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I grew up in a small town outside Boston, called Marblehead, and spent a not-so-productive childhood dreaming, in more or less equal proportions, about a career as a professional basketball player and as a sailor on a whaling ship.

Alas, it was not to be. I ended up a journalist and eventually became the chief science writer at the Boston Globe. From newspapers it was on to magazines and eventually to books. The magazines ranged from journals that died before they ever saw a news-stand to such perennials as The Atlantic and The New York Times Magazine. The stories ranged just as broadly. I wrote a cover story for The Atlantic on the science of dreams and how Freud had it all wrong, and I wrote the first story on "the French paradox," about how it is that the French gulp down croissants and paté but manage somehow to have only half the rate of heart disease that Americans do.

For about a decade now, I've concentrated almost exclusively on books. The first was on psychology—Madness on the Couch, it was called, and it looked (critically) at Freud's legacy. Next came Down the Great Unknown, the true story of one of the epic adventures in American history. A one-armed ex-soldier named John Wesley Powell led a band of nine novices down the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon, in rowboats. None of the men had ever seen a rapid.

Then came a four year stint in the art underworld. The Rescue Artist is a cops and robbers story—focused on a team of bumblers who stole The Scream—about the thieves who snatch masterpieces and the cops who chase them. The Forger's Spell is a stranger-than-fiction story, set in occupied Holland during World War II, of a Dutch forger who made millions from his fake Vermeers.

After art came The Clockwork Universe, a return to my roots. (I have a master's degree in math, from MIT.) It's about Isaac Newton and Leibniz and the Royal Society—the story of a quarrelsome band of geniuses in powdered wigs and knee-length breeches who helped create the world we know today. The backdrop is Europe during the black plague, and the Great Fire of London, and Louis XIV in high heels and gold-embroidered waistcoat at Versailles.

The newest book is The Rush, a close-up look at the California gold rush. In 1849 the world went mad For the first time ever, an ordinary person could transform his life. The Declaration of Independence had given every American the right to pursue happiness. The gold rush promised the chance to catch it.

When I'm not writing, I spend considerable time trying to civilize a houseful of dogs. The leader of the pack, at present, is a 140-pound Great Pyrenees with a pathological fear of loud noises. Blue combines the noble appearance of a carved lion with the temperament of a hummingbird on speed.