Cairns-Smith's main obsession has been in simple non-nucleic acid genetic systems which might have been important in the earliest stages of the evolution of life, or which might form the basis of artificial systems able to evolve (e.g. Genetic Takeover (C.U.P., 1982); Internat. Revs. Phys. Chem. 1988 7, 209). An interest in systems based on crystal growth processes has led him to inorganic chemistry. Recent work on barium ferrites carried out in collaboration with Drs Graham Turner, Robert Peacock, Tom Baird at Glasgow, and Brian Stewart of Paisley University, has suggested a new mechanism to explain the amazingly long range c-axis repeats found in these and possibly other mixed layer or polytypic materials (J. Crystal growth, 1996, 158, 276).
Dr Cairns-Smith is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the Chemistry Department and is concentrating on writing books on what he describes as 'serious popular science'. His best known book in the genre is Seven Clues to the Origin of Life (C.U.P., 1985). This has been translated into nine languages and sold over 40,000 copies so far. His most recent book is Evolving the Mind, (C.U.P., 1996). The main subject here is the other great problem of evolution and chemistry: the origin of consciousness.
Review comments on Evolving the Mind:
"A. G. Cairns-Smith is a brilliant explainer of difficult ideas, bringing to the task an imagination that is magnificently disciplined by detailed scientific understanding."
- Daniel Dennett: Nature
"Cairns-Smith has a story to tell and he does so eloquently and well."
- Susan Greenfield : The Times Higher Educational Supplement
"...throw out a couple of thrillers and take it on holiday." - New Scientist