Category: science and philosophy


incoming by Ted Nield

The asteroid belt is not the way it’s portrayed in Star Wars… It’s not this busy violent place with things colliding all the time…

The meteorite that landed on Chebarkul a few days ago made me think that it was a good time to delve into the archive for the podcast I recorded with my old friend Ted Nield about his book Incoming!, which seeks to persuade us to stop worrying and learn to love the meteorite (which may be less easy if you live in the Urals).

When we met to record this podcast at the Geological Society in London a couple of years ago, we began by talking about the region in the solar system between Mars and Jupiter, known as the asteroid belt, an “orphanage for homeless bits of potential planets”, which is home to meteorites… and yes, we do come round to talking about whether or not a meteorite impact was to blame for the demise of the dinosaurs…

You can listen to the podcast by clicking here.

Jon Agar – Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond

Agar coverJon Agar‘s new History of Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond goes beyond the limitations of disciplinary and national histories of science to look at the broad themes in the science of the last eleven decades. He shows the close connections between science and warfare, politics and the commercial world, and charts the rise of new fields and the impact of new discoveries. He also tells the stories of some of the remarkable individuals, both well known and less familiar, who shaped twentieth-century science.

Jon Agar is senior lecturer in science and technology studies at University College London. He is the editor of the British Journal for the History of Science; his previous publications include histories of the computer and the mobile phone.

To listen to the complete interview, click here.
For excerpts, click on the links below.

1. “One of the interesting things about twentieth-century science is that a lot of the really exciting stuff has happened at the edges of disciplines.” Jon Agar explains here why he set out to write a history of twentieth-century science like no other previously attempted. [2:41]

2. I asked Jon if he knew what the big picture of modern science would be from the outset or whether that only emerged when he stepped back from the canvas. Click here [1:21].

3. “Nineteen hundred turns out to be a good place to start.” I asked Jon to take us back to that year and describe how science was then practised. Click here [2:13].

Fritz Haber

4. We talked about the ways in which the career of German Jewish scientist Fritz Haber (above) exemplified many of the big themes of the book, not least the intimate connections between science and war. Click here to learn more [2:36].

Jon Agar5. Science on the twentieth century is continually throwing up moral dilemmas. Here Jon Agar talks about the chemical and biological weapons programmes which were set up during the Second World War but never put to offensive use during the conflict [1:18].

6. One of the major themes of the book is the rise of the United States to a position of world dominance in science. How easy is it to explain why that came about? Click here [1:54].

7. Finally, I asked Jon Agar to venture some predictions about the state of science ten years from now. What will science 2022 look like? Click here to listen to his answer [3:16].

“Following the footsteps of the psyche” – an interview with Carol Gilligan

Carol Gilligan

In September I met up with Carol Gilligan at Polity‘s offices in Cambridge to record this two-part interview in which she talked about her childhood, writing her landmark study In a Different Voice (1982), her most recent book Joining the Resistance, and her thoughts on what has been achieved in the three decades since In a Different Voice appeared. She also talks about what remains to be done to achieve a post-patriarchal world in which individuals’ voices are both heard and respected.

“I am a woman who listens,” Carol writes in her new book. That is certainly true. She is also a woman who speaks eloquently and passionately about the ideas that animate her, often linking them in to her own life experiences.

Joining the ResistanceTo listen to part 1 of the interview, click here.

And for part 2, click here.

46. Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity

“Elephants are not treated much differently now than they were in the mid-eighteenth century: they are objects of awe and conservation, yet legally hunted, made captive, abused, and forced to labor for human gain. What then has research and learning served?”


In Elephants on the Edge, Gay Bradshaw makes an eloquent but always scientifically reasoned plea on behalf of the elephant, “for if we fail to act on what we know, we will lose them, and more”. It’s not just a call for better conservation measures and an end to the culling of an animal listed as “endangered” on the International Union of the Conservation of Nature Red List in 2008. It’s an argument for expanding our notion of moral community to include animals, not least the sociable, communicative, intelligent elephant. Bradshaw Elephants on the Edge“This book”, one reviewer wrote, “opens the door into the soul of the elephant” and it is a remarkable world which we glimpse through that door. The book has also been highly praised by writers as diverse as Peter Singer, Desmond Tutu, J.M. Coetzee and Tim Flannery. Listen to the podcast by clicking on the link above and visit the website of the Kerulos Center in Oregon, which Gay directs, to learn about some of the inspiring projects they are running.

IUCN status report on elephant IUCN Assessment, 2008

3. Books of the Year – Louise Foxcroft

Louise FoxcroftOur third guest reviewer of this year’s publishing highlights is Cambridge-based historian of medicine, Louise Foxcroft.

Louise won the Longman/History Today Prize in 2009 for her book Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A History of the Modern Menopause. You can hear a podcast in which she discusses the book here.

And here are Louise’s favourite books of the year:

Brian Dillon Tormented Hope

Michael Frayn Father's Fortune
Antonio Damasio Self Comes to MindBrian Dillon’s Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives (shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize 2009) is a terrific account of a debilitating but abstract condition.

It is told through the experiences of articulate sufferers: Proust, who expired, his fears vindicated, in his cork-lined sick room; Warhol who had a dread of doctors and hospitals but couldn’t avoid them; the glamorous Glenn Gould loved his prescription drugs and medical paraphernalia but died of self-neglect; and Boswell, the London Magazine‘s resident “Hypochondriack”, used exercise, regular dining and lots of sex to help him deal with his bodily fears.

All these anxieties were made worse by the fallibility of doctors who had few medicines but plenty of platitudes, and whose knowledge was said to progress one funeral at a time. Anyone with the merest twinge of health anxiety, and that’s probably all of us, will be fascinated.

Michael Frayn is one of my favourite writers, his novels are always funny, tragic, clever, and very perceptive. My Father’s Fortune: A Life is another one, like Spies, that I will re-read endlessly.

Self Comes To Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain is an excellent piece of popular science by Antonio Damasio, Professor of Neuroscience Brain and head of the Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. Damasio’s writing is lyrical and concise, so that difficult concepts are made clear and are a pleasure to read.

He illustrates how the conscious mind results from the smoothly articulated operation of many brain sites with the analogy of an orchestra and its conductor, but in this case it is the orchestra and its performance that produces the conductor. The great paradox, he says, is that our self is our entry into knowledge, and yet here we are questioning it. He makes thinking about your self seem quite acceptable

Summer Reading Choices: Graham Farmelo

Graham FarmeloGraham Farmelo is Senior Research Fellow at the Science Museum, London, and Adjunct Professor of Physics at Northeastern University, Boston, USA. He edited the best-selling It Must be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science in 2002. His biography of Paul Dirac, The Strangest Man, won the 2009 Costa Biography Prize and the 2010 Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize.

You can listen to my interview with Graham about The Strangest Man by clicking here.

And here are Graham’s summer reading choices:

David Mitchell Cloud AtlasSummer reading seems to be synonymous with light reading. Not for me. These relatively quiet months often present the best opportunities to read challenging, off-piste books that I tend to put on the shelf invisibly marked “when I have time”.David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas has been there for too long. It took an appreciative review of his latest, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by the notoriously sniffy James Wood to nudge me into taking the plunge. I’m glad I did – though Cloud Atlas is not always easy to read, Mitchell’s virtuosity makes it strangely compelling. I’m still waiting to be moved, though.

Is it my imagination or are good scientific biographies becoming a bit thin on the ground? An exception is Oren Harman’s hefty The Price of Altruism, a cross between a biography of the American population geneticist George Price and a history of the origins of altruism. Here is a biography with intellectual bite, worth multiply rereading.

Ian Sample Massive coverThis is a good time to prepare for the Klondike of fundamental scientific insights soon to arrive, fingers crossed, courtesy of the Large Hadron Collider. Ian Sample’s lively Massive is a first-rate curtain-raiser. This is a science book you can read on the beach, as refreshing as a giant choc-ice but conscience-free: it makes light of heavy stuff. An ideal summer read.

Summer Reading Choices: Helena Markou

Helena MarkouHelena Markou has the enviable title of Publishing Innovation Manager for Blackwell’s (the retail chain).

When she isn’t making or selling books she can be found in the printmakers studio covered in indigo ink, in the dojo shooting arrows, or in a karaoke-box hogging the mic.

Here are her summer reading selections:
Holiday reading is a bit of a dilemma for me. Torn between the desire to laze around doing nothing and not waste a second of the day, I tend to avoid the all engrossing page-turners if I want to get out of bed. So with me to a 17th Century Bakehouse in Devon came the following selection of non-fiction.

Ward Lock Guide inside

Ward Lock Red GuideA 1939 Ward Lock Red Guide to Torquay and South Devon purchased especially for the trip. Complete with original 1930s advertising, fold out maps (a la Jolly Postman), and eloquent descriptions of all holiday resorts accessible by rail or bicycle at the time of publication. In addition to bringing the history of a town to life, the author’s witty commentary often had us laughing out loud. I cannot recommend these Guides enough for anyone taking a UK break (NB: When buying second-hand online do ask if any maps are missing/damage and that price is discounted accordingly).

Hodgekinson How to be FreeHow to Be Free by Tom Hodgekinson This is a book that should come with a warning label. I was given a copy earlier in the year, read the first chapter, allowed myself to be persuaded by Tom that I should rid myself of all work related shackles, and spent the following day at work fighting the urge to hand in my notice. Having safely tucked the book away until I was no longer a liability to myself, I found it stimulated a well needed holiday audit of the work life balance.

Meditations Marcus AureliusMeditations by Marcus Aurelius. I have to confess I am slightly addicted to the Penguin Great Ideas series, and bought this (along with eight others) on the arbitrary basis of how much I liked the cover design. Fortunately, this lucky dip selection process throws up some gems. The calm and considered words of wisdom of Aurelius are easy to read, thought provoking, and for the most part, as relevant today as they were 2000 years ago.

“At dawn’s first light have in readiness, against disinclination to leave your bed” It is reassuring to know that even Roman Emperors struggled to find the motivation to get up in the morning.

39. On Monsters: An Unnatural History of our Worst Fears

On Monsters AsmaI first became aware of Stephen Asma‘s book on the fine Washington Post Book World podcast (which sadly is no more). The Post also chose the book as one of its top non-fiction titles of the year for 2009, calling it “a safari through the many manifestations of our idea of the monstrous”. Their reviewer went on: “I have seldom read a book that so satisfyingly achieves such an ambitious goal.”

And indeed the book is much more than a mere freakish parade of monsters (though that is a part of its pleasure) – it is rather an investigation of the meaning of monsters. Why do all societies have their monsters? What do they help us cope with? How has the significance of monsters changed as societies have gone from polytheism to monotheism and on through the Enlightenment? And which of our current fears will our future monsters embody?

Asma is clearly something of a polymath – not only did he produce many of the illustrations in the book himself, he also combines his academic career at Columbia College in Chicago, where he specializes in the philosophy and history of science, with playing music professionally (you can sample it here). And he has made his own entertainingly creepy trailer for On Monsters, which you can seeĀ here.

Click on the link above to listen to the podcast, or subscribe to Podularity on iTunes using the link in the right hand column above – it’s quick, free and easy.

“Where is everybody?”

We Need to Talk about KelvinHere’s an intriguing question to start the new year with.

Last autumn I interviewed Marcus Chown about his latest popular science title, We Need to Talk about Kelvin. At the end of the interview (which you can find here), we made this short video in which Marcus tackled a question famously posed by the Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, who developed the first nuclear reactor.

Turning to his fellow scientists one day over lunch in 1950, he asked, “Where is everybody?” He wasn’t referring to absent colleagues, but the apparent absence of signs of other intelligent life in the universe.

Click on the video below to hear Marcus’s take on whether we are alone…