Skip to main content

Sex, Drugs & DNA – Michael Stebbins ****

“Science’s taboos confronted,” shouts the subtitle, and that’s a fair summary of Michael Stebbins’ thought-provoking and readable book, though perhaps it should be “biological and medical science’s taboos”, because the hard sciences don’t get much coverage, not entirely surprising as Stebbins is a geneticist.
The first section of the book is a fascinating look at the reality of working in science, taking a fictional character through a typical career, and emphasizing how difficult it is to be a working scientist – a useful background to the rest of the book, which is largely about the inability of politicians (and to some extent the general public) to deal with science. Stebbins largely puts this down to ignorance, in part the fault of science education, which we’ll come back to in a moment.
His book is a real indictment of US policy. It reads like a rather more moderate, but still very passionate scientific equivalent of a Michael Moore book. Chances are, if you enjoy reading Moore (whether or not you agree with his manipulative methods), you will want to read this book too. If Moore irritates you intensely, so will Stebbins, though with less reason, because he is less sweeping in his claims.
You will see how badly the US government has handled everything from its approach to GM to global warming, from medical care to science education. For a European reader, the description of the US primary medical service is terrifying, while Stebbins rightly lays into the sort of witless testing that can result in increasingly good test results while at the same time a nation’s children become less and less capable in the sciences.
There are a couple of problems with this book, which is why it got four stars rather than five. I don’t mind the fact that it’s something of a polemic – what’s said needs saying – but I do think in the list of a science publisher that aims to be global in reach, Stebbins should have put some effort into taking a more global view. This is a totally parochial US view, and after a while, for the rest of us, “Senator this said that” becomes a little tedious. The non-global view at its worst when he’s talking about science education. “Next time you crack a joke about the Brits or French, remember: their children are smarter than yours,” he says. The only Brits I crack jokes about are the Brit Awards (the UK’s pop awards, sometimes dire events), and “their” children aren’t smarter than mine, because my children are Brits.
I also found his tendency to throw in excreta related swearing every couple of pages just to show how trendy he is, a little wearing after a while. Generally the book’s style is admirably light and well phrased, and it’s not an objection to the swearing per se, but he could have used more than about two words for a bit of variety. (Having said that, as my mother would have said, it really isn’t clever, Michael. You don’t have to show off this way.)
Don’t be put off by the US content if you aren’t American, though. The US has a huge influence on the rest of the world, and it is vital we all know, US citizens or not, what’s going on there. And Stebbins rightly points out the bizarre inconsistencies and idiocies that science policy throws up. This is, without doubt, a book that anyone who really wants science to succeed should read.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…