Author Archives: Jon Turney

A Frankensteinian year…

I spent a long time thinking about Frankenstein, albeit back in the 20th century, and still enjoy the continually renewed afterlife of the story. My book on that is getting on for 20 years old, but I’d still defend its basic thesis that Mary Shelley furnished a myth that frames much of our discussion of biomedical science and technologies.

So it’s been interesting to see a few responses to the 200th anniversary of the story’s genesis (conceived in 2016, though first published two years later). The Bristol Festival of Ideas’ weekend featured a splendid new theatre production of the tale in John Wesley’s atmospheric chapel, by candle light, lots of talks, some new poetry, and a science, tech and ethics discussion I enjoyed chairing. It seemed to me usefully measured and informative, on IVF and CRISPR mainly, thanks to panellists Robin Lovell Badge, Sara Norcross, Alison Murdoch and Lucy van der Wiel. So gratitude to them, and to the Festival of ideas team for organising it. Also fun to meet the folks organising a Frankensteinian literary tour of Bath (Most people associate the story with the Shelley entourage’s stay on Lake Geneva, but most of the novel was actually written in Bath) which will be running this Summer.

There’s talk of a Gothic event at the Stoke Newington lit fest in June, which I think will also be in a candle lit church…  Details when I have them. And if anyone else wants me to talk about Frankenstein while it’s back in my mind, do get in touch.

What’s everybody up to in 2016? (And can I help?)

Guess what: My work diary has lots of spaces for 2016. I’m OK with that. I have a book I expect to write. But I do like to have other work on the go, mainly to connect with the world beyond my writing desk, to collaborate, and to have things to think about when I want a break from the one big thing.

If you have any projects that could benefit from a writer or editor, do get in touch. In thirty-odd years of freelancing (on the side to begin with, then full-time) I’ve done most things writing wise, aside from fiction. I like synthesis, I strive for clarity, and I am good at making sense of meetings and conferences. I also enjoy editing at every level, and I’ve had actual jobs as a sub-editor, features editor and publisher’s commissioning editor.

Some money would be nice but if your outfit isn’t paying and I sympathise with your aims (likely some variant of decarbonising the global economy, involving citizens in technological or health choices or science policy, or just resisting the resurgence of private affluence and public squalor that is the core project of our government in the UK) then do get in touch anyway. My day rate for others tends to be negotiable according to the interest of the job but I think you’ll find it’s reasonable.

I’ve mainly worked in and around science, especially life sciences and Earth systems science, tech, policy, futures, and global change – but I get interested in almost anything when I take a close enough look. If you see any connection with your interests and the range of things I’ve done before shown on this website, try me.


Technology and future cities

Here’s a report I enjoyed putting together for a workshop organised by the Foresight future cities project. A very interesting day discussing technologies that come together in cities, steering away (mostly) from the current preoccupation with “smart” cities. Anyhow, this is what I made of the conversation.

There are a load of other interesting essays that were produced earlier in the project on the same site, and look out for some wrap up papers for this fascinating project in the New Year.


Review, with important correction…

There’s a nice review of I, Superorganism just out in Chemistry World. It also points out that I mix up my spectrometry with my spectroscopy (specifically, mass spectrometry). I would have corrected that for the new paperback, which comes out next month, but it’s just too late now…

Never mind. I hope the folks who taught me undergraduate chemistry forty years ago will forgive me!

Schedule in India

In case anyone reading this happens to be in India…   Here’s where I’ll be in the next couple of weeks. I think most of the lectures are public, if I’ve understood the itinerary correctly, so feel free to come along, and say hello!

Thursday, 29th Oct 2015 – Mumbai

 Tata Lit Live Venue: National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA)

3:30 – 4:30 pm                     Discussion on No Man’s Land Imagining the Earth without human                                       Alan Weisman, Jairam Ramesh, Jon Turney

                                                Chair: Alanna Mitchell

                                                Venue: Little Theatre at NCPA

Friday, 30th Oct 2015

2.00 – 4.00 pm                       Workshop on Writing Science: Engaging the Reader

                                                Venue: Sea view room, NCPA

Saturday, 31st Oct – Pune

5.00 pm                                  Lecture at IISER Pune

                                                Topic: Futurama – do past futures cloud our thinking about                                                           futures to come?

Monday, 2nd Nov 2015 – Bangalore

 4.00 – 5.30 pm                       Lecture at National Centre for Biological Sciences

                                                Topic: Futurama – 

Tuesday, 3rd Nov 2015 – Bangalore

4.00- 5.15 pm                         Lecture at Indian Institute of Science

                                                Topic: Home planet – how to see the whole Earth

 Wednesday, 4th Nov 2015 -Thiruvananthapuram

4.00- 5.30 pm                         Lecture at Kerala University campus

                                                Topic: Life as a superorganism                           

Friday, 6th Nov 2015 – Kolkata

 10.00-11.30 am                      Public lecture at Birla Industrial and Technological Museum

                                                Topic: Futurama 

 Saturday, 7th Nov 2015 – Delhi

11.00-12.30 pm                      Lecture at Jaypee Institute of Information and Technology

                                                Topic: Life as a superorganism

India – virtually and then physically

I’m doing an online (google hangout/youtube) chat about I, Superorganism on Friday this week, as part of a clever “virtual literary festival” running from Mumbai.

Details here.


This is a nice prelude to a ten day visit to India for a six city lecture tour, thanks to the British Council and the Indian network of Institutes for Interdisciplinary Science Education and Research, at the initiative of IISER Pune. I’ve never been to the country, so looking forward to being fascinated/everwhelmed/exhausted by it (delete whichever is inapplicable).

I begin at the separate literary festival in Mumbai, then lecturing variously on futures, planetary observation and the microbiome, and doing a couple of writing workshops. I’ll post the full schedule here before I go.

I Superorganism shortlisted

Very pleased to report that I, Superorganism has just been shortlisted for the Royal Society of Biology’s Book Prize.

It’s in the general category – they also have prizes for textbooks. A bit like the BMA book Prize, which a book of mine was shortlisted for many years ago. Unlike the Royal Society Prize, for which I was shortlisted but didn’t win (for a different book again) I went on to win that one, so hoping that’s a precedent…

On the other hand, it’s a really strong list: Atul Gawande, Nick Lane (much the best popular science book of the year, in my opinion), and more. Winner revealed on October 15th.

Postscript – I didn’t win: Atul Gawande did. Congratulations to him! It’s a fine book, and a useful complement to Sherwin Nuland’s equally essential How We Die. I read that 20 years ago, but nearer to the topic now, as it were…

Once an academic…

I’ve been in and around academia one way or another all my life, but only had an actual university position for a decade or so (more than a decade ago now, too). Still, I’m allowed to have a page on and recently uploaded a bunch of stuff I’ve written – it’s easier (for me) to do that there than on a wordpress site like this. That means you can download them, if you’re interested – over here, if anyone wants to take a look.

And here are the individual pieces up so far – an eclectic mix, including a few feature articles, some reports and book chapters, and a few actual journal papers.

Lindau is rather lovely

65th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

Great to spend a week in Lindau as part of the meeting held there where Nobel Laureates (60 of them!) spend time with ten times that number of scarily bright young scientists from round the world. I moderated three panels, on human genetic engineering and the moratorium on using CRISPR in human embryos, on the future of science in Africa and on the future of life sciences. (We were planning to have a go at the future of physics, too, but for various reasons that one didn’t come off).

They were crammed into the amazingly crowded Lindau schedule, and more or less worked, I think though the third simply turned into a free-for-all Q&A – which I didn’t resist too hard.

I’m never sure if this kind of thing is my forte, but if anyone else want to invite me to organise panels at a meeting where you can swim in Lake Constance before breakfast, then go to work, do get in touch…

More to the point, not enough people know that all the Nobel winners talks at Lindau are recorded and posted online. The archive is a pretty impressive resource for anyone interested in high achievers in science and how they see their work. Start here.

The pic shows the discussion on future questions for life science in progress – pretty good fun. Venki Ramakrishnan speaks while Jack Szostak, Arieh Warshel and John Schell listen and I just try and look intelligent. Thanks for the invitation!




A nice review

I, Superorganism has its first review in print, and I’m delighted to say it is a pretty good one. Also online here if you want to see it in all its glory. I particularly liked: “What Turney does convey brilliantly is the excitement in these laboratories and what their work might mean for us”.

A remark at the end prompted my editor to raise the matter of updating the text for a trade paperback, not due out for some while yet. Still thinking about that…