May 19, 2022

John Colapinto

Harvard Book Store, the Harvard University Division of Science, and the Harvard Library welcome award-winning journalist and longtime staff writer for The New Yorker JOHN COLAPINTO for a discussion of his new book This Is the Voice. He will be joined in conversation by GREG KESTIN, Associate Director of Science Education at Harvard University.


There’s no shortage of books about public speaking or language or song. But until now, there has been no book about the miracle that underlies them all—the human voice itself. And there are few writers who could take on this surprisingly vast topic with more artistry and expertise than John Colapinto. Beginning with the novel—and compelling—argument that our ability to speak is what made us the planet’s dominant species, he guides us from the voice’s beginnings in lungfish millions of years ago to its culmination in the talent of Pavoratti, Martin Luther King Jr., and Beyoncé—and each of us, every day.

Along the way, he shows us why the voice is the most efficient, effective means of communication ever devised: it works in all directions, in all weathers, even in the dark, and it can be calibrated to reach one other person or thousands. He reveals why speech is the single most complex and intricate activity humans can perform. He travels up the Amazon to meet the Piraha, a reclusive tribe whose singular language, more musical than any other, can help us hear how melodic principles underpin every word we utter. He heads up to Harvard to see how professional voices are helped and healed, and he ventures out on the campaign trail to see how demagogues wield their voices as weapons.

As far-reaching as this book is, much of the delight of reading it lies in how intimate it feels. Everything Colapinto tells us can be tested by our own lungs and mouths and ears and brains. He shows us that, for those who pay attention, the voice is an eloquent means of communicating not only what the speaker means, but also their mood, sexual preference, age, income, even psychological and physical illness.

It overstates the case only slightly to say that anyone who talks, or sings, or listens will find a rich trove of thrills in This Is the Voice.

About Author(s)

John Colapinto is an award-winning journalist and long time staff writer for The New Yorker and Rolling Stone. His nonfiction book As Nature Made Him (2000) was a New York Times bestseller and his first novel, About the Author (2001), was recently named by the Times of London as one of the 100 best thrillers published since 1945. He is also the author of the novel Undone and the nonfiction book Becoming a Neurosurgeon.

Greg Kestin earned his physics Ph.D. from Harvard, as a member of The Center for the Fundamental Laws of Nature, focusing on theoretical particle physics and quantum field theory. He then joined the faculty of Harvard’s Physics Department as a College Fellow and Preceptor and is currently the Associate Director of Science Education and a Lecturer on Physics. Over his career, he has conducted research in nuclear physics, particle physics, fusion energy, gravitational wave physics, and science education. For nearly two decades he has been involved with innovative educational outreach endeavors, bringing science to both students and members of the public through writing, video, animation, multimedia, and public lectures. As a Digital Producer at NOVA | PBS he created award-winning media, from documentaries to educational interactives to his original video series, “What the Physics?!”