Tuesday, 15 October 2013

A galaxy of cells, an NHS supporter and a wonderful world

"I am a galaxy."

Well, that's definitely one way to begin a book. And I've been learning quite a bit about the process of writing books in the last few weeks.

Recently I attended my first book launch: Marcus Chown's What A Wonderful World. It took place in a bookshop near Holland Park. There were vast tables of books, a great many about travel and cookery. There were a few tables of wine, juice, and nibbles. And there was Marcus, helping get everything ready. His publicity agent, Ruth Killick, remarked to me, "I've never worked with anyone as lovely as Marcus. Most writers don't pitch in and help set everything up the way he does!"

There was an enormous cake . . .
 . . . and Marcus did quite a lot of book-signing and talking to people . . .

Among the guests were Simon Singh and Nigel Henbest - who had a nasty bump on his head from a recent zero gravity experience, and who I was able to thank for writing The Space Atlas with Heather Couper, my second childhood astronomy book that really got me hooked. There was also Marcus's editor Neil Belton. In their speeches, they told the story of how Neil pushed Marcus to "go outside his comfort zone" and write a book not about his usual physics and astronomy, but about "everything": biology, evolution, geology, economics - generally how human society, and our planet and Universe, have come to be the way they are.

As part of their launch, they're doing a blog tour, and I'm today. (I suppose it would sound silly to say "Sorry I didn't have it ready this morning, but I had a headache yesterday"?) Various bloggers are writing with their impressions of the book. That is, I'm told, a very effective way to find readers!

It's a lovely huge chunky book. Marcus has been having fun giving it to astronauts and the Clangers. We begin with cells. Each of us has more cells than a galaxy has stars - hundreds of billions. As Marcus tweeted a few hours ago, "Your body will assemble 30 million new cells in the time it takes to read this tweet. Each has the complexity of a medium-sized city." We find out what a cell is made of and why they should be so complex - and what a huge leap it was that they should start joining together and forming multicellular organisms.

The interesting thing about this chapter, and other early chapters, is that they . . . well, not exactly contradict, but don't really quite match what I learned in GCSE and A level biology. I found myself arguing. "Yes, that's called the phosopholipid bilayer. Hang on, it's not always the case that men have XY chromosomes and women have XX. Wait, we get our energy from oxygen linking up with carbon, not hydrogen. Or as well as hydrogen? Wait, I must check that! How exciting!" (That's the rocket-fueled baby in chapter 2!) So, I was frowning and biting my lip, but . . . well, if there's one thing I found out from teaching, it's that the science curriculum does not actually have much in common with real science. So a lot of what I've learned in school biology might need some relearning. (The chromosomes knowledge has come from conversations with trans* friends on Twitter, but this is an exception.) Werner Heisenberg used to joke that he had learned physics the wrong way round - particle physics first, classical physics second. And I, too, learned about galaxies from Galaxy Zoo long before doing any actual astrophysics courses about them. Marcus wrote about how, knowing what he considered nothing about various subjects, started from scratch and phoned up experts. It's good to learn things, or re-learn them, in a new way. So I'm very glad my school knowledge has been so brilliantly challenged.

I was particularly interested to find out what Marcus would write about money and capitalism, given his activism to save the NHS! Marcus is part of the NHA Party (as am I) and most of his tweets are related to this. (We've been on demonstrations together and he, I and his wife Karen, who's a nurse, were going to bandage one of the lions in Trafalgar Square, but the police stopped us.) Initially I raised my eyebrows to read about a sweet ideal of money: that a fisherman can catch eight fish at the same time as an axemaker can make four axes, and if they tried to do each other's tasks they would do less well at them, so they trade. I needed not have worried. We follow history through the word "salary" coming from "salt", an early form of currency, and progress to all the dangers and the suffering caused by unchecked capitalism today - including the 2008 crash; the hypocrisy of developed countries imposing a "free market" on developing countries, ignoring their own economic histories; and the idea that the market is too unpredictable and complex to understand, how this has become an easy way out of trying to regulate it, and how some organisations deliberately make it more opaque than necessary. I wish my old economics teacher had read something like this - she extolled the virtues of the Tories and the horrors of any market regulation at us lesson after lesson . . .

One of Marcus's favourite activities is collecting together surprising facts, and this book is bursting with them! Slime moulds have 13 sexes, DNA in all species is so similar that we share a third of ours with mushrooms, we age more slowly at ground level than above, that the advantage that modern humans may have had over Neanderthals was sewing (I say "might; I don't feel I know enough to be sure), and that the Universe may have been a giant hologram. And this great favourite:

It definitely is a wonderful world, and I've been having great fun reading this book. Thanks for including my blog in your blog tour!

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

"A Passion for Science" and Ada Lovelace Day

Ada Lovelace Day, created by Suw Charman-Anderson, is a yearly celebration of women in science, maths, engineering and technology. It started with pledges to write about women in STEM on a particular day - here's my attempt from 2010 (yes, I should have done more since!). It's well documented, including by experiments, that women still face barriers in these fields, and Ada Lovelace Day is one of the initiatives to challenge this and to celebrate unsung heroines.

If you want to get blogging on Ada Lovelace Day, just pick one (or more) women in STEM to write about on 15th October this year and let Suw know what you are doing! I may not be able to as I'm writing something else on 15th October, so apologies for that.

This year, Suw's put together what looks like a fantastic event. I'm going, and maybe I'll see you there. It's at 6pm at Imperial College London on (you guessed it) 15th October. There are going to be lots of speakers on lots of different types of science, plus a healthy dose of comedy, and it looks to me like it will be immense fun. You can get a ticket here, and use the code "friendofALD" to get £5 off - there's a "enter promotional code" box just above the big green Order button. It's suitable for age 12 and over, which sadly may exclude my mental age when it comes to jokes, but the rest of me will be there.

Also, on 15th October, there will be a book coming out. It's called "A Passion for Science", is edited by Suw, and is to fund Ada Lovelace Day. It will start as an e-book, but Suw hopes to have a paperback version too.

The book is about 25 people who broke with tradition to study science, technology, engineering or mathematics. One of them discovered pulsars. Another wrote the first computer program. Another used her illegal radio set to help the resistance during World War II. Another discovered that stars are made of hydrogen and helium.

You've probably guessed it: all these trailblazers were women (though we're not being too loud about this, so that those who don't think women can do science will still pick it up and maybe learn something. I'm assuming that you're not one of these idiots, since you're reading a blog that's obviously written by a woman). And here's my big news: I wrote a chapter about Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who is my favourite ever astronomer. (I've blogged about her here and here.) I am very fond of Payne-Gaposchkin. Her discovery was, really, just as significant as that of Newton, Einstein or Darwin - what the Universe is made of - yet very few people know her name. She used some of my favourite pieces of science - the then very new quantum physics to take a new look at spectroscopy, the study of light and matter. Although she was kept as a lowly "technical assistant" for many years, and after her PhD had limited freedom to pursue her own research, she went on to make many more discoveries about stars, novae, and much more.

I love her for possessing many of my own "bad points" - she was quietly obsessive, moody, jealous, and terribly untidy. She - like me - particularly liked drawing together huge amounts of information from various sources, and putting it all together in a clear way. She was a kind, funny and wonderfully brave and compassionate person, fascinated by everything from astronomy to art to languages to cooking to woodwork to music to etc etc. I first read about her in Empire of the Stars and then, more compellingly, in The Magic Furnace (the latter is my favourite science book, by the way), and longed to know more. When I found her autobiography, that was one of my main motivators to study science more deeply and do an MSc in Astrophysics.

So, I've been researching Payne-Gaposchkin for the last three years, and plan to do a lot more. In fact, I wrote such a long chapter that poor Suw had to cut quite a bit of it out in order not to turn the book into "Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin with a sprinkling of other amazing scientists squeezed in". But I hope to share it all with you in time . . .

In the meantime, you should definitely follow Suw and Ada Lovelace Day on Twitter. And Suw's feline owners, Grabbity and Sir Izacat Mewton. Happy Ada Lovelace Day next week!

Update: Check out the cover! I love it!

Update II: You can now buy the book! I hope some of you will - it's full of wonderful stories and inspiration.