUS (2021)

The Indus: Lost Civilizations (2015)--the inaugural hardback in a now-

extensive series, Lost Civilizations--appeared in paperback in 2021,

the centenary of the discovery of the Indus civilization (2600-1900 BC). According to the review on the paperback coverThe Indus is:

  • "[A] wonderfully eloquent and informative book ... a highly accessible volume and a very good read indeed."

        (Current World Archaeology)

Michael Wood, historian and television presenter, calls the book:

  • "terrific, a really readable and judicious synthesis of current knowledge which must be easily the best introduction to the subject available." (Read Wood's centenary related feature.)

In the exquisite ancient Indus sealstone on the book's cover, a unicorn-like creature stands before what may be an incense burner, beneath four tantalising signs--maybe the name of the seal's owner? We don't know, because Indus writing is undeciphered, despite a century of study by diverse experts and numerous claims of decipherment. The Indus script is the world's most deciphered script!

 

Read my features about the script and the civilisation as a whole:


SATYAJIT RAY (2021)

Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye (1989, 2nd edn 2004) was published in a third edition by Bloomsbury in the UK, USA and India in 2021, to celebrate Ray's birth centenary. See the front and back cover.

 

Satyajit Ray (1921-92), India's greatest film director, was

internationally admired by directors including Lindsay Anderson, Michelangelo Antonioni, Richard Attenborough, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, John Huston, James Ivory, Akira Kurosawa, Jean Renoir and Martin Scorsese, plus other artists as diverse as Henri Cartier-Bresson, V. S. Naipaul and Mstislav Rostropovitch. "Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon", said Kurosawa. "The films of Satyajit Ray are truly treasures of cinema, and everyone with an interest in film needs to see them", Scorsese told me in 2021, as quoted in my Ray centenary features: 

        --about Ray's unmade sci-fi script "The Alien" that influenced E.T.

New material in the third edition includes: "A Century of Ray"--an

assessment of the nature of his genius; and "Ray in Conversation"--an extensive Q&A discussion with Ray about his life and work, based on my interviews with him recorded in the 1980s.


CRACKING THE EGYPTIAN CODE (2022)

Cracking the Egyptian Code (2012, pbk 2018) was updated in paperback with a new preface, "Deciphering Tutankhamun", in 2022: the bicentenary of the hieroglyphic decipherment, and the centenary of the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb--which was identified from its hieroglyphic cartouches.

 

See the paperback's front cover shown here. According to the reviews quoted on the back cover, the book is:

  • "A lively and compelling portrait of the controversial genius who solved one of archaeology's greatest puzzles"

        (John H. Taylor, Egyptologist, Curator at the Department of Egypt

        and Sudan, British Museum)

  • "Entertaining, highly readable and authoritative"

        (Michael D. Coe, Mayanist, author of Breaking the Maya Code)


Read the preface, "Deciphering Tutankhamun", and also:

 

THE SCIENTISTS (2023)

The Scientists (2012) appeared in paperback in early 2023 with a new postscript. Edited by me, with 36 contributors drawn from well-known scientists, historians of science and science writers, such as physicist Frank Close, Darwin authority Alison Pearn and broadcaster Patrick Moore--a "stellar" team, according to Nature's hardback review--the book consists of some 40 essays on scientists from the past five centuries, superbly illustrated with historical and recent images in both B/W and colour. Beginning with the 16th-century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and concluding with the 20th-century archaeologists and anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, the collection covers almost all fields of science, from cosmology and quantum physics to medicine and genetics. The new postscript discusses "Science and scientists in our time", focusing on the modern research trend away from solo scientists like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, and duos like Marie and Pierre Curie, to group collaborations such as the Human Genome Project, Large Hadron Collider and World Wide Web Consortium. 

 

See the paperback cover shown here and an advance information release from the publisher Thames & Hudson.

 

"The Origins of Writing": research project

Without the existence of writing, civilisation would be impossible as we know it today. Yet, surprisingly little is known for certain about the circumstances of this crucial human invention.

 

I am researching a global study of the origins of writing, commissioned by Yale University Press. It considers the following compelling questions, amongst many others:

  • What, if anything, do Ice Age cave images and symbols--shown

        here in a horse image from France, dated circa 13,000 BC--have

        to do with the invention of writing in the fourth millennium BC? 

  • Was writing invented once in Mesopotamia (the Fertile Crescent) circa 3300 BC, as proto-cuneiform, and somehow transmitted around the world? Or was it invented independently at several different times during antiquity and perhaps after, in places such as China, Egypt, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Mexico and even isolated Rapanui (Easter Island)?
  • What inspired writing's invention(s)? Accountancy, statecraft, religion, personal records or even oral epic poetry like Homer's?
  • Why are some ancient scripts, such as Chinese characters--shown here in a Shang oracle-bone inscription from circa 1200 BC--bewilderingly complex, whereas other scripts, such as the slightly older Semitic alphabet, are astonishingly simple?

 

As background, see my articles (including two opening chapters):

 

 

JOURNALISM: OVERVIEW


As a journalist--and literary editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement​ from 1994-2006--I have written features and reviews on the arts, humanities and sciences for leading newspapers and magazines based mainly in the UK, USA and India, as indicated above. Here are more articles, ranging over many subjects:

        --profile of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson at 90 

         --obituary of film director Akira Kurosawa

        --profile of writer V. S. Naipaul at 70

        --feature on the life of polymathic scientist Thomas Young

        --profile of scientist and writer Arthur C. Clarke at 90

        --review of a biography of rocket engineer Wernher von Braun

        [BBC] Focus

        --feature on the history of measuring longitude 

        --cover feature on the Indus civilisation and utopia (shown here)

        --review of a study of ancient Mesopotamian civilization

        --review of a biography of Ravi Shankar

        --feature about film director Satyajit Ray's graphic art held at the

        British Museum

        --review of a book about the electricity of life

        --review of a book on Chinese characters in China's culture and

        politics during the past century

 

See the Journalism page of this website for more articles, including my regular "Books in Brief" review column in Nature.

 

My articles have appeared in the following newspapers: 

The Daily TelegraphThe Financial TimesThe Guardian, The IndependentThe New York TimesThe Times and The Wall Street Journal

 

--in general magazines and journals including:

Aeon, The AuthorBBC History MagazineBritish Museum Magazine, FrontlineHistory TodayJournal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Literary Review, London Library MagazineLondon Magazine, MinervaThe SpectatorSight and SoundTimes Higher Education and The Times Literary Supplement   


--in science magazines and journals including: 

Antiquity, Current World Archaeology, E&T (Engineering and Technology), (BBC) FocusGeoscientist, The Lancet, Nature, New Scientist​ (cover feature shown), Physics World and Science

 

--and in biographical entries of The Encyclopaedia Britannica and 

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

I have also appeared on BBC Radio and BBC Television, and acted as a consultant for two BBC TV programmes, on Satyajit Ray (1988) and Michael Ventris (2002), based on Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye and

The Man Who Deciphered Linear B.

 
TALKS AND LECTURES


My talks and lectures have taken place at academic institutions, literary festivals and museums and at related events, such as the Ashmolean Museum ​(Oxford), the British Library (London), the British Museum (London), the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Hay Festival of Literature, Kings Place (London), the Oxford Literary Festival, the Royal Institution (London) and the University of Oxford. See the Talks and Lectures page of this website.

 

For example, these recordings of talks and lectures:

        an online lecture at the British Museum

 

I am a member of the Advisory Council of the Friends of the British Museum in London and the Advisory Board of Planet Word, a museum of language and writing in Washington DC.

 

 

EDUCATION AND CAREER


An alumnus of the Dragon School, Oxford, I was a King's Scholar of Eton College from 1970-74. My degrees are from University College, Oxford (in chemistry) and the School of Oriental and African Studies, London (in South Asian area studies). From 2006-10, I was a visiting fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and am currently a fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society. My father, F. N. H. (Neville) Robinson, was a physicist at the University of Oxford from the 1950s to the 1990s.

I have received a number of academic research grants, notably:

  • from the British Academy
  • from the Leverhulme Trust (fellowship)
  • from the John Templeton Foundation (to research creativity, genius and breakthroughs in the arts and sciences)


I was on the staff of Macmillan Publishers from 1979-82; of Granada Television from 1983-88; and of the independent television production company Brian Lapping Associates from 1989-90. From

1994-2006, I was literary editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement. In 2007, I became a full-time author and journalist.

Read my articles in The Author about my career: "Entangled with Einstein" and "Polymathic pursuits"--on the pleasures and pitfalls of writing about many subjects--and hear me talking about the history of polymathy on BBC Radio 4.

 

 

CONTACT ADDRESS

 

andrew[at]andrew-robinson.org

([at] = @)