The importance of doing science

I am an English graduate. I didn’t study any science subjects after the age of 16 and I was happy with that decision, but I have always had great respect and admiration for scientists. I mean, in my experience they’re all smart people who talk sense and do work that aims to make the world a better place. How can anyone not be impressed by that?

As I’ve got older, I think I’ve started thinking more like a scientist than an arts graduate (though I do hate the emphasis on how divided those two are). I believe in evidence, research, double-blind studies, querying sources, abandoning superstitions and traditions that don’t have any logic behind them. It just seems like common sense to me. But I also believe in “pure science”, blue-sky research with no concrete application, because that’s how humankind develops.

It stuns me that people fail to grasp the point of fundamental science, that anyone can bemoan spending millions on a new particle accelerator or laser facility (especially considering how much has been spent subsidising banks or the car industry in recent years). I say this because today I read this hideous piece by Simon Jenkins, in which he attacks the entire scientific community but has particular venom for the LHC and the new UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, and this rebuttal by physicist Jon Butterworth, in which he says that satirising Jenkins made more sense to him than just countering each point of idiocy one by one. And I sympathise, I do. Scientists must tire of respectable newspapers and journalists repeatedly pulling out this story whenever a new major science research centre is announced or opened, despite the overwhelming evidence that it is in fact a good thing. It must seem so obvious to them that Jenkins has no idea what he is talking about, but sadly, it is not obvious to everyone.

I was cornered at a family party recently and asked to justify big spending on theoretical science projects. So I began with the obvious: the internet. An accidental development from the sharing of scientific research that has changed the whole world phenomenally. Family friend was unimpressed. So next I told him about the laser. You know the story, right? It started as an entirely theoretical idea in one of Einstein’s later works. It had no practical application, it was just an experiment to create a beam of light in a laboratory. Blue-sky research. A laser beam was first achieved in 1960 (50 years ago this year), after decades of work. By that point some applications had been identified but it was a further 13 years before any were possible. Ever since, lasers have been continuously improved and developed and uses for them continue to be found everywhere in our daily lives, from barcode scanning and DVD players to medical treatments, precision cutting and welding, and satellite communication.

Family friend rolled his eyes and said that it doesn’t all end that way. Look how long they’ve been trying to make nuclear fusion happen. So I switched tack and talked about another aspect of pure science: it captures imaginations; it teaches us more about the world and indeed universe that we live in; it gets the kids interested, which is vital to get people into careers that are more obviously practical, like engineers and doctors. Tell a child that a giant machine in Switzerland is being used to figure out how the universe formed and they will be far more excited by that than the average adult. Which was proven when family friend changed the subject at this point, clearly bored and unconvinced.

I was and still am exasperated but I am trying to understand. Science is extremely badly covered in mainstream media. You don’t need to read Ben Goldacre to know that, though it’s a good start. Most people trust what they read in newspapers, particularly broadsheets, and sadly that means the perpetuation of ill-conceived opinion and half-truths, overshadowing the brilliance that is happening every day in science. But why? I found a clue when reading George Orwell last weekend. He went to highly respected public schools (St Cyprians, Wellington and Eton) and said that science was taught appallingly badly. Aptitude in science was likely to lead to disdain from teachers and pupils alike. The system required a thorough drilling in classics, good grounding in English literature and history, but little or no science. This is how the “great minds” of twentieth century Britain were raised, the people to whom current journalists turn for inspiration and wisdom. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of ignorance: intelligent, articulate men and women who can write knowledgeably about philosophy and classical music but haven’t a clue where the isotopes used in radiotherapy come from, or how particle accelerators are used to develop the ever stronger, harder materials that allow higher temperature (and therefore more efficient) power stations to be built. Or any of the other million ways in which pure science is improving our lives.

Tim has this pet theory about the food chain of science. Mathematicians come up with numbers and formulae that have no concrete meaning. Physicists take that maths and use it to model the real world, allowing them to understand the universe a little better. Engineers take that physics and use it to create a real-world device that ends up in your home or workplace. We need that abstract beginning.

There’s some great resources on this subject here: on benefits to society

Teach a man to fish

The Old Man and the Sea
by Ernest Hemingway

I don’t need to tell anyone what a great book this is, I’m sure. It’s actually the first Hemingway I’ve read and was a great introduction. The prose is plain yet full of endless layers of meaning.

On one level this was a tough book for me to read. You see, I have this thing about fish: a profound dislike, repulsion even. So the story of a fisherman necessarily included details that frankly reviled me.

It was also slow to grab me (relatively; I mean, the whole book’s barely 100 pages long). Even though I knew from reputation that it’s a very simple story, I couldn’t help feeling, ‘Is this really it? Is there no more to it?’ But once the old man goes out to sea that feeling passed and I was captivated.

Hemingway’s ability to voice the old man’s every thought and emotion is astounding. This is a poor man, living a tough life that is nearing its end and his thoughts do meander to religion, death, the meaning of life and the beauty of nature, but always in just the right tone, staying clear of anything touchy feely or intellectual. The old man is very matter of fact and quickly snaps himself out of flights of fancy or memory trips. Only one incident from his past is described in any detail and this is because the old man draws on the memory to give him strength.

I was a little concerned that I wouldn’t get this book, or wouldn’t agree with the millions who rate it as one of the greatest novels ever written. I needn’t have worried and will definitely read more from my Hemingway boxset in the future.

First published in 1952. Specifically cited when Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

See also: review by Marie of Little Interpretations.

Know your medium

It Sucked and then I Cried
by Heather B Armstrong

So this is a lesson in how a decent blog does not necessarily make a decent book. Heather Armstrong’s blog Dooce is widely considered to be the most popular personal blog on the internet, with tens of thousands of visitors every day. She is a huge influence on other bloggers and has some interesting things to say. Taking one of the more eventful sections of her blogged life and writing a book about it should have been a great idea, right?

The thing is, what works in a blog does not necessarily work in a book and a decent editor would have stopped this book from being published in its current form. Large sections of text are reproduced verbatim from the blog, which I understand the temptation behind, as the blog is so successful, but a lot of the same people will read both and it’s disappointing to read the same jokes, the same descriptions, the same insults over again.

In a blog you can jump from one topic to the next, or start a story and then pick it up again a few weeks (and a few thousand words) later. In a book you need more structure. Skipping out of your timeline to tell a funny anecdote from the past doesn’t always work. And you also don’t need to keep repeating things. In a blog it’s acceptable to assume that people need reminding of a fact you mentioned several entries ago, if they read it at all. In a book it’s a fair bet that the readers of chapter 10 also read chapter 2. Quite recently.

But more crucially even than that, in a blog you can get away with writing in all caps for emphasis, assigning cute but stupidly long nicknames to people or breaking out in a sickeningly mushy ode to your loved one. None of those things are appropriate in a book. They make it incredibly hard to read more than a few pages at a time. One of the most grating things for me was the reproduction of Heather’s monthly letters to her daughter Leta. Now, this is something a lot of “mommy bloggers” do when they have babies and it’s a sweet idea that may even have been original to Dooce. On a blog you can skip past them if you’re not feeling soppy because they do tend to be very soppy indeed. Heather’s letters are no exception and they seemed wildly out of place in this book. The odd phrase from them could have been quoted or incorporated into the retelling but pages and pages of baby talk very nearly made me stop reading on.

It’s really very disappointing because the basic story of Heather’s difficult pregnancy, depression and postnatal depression is one that was interesting on her blog and these are subjects that should be talked about more. I commend her for her openness and looked forward to this book to find out more about the experience. Though there was some more detail than in the blog it was written in an awkward style and was hard to read.

What this book confirmed for me was that Heather is not a successful blogger because she writes well. She does not. She is successful because she has interesting and often controversial things to say and she’s sometimes funny. And because of that story about her being fired because she said rude things about her employer on her blog. Other bloggers have done this better and I think I know now why I haven’t read Dooce for a year or so.

Published 2009 by Simon & Schuster.

On location

I have lived in Bristol for a few years now and am coming to really love it. Like most things I love, I want to get to know it better. There’s a few ways of doing this, like going for random walks and attending community events, but one that particularly appeals to me is finding some books that are set in Bristol to read.

I mean, when a book’s setting is an important element of the story, when it’s evocative and detailed, it invariably makes me want to go to that place and walk in the footsteps of the characters, visit the same cafés and cinemas. I love that feeling. But what makes an author choose their setting? Any writers among my readers want to comment?

I don’t think, as far as I can remember, that I have ever read a book set in Bristol. There must be a few. It’s a reasonably sizeable city and a particularly creative one. But the majority of books I’ve read that are based in Britain use London for a setting. I know it makes sense in terms of mass appeal. At any given time around 10% of the UK population lives in London, possibly more. If you consider how many of those people spend only a short part of their life there, then the proportion of Brits who have either lived in London or regularly visit friends or family in London has got to be pretty high. It’s certainly the UK city that non-Brits are most likely to have ever visited. And I’d guess the number of authors who have lived there is also pretty high. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if some agents have persuaded authors to change the setting of a novel to London so that it has wider appeal.

But I want to read some books set in my city, so I’m going to compile a list. What should be on it? Please leave some ideas in the comments below. I did find this list (PDF, page 2) but I haven’t heard of any of the books on it. If you have and can recommend or indeed warn me off any of the titles, let me know!

The list so far:
Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar
Dead Innocent by Maureen O’Brien
Gone Without Trace by Caroline Carver
Selfish People by Lucy English
A Respectable Trade by Phillippa Gregory
Future Bristol edited by Colin Harvey
A Penny for Tomorrow by Jeannie Johnson
The Last Llanelli Train by Robert Lewis
Where’s My Money by Mike Manson
Life and How to Live it by Daniel Mayhew
The Sun is my Undoing by Marguerite Steen
Shawnie by Ed Trewavas

In the future there will be war

The Forever War
by Joe Haldeman

Tim has been bugging me for a year to read this so I finally gave in. I can see why it instantly became his favourite book. It’s an immensely clever look at war and humanity, with some very interesting ideas about space travel and the future.

This is one of those books that I think is brilliant but I didn’t hugely enjoy reading. I tend not to like war-set stories, particularly those that focus on the fighting and the tactics. While there was much more to this novel, there was a lot of war stuff to wade through and that meant that my overall enjoyment took a big hit. It was all, of course, necessary. The clue was in the name.

It wasn’t in any way a slog to read. The storyline is clever and the writing is accessible even for people like me without the greatest background in physics or military tactics.

I don’t want to give away too much of the storyline but it begins with the conscription of William Mandella into Earth’s army in space. Space travel is near light-speed and makes use of black-hole-like gateways so that vast distances can be covered, but the cost of this is that space travellers do not age as fast, so when the first soldiers return to Earth they are still in their 20s but decades have passed (it’s something to do with general relativity), which is reflected both in the age of their loved ones and in the great changes that have happened – socially, politically, environmentally and technologically. It’s a clever way of adding emphasis to the returning soldiers’ sense of displacement.

This is one of those rare occasions where I think the background of the author and the time of writing are relevant when honing your thoughts on the book. Haldeman is a veteran of the Vietnam War and wrote this shortly afterward. He even starts the book in a future near enough so that the officers who train Mandella are Vietnam vets themselves. This drives home the parallels between the fictional war and the real one, though they at first seem starkly different.

For instance, there’s the great changes that happened in the USA while soldiers were away in Vietnam. Hippies, free love, rock music, drugs, civil rights, feminism. These are not hugely dissimilar from the changes that Mandella struggles with. There’s the use of drugs and hypnotism to condition the troops to hate the enemy (I’ll admit here that I don’t know that much about the Vietnam War besides what I learned in A-level history many years ago but I believe there was drugging of the troops – is that right?) There’s the use of old-fashioned military tactics against a little known enemy who fights very differently.

What I liked most was the personal struggle to deal with so much unknown and so much change. By making Mandella the narrator this book keeps its focus on an individual’s reactions to news and events, however huge those events get.

The political and sociological changes to mankind as time passes are completely believable and the way that information drip feeds out to the soldiers, light-years away from Earth, is very well crafted. I did find the middle section hard-going because it paints a dark, depressing picture of the future that was all-too believable and I suppose that frightened me. But it was worth reading on. I enjoyed the second half of the book much more than the first.

As a depiction of mankind’s future this is a great book. Shame about the war but it’s an unlikely future that doesn’t have war in it, right?

First published as a serial in Analog magazine. First published as a novel in 1974. Revised by the author 1991.

Do or die

I accepted long ago that I will not read all the great books in the world before I die and I feel no guilt when I admit to not having read this or that other people discuss. However, I seem to have failed to transfer that rationality to other parts of my life. I want to see every good film, play, comedy show, TV series; I want to visit every country, every city; I want to eat at every great restaurant, ride every classic train line, stay in every top hotel. What I don’t particularly want to do would be a far shorter list. And I often feel a bizarre sense of guilt for not having done many of those things yet, as if I am somehow wasting my life by going to work, socialising, sleeping, spending time in my lovely house with Tim, walking or jogging in the park or any of those other things that constitute the greater portion of my life.

Which is crazy because I’m sure if I have any regrets as I get older it will be that I didn’t take enough time out for my friends or that I didn’t appreciate time alone with Tim while I could. I can’t imagine anyone on their deathbed regrets never having seen The Godfather or never having eaten at the Fat Duck in Bray. (Though I’m sure there’s quite a few who regret not having travelled more.)

So where does it come from, this odd need to cram in life experiences? Is it an awareness of how short life is? Or is it just a need to impress other people? So much of small talk is taken up with this stuff: “What are you doing tonight/this weekend?” “Where are you going on holiday this year?” “Have you seen this film/play/comedian/band?” and it feels a bit lame to say “I’m staying in tonight” “I’m using my leave to do stuff around the house” “No, I haven’t seen it/them” every time. It’s like an admission of failure. I would never tell a colleague that I plan to go home and read and yet that’s what I do more often than not.

And why not? I love reading. I love taking time over cooking and eating with Tim. I love hanging out with friends. I love walking around my adopted city, pausing to take photos or drink coffee. This is not a waste of time, this is enjoying life.

And yet still there’s the guilt.

The one that made me cry

One Day
by David Nicholls

This is very much a book that’s of its genre. I could reel off half a dozen successful authors of similar style. It’s engaging, gently but intelligently funny, easy to read, unchallenging. I almost feel guilty for having enjoyed it so much.

Which is silly because this is a book I bought having read a review that described a book I knew immediately that I would enjoy. It’s a love story told over 20 years, from 1988 to 2008; a wry observation of modern life and romance. I suppose I shrink from admitting it because it sounds mawkish, cheesy, but this book made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me think a lot about where I am in life and whether I’m happy.

The story is that of Emma and Dexter who shared one perfect night together after their graduation day, St Swithins Day, 15 July 1988. Each successive St Swithins Day in their lives is described up to 2008, with only passing reference to what has happened inbetween. It’s an effective format for covering a large timespan and avoids the obvious tendency to describe major events and skip the subtler ones. They’re believably fallible characters, likeable for the most part, and while the storyline is largely predictable it’s done well.

I picked this up to give myself a break between more challenging books and it was just right. It’s not at all frivolous or throwaway but it is a light, honest novel that touched me.

Published 2009 by Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 978-0-3408-9698-3

UPDATE: See also this review by Jackie of Farm Lane Books.