the scientist and the sociopath

My Unpublished Interview with Astronomer Vera Rubin


In 1999, I wrote an article for Discover magazine about Ralph Alpher, one of a trio of scientists responsible for conceiving the Big Bang Theory. During the course of reporting that article,* I had occasion to interview Vera Rubin, the celebrated dark matter astronomer who died at the age of 88 on December 25, 2016. Articles (like these here and here and here) covering her passing noted that she ought to have received the Nobel Prize but never did, no doubt because she was a woman working in a field at a time when men dominated.

As it happens, my interview with Dr. Rubin touched on the painful topic of those who deserve but do not win Nobels. We were talking not about her work per se, but about Alpher and other male colleagues of hers. Her comments were insightful but I didn’t have room in the final story to share everything she told me. I’m releasing the brief transcript now because I think they shed light on Rubin's thinking on the matter, and because she and the three cosmologists at the center of the Big Bang story are no longer with us. (Gamow died in 1968, Herman in 1997, and Alpher in 2007.)

Back in the 1940s, along with his thesis advisor, George Gamow, Ralph Alpher wrote the first paper on the origin of elements in the universe. Later, he wrote a second paper with his colleague Robert Herman that theorized that the radiation of that first bang should still be bathing the universe. The men actually predicted how that 14 billion-year-old relic—called cosmic background radiation—could be found. At the time, radio astronomy was in its infancy and Alpher and Herman could not find scientists willing to gamble on their idea. But in the 1960s, they were proved right when a team at Princeton found proof of the Big Bang in exactly the way Apher and Herman had predicted.

The Princeton team received the Nobel Prize in 1978 for their work, yet the work of the earlier scientists was seemingly ignored. To make matters worse, later books and academic journal articles perpetuated the error by either incorrectly attributing Gamow, Alpher and Herman’s work, or ignoring it entirely. By then Gamow had died, but Alpher and Herman, who had left academic for industry during much of the ensuing years, devoted nearly 30 years of their lives trying to set the record straight.

Here’s what Dr. Rubin told me about how that miscarriage of scientific justice impacted the lives of the two men she called friends.

How were they affected by the whole thing?

I don’t think either of them put it behind them. It was a major factor in their lives. I think they both felt that they had been unfairly treated by the entire field. [My husband mathematician-physicist] Bob [Rubin] and I used to tell Bob Herman that we really thought they should just forget about it.

The fact that neither one of them were doing a lot of cosmology or astronomy really meant that their work just wasn’t in the forefront of astronomy. One way people learn about what you’re doing is by your continuing to do it. Your current work is always kind of a reference to your past work. But in their case, they both went off and did something very different, so there was no one to bring their early work to the attention of the community except them themselves. It was just an unfortunate circumstance, I guess.

But I think it bothered [and] continues to bother Ralph. I think it bothered Bob [Herman] too. There were constantly books written about the history that they didn’t think was correct, and they continued to write authors to make corrections. That’s probably what they should have done, but it meant it wouldn’t be something they could really put behind them. So I think these things were always continually being in the forefront. It’s been 33, 34 years.


Dr. Alpher says he’s writing a book to set the record straight once and for all.

I suspect that it will be a very bitter book. He and Bob Herman are very, very dear to us and it was a horrible injustice, but I don’t know what you do in such a circumstance. It would have been nice if he had had a happier life. They could have known that they did something very, very valuable and they could have been happy with this. I think perhaps injustices are in the eye of the beholder, unfortunately. But they were still the first people to do it and they did get a wide variety of enormously prestigious awards. Perhaps they could have asked themselves the alternative. It could have not been discovered during their lifetime. Wouldn’t that have maybe been worse? There’s no doubt that they could have been and should have been treated nicer by the community. They really do have a legitimate complaint. But they could have responded a little differently.

I think the truth is that in science, when I was very young a very wise man said to me, “In science most of your satisfactions have to be internal ones.” I think that that in a sense is correct; you have to be happy. They should have been exuberant with the work that they did. It was rediscovered. It was great. They had not gotten the recognition they deserved, but if their personalities had been different they could have been happy with the knowledge of this great thing they had figured out. And they perhaps could have even been treated better by the community if they had not just been so obviously angry.

I think they are remarkable, wonderful people, and they did something that was wonderful. It would have been very nice if that could have been such a joy that they could have embraced the community and which in turn might have embraced them. But none of that happened. 

They never forgot it, in ways that I can’t even repeat. But they could tell you who said something a little bit better and who said something a little bit worse. Sentences were examined in a way that I think the poor authors never intended them to be.

Bob [Herman] and Ralph have been very dear friends for a long time. With Bob [Herman] I or my husband have actually said, “Why don’t you, you know, talk him out of going on with this?” It never worked. It really affected them.

I don’t know if the Nobel Prize complicated things. If Penzias and Wilson had not gotten the Nobel Prize… But there too, and now I will say some things that are truly awful but this is how the establishment behaves. Someone has to nominate you for the Nobel Prize.


I didn’t know that.

Yes, yes, yes. [Nobel Prize-winning chemist] Harold Urey used to brag—I knew him and he used to brag that that 11 of the people he’d nominated had gotten Nobel Prizes. If you’re outside the establishment, you stand a much poorer chance of having these good things happen to you. If they really had not left the academic world, things may have been different. I really think there lies the explanation. Their lives might have been very different if they had remained in the academic world.

* The article is collected in my book, The Scientist and the Sociopath.

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Letter From Home

A quick update on a couple of things:

* Big Weed, the marijuana book I ghosted, landed two sweet reviews this week, one from Publishers Weekly, the other from Kirkus. The PW review is a starred review, which is quite nice. The author is happy, so are the publishers. The book is out in April.

* I'm driving home Friday to interview mystery writer Jamie Mason this Friday at our local bookstore, Malaprop's, for the launch of Mason’s second book, Monday’s Lie. I liked her first book, Three Graves Full, but Monday’s Lie is something special. The main character was raised by a mom who was a covert ops asset, and who taught her a variety of cool skills. Years later, Mom’s long gone, and our protag must call upon those skills to confront something terrible that’s cropped up in her life. Mason has a beautiful way with the language. A true stylist. If you’re in town, I hope you’ll come check out our “In Conversation With.”

* I just put up a new website. I hope you’ll stop by to look it over, and more importantly, shoot me a note if you spot any embarrassing bugs. From now on, my blog posts will originate at the new site, and be pushed out to Tumblr and Twitter. If you’re already following me on Tumblr, there’s no need to migrate over. The pushes are nearly instantaneous.

* * *  

Thanks for the kind response to my last post. Yes, our family is still hunkered down in Denise’s mom’s condo, acting as her daily caregivers. I don’t think this little apartment was made for five adults and a dog, but we’re determined to wait out this disease to its inevitable, sad conclusion. We are grateful for the friends who’ve stopped by to cheer us (and mom) up. We’ve left up the Christmas tree, thinking it makes nice touch to see those lights from time to time. But since the the holiday season is long gone, it’s a little hard to use that annual break as an excuse for procrastinating on our work. So we’ve staked out the corners of the condo that feel quiet enough to work, and started plugging away again. The nearby university has a great library; we escaped there for a few hours this week and it was awesome. Hope to go again if we can manage it.

As this horror progresses, I’ve been reminded of one of the doctors I once profiled. His story is told in the The Scientist and the Sociopath, but you can read it free here. The doc became closer with his mom following the death of his father and other family members, all in a single year, when he was a child. I was touched that the doc trusted me enough to report how he felt back then:

The mother did not know, and the boy did not tell her, that at night in his bed he bargained with God. He had attended five funerals in little more than a year, and they had terrified him. Over the graves of his loved ones he learned the words of the Lord’s Prayer for the first time. At night, he prayed: Please, God, don’t let my mom die. Please don’t take her from me.

His prayers were answered. She lived long and prospered. When she died four years ago at the age of sixty-nine, she was a wealthy woman. When she took sick with lung cancer, he gave her the greatest gift he could. He shut down his practice and cared for her 24/7 for the last seven months of her life. “It was the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” he says.

Q&A: Jeroen ten Berge

“The cover of your book looks amazing!” people tell me. And I absolutely agree. The compliments I’ve been hearing lately refer to the two books I recently published. The striking covers were designed by the talented Jeroen ten Berge, a Dutch-born designer who lives and works in New Zealand.

Portrait of Jeroen ten Berge

Lately, every time I read about a hot new indie title—whether self-published by a name author or an up-and-coming newbie—the man behind the cover art is Jeroen.

I’ve been obsessed with illustration since I was a kid. In my career, I’ve been lucky to work with children’s book illustrators and magazine illustrators, but this is the first time I’ve personally hired and teamed up with a cover artist to bring my work to life. I thought I’d take some time to ask Jeroen all the little questions I’ve been shy about asking during the few months we’ve been working together.

He graciously consented. Here’s our interview, along with links to some recent cover art by the man himself.

How do you describe the work you do? Are you a designer, an illustrator, or what? (It might help if you tell us what your training/background is.)

I consider myself a designer first. However, illustration is a skill I almost always use to assist me in creating the design I have in mind. In some cases an illustration becomes the key element of a design. Your book The Scientist & The Sociopath is an example, but the Serial-series covers I created for Blake Crouch and Joe Konrath are also illustrations, as is Suzanne Tyrpak’s Vestal Virgin cover. I also use stock photography, sometimes my own. Several of the covers I designed for Marcus Sakey feature my photos, as do several of Blake’s covers. 

I guess I was fortunate to have studied graphic and typographic design at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague in the early- to mid-1980s. There was a strong focus on teaching the principles of design and typography, taught by people such as Gerrit Noordzij, one of the greatest type designers of his generation. There was, however, equal attention paid to illustration and photography. The philosophy was very much, "Why ask someone else to make an illustration or photograph for your design if you can do it yourself?"  In retrospect I can see that graduating the year before Apple MacIntosh was introduced to the Netherlands helped as well. Knowing how lead type works, and why there are certain rules of design helps me on a daily basis. That said, I have worked on an Apple for more than 20 years now, and would consider a career change if I had to go back designing old school.

Everywhere I look these days, I see your name and your work. I unhesitatingly tell people that you are probably the best designer of indie book covers on the planet. Do you have any problem with that designation?

If that is your truth — so be it, I’m flattered. However, I’m sure there will be many people who beg to differ, who prefer someone else’s work. I would never use the designation myself, or even consider the thought. Like most people working in the arts, everything I do is accompanied with doubt. Is it good or is it crap? Will the client like the cover, or think it is shit?

What other types of design work do you do and how important is the indie book business to your overall workload?

Before entering the book design world about three or four years ago, I designed logos, corporate identities, websites, wayfinding, and packaging. I still do, but designing covers has become something I’m very passionate about. It is hard to say what the balance is today. A year ago I would have said 80/20 in favour of the other stuff. Today it is probably 40/60 in favour of book covers. Who knows what it’ll be next year?

About how many covers do you create a year? Is that part of your business growing?

I don’t know — I haven’t counted. I can tell you that about a year ago I worked with about 7 or 8 authors, today it is over 40. So yes, that part of my business is growing.

Soup to nuts, how does a cover come to be? How long does the process take, and do the steps you take vary from cover to cover?

It depends. I usually receive a manuscript, sometimes accompanied by a synopsis. I read it, take in account additional information offered by the author and I think. And think, and doodle. And sometimes research. I think until I have an idea, or several, then edit, and usually only then start to actually design. Almost always I create one cover and present that to the author. I don’t do comps and send a bunch of ideas to the author. It creates confusion. It does, however, mean that I occasionally present a design that doesn’t work for the author. Which means that I then go back and present a new and different idea, taking in account the author’s feedback. Important to me is that the author receives a cover he or she feels completely happy with, and is proud to share with his or her audience.

What kind of software or other tools do you use to make a cover come to life?

Illustrator, Photoshop, and Indesign are my software, plus the thousands of typefaces I have bought over the past decades. My hardware are a MacBook Pro, two iMacs, and my beloved MontBlanc Meisterstück (which I bought twenty years ago as retail therapy after a particularly frustrating meeting with a client) for writing notes. I also use Steadtler Ergosoft and Omnichrom 108-3 Aquarell pencils for doodling and sketching in Moleskine drawing notebooks. I’m a sucker for nice stuff.

You told me once how ideas for covers pop into your head as a quick flash of insight or inspiration. Can you tell us what that process is like?

Annoying — because it never stops. I sometimes even design in my dreams. I’m not kidding. It is bloody annoying, especially for family and friends. We can have a lively conversation, and I see or hear or smell something that triggers a synapse in my brain and off it goes. I have to leave the party to write the idea down, or make a quick sketch, otherwise I might forget it. It drove my wife bonkers, but she’s used to it now.

Do you read all the books for which you design, or is it enough to simply get a feel for the concept from the author?

I read almost all the books I design covers for, or at least enough to get a feel for the story, its tone and style. Occasionally the author supplies a summary or synopsis of the book, which allows me to skip reading the book itself. I’ve probably read over 80 novels so far this year. I’m not a fast reader, so reading is expensive. Thankfully sometimes an idea can be triggered by a paragraph in the author’s email, talking about the manuscript. Then I only read enough to confirm my idea truly fits. 

It seems like you do mostly mystery, thriller, horror book covers. Are these your favorite genres?

Not necessarily. It is the quality of the writing, combined with great storytelling that makes me tick. One of my favourite authors is Ron Rash, who writes amazing stories set in the Appalachians. I love his style, the dire realism of his work, the love he has for nature and how he describes his characters, their relationships, the choices they make and how it affects them. I’ve read all his work except for Serena, of which I read the first two chapters only. I’m saving the rest for the perfect moment, whenever that may be. For my own pleasure I designed nine covers last year, for some of his short stories. After awhile I found the courage to send them to him, hoping I could sway him to publish his work as ebooks, featuring my covers. He said he found the illustrations wonderful, and referred me to his agent. Sadly it ended there. Rash did give me permission to show the covers on my website — I haven’t done so yet.

So are we unlikely to see a cover by you for a sci-fi or fantasy ebook featuring some kind of Hobbit-like creature in the near future?

I usually say I won’t design covers for books that are about scarcely clad guys toting oversized shining swords conversing with dragons — not my cup of tea. That said, someone I already work with sent me the first snippet of a novel that is very much fantasy, and immediately the ideas started bouncing. So watch this space…

We first met when I asked you to do a cover for my nonfiction science book. You said you were intrigued because you actually have an interest in all kinds of nonfiction books as well. Can you tell us about some of your recent favorite NF reads? 

I’ve always been interested in human behaviour. What is it that makes us do what we do, and why? Do we have any control over our destiny, is there such a thing as fate? Why do people fall under the spell of others — and would I? Right now I’m trying to read The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which is about unpredictable and improbable events, and once they have happened how we then try to explain it, rationalize it, attempting to make it appear less random, more predictable. Which Taleb explains is pointless, I think. Another one is Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchins’ autobiography. But I’m afraid both are too demanding right now. I guess I should book myself some long flights for those two books.

What also interests me greatly is how talented people utilise their artistic creativity to con people. Especially where it concerns the fine art scene. One of my favourite non-fiction books is Clifford Irving’s FAKE! The story of Elmyr De Hory, The Greatest Art-Forger of Our Time, published in 1969. Anyone remotely interested in fine art, the art of collecting fine art, and the gullibility and greed of people should read it. Also fantastic, and more recent, is Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. 

Can you name some up-and-coming self-pubbed authors whom you think have great promise?

I think Blake Crouch will become one of the greatest thriller writers of his generation, if he isn’t already. J.E. Medrick has the potential to become a household name — her Icarus Helix series totally rocks. Roy Finch’s The Emperor of Glitter Gulch is an amazing and brutal debut. Steven Konkoly’s The Jakarta Pandemic, if you like a terrific novel about society unraveling after an event; Suzanne Tyrpak’s Vestal Virgin, if you are into the genre currently dominated by Robert Harris. Ania Ahlborn’s debut Seed is a terrific horror yarn, as is Robert Swartwood’s The Dishonored Dead, but for totally different reason — best zombie book I have ever read. And Saffina DesforgesSugar & Spice will more than satisfy anyone who loves a psycho-sexual thriller. There are more – should I continue?

Are you pleased with your increasing work in book covers? Is there ever such a thing as too much work for a freelancer?

Yes, I am — very much so. With designing ebook and print-on-demand covers I have found something that combines my love for reading, collecting books, and design. I have never been very ambitious, but having found this niche — and enjoying it immensely, I now want to build a large and diverse body of work. This is only the beginning.

What the heck are you doing living in New Zealand, and can you get us all a good deal on some sauvignon blanc?

That is a very long story I may tell you in person someday, while enjoying a bottle of that great sauvignon blanc or pinot noir growing in my back yard.

Thank you, very much, Jeroen, and here's hoping we'll meet in person someday.

Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your collection of free ebooks, go here. Thanks!

Summer Book Updates

Signing Their Rights Away book by Denise Kiernan and Joseph D'Agnese

We just sent around our semi-annual note letting people know all the stuff we have going on. I’m posting it here for our friends at large. If you want to get on the real list, sign-up below. We only do about two of these letters a year, so I promise you will not be deluged.

Creative Freelancer Conference: 

We'll be speaking about our book, THE MONEY BOOK FOR FREELANCERS, at the Creative Freelancer Conference in Chicago, June 24.

Signings for Signers:

We're doing our annual drive up the east coast, visiting sites associated with the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, to promote our book, SIGNING THEIR LIVES AWAY. If you're in any of these cities on these days, please stop by to say hi. More details at this BookTour link.

June 30: National Archives, Washington, DC (where Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights are preserved.)

July 1: Christ Church, Philadelphia, PA

July 2: Independence Hall Visitor Center, Philadelphia, PA.

July 3: Old State House, Boston, MA

July 4: Old State House, Boston, MA

New Signers Book coming Sept 6!

In September, Quirk/Random House will release SIGNING THEIR RIGHTS AWAY, our new book about the 39 men who signed the U.S. Constitution. Some online bookstores allow you to pre-order now. If you want to pre-order or get an autographed copy, consider ordering from one of the indie bookstores in our neighborhood. They're listed here.


Yes, we have still have the geekiest Signer T-shirts available, via our DOI Store

Joe's Science Book:

As an experiment in self-publishing, Joe released a collection of his best nonfiction science journalism articles as an eBook. You can download a copy of THE SCIENTIST AND THE SOCIOPATH for the ridiculous price of 99 cents, if you have a KindleNookiPad or any other device.

Girls of Atomic City

Denise is hard at work on a nonfiction book about the women who unknowingly made the fuel for the world's first atomic bomb. That book is due out from Simon & Schuster next fall, 2012. You can follow Denise's progress here and sign up for her list here.

As always, if you're a member of the media or a book buyer, let us know if you need a review copy of any of these books. If you'd like us to do an event at your shop or site, also let us know.

Thanks all, and enjoy the summer.

Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your collection of free ebooks, go here. Thanks!

New book: The Scientist & the Sociopath is out!

The Scientist and the Sociopath by Joseph D'Agnese

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my new book, The Scientist and the Sociopath, a collection of some of my best science writing.

At least two of the articles in this collection have already appeared in the prestigious Best American Science Writing anthologies, but it’s nice to have one volume collecting my pieces from Discover, Wired and Seed.

The book, which features a cover by awesome artist Jeroen ten Berge, is something of a milestone: it marks my foray into digital publishing. The title is available immediately as an eBook on Amazon and Smashwords. In the weeks to come, B&N, Apple iPad, Sony, and all the rest will be next. You can download a free sample from all of these sites onto your digital device. You can always find more details on the book page of this website. But for now, here’s the pitch:


A modern-day computer scientist struggles to unlock the secrets of a mysterious book apparently written in a secret code, matching wits with a sociopathic con man who died 400 years ago.


A humble cosmologist conceives one of the biggest theories of the universe—and watches helplessly as the Nobel Prize goes to someone else.


A maverick doctor investigates bizarre ailments using a method that seems shockingly radical in modern medicine: befriending patients and asking them how they feel.

THE SCIENTIST AND THE SOCIOPATH presents remarkable nonfiction stories, some of real-life scientists tackling theories and discoveries that will change our world, others of laymen grappling with some aspect of science in their lives.

Along the way, there are smashed ancient skulls, dead chimps in the back of pickup trucks, flying snakes, lordly windmills, haunted warriors, and beautiful, geeky kids building us a new world, one Lego at a time. 

These all-too-human players overcome their own foibles to make sense of the unknown, touching on everything from the Big Bang theory to tissue engineering, human evolution to cryptography, strange animals, robots, and the secret of human ingenuity. 

Culled from the author’s extensive reporting for magazines such as Discover, Wired and Seed, these tales are bundled together for the very first time. This collection includes two bonus stories on green energy and two never-before-seen stories.

Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your collection of free ebooks, go here. Thanks!