Skip to main content

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 him posing questions and dropping hints, we, as a class, were made to build a conceptual framework that accounted for these phenomena.  The sleuthing, the moments of insight, the discovery that a simple rule or idea could account for a scrum of disparate data… I frequently found those lessons exhilarating. 
When I wrote about the placenta in the book, it was essential to convey how one simple but easily overlooked fact accounts for so much – and so I described this by making Ian teach it in an imagined class. 

Why this book?

The accurate historical answer, as told in the book, is that I was once struck in the groin by a very fast-moving football, and that from the embers of my pain, I wrote a long essay about the evolutionary biology of testicle externalisation – a rather radical act that has only ever occurred in mammals (but that has evolved on, at least, two separate occasions.)   

I wrote this on the side as I worked in neuroscience, and although it began as a somewhat frivolous exercise, I loved immersing myself in evolutionary biology (something that is strangely underrepresented in contemporary neuroscience) and in learning about the history of mammals.

Upon publication, this essay caught the attention of Bloomsbury who invited me to pitch a book idea. Crucially, this invitation arrived not long after the birth of my first daughter.  The entire process of becoming a father had left me in awe of human reproductive and developmental biology.  And in pondering a book, I saw that this biology was, at heart, mammalian biology.  I asked Bloomsbury if I could write an account of all the traits that distinguish mammals from other animals, and they said yes.

The final book is, however, quite different from that original pitch.  This is primarily because I quickly felt that a sequence of separate essays about different mammalian traits wouldn’t make a satisfying whole - and, besides, the traits were hardly independent innovations.  My first task was, therefore, to work out how to meld these chapters into a single narrative. I kept the basic idea but the story that emerged laid in the way the stories were connected. 

What's next?

I’m now writing full-time and, currently, I’m writing feature articles. At present these seem to be converging around, 1) mortality and 2) the fact that our modern habit of overindulgence is really not very good for us.  

In terms of another book, I have a big, amorphous idea in my head that is insistent I attend to it.  This will almost certainly be my next book, but until I can sum it up in a sentence or two, I will keep schtum about it.  

What's exciting you at the moment?

Having spent 15 years in academia focusing on very narrow questions for three-to-five-year chunks of time, I’m really enjoying moving around biology and learning new things.   Also, instead of worrying about what I’m discovering (if anything) and whether my academic competitors are doing a better job, this career allows me to say 'Wow!' again, and to enjoy being really impressed by what scientists are doing.  Something that occasionally feels like a really good A-level biology class.    


Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…