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!

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