Author and Journalist

ANDREW ROBINSON


      "Writing is among the greatest inventions in human history,  

     perhaps the greatest invention, since it made history possible." 


This opening of my book, The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs and Pictograms, I wrote in 1995. Today, writing--its origins, its five millennia of history since proto-cuneiform, its cognitive science and its amazing online expansion since the 1990s--still fascinates me. 

 

As an author over the past three decades or so I have written, for both general and academic publishers such as Bloomsbury, Oxford University Press, Picador, Reaktion, Thames & Hudson and Yale University Press, more than twenty-five books. Many of them mingle the humanities and the sciences, for example:

 

As a journalist, I've contributed features and reviews on subjects as various as British earthquakes, German physics under the Nazis and Indian art cinema to leading magazines and newspapers. For example:

 

Overall, my books and journalism have embraced: ​Archaeology, Art, Biography, Cinema, Creativity, Decipherment, Environmental Science, Genius, Geology, History, Linguistics, Literature, Medicine, Physics, Polymathy and Writing Systems.

 

The exquisite ancient sealstone displayed above and to the right involves archaeology, art, decipherment, history, linguistics and writing systems. It dates from the enigmatic Indus civilisation (2600-1900 BC), first excavated in 1920s India, which I feature in a chapter of

Lost Languages and in The Indus: Lost Civilizations. A 'unicorn' stands before what may be an incense burner, beneath four tantalising signs--maybe spelling the seal-owner's name? We don't know, because Indus writing remains undeciphered, despite long study by diverse experts and numerous claims of decipherment. Indus script is the world's most deciphered script! See my Nature article, "Cracking the Indus Script".


                                              *****


The books cover three principal areas of knowledge:

  • SCIENCE AND THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE​ 

        for example, The Story of Measurement

  • ARCHAEOLOGY AND SCRIPTS 

        for example, Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction

  • INDIAN HISTORY AND CULTURE

        for example, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye

 

They range in period and setting from pre-history (Earthshock), Egyptian antiquity (Cracking the Egyptian Code) and ancient Greece (The Man Who Deciphered Linear B), to modern times in Britain (Einstein on the Run), in India (Rabindranath Tagore) and across the entire planet (Earth-Shattering Events).

 

Seven are biographies, of artists such as Satyajit Ray and scientists such as Albert Einstein, and the polymath Thomas Young. Physician, linguist and physicist, Young was revolutionary in deciphering human vision, the Rosetta Stone and the physics of light; he also named the "Indo-European" family of languages. Hence the title of my Young biography: The Last Man Who Knew Everything.

 

Their publishers in the United Kingdom and the United States--both general and academic--have been as follows:

  • Abrams, Andre Deutsch, Bloomsbury, McGraw-Hill, Macmillan, Oneworld, Palazzo, George Philip, Picador, Plume (Penguin), Rand McNally, Reaktion and Thames & Hudson
  • University of California Press, Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, Princeton University Press, I.B. Tauris and Yale University Press

Many books have been translated into a wide variety of languages:

  • thirteen European languages
  • Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Taiwanese and Vietnamese 


Reviews and comments about my books have come from distinguished artists and writers, scholars and scientists, including five Nobel laureates: Philip W. Anderson (physics), Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (physics), V. S. Naipaul (literature), Ilya Prigogine (chemistry) and Amartya Sen (economics). 

 

For example, from the arts and humanities:

  • Richard Attenborough​

        (actor and film-director, who performed for Satyajit Ray)

        on Satyajit Ray: A Vision of Cinema:

        "quite magical"

        [letter to author]

 

  • Henri Cartier-Bresson

        (photographer, artist and writer)

        on The Story of Writing:

        "a fascinating book"

        [letter to author]

   

  • Arthur C. Clarke

        (science-fiction writer)

        on Lost Languages
        "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?

        [hardback comment]

 

  • Brian Fagan

        (archaeologist and writer)

        on The Indus:

​        "Everyone interested in ancient civilizations should read this

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

        the Indus people in from the historical shadows." 

        [hardback comment]

 

  • Patrick French

​        ​(biographer and historian of India)

        on Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore:

        "a triumphant work of scholarship, expertly annotated and

        beautifully designed"

        [review in The Daily Telegraph]

 

  • Diana Kormos-Buchwald

        (historian and director of the Einstein Papers Project)

        on Einstein on the Run:
        "This is a jewel of a book, to be read by anyone interested in 
        Albert Einstein, his science, his peripatetic existence, his joys and
        travails.
"

        [hardback comment]

 

  • Tom Lehrer

        (singer-songwriter, satirist and mathematician)

        on The Last Man Who Knew Everything:

        "clearly an extraordinary book"

        [letter to author]

 

  • V. S. Naipaul

        (writer and novelist, and Nobel laureate)

        on Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye

        "an extraordinarily good, detailed and selfless book"

        [paperback comment]

 

  • John Ray

        (Egyptologist and writer)

        on Cracking the Egyptian Code:

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

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

        [review in The Financial Times]

 

And from the sciences:

  • Philip W. Anderson

        (physicist, and Nobel laureate)

        on The Last Man Who Knew Everything:

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

        remarkable man."

        [paperback comment]

 

  • Jocelyn Bell Burnell

        (astrophysicist)

        on Einstein on the Run:

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

        known ​​period in Einstein's life"

        [hardback comment]

 

  • Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

        (cosmologist, and Nobel laureate)

        on Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man:

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

        clearly that Tagore was intellectually more perceptive than

        Gandhi."

        [paperback comment]

 

  • James Lovelock

        (geochemist, environmentalist and writer)

        on Earthshock

        "a wonderful compilation of the things that can happen when 

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

        [paperback comment]

 

  • Patrick Moore

        (astronomer and writer) 

        on Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity

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

        across"

        [review in BBC Sky at Night]

    

  • Amos Nur

        (geophysicist and writer)

        on Earth-Shattering Events:

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

        impact on history into a proper perspective"​​

        [hardback comment]

 

  • Ilya Prigogine

        (physical chemist, and Nobel laureate)

        on Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man:

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

        addresses the profound conflict between eastern spirituality and

        western rationality"

        [paperback comment]

 

  • David Weatherall

        (physician and geneticist) 

        on The Scientists:

​        "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 the Books page of this website for further reviews and comments about the above-mentioned books, plus other books.

 

LATEST BOOK

Einstein on the Run: How Britain Saved the World's Greatest Scientist  was published in hardback by Yale University Press in autumn 2019 in the UK and USA. A paperback is scheduled for publication in spring 2021. See the full jacket, and read an excerpt from the book in Time magazine.

 

Here is a sketch of the book. Britain inspired the young Einstein's physics in the 1890s; it made him world famous in 1919; and it saved his life from Nazi death threats by offering him sanctuary in 1933. This biographical study is the first account of Einstein's fruitful and complex entanglement with Britain--scientific, cultural and political--from the 1890s until his death in 1955. It was published during the centenary of the confirmation of Einstein's general theory of relativity by British astronomers' observations of a solar eclipse in 1919, which launched him as an international star.

 

I wrote an article about the 1919 eclipse centenary, "The experiment that made Einstein famous" (download article) in The Wall Street Journal, and two reviews of books about the centenary: "The eclipse that made Einstein famous" in Science, and "A relative revolution" in Physics World.

 

Plus general-interest articles on many different aspects of Einstein:

 ​

Reviews and comments about Einstein on the Run include:

  • "a valuable new perspective on this great scientist's personality"

        (Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, quoted on the jacket of the 

        hardback)

  • "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)
  • "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)

  • "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)

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

        (Andrew Crumey, Wall Street Journal)

  • "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)

     

Listen to an interview with me, "Einstein on the run", on Cool Science Radio, KPCW.

 

 

JOURNALISM


As a journalist--and Literary Editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement from 1994-2006--I have written features and reviews for newspapers and magazines in the UK and the USA. See examples on the Journalism page of this website.

 

Newspapers include: 

  • The Daily TelegraphThe Financial TimesThe GuardianThe IndependentThe New York TimesThe Times and The Wall Street Journal


General magazines and journals include:

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


 Science magazines and journals include: 

  • Antiquity, Current World Archaeology, E&T (Engineering and Technology), (BBC) Science FocusGeoscientistThe LancetNatureNew ScientistPhysics World and Science


Plus entries for 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 my biographies of Ray and Ventris.

 
TALKS AND LECTURES


I give talks and lectures at academic institutions, literary festivals, museums and related events, at venues such as the Ashmolean Museum, the British Library, the British Museum, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Hay Festival of Literature, the Oxford Literary Festival, the Royal Institution and the University of Oxford. See the Talks and Lectures page of this website.

 

For example:

 

I recently joined 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 due to open in Washington DC in 2020.

 

 

EDUCATION AND CAREER


An alumnus of the Dragon School, Oxford, I was a King's Scholar of Eton College from 1970-74. I hold degrees 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. I am 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 grants, notably:

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


I was on the staff of Macmillan Publishers from 1979-82, Granada Television from 1983-88 and the independent television production company Brian Lapping Associates from 1989-90, and was Literary Editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement in London from 1994-2006. In 2007, I became a full-time writer of books and journalism.

Read my articles, "Polymathic pursuits" and "Entangled with Einstein", in The Author, and hear me talking about polymathy (based on my biography of Thomas Young, The Last Man Who Knew Everything​), on BBC Radio 4.

 

 

Contact address: andrew[at]andrew-robinson.org