Interview With Author Dr. Robert M. Hazen

Please introduce yourself and your book:

My name is Robert Hazen, Senior Staff Scientist at the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution for Science, and just-retired Professor of Earth Science at George Mason University. I’m the author of Symphony in C: Carbon and the Emergence of (Almost) Everything, published by W.W. Norton in 2019. The book tells the amazing, multi-faceted story of element 6, carbon, the most critical chemical element in our lives.

What is/are the real-life story behind your book?

For the past 10 years I’ve been a founding member and leader of the Deep Carbon Observatory—a grand international program whose mission is to understand the physical, chemical, and biological roles of carbon in Earth, from crust to core. We have expanded to more than 1200 collaborators in 55 countries—one of the largest interdisciplinary scientific programs in the history of science. The discoveries are transforming our understanding of our planet’s origins and evolution.

What inspires my creativity?

I love telling amazing stories of scientific discovery. And the Deep Carbon Observatory has made dozens of remarkable discoveries about the origins of diamonds, the power of volcanoes, the cycling of Earth’s carbon, and a mysterious deep biosphere that extends miles beneath our feet. I also love describing the mysteries of nature—what we know we don’t know, and how we scientists are striving to learn more.

What is key to a successful book?

For a book to be successful, the author has to have something original and fascinating to say. In addition, the author must always keep the intended reader in mind—imagine talking to that audience in an intimate setting. The best writers make you feel like they are speaking directly to you—taking you on a unique and special journey.

How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

One never likes to get negative reviews or criticisms, but it’s an inevitable part of the writing world. It’s not fun to read a short, dismissive review after you’ve spent years writing a book. I wasn’t happy when Symphony in C received one negative review in which the reviewer wished for a very different book—one entirely devoted to the dangers associated with global warming and the climate change issue. Well, I did devote a short section to that topic, but Symphony in C is much vaster in scope. It didn’t seem fair to me to criticize the book for having a different focus—a focus that’s less in the public view and with its own importance. It’s also not unusual for a lazy reviewer to spend most of their review picking apart tiny details or facts—that’s sort of like bragging “I know more about the subject than the author,” without having to do the hard work of writing a book. But sometimes—every once in a while—a reviewer will raise valid criticisms, and it’s important to learn from such comments and make the next book better.

How has your creative process changed over time?

I suppose that kind of change is inevitable. As I’ve written more books (about a dozen popular science works so far), I’ve felt able to take more risks, especially revealing the emotions, fears, exhilarations, and mistakes associated with doing science. What does it feel like when a dear colleague dies, or a colleague makes a serious error, or someone steals your ideas. Science is an intensely human endeavor—an aspect that is not often discussed.

Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers?

My hope is that both can be accomplished in the same volume. If I find personal satisfaction I think the readers might as well. For example, in Symphony in C I tell a story from long ago, when Yo-Yo Ma (the now famous cellist) and I performed chamber music together—he almost died in a freak accident caused by slippery carbon-based grease (I was a long-time professional trumpet player, so there’s a small autobiographical part of the book). My Editor wanted to cut that short section, feeling it seemed like too much of a digression, but I felt it was appropriate to the spirit of the book and, frankly, I liked sharing the story. Now readers have told me it’s one of their favorite parts.

What role do emotions play in creativity?

A writer of non-fiction must first and foremost write with clarity and accuracy; there are things that are true, and the reader needs to be welcomed into that reality—convinced that what they’re reading has the weight of expertise behind it. But emotions cannot be denied. The reader wants to learn, but also wants to feel. The best writers know when to turn up the intensity, to make a story more joyous or bittersweet.

What are your plans for future books?

Unlike some of my writer colleagues, I don’t have plans for the next book, much less the one after that. I need to have something original and personal to say. In the past I’ve found that it can take a few years for an idea to form and gestate. And there’s really no rush, is there.


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