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.

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.

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

Book Review: The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who

2016-07-09 16.31.48The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who
Simon Guerrier and Dr. Marek Kukula
BBC Books, Paperback (2016)


I didn’t start watching Doctor Who until the rebooted series in 2005. I missed the original episodes because I wasn’t born until well into the era of the Fourth Doctor, and because I spent the rest of the initial series in a country that didn’t care about this strange Time Lord in his blue box.

I still haven’t seen the older episodes, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying or understanding The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who. To understand the book, you don’t need to know every episode, as long as you are aware of the general concept of the show, in which an Earth-loving alien Doctor travels with companions through time and space.

The book is divided into three section that address the three different story aspects you encounter in the TV show: Space, time, and humanity. Each section has five chapters that touch on scientific ideas related to concepts in Doctor Who, and each of these chapters is preceded by an original Doctor Who story, covering all incarnations of the Doctor and many of his companions. The fictional stories are written by fifteen guest authors, and are loosely related to the topics in the non-fiction chapters written by Doctor Who novelist Simon Guerrier and astronomer Dr. Marek Kukula.

The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who does not try to impose scientific explanations for the unlikely events shown on screen. Instead, it uses the framework of the world of Doctor Who to discuss related scientific topics. That’s not just limited to referring things from within the show (e.g. what does time travel have to do with worm holes?) but it also highlights the progress of scientific discovery in the context of the history of Doctor Who. New scientific discoveries and world events inspired the writers directly, but also indirectly, as our collective knowledge of the world has changed a lot in the time that Doctor Who has been on TV. The Doctor was already at the end of his second incarnation when we put people on the moon in 1969!

The Doctor was already at the end of his second incarnation when we put people on the moon in 1969

That, for me, was the best part of the book: Being made to consider that this show was on the air before the moon landing, before the first Earth Day celebration, before the Voyager probes, before the end of the Cold War, before large scale DNA sequencing, and before CD players, tablets and smartphones. We’ve been fantasizing about unknown worlds for so long, it can be easy to forget how much we are actually learning about our own.

As a very broad overview of scientific concepts ranging from multiverses to regeneration, the book only briefly touches on certain topics, but The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who is not a book to learn in-depth science from. It’s a book for people who really like Doctor Who, and who want some real-world context for the show. For me, it also highlighted some episodes of the older series that I want to check out, and yes, I’m fully aware that I now have access to on-demand TV-watching technology that didn’t yet exist when those episodes aired.

BookTubeAThon Reading List

Last year I did my first BookTubeAThon (video below) which got me back into reading and slightly more confident about recording my face on video.

This year, BookTubeAThon is July 18 to 24, which conveniently overlaps with my vacation for four of the seven days, so I’ve collected a pile of books I want to tackle that week.

BookTubeAThon TBR

As usual, there are reading challenges. You can already tell from the pile that I’m not going to make the “read seven books” challenge, but by choosing one tiny book I might at least make it to five books.

This is my plan for the rest of the challenges:

  1. Read a book with yellow on the cover. Trash (more about that below) is very yellow and fulfills the challenge.
  2. Read a book only after sunset. I think I’ll do this with How The Marquis Got His Coat Back, and I’ll probably finish it in an entire evening.
  3. Read a book you discovered through booktube. I’m pretty sure I found out about Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children through Booktube, or at least through YouTube, although I can’t remember where exactly. It’s a book that demands being read as a physical copy, and I thought it would make interesting holiday reading.
  4. Read a book by one of your favourite authors. That’s again How The Marquis Got His Coat Back. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is one of my favourite books (and I think about it sometimes when I’m waiting for a tube) and this is an additional short story set in this same universe.
  5. Read a book that is older than you. I have never read The Great Gatsby, and we’re going to change that this summer!
  6. Read and watch a book-to-movie adaptation. I did some research for this! I looked at lists of recent book-to-move adaptations, checked which books I hadn’t read yet and which movies I hadn’t seen, looked at ratings and reviews, and at what was available on Netflix, and settled on Trash. I’d never heard of the book, but the movie is on Netflix, and both movie and book have decent reviews. Since I’m away for the second half of the BookTubeAThon period I might have to watch the film before reading the book. Not my favourite order of things, but it will have to do.
  7. Read seven books. In addition to the four books above I also have The Jazz of Physics. In the unlikely scenario that I finish all five books with time to spare, I’ll try to borrow some books while I’m on holiday. Not going to happen, though.

Last year’s video:

Books and the image of science


I’ve been catching up on classics, and recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (first published in 1818) and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, from 1962.

These are two very different books. One is a horror story and the other is a non-fiction book about the effects of pesticides on the environment. Okay, that’s also a horror story. In fact, both of these books are about ways in which modern science can interfere with nature, and they have both influenced the public perception of science and scientists, and not always in the best way

The image of the lone scientist intent to create and invent something new and possibly dangerous is a trope in pop culture that is ultimately based on Frankenstein.

Meanwhile, supermarket and health food store aisles are packed with products that supposedly contain “no chemicals”, which is physically impossible and alludes to a misuse of the word “chemical” to mean “something bad”. This use of “chemical” in a negative way can be traced back to Silent Spring, where Carson writes things like “the chemical war is never won” and “the full scope of the dangerous interaction of chemicals is as yet little known”. Over and over, she talks about specific harmful chemicals and groups them under the name “chemicals”, giving the impression that all chemicals are harmful.

Silent Spring became a hugely popular book among the environmental movement, which itself became a hugely popular and influential movement to the point where it’s now thankfully mainstream to want to save the planet. Thanks to Silent Spring, people became aware of the dangers of pesticides on wildlife, but as a side effect, people also unintentionally picked up the idea that “chemical” is a bad word. Now, this use of the word “chemical” as “a bad thing” is still widespread in the same communities that read her book, but not necessarily directly by people who read the book. It took on a life of its own.

The same happened with the Frankenstein-inspired idea of the Mad Scientist. Frankenstein has been around for much longer than Silent Spring, and the effect is more distorted. Where the mad scientists creating creatures in cartoons are always wild-eyed and crazy-haired, Shelley’s Frankenstein is actually quite subdued and remorseful about his creation.

So, part of the current image of what science and scientists are like comes indirectly from books published in 1818 and 1963. It’s not the authors’ faults. Mary Shelley and Rachel Carson were actually quite fair in their descriptions of science in their books, but books get their importance from interpretations by readers, and they take from it what they find important.

Because books have such a big influence on how we perceive the world, including on how we perceive science, I decided to make some videos about the ways that books and science are related. This was the first, but there will be more!