two options. A Taiwanese publisher translated it a couple of years ago, and now there is a new second version out, in simplified Chinese. And it has what I think is a strong a contender for most entertaining book cover in the world (who is that guy in the turban in between Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg? He just looks so mysterious…). It's worth it, for that alone. As yet, I have no idea where you would go to get a copy, but I'm sure you can find it in all good Chinese bookshops, Alternatively, send me all your money and I'll post you one of mine.
8 December 2013
The baby scene at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is what it feels like to be a parent.
So, it beggars belief that scientists have been so slow to turn to babies when trying to understand humans in general. For my latest feature in The Observer, I've been looking at baby research (inspired by a visit to the wonderful Babylab at University College London, which you should also sign up for if you happen to be a parent of a young one). And what has surprised me the most is just how new the whole field is. Until as late as the 1960s many people assumed that babies were just very stupid adults. We now know that's far from the truth. In fact, some researchers think that they hold the key to understand intelligence.
To find out more, please do pick up this Sunday's Observer. And, as always, please do let me know what you think.
5 October 2013
About a year ago, I was on a train when I received a fairly nasty call from a scientist who I was profiling for a magazine, asking why I wouldn't allow him to check my copy before I sent it off to the editors. "It's my article," he told me on the phone. "No, it's not," I replied, much to his surprise. What he failed to understand was that an article about him, that included his thoughts, didn't actually belong to him. For him to read it and have approval would mean I'd be unable to criticise him or his work (whether I wanted to or not). See, that's journalism.
Yes, I know much science journalism merely explains a piece of research, a discovery or an idea, so I can understand researchers' desperation to make sure their thoughts are accurately expressed... but fact-checking stories can easily slide into censorship. Which is why I personally believe it is unethical to give copy approval, and why it is unfair for interviewees to ask for it. Incidentally, the above scientist later apologised, after he checked with his colleagues and they confirmed that he was in the wrong.
2 October 2013
The difference between science journalists and communicators? Journalists don't smile.
One problem is that science journalism and science communication are conflated. Communicators (TV and radio stars like Brian Cox, Jim Al-Khaili and Alice Roberts, for instance) are a friendly conduit between scientists and the public, essentially working on behalf of researchers (and often from within the scientific establishment) to help people understand science better. Journalists are supposed to be more adversarial, interrogating scientists' claims and motives, and any policy responses, with the aim of finding truth and clarity. Sometimes, as the Association of British Science Writers' Connie St Louis has pointed out many times, the press and broadcasters are so busy communicating, they lose the point. We science journalists should be no more on the side of scientists than political journalists are on the side of politicians.
The merry band of science communicators, bloggers and skeptics who cheerlead for science don't always understand that scientific truths are provisional, and that they're only alienating the public by bolstering divisions between science and the rest. When researchers turn out to be wrong (Andrew Wakefield, who started the MMR vaccine controversy, for example), they're dismissed in hindsight as "bad scientists". Well then, how is the public to know who the good ones are? It's easy to think of the scientific method as perfect. It is, after all, the best system we have for understanding the universe. But so long as humans are the ones practising it, it never will be. Scientists do deserve our respect, but they also require us to constantly challenge them. That's my job, and I really do wish it was more valued.
4 September 2013
London Science Book Club pick with something close to ambivalence. Bird Sense by ornithologist and zoology professor Tim Birkhead explores birds' senses (touch, smell etc) in an effort to help us understand how it feels to be a bird. And to my surprise, it was a joy to read. In fact, our group loved it (with the exception of one member who found it 'disappointing' considering the wealth of bird research out there, another member's chagrin at the constant misspelling of the word 'coloration', and our unanimous view that the book needed more pictures).
There are lots of lovely little tidbits of birdy information, such as why owls have such good hearing, and the copulation habits of parrots. Birkhead also does a wonderful job of showing how science moves along, with each truth being only provisional. But the best thing about Bird Sense is that it is so lucidly written, well-referenced and full of the kind of anecdotes that make you see Birkhead (and other birdwatchers) as Indiana Jones figures, leaping over cliffs and ploughing through jungles to catch glimpses of rare species. One member even mentioned that it made her want to take up birdwatching. I wouldn't go that far, but I would recommend you pick it up.
11 July 2013
The London Science Book Club is already more than two years old and ticking along very happily. For this, I have to thank one of the original members, Peter Wrobel (whose name some of you may recognise from New Scientist or Nature, where he was managing editor). Peter took over management of the club while I was away in Boston, and this blog post comes straight from him. The latest book club pick was Bad Pharma, about the big (and apparently quite bad) world of drug companies, written by the well known science writer and medical doctor Ben Goldacre. Since I missed the meeting, here is the club's verdict, in Peter's words...
We liked this book. It was ambitious, but we felt it delivered what it promised. We liked its cheeky and provocative style (some more than others), and felt it was pitched perfectly for its intended audience. Another plus (for a long book) was that "you could dip in and out", even "start anywhere". That, of course, holds an implied negative, common in a lot of non-fiction: there was no consistent "pull" to take you through from start to finish.
One area of division: half of us thought that it could have been more generous in describing the efforts of others in the field; half disagreed. Given the scrupulous referencing, this is fundamentally a question of the impression received by different readers. So some of us felt that the impression created was "Ben takes on the world", whereas there is a whole corps of researchers out there fighting the good fight.
By general agreement, the final session on marketing was the most gripping (and, for that reason perhaps, the easiest to get through). Other aspects that generated discussion included authorship and the Declaration of Helsinki. Goldacre criticises the international medical editors' committee for its authorship rules on the basis that ghostwriters are de facto eliminated by them. We felt that a) he was missing the point (which is that journals have been fighting to cut down author lists and eliminate people who have played no part in the research); and b) overall we were not sure (and could not agree) that ghost writers should be listed as authors, nor where you draw the line between helpful comment, the rewriting involved in translation (eg for Chinese authors), and medical ghosting – anyway, it was a lively discussion!
Goldacre also makes much of the "difference" between the Declaration of Helskinki and the ICH GCP rules, which he says remove several ethical principles. On this point, one of us had been in correspondence with Frank Wells (glowingly referenced by Goldacre with respect to uncovering fraud), who had co-written the ethical bits of ICH GCP and who confirmed that ICH GCP explicitly set out to incorporate the principles of the Declaration of Helsinki (and indeed wrote them in – see ICH GCP 2.1).
Overall, we enjoyed this book, and noted the great and positive influence it has had, particularly in the UK. One of us, who had read a library copy, said she would buy her own copy: praise indeed!