Skip to main content

Ken Thompson – Four Way Interview

Dr Ken Thompson was for many years a lecturer in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield. He now writes and lectures on gardening and ecology. His latest book, Where Do Camels Belong? looks at the puzzling realities of ‘alien’ and ‘natural’ species.
Why science?
I’ve always loved discovering how the world works. There’s no thrill like finding out something new – and thinking that, just for a short while, no-one knows what you know. And without getting too philosophical about it, doing science gives life a purpose, and guarantees your own tiny bit of immortality.
Why this book?
For a long time, I was signed up to the orthodox view of alien species, i.e. ‘the only good alien is a dead alien’, so it’s probably best to ‘shoot first and ask questions later’. But then I found that the more I read, the less convincing the basic science seemed. In short, much of it read like post-hoc justification by people who had already decided what they thought, and just wanted the evidence to back them up. The book is my attempt to persuade you that you should ask the questions before you shoot.
What’s next?
I started out writing gardening books; trying to give people the actual evidence on everything from wildlife gardening to making compost. Recently, I’ve written a couple of popular science books, but maybe I’m due for another gardening book. One day I’d like to combine the two by persuading people that plants are not just vital, but also interesting, and – who knows – maybe even cool.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
I’m excited by the Conservation Evidence Project, which tries to collect together the scientific evidence that conservationists need. Whatever you’re trying to conserve, from bees to frogs, the Project will tell you what works, what doesn’t, and what hasn’t even been tried. I’m also excited – but not in a good way – by the way science is misused, or simply ignored. Politicians think they can cherry-pick the science that supports their prejudices, or worse still, ignore it altogether if it interferes with more important things, like getting re-elected. For a textbook example of how not to run an evidence-based policy, look no further than the recent badger cull. We have an Office for Budget Responsibility to stop the government telling too many lies about the economy; maybe we need an Office for Scientific Responsibility too?

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …