Skip to main content

Rebecca Nesbit - Four Way Interview

Rebecca Nesbit studied butterfly migration for her PhD, then worked for a start-up company training honeybees to detect explosives. She now works in science communication and her projects have ranged from a citizen science flying ant survey to visiting universities around the world with Nobel Laureates. Her first novel was published in 2014, and her first popular science book Is that Fish in your Tomato? was published in July 2017.

Why science?

Because truth can be counterintuitive. If we agreed 'facts' simply based on what feels right, we would often be mistaken, so we need evidence to help us out. Take weed control. Intuitively, you would think that ploughing is an environmentally friendly way to control weeds because it is 'natural', yet it releases greenhouse gasses from the soil. The gap between what we feel and what science tells us is even wider when it comes to being human. I feel as if I have rational control over everything I do, but this is an alluring story my brain tells itself. Our beliefs and actions are manipulated by a multitude of factors which our conscious mind doesn't even register. Science can tell us when what seems logical is untrue.

Why this book?

As an environmentally conscious teenager in the 1990s, I was told about the dangers of GM crops in no uncertain terms. However, these strong views were hard to maintain when I studied for my PhD at an agricultural research institute. Here I met researchers working to develop GM crops with environmental goals in mind, and I quickly realised that the full story was more nuanced than the media usually presents. Whilst some of the criticisms of GM crops are valid, they apply to many aspects of our current food system, and GM crops have often become a scapegoat. Amidst the ongoing scaremongering, there seemed to be room for someone to take a look at all the evidence without pushing their agenda. I decided that person should be me. 

What’s next?
I've just finished a novel inspired by a story I read in New Scientist, exploring themes of personal responsibility, criminal justice and family loyalty. Now for the editing...

In terms of non-fiction, my current interest is the Noah's Ark problem. How do we choose the best way to spend our limited conservation resources? I'm having fun debating the relative merits of honeybees and hairworms. 

What’s exciting you at the moment?

Like so many people, I'm particularly excited by genome editing techniques such as CRISPR. The techniques faster and cheaper than genetic engineering, so could potentially open up possibilities for smaller agricultural companies and publically-funded researchers. Perhaps most fascinating will be to see how crops developed through genome editing are regulated and accepted. Countries such as the USA have declared that genome edited crops aren't subject to the same extensive regulations as GMOs, whilst the organic industry has deemed them incompatible with organic agriculture. As for the way they will be received by the EU and most consumers, we shall see.

I'm also excited by promoting my book, and very much enjoy speaking at events.

Comments

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…