ANDREW ROBINSON


"Writing is among the greatest inventions in human history,  

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

I wrote these words in 1995 as the opening of a diversely illustrated history, The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms

 

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the classic photographer, artist and writer, called the book "fascinating" in a handwritten letter to me soon after publication. "Graphology", he wrote, ​

        gives such a pleasure by the link between the eye,

        the mind and the fingers handling a little tool--instead

        of the dehumanisation in communication through

        electronic systems. --

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

​​​​Today, like Cartier-Bresson, I am still fascinated by writing--whether handwritten, printed or electronic. By its undeciphered 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, unexplained, power to render speech, thoughts and feelings visible and readable.

 

As the author of some 25 books--six of them on writing, scripts and decipherment--my work offers a kaleidoscope of subjects mingling the humanities and the sciences of many periods and cultures, from ancient Egypt, Greece and the Indus civilisation to modern Europe, India and the USA. The latest book, Einstein on the Run, tells the story of Albert Einstein's life-changing entanglement with Britain's physics, culture and politics from 1900 until his death in 1955. They include:

​        (Oneworld + Pi Press)

 

As a journalist, I have written equally varied features and reviews: some directly related to my books, others tangentially. For example, these six pieces on Cartier-Bresson's life, on Egyptian mummies, on Satyajit Ray's films, on British earthquakes, on Tom Lehrer's songs and on Einstein's physics, published in leading magazines and newspapers:

        --review of a British Museum exhibition on ancient Egyptian

        mummies and their anatomy

 

Overall, my books and journalism have discussed in detail: ​

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

 

 

BOOKS: OVERVIEW AND REVIEWS

 

The books inhabit three principal areas of knowledge:

  • Archaeology and Scripts 

        For example: The Man Who Deciphered Linear B

  • Indian History and Culture

        For example: India: A Short History

  • Science and the History of Science

        For example: The Story of Measurement

 

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

 

Seven are biographies, of artists such as Ray, scientists such as Einstein, architect-cum-Linear-B-decipherer Michael Ventris and polymath Thomas Young. Physician, linguist and physicist, Young deciphered human colour vision, the Rosetta Stone and the physics of light, named the "Indo-European" language family--and much more. Hence my (semi-serious) title: The Last Man Who Knew Everything.

 

The books' UK/US publishers--general and academic--include:

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

Many have been translated into a wide variety of languages:

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


Appreciations have come from distinguished artists, writers, scholars and scientists, including five Nobel laureates: physicist Philip W. Anderson, physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, writer V. S. Naipaul, chemist Ilya Prigogine and economist Amartya Sen. 

 

For example, from the arts and humanities:

  • Lindsay Anderson​

        film-director and writer

        on Satyajit Ray  (André Deutsch + I.B. Tauris)

        "a signal salute to integrity"

        --review in The Spectator

  • Arthur C. Clarke

        science-fiction writer

        on Lost Languages  (McGraw-Hill + 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)

​        "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." 

        --comment on hardback edition

 

  • Patrick French

​        ​biographer and historian of India

        on Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore  (Cambridge UP)

        "a triumphant work of scholarship, expertly annotated and

        beautifully designed"

        --review in The Daily Telegraph

  • John Keay

        historian of India

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

        --review in The Times Literary Supplement

 

  • Diana Kormos-Buchwald

        historian and director of the Einstein Papers Project

        on Einstein on the Run  (Yale UP)
        "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.
"

        --comment on hardback edition

 

  • V. S. Naipaul

        writer, and Nobel laureate

        on Satyajit Ray  (André Deutsch + I.B. Tauris) 

        "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)

        "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  (André Deutsch + I.B. Tauris)

        "extremely thorough, often perceptive and at times highly

        entertaining"

        --review in London Review of Books

 

And from the sciences:

  • Philip W. Anderson

        physicist, and Nobel laureate

        on The Last Man Who Knew Everything  (Oneworld + Pi Press)

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

        remarkable man."

        --comment on paperback edition

 

  • Jocelyn Bell Burnell

        astrophysicist

        on Einstein on the Run  (Yale UP)

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

        known ​​period in Einstein's life"

        --comment on hardback edition

 

  • Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

        cosmologist, and Nobel laureate

        on Rabindranath Tagore  (Bloomsbury + 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

 

  • Tom Lehrer

        mathematician and song-writer

        on The Last Man Who Knew Everything  (Oneworld + Pi Press)

        "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 (in 2006)

 

  • James Lovelock

        geochemist, environmentalist and writer

        on the prize-winning Earthshock  (Thames & Hudson)

        "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

 

  • Patrick Moore

        astronomer and writer 

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

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

        across"

        --review in BBC Sky at Night

    

  • Philip Morrison

​        astrophysicist

        on The Story of Writing  (Thames & Hudson)

        "Rich in images ... well-informed and assured"

        --review in Scientific American

 

  • Amos Nur

        geophysicist and writer

        on Earth-Shattering Events  (Thames & Hudson)

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

        impact on history into a proper perspective"​​

        --comment on hardback edition

 

  • Ilya Prigogine

        physical chemist, and Nobel laureate

        on Rabindranath Tagore  (Bloomsbury + 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

 

  • David Weatherall

        physician and geneticist 

        on The Scientists  (Thames & Hudson)

​        "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 comments and press reviews about all of my books.

 

 

BOOKS: CURRENT

Current projects reflect my principal interests mentioned above:

  • Science and the History of Science: Einstein on the Run
  • Indian History and Culture: The Indus
  • Archaeology and Scripts: The Origins of Writing

 

Einstein on the Run: forthcoming in paperback

Einstein on the Run: How Britain Saved the World's Greatest Scientist  was published in hardback in autumn 2019 in the UK and USA. According to the Astronomer Royal Martin Rees (quoted on the front jacket of the hardback), the book offers "a valuable new perspective on this great scientist's personality". The paperback is scheduled for publication in spring 2021, the centenary of Einstein's inaugural visit to Britain in 1921. See the full jacket, and read an excerpt from the book in Time magazine.​

 

Here is a sketch of the book, which is the first to be devoted to Britain and Einstein. 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--as suggested in Nazi and British caricatures of Einstein plus a photograph of him under armed guard in rural England, shown below. My biographical study tells the story of Einstein's 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 relativity by British astronomers' observations of a 1919 solar eclipse, which launched Einstein 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:

 ​

Comments and reviews about Einstein on the Run include:

  • "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: forthcoming in paperback

The Indus [2015] is scheduled for publication as an updated paperback in spring 2021, to mark the centenary of the discovery of the enigmatic Indus civilization (2600-1900 BC), which was first excavated in India in 1921. In the exquisite ancient Indus sealstone shown opposite, a 'unicorn' stands before what may be an incense burner, beneath four tantalising signs--maybe writing the seal-owner's name? 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! See my Nature article, "Cracking the Indus Script", and my New Scientist cover story, "Forgotten Utopia", on the characteristics of the Indus civilization as a whole, focusing on its apparent absence of war.

 

The Origins of Writing: research project

I am now researching a global study of the origins of writing, commissioned by Yale University Press. What, if anything, does Ice Age cave art (shown opposite in France, dated circa 13,000 BC) have to do with the later invention of writing? Was writing invented once in Mesopotamia (the Fertile Crescent) circa 3300 BC, as cuneiform, and somehow transmitted around the world? Or was it invented independently at several different times during antiquity, in places such as China, Egypt, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Mexico and even Rapanui (Easter Island)? What inspired its invention? Accountancy, statecraft, religion, personal records and even epic poetry like Homer's? Why are some ancient writing systems, such as early Chinese characters (shown opposite in a Shang oracle-bone inscription from circa 1200 BC), bewilderingly complex, whereas others, such as the early Semitic alphabet (shown below as letters inscribed on an Egyptian sphinx in 1800-1500 BC)--are astonishingly simple? Read my 2019 essay, "The origins of writing" in the British Library exhibition catalogue, Writing: Making Your Mark, and my 2020 feature, "The origins of writing", in the British Museum Magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JOURNALISM: OVERVIEW


As a journalist--and former Literary Editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement--I have written numerous articles on the arts, humanities and sciences for newspapers and magazines based mainly in the UK and the USA. For example:

        --profile of Henri Cartier-Bresson at 90, introduced opposite

         --obituary of film director Akira Kurosawa

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

        ([BBC] Focus)--feature on the history of measuring longitude 

        --review of Stephen Hawking's final book

See varied further examples on the Journalism page of this website.

 

Newspapers include: 

The Daily TelegraphThe Financial TimesThe Guardian, The 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 Magazine, MinervaThe 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 biographical entries in 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: The Story of Michael 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, Kings Place, the Oxford Literary Festival, the Royal Institution and the University of Oxford. See the Talks and Lectures page of this website.

 

For example, these video recordings:

 

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 fall 2020.

 

 

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, 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




 

 

 

 

 

Author and Journalist