Skip to main content

Hugh Aldersey-Williams – Four Way Interview

Hugh Aldersey-Williams studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge. He is the author of several books exploring science, design and architecture, and has curated exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Wellcome Collection. His latest book is Periodic Tales.
Why Science?
Science is ultimately the only way of knowing our world. It is also a major part of culture – not something on one side from it or opposed to it as some scientists seem to think. Anything I write about science will always be guided by that.
Why this book?
I feel we have lost touch – often literally – with the elements. I wanted to give readers a real sense of look and feel of the elements, their colours, their weight, their smells, their sounds. It is through these qualities that most of us come to know the elements far better than we think – not by crossing the threshold of a chemistry lab. In other words, we know the elements culturally, through the way they’ve been wrested from the ground, worked and traded.
I think chemistry as it is taught can sometimes be its own worst enemy, and since giving readings of Periodic Tales I’ve found people coming up to me complaining that their son or daughter is having ‘to do the periodic table’ at school. Teaching this artificial construct by rote, as if to equip a child for some trivia quiz, is a disaster.
To use some horrible marketing-speak, I think chemistry’s brand needs refreshing. It seems that chemistry is losing popularity, but in fact what is happening is that its thunder is being stolen by ‘sexier’ fields – environmental sciences, nanotechnology, forensics, molecular biology etc. It doesn’t really matter though. The elements will always be there and we will always depend on them.
What’s next?
Too soon to tell. Probably something that gives me an excuse to learn more about some area of science I know even less about than chemistry.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
My eleven-year-old son’s piano-playing. Where has it comes from?


Popular posts from this blog

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…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…