First of all: yes, I am standing in a clock face. Beowulf Sheehan, who took the book jacket photo for Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing, had the brilliant idea of shooting in the clock tower of Cooper Union in Greenwich Village. All history is about the passing of time, and as a bonus the light streaming through the clock reminded us both of a 17th-century Dutch painting.
I write nonfiction books that aim to tell true stories in a novelistic style, while being fully researched and historically accurate in every detail.
The subjects of my books have been people who have changed the world by bringing together (or breaking apart) the relation between art and science, which I believe are not intrinsically distinct but parts of a whole, two sides of the same coin.
Eye of the Beholder described how, in the 1600s, both artists and scientists, sometimes working together, availed themselves of the same new optical devices—telescopes, microscopes, and other instruments made with lenses—to forever change the way we see the world.
My previous book, The Philosophical Breakfast Club, was, in a sense, the sequel to that book, pointing to the moment in the 1800s when science and art split apart: when amateur “natural philosophers”—who were also poets, classicists and artists—became professional “scientists,” focusing on four friends who brought about that new scientific revolution, inadvertently rendering amateur artists/scientists like themselves obsolete. I am honored that my official TED talk on the book has been viewed over 1.3 million times.
My current project, the first biography of the neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks, will not only embed his work in the context of his life and times, but also showcase him as a literary physician and a medical storyteller. He never saw art and science as being at odds, and one of the tragedies of his life is that the neurological profession mostly ignored him because of it.
As a child and teenager, I was never without a notebook, writing stories, novels, poems. But needing a secure profession, I earned a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University and landed a tenured position as a professor at St. John’s University in New York City. Being a professor taught me incredible research skills, and allowed—required—me to write, but it was not the kind of writing I wanted to do forever. After twenty-one years of teaching, I retired as a full professor in 2017 so I could write what and how I wanted.
For ages I’ve yearned to write books that told fascinating stories about real men and women who achieved amazing things—to paint vivid pictures of their life and times by reading their letters, diaries, and book drafts, researching genealogies, becoming an expert in their historical periods, and literally walking in their footsteps, whether it be Delft, Cambridge, London, Oxford, California, or my own home town of New York City. And now I’m doing that. It’s been an amazing journey. I’m grateful to all the readers who have come along with me.