Sabbagh, Karl

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Sabbagh, Karl


Education: Attended King's College, Cambridge.


Office—Skyscraper Productions, P.O. Box 216, Boston, MA 02117.


Television producer and writer. Began his career at BBC-Television as a graduate trainee and worked on a variety of scientific and technical documentaries; executive producer, The Body in Question; former host of BBC-Radio series Science Now; currently runs Skyscraper Productions, Boston, MA.


Engineering Journalism award, 1996, for PBS Television series, 21st Century Jet.


(With Christian Barnard) The Living Body, Macdonald (London, England), 1984.

Skyscraper: The Making of a Building, Viking (New York, NY), 1990.

(With Robert Buckman) Magic or Medicine? An Investigation of Healing and Healers, Key Porter Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1993.

21st Century Jet: The Making and Marketing of the 777, Scribner (New York, NY), 1996.

A Rum Affair: A True Story of Botanical Fraud, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.

Power into Art: Creating Tate Modern, Bankside, A. Lane (London, England), 2000.

Dr. Riemann's Zeroes: The Search for the $1 Million Solution to the Greatest Problem in Mathematics, Atlantic Books (London, England), 2002, revised and corrected edition, Atlantic Books (London, England), 2003.

The Riemann Hypothesis: The Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics, Farrar (New York, NY), 2002.

Palestine: A Personal History, Atlantic (London, England), 2006, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to periodicals, including Sunday Times, New Scientist, Listener, and Punch.


Karl Sabbagh is a television producer and writer. He began his career with BBC-Television as a graduate trainee and worked on a variety of series, including Horizon, Inside Medicine, Controversy, and other scientific and technical documentaries. He was executive producer of the series The Body in Question, a thirteen-part series written and presented by Dr. Jonathan Miller and co-produced by the BBC and PBS. He now runs Skyscraper Productions, which produces documentary, music, and drama programs for broadcasters in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Sabbagh is also the author of several books on scientific, technical, and historical topics, many of which are companion volumes to his television programs. In Skyscraper: The Making of a Building, Sabbagh explores the complex process of building Worldwide Plaza, a new skyscraper in Manhattan. Sabbagh takes readers from the creation of blueprints through the preparation of the site, the selection and manufacture of building materials, and the actual construction process. He also describes events behind the scenes, including the repercussions of the demand by one tenant for a private lobby; the architects' response to the pink color of the building's face, and the complicated negotiations between the developer and a law firm that argued they would only become a tenant in the building if the developer got rid of a pornographic theater located a block away. In the Washington Post Book World, Jonathan Yardley wrote that the volume is "nothing less than a sidewalk superintendent's dream: a beginning-toend, nuts-and-bolts account…. If ever you've walked by an urban construction site and stopped to stare, fascinated and mystified, at the intricate process unfolding thereon, Skyscraper is the book for you." Yardley praised Sabbagh for keeping the "building itself at center stage," while giving full credit to the people who designed, financed, and built it. A Library Journal reviewer remarked that the book is "both entertaining and informative," and in the Chicago Tribune, Clarence Peterson noted: "There is much more, as this book makes clear, … that goes into building a skyscraper than meets the untutored eye."

In 21st Century Jet: The Making and Marketing of the 777, Sabbagh explains how the Boeing 777 jumbo jet was developed and designed. This jet was the first to be designed entirely by computer, with no paper blueprints; computers were finally powerful enough to examine all the millions of parts in the plane in three dimensions and to calculate whether the fits between the pieces were accurate, even before the parts were physically fitted together. In the past, when paper plans were used, planes had to go through an expensive "mock-up" stage, in which a full-scale model was built; during this phase, engineers would search for the "misfits" among the many plans of the more than five thousand engineers who had taken part in the design phase. For the Boeing 777, however, the computerized method eliminated this costly and frustrating stage in design.

In writing the book, Sabbagh was given wide access to the Boeing Corporation, and according to Tom Ferrell in the New York Times Book Review, the author "has used the opportunity to report intelligibly at length on what actually goes into the creation of an up-to-date half-million-pound flying object." In Business Week, Michael J. Parks noted: "It's an extraordinary tale, and Sabbagh … tells it well."

A Rum Affair: A True Story of Botanical Fraud tells the story of a botanical fraud that was perpetrated in the middle of the twentieth century. John Raven, a classics fellow at King's College, Cambridge, and an amateur botanist, set off for the Scottish island of Rhum. He intended to prove that the famed naturalist J.W. Heslop-Harrison had fraudulently claimed to have discovered rare and previously unknown plants there, and he did provide evidence that Heslop-Harrison had lied and fabricated evidence. However, his report was disregarded and then forgotten—until Sabbagh's resurrection of the data. In Nature, Christopher M. Berry remarked: "Sabbagh does well to construct portraits of the private and scientific personae of his two (deceased) leading men, perhaps telling us more than what is strictly on the page," and he noted that the book is "very entertaining." In the Times Literary Supplement, Alexander Masters wrote that one of the book's strong points is "Sabbagh's gradual unraveling of Heslop-Harrison as a corrupted soul rather than a scientific freak; a man pushed by desperation and arrogance to destroy the very prize for which he wants to be remembered: scientific discovery." A Library Journal reviewer commented that Sabbagh presents the story as "a thrilling mystery."

The Riemann Hypothesis: The Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics refers to a seemingly simple assertion regarding numbers, specifically prime numbers, which are whole numbers that can only be divided by the number itself and one. There are various ideas and formulas that enable mathematicians to examine prime numbers and to determine whether or not a number is prime, but the Riemann Hypothesis is designed to determine whether there is a pattern to the existence of prime numbers, a question to which the answer is still yet to be determined, but which would enable mathematicians to determine the next prime number in any sequence of whole numbers. Sabbagh brings his perspective as a producer to his book, looking at the mathematical question from both a mathematician's and a layman's viewpoint. Much of the book offers readers the perspective of various experts as they discuss and attempt to untangle the theory behind the Riemann Hypothesis. James Alexander, in a contribution for the New York Times Book Review online, noted of Sabbagh: "His book could easily have been a TV documentary." Jack W. Weigel, in a review for Library Journal, suggested that "in his quest for human-interest material, he seems to lose sight of serious mathematical issues." Overall, pure mathematics is not Sabbagh's focus. Gilbert Taylor observed in a review for Booklist: "The drive and competitiveness of mathematicians clearly emerge from Sabbagh's narrative." A reviewer for Science News called the book "an engaging look at the human side of mathematics."

Palestine: A Personal History is a very different book, instilling a more intimate note into Sabbagh's work. He offers his take on the history of Palestine, with an emphasis on the commonly held beliefs regarding the removal of more than seven hundred thousand Arabs from the region as a result of the Zionist movement—beliefs he asserts are incorrect. He is careful to discuss both the strife in the region and the less-discussed peaceful times, and the ways in which the disparate religions and cultures manage to coexist. Interspersed with general history is Sabbagh's own family's history, including such interesting characters as Isa Sabbagh, his father, who worked on the BBC's Arab service during the period, and other illustrious ancestors. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly found the book to be "carefully researched and engaging," as well as "a vital yet unfamiliar perspective on the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict." Adam LeBor, writing for the London Guardian online, called Sabbagh's book "a welcome addition to a new mini-genre of works on Israel and Palestine that focus on people rather than politicians," and a "poignant, often moving work." In a review for Booklist, contributor Brendan Driscoll labeled the work "as politically assertive as it is personal," while a contributor for Kirkus Reviews remarked that Sabbagh's effort is "a powerful and often graceful polemic that leaves some questions unanswered."



Booklist, June 1, 2000, Gilbert Taylor, review of A Rum Affair: A True Story of Botanical Fraud, p. 1823; April 15, 2003, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Riemann Hypothesis: The Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics, p. 1436; January 1, 2007, Brendan Driscoll, review of Palestine: A Personal History, p. 46.

Business Week, January 22, 1996, Michael J. Parks, "How Boeing Hatched Its Highest-Tech Bird," p. 18.

Chicago Tribune Books, July 14, 1991, Clarence Petersen, review of Skyscraper: The Making of a Building, p. 8.

Fortune, February 19, 1996, Kenneth Labich, review of 21st Century Jet: The Making and Marketing of the Boeing 777, p. 104.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1990, review of A Rum Affair, p. 167; November 1, 2006, review of Palestine, p. 1118.

Library Journal, March 15, 1990, H. Ward Jandl, review of Skyscraper, p. 90; July, 2000, Marianne Stowell Bracke, review of A Rum Affair, p. 132; April 15, 2003, Jack W. Weigel, review of The Riemann Hypothesis, p. 118.

Nature, October 21, 1999, Christopher M. Berry, "Planting the Evidence," p. 742.

New Scientist, December 2, 1989, review of Skyscraper p. 83.

New York Times Book Review, January 14, 1996, Tom Ferrell, "Reinventing Wings," p. 17.

Publishers Weekly, October 23, 2006, review of Palestine, p. 39.

Science News, May 17, 2003, review of The Riemann Hypothesis, p. 319.

Times Literary Supplement, October 22, 1999, Alexander Masters, "The Sedge Is Withered," p. 23.

Wall Street Journal, January 23, 1996, Stanley W. Angrist, "Turbulence Ahead?," p. A12.

Washington Post Book World, April 29, 1990, Jonathan Yardley, "One Building's Many Stories," p. 3.

ONLINE, (October 11, 2001), "A Chat with Karl Sabbagh."

Guardian (London, England), (June 3, 2006), Adam LeBor, "Land of My Father," review of Palestine.

New York Times Book Review Online, (July 6, 2003), James Alexander, "Prime Suspects," review of The Riemann Hypothesis.