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Q & A With Science Journalist And Author Hugh Aldersey-Williams

With this abundant evidence that life depends in many ways upon the tides, we are entitled to ask whether life could have evolved on earth at all in their absence. – Hugh Aldersey-Williams, The Tide: The Science and Stories Behind the Greatest Force on Earth.

Author and journalist Hugh Aldersey-Williams is a London native with a long-term internal struggle between creative endeavors and his interest in hard sciences. In his new book The Tide: The science and stories behind the greatest force on Earth, he explores the constant movement of water, an element that covers three-quarters of our planet, via a mixture of stories from history, literature and folklore and research based firmly in science. Though Aldersey-Williams considers himself a science writer, the book includes aspects of travel and nature writing, as he includes experiential accounts and detailed observations of the tide from Nova Scotia to Venice.

Aldersey-Williams was interviewed by Stephenie Livingston, a University of Florida science writer who graduates this month with her master’s degree in mass communication.

SL: How did your writing career begin? When did you decide to focus on science writing?

HAW: I studied science at college but always sort of felt frustrated because there was no creative outlet, which was quite hard to deal with. But when I was done, I got a job with a science publisher that published very obscure scientific journals. There wasn’t any writing involved in that job, except that I began to find that some of the more interesting things we were publishing could be converted into freelance articles. So that got me writing about science for a more general readership.

SL: What was your writing process like for The Tide?

HAW: It took quite a long time. I spent a year thinking about it while writing another book. It provided an antidote for when the other project wasn’t working, I could take a break and go for a long walk on the coast and think about the tide without the pressure of actually having to produce material relating to it. That was tremendously productive because what it meant was I was kind of on the alert for odd little stories that would be of interest for readers. A lot of extra anecdotes and information bubbled up because of that extra time that it was on the back burner.

SL: The Tide so seamlessly combines many different areas of research, from history to hard science. Once you began writing, did you have a specific process or method for pulling these different areas together in a cohesive way?

It wasn’t as calculated as that, actually. I got some textbooks related to the tide and began reading about it. You read the first few pages and discover some scary great equation and it rapidly gets very technical and very abstract. I couldn’t do that for my readers. I realized that the science of the tide was actually pretty complicated, so I would be wise to put the science into sections and break between those sections with other kinds of material, like descriptions of a locations or a literary circumstance—just so readers didn’t feel like their brains were exploding when they were getting to the science bit.

There are, however, sections of chapters in The Tide that are wholly science based. But the other thing that, I think, makes this book accessible is that you’re on a timeline, from ancient Greece up to the present day, in terms of what we’ve learned about the tide. And because it begins so early— before we had all of this scary math and computers to simulate the tide— the book gives people a way to sympathize with those early scientists so you can enjoy the science before it becomes too scary and mathematical.

SL: Besides giving the book more depth, why did you think it was important to dig so deep into the mythology and folklore related to the tide?

HAW: I’m interested in the ways people went about trying to understanding things before there was science to help them understand. With the tide, there were lots of stories of sea monsters and such…a sense of the strength and the mystery of the tide. The way the water moves, seemingly by some invisible force—it was most rationale to them that it was a sea monster of some sort, or the earth breathing. The ideas seem crazy to us now, but I find these explanations as interesting as the modern science.

SL: You consider yourself a science writer, but you used the tools of literary and nature writers in The Tide. What are some of your literary influences?

HAW: When I go to books shops, I see this book in the nature writing section instead of the science section where my books usually end up. I didn’t approach it as a nature writer, but I did do this slightly weird thing in the beginning of going and just standing on the sea shore for 13 hours and watching the tide and describing what I saw there. I knew I wanted to go to certain places and I was very keen to evoke the tide as something that creates a sense of place and gives character to particular places—either places in the sea or places on the shore which are very obviously and actively shaped by the tide. So I’m quite please at the way it turned out, but I didn’t approach it as a nature writing project.

I think the one science book that really interested me was Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, where he describes fossil findings in British Columbia that paleontologists thought they understood but later it was like Lego—they had to rearrange the pieces. One of the things that book did, in addition to showing how science can take wrong turns, was to evoke a sense of place…a very strong sense of place. The way Gould described the Burgess Shale where these fossil were found was extraordinary.

SL: In the last chapter, you return to London and to a coast where recent high tides and storm surge have demonstrated that very accurate tidal predictions will be important as global sea levels rise. Why did you decide to end the book on this note?

HAW: That emerged as I was writing it. I don’t think I worked out in the proposal that it was going to end there. It’s not something I knew about to start with. I found myself wondering what was the point of all this accuracies, and I found out that one of the reasons it’s so important to know as much as we can about the tide is you need to know what the tide is doing, and the average of the tide, is to know what the sea level is because the sea is always moving. You’ve got to have handle on that to know the sea level, and of course we know the sea level is an important issue and tides kind of complicate that in interesting ways. In some places where the sea level is rising, the tide makes it rise even faster than it would otherwise. In other places it may almost cancel out the rising sea level. It gave the book an important contemporary message in terms of people, like you, living in the low-lying land.

SL: What advice would you give to young writers interested in writing stories about the natural world?

HAW: Read a lot. A lot of what you’ll read, you’ll think, this isn’t right…this isn’t what I want to write. I think reacting against something is as important as finding a model. And, also, resist genrefication. My tide book can belong in popular science or travel, or nature writing, geography or whatever. I think a good piece of nature writing should be a scientific book in that it makes truthful observations. It doesn’t have to be described in scientific terminology; it just needs to be scientific observation as it were.

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