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

Back to school

Back to school

Back to school


[Scroll to bottom for book giveaway! – NOW CLOSED]


Even though it’s been a long time since I was in any form of full-time school, September still feels like “back to school” season to me. Everyone is back from holiday and ready for a few months of hard work until the end of the year.


Online courses

September is  also the time of year where a lot of free online courses or MOOCs are starting up again, so I had a look to see what’s available.

I’m already signed up for this Whole Genome Sequencing course, because I’m currently doing communication for the TGMI. I hope the course will help me get a bit more insight into some of the things people are doing in related areas, as well as observe how the course is managed and how  the complexities of WGS are presented. It starts September 19. Join me if you want!

Here are some other MOOCs I found that I thought looked interesting, but won’t have time for (or have already done).

Introduction to Communication Science – starts September 5. I’ve taken this, and I enjoyed it!

Get started with online learning – starts October 3rd.

Medicine and the arts: Humanizing healthcare – Just started, you can catch up

Digital storytelling: filmmaking for the web – just started, you can catch up

Design and make infographics – just started, you can catch up


myscicareer_greyscale_232x130px_transp_bgIf you’re currently in a science undergraduate or graduate program and are starting to think about the scary future beyond school, have a look at all the stories shared on the MySciCareer site by people with a science background. Lots of different jobs there already, and we will soon be adding even more! Lou and I have been busy sourcing new content, which should be added over the next few weeks.

(Lecturers and career advsiors: If you’re involved in talking to science students and grad students about careers and have used the MySciCareer site as a resource, please let me know!)


CareerOpBioSci_fBook giveaway! [NOW CLOSED!]

Finally, nothing says “new school year” like books.

A while ago I reviewed the book “Career Options for Biomedical Scientists”. It’s a useful book for current PhD students in the life sciences, but I already have a career. The book is still in very good condition, so I’m happy to pass it on to a current PhD student!

To get a chance of receiving the book, leave a comment on this post before September 9. Any comment will do, but if you want something to write about you can use your comment to share some of your plans for the next “school year”. I’ll draw a name from the comments after that to determine the winner of the book. Make sure to enter your email address with your comment so that I can reach you if you win. (Email addresses are not shown on the site, but I can see them and contact you if needed).

Science at ArchWay With Words


I noticed it last year as well, but this year North London literary festival ArchWay With Words has even more science-themed events! Sadly most of them overlap with evenings I’m volunteering at the You Me Bum Bum Train theatre production elsewhere in London, but I’ll try to catch at least one of these.

For the full programme, which starts tomorrow, visit the ArchWay With Words website.

Science events:

A magnificent man and his Enigma Machine

Simon Singh on the secrets of the code crackers
Tuesday, October 13, 18:30
Tickets £5 (£2 for under 16s)

The Science of Laughter
Neuroscience just got funny – with Sophie Scott
Tuesday, October 13, 20:30
Tickets £6

Peck of the Antarctic
Meet Professor Peck of the British Antarctice Survey
Wednesday, October 14, 19:30
Tickets £7

A true tale of daring, determination & dinosaurs (about Mary Anning)
Told by storyteller Bronia Evers with song, puppets and objects from the natural word.
Thursday, October 15, 16:30
Free, but limited space. Book online.

The remarkable writing of Tracy Chevalier
2nd event celebrating the achievements of Mary Anning
Thursday, October 15, 19:45
Tickets £7

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!

Science in Books


Project announcement: I’m preparing some videos in which I chat about science in books (both fiction and non-fiction). I’ve recorded some footage, but I don’t seem have a single minute of time left in the coming month to work on it further, so it will have to wait until later this autumn. I want to have a few episodes in the can before I put any of them up, so that they can go on a schedule.

Why books?
I’ve been reading more, and watching booktube videos, and discussing books on Goodreads. I also did my first attempt at booktube when I did the BookTubeAThon a few weeks ago:

Why science?
When I selected my books to read for the BookTubeAThon (see video above), I noticed that more half of them were about science, even though I didn’t deliberately choose them based on that topic. Two of the novels has scientists characters (see the LabLit site for many more!), one was a fictional science text book, and one a non-fiction book about science. There is lots of science in books, and my bookshelves are full of books about science or scientists, and there is just a lot to talk about. A LOT.

Why video?
I like video. I can write, but over the past decade of science blogging, my audience changed. Instead of a core audience I now have random people coming in from twitter once in a while. People who don’t know me, who don’t get my references and jokes, and who seem to read my writing with a much too serious voice. If you don’t know that my blogging history included deliberately and successfully getting a ridiculous drawing to the Google Image Search results for “pictures of SARS“, and being kidnapped by Charles Darwin because his birthday was overshadowed by Valentine’s Day, and you just come across a random post here, you will probably get the tone wrong. So I’m starting to explore video a bit more, and see how that goes.

Also, as I wrote on Medium this week, I can’t deal with podcasts at all.

Paper vs Paperwhite


After the zillionth time being unable to read a book on a crowded tube because I couldn’t read while grasping onto a pole and fighting for a tiny bit of space to stand, I finally got a Kindle. I’d noticed that the Kindle-users were still able to hold their devices up even under the most crowded London tube conditions. I was also planning a two-week trip to the US, and I had no room in my luggage for books, but I could fit an e-reader in there somewhere.

I’d always resisted e-readers, because I love books. I love holding them and stroking the pages, and that was lost in digital form. Now, after three months with a Kindle, I have to admit I still mostly feel the same. I still miss physical books.

I miss flipping back and forth, when you just want to look something up and you remember that it was on a left-side page sort of one-third into the book.  I miss the unique feel and smell of each book. I miss judging books by their cover.

Ebooks don’t take up any shelf space, but sometimes you want your books on a shelf. I already regret reading Neil Gaiman and David Sedaris books on my Kindle, because they’re some of my favourite authors and they deserve to sit on the packed shelves of my bookcase. Even though I paid for their ebooks, it doesn’t feel like I own the books. They’re just ones and zeroes in a small electronic device.

I also immediately forget the books I read on my Kindle, because they’re not lingering around after I’m done, and I can’t even remember all of the titles because I rarely see the front of the book: The Kindle remembers where I was, and shows me that page immediately. I don’t see the covers and titles. All my books look like my Kindle cover now.

But since I got my Kindle, I have read many more books than I did in the months before. It’s small and fits in all my bags, so I can grab a book to read almost everywhere I am, even on a crowded tube. Today I’m packing for another trip, carry-on luggage only, and I’m bringing three unread books with me.

The trade-off between coveting books and reading more often reminds me of the library. When I was a kid I read several books per week, then returned them to the library, and never saw them again. For most books that was fine, but there are a few books from my childhood I would have loved to own. The Kindle is similar: it’s great to make reading books more accessible, but sometimes I just want to hold and own a physical book.





Book review: The Reputation Society

The internet is an interesting place. I can’t remember exactly what I was looking for, but a few weeks ago I was clicking around on the web and discovered that friends of mine had edited a book that was recently published. A few other people I know had written chapters, and yet somehow I hadn’t been paying enough attention and missed it.

I bought the book on Amazon, even though it had no customer reviews yet. I knew it would be good, though, because I was familiar with the work of several people involved in it. That thought process, where my decision to buy a book was based on the reputation of the authors, and where I checked to see whether it had Amazon reviews, is exactly what “The Reputation Society” is about.

Editors Hassan Masum and Mark Tovey gathered contributions by a group of writers and thought leaders who all approach the concept of reputation in a different way. The essays refer each other in places to make the book feel coherent despite a great variety in writing styles. Collectively, they show that there are many ways in which, to quote part of the book’s subtitle, “online opinions are reshaping the offline world.”

The first few chapters introduce the difference between reputation systems (which rate people) and recommendation systems (which rate content), and the many places they are used, both online and offline. Credit ratings are a traditional reputation measurement, but with the emergence of the internet, new ones arise, such as a person’s seller rating on eBay.

The book addresses reputation in politics, law, philantropy and many other fields. But because I manage an online community of scientists, I was particularly interested in the chapters about online communities and about reputation in science. In his chapter about online communities, Cliff Lampe points out that in recent years there has been a trend toward people using their real name online more often, thanks in part to the rise of Facebook and LinkedIn. In a later section of the book, several chapters address metrics and reputation in science, from the traditional h-index to emerging metrics based on article use rather than citation.

I never really think of the (news-y) content that scientists provide to the website I manage with the scientific output of their work, but after reading about those different reputation systems, and noting the increasing use of real names online, it seems like it shouldn’t be hard to find a person’s complete reputation profile. Not just their professional and academic credentials, but also their eBay seller score, how many Facebook friends or Twitter followers they have, and how their blog posts were rated.

Indeed, the last few chapters of The Reputation Society address precisely this amalgamation of reputations. Jamais Cascio describes four scenarios, for four possible future reputation systems, and they all involve an amalgamation of ratings from different sources. In the final chapter, Madeline Ashby and Cory Doctorow also look at potential futures for reputation systems, in particular in education systems, and those, too, include different parts of people’s lives.

If you’re interested in various aspects of the internet’s effect on reputation metrics in society, I recommend you read this book. Of course, my recommendation should be viewed in light of me knowing the editors and some authors, but if you’re reading this at all, you probably already considered my reputation – either because you know me, or because you formed an opinion based on reading my blog(s), or because Google ranked this post relatively high on a search you did. If you want to figure out how to interpret those rankings and reputations and decide whether to trust my book recommendation, a good first step would be to read “The Reputation Society”.

Alice’s Adventures in Animal Experimentation

In 1875 Lewis Carroll wrote Some Popular Fallacies About Vivisection for the publication Fortnightly Review. Carroll was strongly opposed to vivisection, but I think that if he were alive today, he would not have so much of a problem with current animal research procedures.
In “Some Popular Fallacies About Vivisection” Carroll takes several statements used by 19th century pro-vivisectionists and argues against them. Interestingly, he starts out by saying that the golden mean is somewhere between the statement that vivisection is justifiable and the statement that it is never okay. So already he admits to not being entirely opposed to animal research. What he takes issue with is purposely inflicting pain on animals, not so much killing itself. He gives some examples of cases which he considers over the top examples of avoiding animal deaths, and the first example nicely illustrates how far animal rights have come in the past century. Carroll, who was obviously a fervent supporter of animal rights, believed in 1875 that it was a bit over the top to not kill some puppies if the litter is too big:
“Never may we destroy, for our convenience, some of a litter of puppies—or open a score of oysters when nineteen would have sufficed—or light a candle in a summer evening for mere pleasure, lest some hapless moth should rush to an untimely end! Nay, we must not even take a walk, with the certainty of crushing many an insect in our path, unless for really important business ! Surely all this is childish.”

Several fallacies that Carroll argues against involve the morality of the scientists doing the research. He points out that while they say that it’s necessary to use animals to advance medical research, many scientists actually just do the research to satisfy their own curiosity.
“As one who has himself devoted much time and labour to scientific investigations, I desire to offer the strongest possible protest against this falsely coloured picture [that science is unselfish]. I believe that any branch of science, when taken up by one who has a natural turn for it, will soon become as fascinating as sport to the most ardent sportsman, or as any form of pleasure to the most refined sensualist. “
He does have a point here: curing diseases might be the goal of the research, or at least that is what you write in your grant application, but in the end scientists do the work because they want to do research. But Carroll extends this to wanting to hurt animals, and that’s not the same thing. Maybe “doing research” is a goal in itself rather than a means for the goal of “curing diseases”, but “animal experimentation” is still only a means for the goals of “doing research” or “curing diseases” and not a pursuable goal in itself. Carroll would probably agree that if a scientist had a choice between animal research and non-animal research resulting in the same information, they should choose the option without animals. He also mentions that, despite not supporting vivisection, he is not opposed to legislating it either. (“(…) the risk of legislation increasing the evil is not enough to make all legislation undesirable.”)
If Carroll knew that more than a century later scientists have to go through rigorously monitored procedures to get permission to do anything involving animals, that there are alternatives involving cell cultures, fake animals, or computer modelling to reduce the need for animals in research or teaching to the absolute minumum, that any animals used are better cared for than many pets, and not purposely hurt, would he approve?
I think he would. I think all of his concerns are dealt with, and what’s more: nobody would even dare kill part of litter of puppies for convenience!

Alice through the Looking Glass exhibit in Bristol

I’m working on a blog post about an essay on vivisection that Lewis Carroll wrote in 1875, and while doing research I came across this:
The Explore-At-Bristol science centre in Bristol (UK) is currently hosting an exhibit called Alice Through the Looking Glass. It runs until November, and is mostly meant for children, but I know that if I was anywhere in the UK right now I would personally go and check it out all by my adult self.
The exhibit uses events from both Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass to explain some basic concepts. The themes seem to be mainly related to perception and physics. (I assume the obvious hallucinogen references (the caterpillar) are left out of this family friendly exhibit.)

If anyone has been here or is planning on going, let me know!

Harry Potter Science (part 3) – Bezoars

(Also on easternblot )
Hogwarts students learn about bezoars in their first year potions class. They’re stones from the stomach of a goat that work as an antidote to most poisons. In book 6, Harry saves Ron’s life by giving him a bezoar after he accidentally drinks poisoned mead in Slughorn’s office.

J.K .Rowling did not make this up: bezoars really exist !. They can be found in the stomach or intestines of various animals (including goats, but also humans , elephants , or llamas [pictured above]), and are composed of undigested hairs (trichobezoar) or nondigestible food material such as cellulose (phytobezoar).
In the 16th century, bezoars (especially from goats and cows) were believed to be universal antidotes. They were also quite rare, and heavily sought after by the rich. King Charles IX of France (1550-1574) was excited when he acquired a bezoar from Spain. He showed it to court physician Ambroise Paré (1510-1590), asking if there was any antidote quite as good as a bezoar like that. Paré told the king that he did not believe there was such a thing as a universal antidote, because there are so many different types of poisons. He suggested an experiment to prove that the bezoar would not work.

Ambroise Paré
Paré asked if there were any prisoners scheduled for hanging. As it happened, a cook was just put on death row for stealing some silverware. The king made the cook a proposition: he could be hanged as planned, a quick and sure death, or he could be poisoned, at which time he would also be given a bezoar. If the bezoar successfully blocked the poison, he would be allowed to keep his life. Naturally, the cook happily took this chance and agreed to be experimented on.