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

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong).Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them.The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclear …

Meteorite - Tim Gregory ****

There have been many books on astronomy, ranging from exploring individual aspects of the solar system, such as the Sun or Mars, through to studies of the most distant depths of the universe, but there has been relatively little on the only astronomical objects that we're able to touch (other than the Earth itself) - meteorites.

In Meteorite, Tim Gregory fills in many details of the nature of these rocks from outer space, from how they formed in the first place to the range of types and origins that are possible. Most come from the debris of the forming solar system left in the asteroid belt, but some were smashed off the Moon or Mars by an incoming impactor.

Although the main focus is the meteorites themselves (if there's any doubt, we are talking about the solid remains that fall to Earth when a meteor - a shooting star - in part survives the journey through the atmosphere), Gregory also fills us in on the contribution that meteorites have made to the Earth, whether it be brin…

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande ****

I heard recently that the local geriatric ward puts a photograph of the patient in his or her prime by each bed. The aim is to help staff to treat their patients as individuals, but it makes me uneasy. Do these people only matter because of what they were, not what they are? Because once they stood proud and handsome in their uniform, or looked lovely on their wedding day?

Professor Atul Gawande has the problem surgically excised and laid out for inspection in one of his unflinching but compassionate case studies:

‘What bothered Shelley was how little curiosity the staff members seemed to have about what Lou cared about in his life and what he had been forced to forfeit... They might have called the service they provided assisted living, but no-one seemed to think it was their job to actually assist him with living – to figure out how to sustain the connection and joys that most mattered to him.’

Gawande is an eminent surgeon. As a young resident he displayed little overt emotion when hi…