Skip to main content

Paul Parsons – Four Way Interview

Paul Parsons is a contributor to Nature, New Scientist and the Daily Telegraph. He has appeared on radio and TV and was formerly editor of the award-winning BBC science magazine Focus. His books include the Royal Society Prize nominated The Science of Doctor Who and his most recent title, covering all science: Science 1001.
Why science?
Well, what’s not to like? I’m often baffled when people say science is boring. Obviously I’m biased, as it’s my favourite subject, but science is the way to understand so much of how the world works. From the origin of the Universe to how life itself actually operates – science is our best tool for answering the fundamental questions about nature. And it’s increasingly becoming a part of everyday life. Not only are your TV, car, iPad, and all the other stuff, all ultimately products of scientific research, but medicine, dietary advice, managing your money, and lots of other workaday things, are all kinds of science as well, that ordinary people – that is people who aren’t necessarily professional scientists – can benefit from having an understanding of.
Why this book?
As I said, science affects all of us. So even if you’re not an enthusiast who enjoys reading about scientific discoveries for the sake of it – although there is plenty of that in here – a broad knowledge of what science is about, and what certain scientific words and discoveries all mean is becoming increasingly helpful in life – and, I dare say, in the not-too-distant future may even become essential. And that’s what I’ve tried to furnish people with in Science 1001 – a single reference volume to modern science that’s comprehensive yet concise, and written at a level that pretty much anyone can understand.
What’s next?
There are several other books in the pipeline, one at the editing stage and a couple that I’m close to signing contracts on. Not sure how much I’m allowed to say about those just yet but I can promise you they’re going to be good!
What’s exciting you at the moment?
In terms of science, there’s so much going on I’m not sure where to start. The Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border is soon to get into its stride and promises some incredible insights into subatomic particle physics, which will tell us how matter behaves on the tiniest scales and will play a major part in unpicking the story of the universe during the first moments after the Big Bang. Physicists are hoping the LHC will also finally show up the elusive Higgs boson – a particle of matter that’s thought to have given everything else in the cosmos its mass – and which is the only missing piece of the current ‘standard model’ of particle physics. Then there’s Craig Venter’s research on creating ‘synthetic life’ – lifeforms created in the lab from the ground up, completely new forms of life built from scratch. Which is just incredible. And there’s also a new wave of computing technology just bubbling up – quantum computers, machines that carry out computations in parallel universes and are many, many times faster than any kind of computer we can conceive of today – which could be replacing our desktop PCs in the decades to come. So, plenty to get excited about.
For me personally, the most exciting thing is fatherhood. My first child child was born just over 9 months ago. It’s an amazing and life-changing experience, and of course has got to be the ultimate experiment in applied genetics!

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…