My Daily Read: Chris Impey

Chris Impey is a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona.

Q: What’s the first thing you read in the morning?

A. I read The New York Times and NPR online every morning, either getting up to peruse them over breakfast, or lounging in bed and using my iPhone. Resisting the urge to open the Pandora’s Box of email first thing is very important, although some days, I’ll admit, I fail. More occasionally, I’ll go to the BBC online for a more global perspective.

Q: What newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to or read regularly? What do you read in print vs. online vs. mobile?

A. I subscribe to The Economist, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone. I’m always two months behind the time with The Chronicle of Higher Education because I get it passed on from the library at my work. The Economist has a bracing, and always anonymous, editorial perspective, and I enjoy the sheer amount of information conveyed, although it can be too undiscriminating a booster of market forces. Paying the new online subscription for The New York Times was the easiest decision I’ve made in ages; it’s a quality paper with excellent coverage of the arts, science, and technology. Online, I also read The Atlantic and Wired more occasionally. On the road, I rely heavily on the online versions of The Economist and The New York Times to stay current.

Q: What books have you recently read? Do they stand out?

I just read Diane Ackerman’s One Hundred Names for Love. She is a magnificent writer, able to convey science with a poetic grace. Also, The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis, which is a bit unwieldy and not up with his best work. I particularly enjoyed The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. It’s a sequel to her earlier post-apocalypse novel Oryx and Crake. Having read plenty of science fiction over the years, I relish the imagination and light touch she brings to a familiar idea. As with movies, I always find myself a few years behind the curve on the best books. There is a pile in my living room that stares balefully at me when I walk by. In addition to Amis and Atwood, I’ll read anything by Iain Banks, Ian McEwan, Haruki Murakami, and Jane Smiley. Since I write popular science books, I try to keep up with the most prominent ones to keep my finger on the pulse of that writing. Hawking’s latest, The Grand Design, didn’t cover much new ground for him, but I enjoy his impish style and turns of phrase.

Q: Has your reading of professional journals changed in the past 10 years? How so?

A. This is a vexing issue for any scientist, given the explosive growth of the scientific literature. As I point out to students when I teach a large class for non-science majors, the amount of scientific information in the time of Leonardo would have fit in a large Sunday paper (with no ads). Now, the new papers in any year would fill the volume of the lecture hall. When I was a graduate student in the early 80’s I could read the dozen or so new papers in my field each month quite comfortably, and in flipping through the printed journals, there was the serendipity of finding something interesting outside my field. Twenty years ago, astronomers were in the vanguard of a new electronic preprint server called arXiv (with the X intended to be the Greek chi, so pronounced “archive”). This was the birth of open access scientific publishing, and now most astronomers go online every day to check the preprints, which are posted as soon as they’re accepted by the journal so it’s the quickest route to the information. But I’m totally swamped. The number of astronomy and astrophysics papers on the server has doubled from 6,000 to 12,000 in the past ten years. That means 8-10 papers in my field every day as opposed to that number every month when I started. The inundation overwhelms the time I have available for technical reading. I do get Science and that’s my attempt to stay broad as a scientist.

Q: Do you read blogs? If so, what blogs do you like best?

A. I read blogs sparingly. They need to be authoritative or provocative or creative to keep my attention, and that’s hard to sustain regularly. I check in on Cosmic Variance and Bad Astronomy, both hosted now by Discover. The first is excellent on the cosmology and physics interface and the second is great at debunking pseudoscience lunacy de jour. On the life science side, I enjoy and learn a lot from Pharyngula.

Q: Do you use Twitter? If so, whom do you follow?

Like the comedian who drinks from a glass and as it pours down his shirt, says “I must be full,” I felt sated with information when Twitter came along, so there’s only room at the Inn if someone else checks out. I’ve played with Twitter, but not found it compelling enough to spend time with. Facebook is in a similar category for me; I check it quite sparingly. In considering information technology, I prefer the kind that gives me high quality information anytime and anywhere rather than the kind that fractionates my time with morsels of information with mostly dubious nutritional value.

Q: What are the guilty pleasures in your media diet?

I have no TV, so go to Comedy Central to check our clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Actually, that’s pure pleasure; there’s no guilt attached. Reading Rolling Stone is a guilty pleasure since it’s stuffed with over-the-top popular culture icons and their misbehaviors. I enjoy Jennifer Ouellette’s edgy blog Cocktail Party Physics. There’s some great standup comedy on YouTube that I sample from time to time. I don’t think I’ve ever felt guilt reading a book; these days I feel guilty not reading one.

Sketch by Ted Benson

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