Who writes science books?

who writes science books

The last of the SciBookChat videos went up today! Well, I might make more in the future, but this was the end of the six I had prepared. Next year will start with a completely different video, and then there is another science/book-related one in the works, but not a chat.

Anyway, for this last video of the season, I pulled twenty books off my shelves to talk a bit about the authors. The previous videos I made all emphasized that there are lots of different kinds of books related to science: books about science, books about scientists, fiction, graphic novels, etc. This video is about all the different kinds of people that write science books: scientists, science writers, writers with no science background, groups of people, bloggers.

If you like seeing what people have on their bookshelves, you will enjoy this.

Also, I drink from an erlenmeyer flask, and I say dumb things in the outro at the end (like “I don’t always know when something is a dinosaur”), so stay tuned for that.


Books shown in this video:

  • Charles Darwin’s autobiography
  • The Double Helix – James Watson
  • The Two Cultures – CP Snow
  • Silent Spring – Rachel Carson
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
  • Microcosm – Carl Zimmer
  • Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier
  • The Honest Look – Jennifer Rohn
  • The Science of Discworld – Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen
  • The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who – Simon Guerrier and Dr Marek Kukula
  • Geek Nation – Angela Saini
  • How the Hippies Saved Physics – David Kaiser
  • The Jazz of Physics – Stephon Alexander
  • Guitar Zero – Gary Marcus
  • This is Your Brain on Music – Daniel Levitin
  • The Great Animal Orchestra – Bernie Krause
  • Six Degrees – Duncan Watts
  • Science Tales – Daryl Cunningham
  • An Inconvenient Truth – Al Gore
  • The Best Science Writing Online 2012

Science books vs science papers

We’re almost at the end of the SciBookChat videos! This is episode 5 of 6. After that it’s over. I filmed a very silly bonus video that’s related to today’s video (but I won’t say how!) which will go up in the new year. Otherwise, it’s just this one and episode 6 in two weeks.

In this episode I compare a passage from Carl Zimmer’s book Microcosm with the scientific article that contains the source material. Then I talk a bit about why scientific papers are written in such an uninteresting style. I mentioned the need to get all details across, but I’m not sure I quite explained why that means the papers end up with such long and dull sentences. Basically, there can be no confusion about what the authors meant, so no creative sentence structures or jokes, and they do need to include all the tiny details, which often leads to very long sentences. You’ll notice that I have a much easier time reading the passage from Zimmer’s book out loud than the section from the article. I have to pronounce complicated numbers and twice say “(Figure 2)”. I have to take breaths in the middle of ongoing sentences. It’s just not meant for reading out loud, it’s purely for conveying information!

Eeyore, Candide and Biochemistry

We’re already on episode 4 of SciBookChat Season 2! You have time to catch up, though. They’re all very short.

In most of the videos I have talked about how science and scientists are represented in books, but this episode is a little bit different. I remember, from way too long ago, one very specific question in a university textbook because it referenced Eeyore – my favourite character from Winnie-the-Pooh.

The question was about bacterial chemotaxis (how bacteria move around in response to their environment) but to make it interesting, the author had given certain bacterial mutants the characteristics of famous literary characters. He expects you to be familiar with some classics of literary fiction to solve a biochemistry question!

This time, the outtakes at the end are mostly “directors cut” extra footage, because FOR ONCE I didn’t mess up while filming. Maybe I’m learning. Or maybe Eeyore helped.

Scientists in Fiction

In today’s SciBookChat video I pick up Frankenstein again (first featured in this video) and compare him to a more modern scientist in a more recent book. What has changed?

There’s also a plug for LabLit, and intro music by Sam, and of course I drink tea in the opener and mess up something after the end screen, as usual.

The saddest cake story

CakeDNARemember when I made a DNA cake that spelled “CAKE”? Shortly after that did the rounds on the internet, people spotted mistakes. The helix was turned in the wrong direction, and I had failed to stay on the same strand in the twist so the colours were wrong in every other segment.

Did it make the cake less fun or delicious? Not really, but I still felt dumb for introducing those errors. I really should know better. I have a PhD in baking — I mean, biochemistry.

So, when I recently had an opportunity to bake a cake for scientists again, I thought this would be a good moment to redo it, and fix the errors.

At work we drew names of the contestants of Great British Bake Off, and the week after “your” contestant left, you’d bring in something you baked. The name I had drawn was Rav, who was known for liking vegan baking, so I thought that’d be a great excuse to also use my favourite vegan cake recipe.

When Rav left the show a few weeks ago, it was my turn to bake, so I set aside several hours of my weekend to prepare everything. I finished the final icing details on Sunday morning, and, as planned, made a correct DNA helix this time. The twelve base pairs encode the four amino acids with the one letter codes “C-A-K-E”, the helix turns the correct way, and I followed the strands in the twists. Everything was perfect!



Except, a few hours after I finished, I wasn’t feeling very well. I started getting a stomach ache that only got worse and worse. At midnight I ended up going to the hospital to find out what was wrong, and around 2AM I was told I had gastroenteritis. I had to stay home from work until I was all better, and, worst of all, I was not allowed to prepare food for other people!

My beautiful cake! Not only could I not go to work myself, but I wouldn’t be allowed to serve the cake to ANYONE! I had to throw it out.

I actually left it in the fridge for a full week until I could bear to part with it (and until I could deal with the concept of “food” and “cake” in general.)

Goodbye, beautiful DNA cake.

Science books about people

For the second episode of this season of SciBookChat I mused a bit on a particular type of science books. I showed three books that in my opinion are more about people than they are about science – Geek Nation, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and How the Hippies Saved Physics.

I like all of these books, but, as I mention in the video, I haven’t really learned any science from them. And that’s okay, because the main story in all of these books is a more personal story. Geek Nation is about scientists in India, and the role that science plays in the country. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about the Lacks family, outdated medical practices, race relations, and the surprising presence of Henrietta Lacks in many modern cell biology labs. How the Hippies Saved Physics is about the influence of 1970s counterculture on the field of (quantum) physics. In all three books, the main subject is people. That they happen to have something to do with science is what makes the books science books, but the science is only secondary.

Watch the video for the full discussion – and to find out what I  think about physicists!

What kind of book is a science book? – SciBookChat

What is a science book? Is it a textbook? A popular science book? Are kids books about science more kids books or science books? What do you expect to find in the science section of a bookstore?

SciBookChat S2E1

The first episode of the second season of SciBookChat went online this morning, and it’s about exactly these questions. In the video, we go on a little tour of Foyles bookstore in London, to compare the arts, travel, music, food and science sections of the store. Of course, nothing can quite compare with the music section, but you have to watch the video to find out why THAT is so special.

As this video shows, there are lots of different types of science books. But perhaps not all of them are what you picture when you think of “science books”. Because SciBookChat is a series about all the ways that science occurs in books,  I interpret “science books” in a very, very broad sense.

Next episode

The next episode of SciBookChat goes up on October 20, and will be about books about scientists (rather than books about science). You can subscribe directly on YouTube if you want to make sure you catch that.

Busy, but organised


scotlandI haven’t done a general update in forever! I’ve been busy (but organised) lately, so this is as good a time as ever for a catch-up blog post. Here’s what I’ve been up to.

TGMI website

One of the main things I’ve been busy with at work is the Transforming Genetic Medicine Initiative (TGMI). This is a Wellcome Trust-funded project involving a group of clinicians and scientists who want to make sure that genetics becomes a streamlined part of medicine. We launched a website earlier this year, and since June we’ve been posting weekly blog posts about topics related to genetic medicine. We also have a mailing list and a Twitter account, so if you’re at all interested in genetic medicine, and want to help us think about it, you now know where to go.


My YouTube channel can be a bit chaotic, with random vaguely science-themed videos mixed with travel videos, but I’m doing something structured with it now. I’ll post a new video every two weeks from next week until the end of the year, in which I discuss science in books. I did a few of these videos last year, and the style is pretty much the same, but this year I have a title screen and a jingle made just for me (by Sam) and a regular schedule, so it’s all a lot more organised. Subscribe, as they say on YouTube.


The latest Doctor Who Fan Orchestra video dropped a few weeks ago. This time, we tackled the theme music from the episodes with Donna Noble as companion, so it goes from upbeat jazzy to emotional “saving the world” pieces. As with all DWFO videos, everyone recorded their own parts at home but the final compilation is a proper symphony.

My regular orchestras, where people rehearse all in the same moment in time and space (how quaint), start again next month, so violin-playing will move in high gear, with concerts in November and December. If you’re in London, make sure to follow me on Twitter to find out when they are, because I’ll likely not mention them on the blog again.

There should also be a new issue of the MusiSci newsletter out in November. Some of the archives are now online, so you can have a look at old issues. If you like getting quarterly updates about the overlapping worlds of scientists and musicians, you can sign up now and get the November one when it comes out.


Lou moved to the USA, but we managed to arrange a virtual MySciCareer meeting. In the past few weeks, we posted two new career stories on the site every week. Follow us on Twitter or check out the site to explore careers for people with science degrees.


In between all these other things I’ve also been writing. I’m working on a few projects I don’t want to talk about yet because they might not all materialise, but I had an article about Pokemon Go and wildlife education on BOLD Blog recently, and I have a different science/pop culture piece coming out elsewhere before the end of the year.

It might not sound like it, because I don’t talk about it much, but writing has actually been taking up most of my spare time. A bit more than music and much more than my online side projects. It just isn’t as visible.

Staying organised

Despite all these things, I’m managing to keep on top of everything and not go crazy – yet. I would love to be able to tell you that I have all these apps and tools that keep me on top of everything, but to be honest those things just add to the stress for me.

I’ve always functioned best with physical to do lists on paper. Crossing off what I’ve done makes me feel much more accomplished than tapping a screen. I usually try apps for a bit and then lose interest and motivation. They don’t capture my attention in the way I need a to-do list to connect with me.

The thing that has stuck with me is bullet journal, which is basically a structured way of keeping to-do lists on paper. I’ve been using this method since July, and it’s perfect for me. My time management and activities are unstructured by nature, and don’t fit nicely into boxes, so a method where I can just make lists as long or short as I need them to be (and can doodle and take random notes and make spreads for all my side projects) is ideal.

I’m also trying to be super effective with my time, because my schedule is so full. I wrote this post on the train to and from work yesterday, and edited/uploaded it in a pub while waiting for other people. When it was done, I could tick off a few items in my bullet journal and feel good about myself.


So I’m busy, but organised. The busy-ness will last until the end of the year at least. I can only hope my newly found organisation skills keep up.


Photo: One of my favourite photos I took this summer.

SciBookChat season 2: science in books


SciBookChatLet’s chat about books and science again!

Last year I made a few videos about science in books. They weren’t book reviews, but they were just me chatting about things that were vaguely related to both science and books. I did one about fake and parody science books (like Giraffes? Giraffes!), one about science in zines, and one about the role that some books have played in our perception of science and scientists.

There were only those three videos to start with, but I now filmed a whole second season, of six more videos (seven, including the intro video).

In the video above I talk about what SciBookChat is, and what kind of other stuff is on my YouTube channel. If you can stand the gesturing and eye-rolling and the sound of my voice, you can subscribe to the YouTube channel directly by clicking this link.

What is it about?

Topics in Season 2 of SciBookChat will include:

  • What exactly is a “science book”? Are they all books that explain science, or is the category broader than that?
  • Using literature references to explain scientific concepts
  • Books about scientists, rather than about science itself
  • …and more!


When? Where? How?

Season 2 will be a lot like season 1, but I’m going to put some more effort into making sure people know what the videos are, and how to find them.

For you, the readers, I’ll write a blog post to go with each video. They will have the video embedded, and written summary of what’s discussed in there. If it sounds interesting, you can then decide to watch the video. The videos are all short, and can mostly be consumed with audio only if that’s what you prefer. So all of you podcast fans who don’t like looking at things can just have the video open in another tab and listen. They’re each only a few minutes long.

For the YouTube audience, I’m using the #booktube tag on social media, and encouraging people to subscribe to the channel. I’ll be using a regular upload schedule, with a new video going up every other Thursday starting on October 6.

I’ll also have my own theme music, composed by Sam Jenkins just for SciBookChat, so the videos will be worth watching just for the tunes!


Subscribe directly on YouTube

How to find images for your science blog – Part 2

How to find images for your science blog

How to find images for your science blogAs I mentioned last week, there are four ways to get images for your science blog.

  1. Look for public domain images or creative commons-licensed images
  2. Make your own
  3. Ask for permission
  4. Buy images


1. Look for public domain or creative commons images

In part 1, I showed how and where to look for public domain images or creative commons-licensed images. This post will go into the other three methods.


2. Make your own images

If you can’t easily find an image you have permission to use, you can always make one yourself. You can take a photo, draw a picture, or use software to design something simple. The possibilities are endless, but I narrowed it down to a few:


Use a photo you took yourself

This is probably the simplest of these suggestions, because you don’t need anything besides a phone with a camera. Still, there are a few things you’ll need to look out for:

  • Permission of human subjects – Do the people in the photo know that their image is being used to illustrate a blog post? You could get in trouble if you don’t let people know what the photo is for, so consider the possibility of someone asking you to take down the image. If it’s a picture of people taken at a conference and your blog post is about that conference, you’re probably okay, as long as the conference itself didn’t have any restrictions in place. Oh, about that…
  • Permission of location/event – Sometimes pictures taken at specific events or locations are for “personal use only”. This will be made clear in the media policy of the event (think: conference, festival) or location (think: museum, zoo). Often that means you can take pictures, and even share them in a photo album, but you’re not always allowed to use those pictures on your blog. It depends on the kind of blog. Sometimes the restrictions will only apply to commercial sites, which is again one of those fuzzy areas I mentioned in the context of creative commons. What exactly is commercial? Sometime there’s an exception for educational outlets, which is equally fuzzy. (Is an educational blog that receives ad income a commercial or an educational outlet?)


Draw something yourself

Okay, maybe taking a photo is not the easiest after all. Maybe drawing something yourself is even easier. Can’t draw? Stick figures are illustrative, too!

Draw on paper and scan it in

See early XKCD comics

Draw with a mouse in the free program that comes with your computer

Hyperbole and a Half got popular with trackpad drawings and Paintbrush (a simple program), so you don’t need fancy graphics programs.

Draw on an iPad

Paper by 53 and a cheap stylus is all you need to get some decent-looking pictures. I’ve used this myself in the Elgar comic.

Draw on a tablet

Turtle2If you don’t have an iPad, a Wacom tablet is actually easier to use, and the cheapest ones are much, much, much cheaper than an iPad. I drew the animals in the “beach bodies” post on a simple Wacom with free graphics software.

Get some graphics software (or even just powerpoint)

For any/all of the above suggestions I recommend having some sort of graphics software to edit images or to draw in directly. Gimp is open source and free and can do everything that photoshop can, but it has a high learning curve. For really basic editing (resizing, cropping, adding basic shapes or combining two images into one) you can even use Powerpoint/Keynote or any other slide presentation program. All the MySciCareer quotes images are done in Keynote, so we just rotate the five colours and quotes and it’s super fast and easy to make an image for each entry.


Online tools to make pretty pictures

This is the section that reveals many bloggers’ secret weapons. There are online tools that you can use to drag and drop images and backgrounds to create some fancy looking things. (Or less fancy things, like the image at the top of this post…). The two I use most are Canva and Piktochart, but there are others like it.



Canva is free to use, but a lot of their preset images cost $1 to use. With a bit of searching you can easily avoid those, though, and just use free elements. More on the paid option below.

Canva has a lot of default sizes and designs for different media platforms, so you can get the right size for a Twitter header image (and it will show you where your profile picture sits) or for an instagram post, but it also has templates for CVs, postcards, and other useful things. I used Canva to make gift cards for friends, menus for Christmas, the header of my quarterly mailing list, and images on some of my posts.



Piktochart specializes in infographics, so it includes a lot of little illustrations (including very diverse ones for people) and nice-looking text banners. There are some free templates for infographic charts. A paid account gets you more templates, and the option to remove the Piktochart logo from your final infographic. I used Piktochart to make the image for this post about genetic testing on the TGMI site.


3. Ask for permission to use images

If you can’t be bothered to create your own image, and you can’t find a suitable image in the public domain or with a creative commons license, you have two options left. One is to ask the creator of an image for permission to use that image.

If you offer to link back to them and to use the image under the terms they provide, this is a very reasonable request for blog posts. People know that you probably don’t have a budget for images. Keep in mind that artist might still say no, or that it can be difficult to track down the right person to ask for permissions.

I have used this route for a few work blog posts in the past. Recently I asked Baylor College of Medicine for permission to use an image. I found out that they were the ones to ask because I’d seen the image I wanted used on a few other sites that mentioned that it came from BCM and was used with permission.

I’ve also asked PhD comics for permission to use images in a post about the film.

“But everyone always uses science comics/illustrations online”, I hear you say.

That’s right, and they either asked the artist for explicit permission, or they’re following their guidelines (which could ask for a link back, or a limit on the size, or a watermark), OR they’re stealing.

Yes, it’s stealing to take someone else’s creation and put it on your own site without any form of permission. If an illustrator’s work is getting you extra traffic and shares, and that doesn’t trickle through to them in anyway, you’re getting your site clicks on the back of their talent. That’s why at the very minimum an artist will ask for a link back or an image tag on Twitter.

To make it easy, some artists have put explicit statements on their site that tell you how you can use their images. You might have to search for it. The aforementioned PHD comics has an email address in their FAQ section. Hyperbole and a Half has information about re-posting images in the FAQ as well. Photographer Alex Wild has an elaborate section on his website about image use.

If you can’t find info on their site, just contact them to ask them whether you can use the image.

Glendon Mellow, one of the bloggers at Symbiartic, uses some standard text to approach people whose artwork he wants to feature on the blog. The text includes information about how the image will be displayed, and how the artist will be credited. Here’s part of that text:

I typically make a thumbnail image that appears on our site’s main page, and sometimes follows the work when people share on Facebook and Twitter etc. We’re pretty careful about attribution on Symbiartic: what links would you like me to add to the post? Twitter, blog, Instagram, Snapchat, portfolio, online shop,…I’ll put links to any and all that you like.


4. Buy images

Your final option is to purchase an image. I left this for the end because it’s BY FAR the most annoying. You thought you could just hand over money and use the image? Oh, no, it can be way more complicated than that. I’ll show a few different examples just to give an idea.



6This is the most user friendly. I mentioned Canva above, as a way to create your own designs. Some image elements (photos or illustrations) cost money, and Canva gives you two options to pay: Either get a subscription, or pay $1 for the right to use that image for the next 24 hours. Within 24 hours you can use that image in as many designs as you want, and once you’ve downloaded the design you’re all set. So for something simple that you can finalise in 24 hours, this is easy and only costs $1. I paid for the image of the book in this design (which doubles as a sneak preview for a thing I’m launching soon. Subscribe on YouTube!)


Stock image sites

iStockphoto prices their images using “credits”. You can prepay for a number of credits, or pay per image. Once paid, you can use the image for whatever you want, for as long as you want. It can’t get any easier. It can get more difficult, though…

Shutterstock offers two kinds of licenses: Standard and Enhanced. For a blog post, the standard license is enough, so don’t worry about the other one.  To use the standard license, you can prepay for a few images, or get a subscription, or a subscription for a whole team. You have to estimate in advance how many images you’re going to need to decide what would be best, but again, for a blog the most basic plan is probably best.

You can purchase stock images through a few other sites as well, but these are the best-known ones.


Rights-managed images

I’ve left this until the very last because this is the most difficult. The two stock image sites above sell you unlimited access to “royalty-free” images. They’re royalty-free because the owner of the image gets a one-time payment from you, and doesn’t get royalties based on how often the image was used. You can also pay to use a “rights-managed” image. Here, the owner of the image is paid proportional to the use of the image: If the image is used in high resolution and get lots of views, they get more than if a tiny image is only seen by a few people.

That means that if you want to pay to use one of those images, you need to consider the size of your audience, and how long you’re using the image for. If you’re including the image in a print magazine, the questions are easy to answer: you know how many copies of that issue are printed, and each issue is printed only once. If you’re putting the image on a blog, this becomes more complicated. How many visitors do you think that post will get? How long is the image staying online?

I looked up the price for a science-themed image in Getty Images, and the cheapest option was £39 for a three-month digital license, or £150 for full editorial use of a small image (for fifteen years). Custom options required filling in a complex form, and the costs get even higher.

And remember, rights-managed images are often images that appeared in the news, or on company websites. You can’t afford those on your blog, so just don’t even think about it and search for a different (free) image first.

Getty realises this, and has a special section on their site, Getty Embed, which allows you to search a subset of their images that are made available for use on non-commercial blogs. Not everything in their catalog is in there, and the image stays hosted on their site, but you can display it on yours. I’ve checked the terms of use and I think I’m allowed to use it in this blog in this context, so here’s a raccoon:



That’s it!

That concludes my two-part crazy long guide to using images on your blog. I know I didn’t mention everything (like more examples of embeddable images from third party sites, or image libraries available to bloggers on larger networks) but those all fall under “permissions” somehow.

Another thing that I didn’t touch on is the concept of “fair use”. It’s a sort of loophole in the (American) legal system that seems to say that you can use an image as long as you talk about that image, but it’s not meant to be used to justify image use, only to use in defence against a copyright claim. It’s super complicated, only really defensible when you explicitly talk about the work (definitely not when you just use an image to illustrate a vaguely related blog post), and you’re best off just not using images that you don’t have rights or permissions for.