Tuesday, December 11, 2007

attention elsewhere

As anyone who has stopped by here recently (has anyone? no idea...) knows, this blog is in suspended animation. I'd love to keep it up - the books still engage me. But for me a blog has to relate to a current project to get a piece of my time. And until I get that commission for the complete treatment of popular science, 
and the research chair to go with it, my attention is elsewhere. For now, 
I recommend Elizabeth Leane's Reading Popular Physics
which I just reviewed for THES but can't link because they aren't geared up for that.

So I hope you might visit a new blog, for a new project - the Rough Guide to the Future. On advice from the net savvy folk on the UK science writers' e-list, it is on a platform I probably shouldn't name here - don't really know if it's better but it's certainly easy. Find it at unreliable futures

All comments welcome - this project, even more than most, needs distributed intelligence to overcome the limits of the author's education and imagination - which I guess is one thing which will feature in all our futures if they are going to be viable at all...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Rough Guide to Genes and Cloning

2 posts in a day? Well, while I'm at it let me advertise publication of The Rough Guide to Genes and Cloning, out a couple of weeks ago - because if I don't, who else will?

The co-author of this fine work is Dr Jess Buxton, who actually knows all about contemporary genetics so it is up to date and (we think) reasonably accurate. And there are some cultural and historical bits which suit the Rough Guides format.

And all for only £9.99, or even less on Amazon of course.

do you remember your first time?

In mid email interview for an Italian paper, prior to a visit to the science fair in Trieste next week, they asked "what was the first science book you read?". My first thought was, damned if I remember. There was a thing called the "Pye Book of Science" my dad procured, full of Tomorrow's World stuff (they were a modern electronics company at the time). Very futuristic.

But then it came back to me. I remember being given a copy of an old book called, I thought, Rockets and Space Travel by the astronomer Willy Ley, though searching now makes it seem more likely it was The Conquest of Space, first published in 1949. I do know it was adorned with full page colour plates of Chesley Bonestell's wonderful paintings of what he thought the moon and planets would look like – this would be around 1960, or a little later, when every kid wanted to be an astronaut. I know I did. The text was a bit old for me, but I was captivated by the pictures. I no longer have the book, but I have found others with some of Bonestell's images in, and they are still very striking. Nowadays, of course, you can find them on the web.
try here.

I'm especially fond of this one - the outer reaches of the Solar System as a sublime landscape. Aren't those tiny figures intrepid?

It all goes against my adult prejudice that words matter more than images, which I admit is based largely on the fact that I figured out how to get paid for producing them, at least some of the time. But Bonestell's pictures certainly feel like the future I grew up with.

Any other books make an impression as strong as this? (hint, it helps if you were eight or so at the time).

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Would you take Michael Crichton's word for anything?

Got involved in an extended discussion of Michael Crichton this week, courtesy of Jon Adams of the “How do facts travel?” project at LSE.

Not a popular science author (though I dare say he could have been) but lots of people uneasy about his use of fiction to support arguments about science issues. The most troubling example seems to be State of Fear, which I don’t know. But his latest, Next, comes across as less objectionable in some ways. I think it feels that way to me because it just seems part of a tradition of mixing fact and fiction in discussing biotech. OK, it is an uncomfortable genre violation to have a novel which has an addendum in which the author suddenly appears to tell you his “conclusions” from his “research”. But one’s unease is somehow quieted by the fact that it is a hilariously bad novel – clunky, unoriginal, badly written: an unthrilling techno-thriller. F. Paul Wilson’s Sims, from 2003, has many of the same ingredients and does a far better job with them. Also, Crichton’s “conclusions” this time are commonplace. Lets not patent DNA. You can’t stop biotechnology but we really ought to think about it.

Crichton’s procedure isn’t new, either, of course. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake makes much of contemporary biotech news, and you can still look up the headlines which she wove into her story on the book’s website – though there wasn’t actually one about a scientist who decides to destroy humanity using a genetically engineered virus because, well, he can, as featured in the book. Further back, the great British SF writer John Brunner showed Atwood how it could be done more than 30 years earlier in Stand on Zanzibar. His arresting picture of a possible future, inspired in part by the John Dos Passos’ 1930s vision of the USA, mixes real and made-up news reports, letters, diaries, and conventional narrative.

On the other (that is, "non-fiction"!)side, there was David Rorvik’s largely forgotten book In His Image, a novel presented and published as non-fiction in the late ‘70s, in which science reporter Rorvik portrayed the first human clone. And Lee Silver used fictional vignettes of people grappling with future genetic technologies all through Remaking Eden in 1998. Like Rorvik, Silver is a poor fiction writer (though an interesting writer), so his little fictions, though clearly framed as stories to think with, fell a bit flat.

Conclusion? Mixed. You need to be a really good novelist to bring off this kind of thing. Atwood is one, but Oryx and Crake isn’t her best work, as seems to happen when literary novelists wander into SF territory. (Everyone seems to think more highly of The Handmaid's Tale than I do, too.) Crichton’s current fiction is hobbled, even by his techno-thriller standards, by his new-found addiction to preaching. Biotech is everywhere – and tends to be more interesting when it is just, as is increasingly often the case, a taken for granted feature of the landscape (White Teeth, Cloud Atlas) rather than the main thing driving the narrative.

And mixing up fact and fiction, without making it clear which is which? I’m not in favour. But it is, at least, a reminder that when it comes to writing about the future everyone, scientists included, is making up stories.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

prize books?

The Royal Society's judges (no longer Aventis sponsored) are casting their net pretty wide for the adult prize this year. The longlist of 12 ranges from old hands like Paul Davies and the thrice shortlisted Matt Ridley to first-time author Henry Nicholls - whose Lonesome George has been talked about here already. There's a Rough Guide in there too, which I like as I'm about to publish one myself. And, ahem, The Science of Doctor Who. How do they compare them, I wonder?

Full list here.

There's also a link there to various science and literary celebs' nominations for favourite reading, which throw up some good old titles - Hardy's Mathematician's Apology, Freeman Dyson, Sagan, Bronowski and J. B. S Haldane, as well as a few contemporaries. OUP are getting ready to publish a new (i.e. old!) collection of Haldane's classic essays, incidentally.

Off to a workshop at LSE on "how facts travel" next week, so may actually have some new things to say then

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Appleyard on science and certainty

was going to put together a post about writing about scientific process, but not got round to it...

meanwhile, as we like to be up to date round here, just caught up with Brian Appleyard's commentary on the meaning of popular science books in November - but still readable here.

It's an entertainingly argumentative piece, which is what they pay him for, though full of fairly gaping holes (as Appleyard's essays tend to be). f'rinstance, as the man fancies himself as not without philosophical acumen - he tells us how he chided Stephen Hawking for oversimplifying Witttgenstein, as you do - it is pretty daft to build his case by assuming there is some abstraction "science", which he identifies with popular science books by just three authors. He concludes on the basis of their books that science was "certain". Just because the Reverend Dawkins is sure of himself does not mean that "science" is, or was, I reckon. But then spotting spurious trends by being ridiculously selective from a complex universe of cases is what cultural commentary in what passes for the quality press is all about these days, I fear. The upside is that means it's a game everyone can play.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

icons of conservation

er, end of hibernation. Been talking about science books with students again, and especially Henry Nicholls' Lonesome George - out last year from Macmillan.

It's been fairly widely and well reviewed and is a perfectly respectable first book, but not as arresting as the title - partly because nothing much happens or ever is going to happpen to the creature, a Galapagos giant tortoise who is the last male of his sub-species surviving. He's a leading exhibit at the Charles Darwin Research Station, and likely to remain so for a long time (tortoises do that).

Nicholls wants his hefty shell to carry a lot of weight, as a way into lots of other stories about conservation in general, ecology, reproductive biology, politics of protecting/exploiting the Galapagos, and so on. Maybe it is too much for poor George to bear.

There's also one thoughtful academic review, by historian Joe Cain in the last but one issue of Public Understanding of Science, which rather lays into the author for inviting us to feel good about scientists looking after one creature/species while the rest of us get on with destroying the planet.

He has a point, though it's also true that the books which don't do that already exist - notably Jonathan Weiner's wonderful The Beak of the Finch, (already mentioned here) about Malcolm and Linda Grant's work on the Galapagos' bird life and Edward Larson's Evolution’s Workshop, a fine history of discovery on the Galapagos, which also covers the Grants and Lonesome George (in a few pages…)

I also wonder what a book could do which would really get people's attention about the loss of biodiversity, especially now climate change is so firmly lodged on the public agenda. Sure, the two are related, but I'm thinking of E. O. Wilson's efforts in this direction, which seem now to involve writing the same book repeatedly. His plea is invariably urgent and eloquent, but who is listening?

Anyhow, it looks like there's a neat PhD for someone who'd like to review the construction of the Galapagos as a cockpit for discovery/conservation/struggle over resources. It would have to take in film and DVD treatments, too, as well as The Voyage of the Beagle, and maybe even Kurt Vonnegut's Galapagos...

I'm going to try to post more regularly here, so if anyone happens to read, do post a comment so I know I'm not (just) talking to myself.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Nature essay and other printed things

Been distracted from blogging lately, but there's a brief essay of mine on the topic of these online ramblings in this week's Nature. You'll need a sub, but if you or your institutions have one, you can see it here.

And while I'm drawing attention to myself, you can also check the Xmas science books roundup in the Independent, and the review of Janna Levin's book about Godel and Turing in Physics World. Again, you can't get at the review without a sub, but you can read their books editor Martin Griffiths' nice feature on the Best Science Books event back in October