A science writer’s reading list.

I’ve been doing a spot of teaching at Bath Spa University, as part of their publishing programme. Although publishing was the focus, I also talked about science writing, natch, and was prompted to review and refresh a list I’ve been annotating for many years now of “how to” books about science writing, and non-fiction writing more generally. There are quite a few of them, so it occurs to me it might be of use to a few other people. No-one would ever read them all, or like them all, but I hope it’s a resource that a writer who is trying consciously to develop could dip into and find one or two useful items to follow up.

I’ve posted it in full on the Science Observed blog, on the grounds that science writing is one way of achieving that, and I’ll put it up in PDF on my page as well.

Do let me know if you find it useful, or have things to add?

Talks this year

Picking up a few diary dates for this year – with an emphasis on variety.  I enjoyed talking to the Sunday Assembly crew in Bristol in January, and I’ll be doing something for the local Pint of Science effort in May. Not sure which day yet. Also in May there’s an academic workshop in Nottingham where I get to talk about metaphors in synthetic biology discourse from the perspective of a science writer. I think the main thing I have to say is that it’s really hard to keep all the possible critiques of metaphor in mind – however much one might enjoy discussing them in academic mode – when your immediate task is to get on and write the thing, whatever it is. That isn’t a reason not to try, though, or at least to pull back occasionally and think about which ones to choose.

Then I have to be reflective about science writing, and communicating about microbiome science, again at the Federation of European Microbiological Societies meeting in Valencia in July, and there’s an interesting event brewing on a completely different topic for the British Science Association meeting in Brighton in September.

That leaves plenty of space in the diary, though, so do get in touch if you’d like me to talk about any of the topics you see mentioned on this site.


Talking, microbiomes, Frankenstein… Frankenome?

Quick note of two events in Manchester next week. One is a session for the science programme of the European Science Open Forum ESOF – which means it’s at breakfast time on Wednesday. Seem weird to me but that’s what science folks do, apparently…   There will be two proper scientists talking about microbiomes human and oceanic, so it’ll be intriguing to see what their presentations have in common. Details here. I’ll be chairing/moderating and trying to get the audience involved.

Also in Manchester is a free superorganism talk by me for the Science in the City programme which is running alongside ESOF, on Monday evening. Booking for that one here.

I’m amused, in addition, to have just got an invitation to speak at my third Frankenstein-related event this year – arising ‘cos Mary Shelley wrote the novel 200 years ago. Proof that the old books are the good ones (hers, definitely, mine, possibly).

Anyway, it’s been fun to revisit the subject, which preoccupied me for quite a few years until my book came out in 1998, see previous post. Perhaps by the 200th anniversary of actual publication of the novel, in 2018, I’ll have figured out how to combine Frankenstein and the microbiome in some clever way.

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…