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

Patricia Fara - Four Way Interview

Patricia Fara lectures in the history of science at Cambridge University, where she is a Fellow of Clare College. She was the President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18) and her prize-winning book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), has been translated into nine languages. An experienced public lecturer, Patricia Fara appears regularly in TV documentaries and radio programmes. She also contributes articles and reviews to many popular magazines and journals, including History Today, BBC History, New Scientist, Nature and the Times Literary SupplementHer new book is Erasmus Darwin.

Why history of science?
I read physics at university, but half-way through the course I realised that had been a big mistake. Although I relished the intellectual challenge, I was bored by the long hours spent lining up recalcitrant instruments in dusty laboratories. Why was nobody encouraging us to think about the big questions – What is gravity? Does quantum mechani…

The Idea of the Brain: Matthew Cobb *****

Matthew Cobb is one of those people that you can’t help but admire but also secretly hate just a little bit for being so awesome. He is professor for zoology at the University of Manchester with a sizable teaching load that he apparently masters with consummate skill. He’s a scientific researcher, who researches the sense of smell of fruit fly maggots; I kid you not!  He’s also an attentive and loving family father but he still finds time and energy to write brilliant history of science books, three to date. His first, The Egg and Sperm Race, describes the search for the secret of human reproduction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is one of my favourite history of science books, on the period. His second, Life’s Greatest Secret is a monster, both in scope and detail, description of the hunt to decipher the structure and function of DNA that along the way demolishes a whole boatload of modern history of science myths. The most recent, and the subject of this review, is

The Big Ideas in Science - Jon Evans ***

The starting point of a review like this has to be to congratulate the author on his achievement, Jon Evans, because getting all of science into one relatively short book is a massive (and thankless) task. Although inevitably the result is a fairly hectic dash through the material, with limited space for subtleness, Evans manages to make the experience readable and has a light touch that is effective without becoming too simplistic.

There is only one reason this book doesn't get four stars - it's not the quality of the writing but rather the selection of the contents. Of course, there is bound to be plenty of stuff missed out - how else could you get all of science into 269 pages? But the balance is strangely skewed. Chemistry is pretty much omitted, though aspects of chemistry occur under other headings. But for me, the real problem is that physics is really under-represented. It's interesting to use Jim Al-Khalili's recent excellent physics summary title The World Acc…