Category Archives: books

Book review: The Burning Question

The Burning Question: We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal and gas. So how do we quit? Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clarke (London, 2013: Profile Books). This review first appeared on New Left Project

We used to worry we might run out of oil or gas. That’s one of the reasons why we talk of ‘peak oil’ and refer to various energy choices with the word ‘renewables’ and non-renewables, rather than focus on low or high carbon. But this is a relatively old frame for the problem. Now we’re more aware of the problem that we might actually try to burn the oil and gas we have. Moreover, new or improved technologies such as fracking mean we can access materials we’d previously thought unobtainable, or at least too expensive to bother extracting. And we can’t burn them. Or we can’t burn them if we care about climate change.

You might be forgiven for forgetting this, seeing as how little climate change gets mentioned in media coverage of energy. But it’s a key issue; many would argue the key issue.

So, now, instead of ‘peak oil’ we increasingly hear the term ‘stranded assets’ to talk about fossil fuel reserves we could use in as much as they are there for the burning, but we shouldn’t if we want to avoid even more global warming than we’re currently set towards. We are probably going to have to get used to talking about this because it looks like it’s going to dominate a lot of the debate about taking action on climate change. Just as action on CFCs was mobalised around the then new idea of a ‘hole in the Ozone layer’ in the 1980s, ‘keep it in the ground’ has become a mantra of aspects of the green movement in recent months. Bill McKibben’s article Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math became a viral hit last summer, with a wave of campus activism of following it.

It is also what Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clarke’s new book The Burning Question is about. An explanation of a slightly different concept of ‘peak’ oil, and how we should consider fossil fuels as stranded assets. As their sub-title puts it ‘We can’t bun half the world’ soil, coal and gas, so how do we quit?’

The book has received a host of warm reviews and comes baring endorsements from George Monbiot, Kevin Anderson and Al Gore. It even made the list of books MP like to tell people they are reading over the summer, heartening maybe considering most of the other titles were simply about other politicians. I can recommend it too. Berners-Lee and Clarke provide a great overview of why this stranded assets issue is both important and so intractable a problem. It reflects a mature and evidence-based approach to energy policy. It has some strong, explanatory prose and is refreshingly short, with a tightly plotted, clear structure. Titles like this could all too easily be one of those great tomes you feel you should read but, textbook-like, really can’t be bothered to get much beyond the first chapter. But something about the coherent, lively prose and the sense of urgency sitting in the background keeps you going. I should also add that this book isn’t hectoring. It’s passionate and urges action, but any more strident campaigning is largely left offstage.

Berners-Lee and Clarke give their readers a host of useful metaphors and some clear graphs, both of which are simplifications in their own ways – giving particular lenses on the larger issue – but both incredibly useful too. In a field whose discourse often places contingencies and uncertainty above all else, it was refreshing to read such clear prose. Some may well find the book too simple and clear in places, and it is worth remembering that most ‘simplification’ tend to include some personal take on the issue. Such personal takes might not be bad – indeed, they can reflect a lot of prior thought – but not everyone will agree what the essential points are. The book offers the idea of reframing peak fossil fuel for climate change I started with, as well as an image of saving energy as like ‘squeezing a balloon’ to explain the often esoteric ‘Jevons paradox’, repeating Myles Allen to talk about ‘loading the climate dice to flood, or that if we talk about being addicted to fossil fuels, we should start looking at the dealers, not users (a line I’ve since seen Naomi Klein use in talks). These are all great explanations, but they won’t please all.

Still, Berners-Lee and Clark are very open about the complexity, reflecting a sense of climate as a multi-layered ‘perfect storm of money and power, science and politics, technology and the human mind’. The book offers you the big picture and then if you want detail, look to the endnotes. They leave the various ends untied for you to unravel if you so wish. We maybe spend too much time thinking about how intractable climate change and energy policy are. Yes, it is complex, but lots of things are complex. It’s also riddled with a lot of uncertainty, but again so are many other things. A strong sense of the complexities and uncertainties at play are crucial for scientists to help them think about new ways to learn more but is not exactly useful for getting things done. Clarity is rarely scientific. It washes over all the contingencies and possibilities of thorough work. But if it’s not your job (or simply favourite hobby) to work through the details of the issue, they become a barrier for involvement. Where as simplified versions of many other areas of science and technology are readily available as introductions for non-experts, there is somewhat of a dearth of explanatory materials for climate change. All in all, I felt this book is welcome as a contribution towards filling that gap.

One of the reasons it isn’t hectoring in its style is arguably because it doesn’t really advocate any strong suggestions. For all that the book is subtitled “We can’t burn half the worlds, oil, coal and gas, so how do we quit?” but that question was left rather unresolved. It offers frames and questions and information which may well help us towards better conversations to deal with this question, but it is a long way from providing some itself. I also finished the book unsatisfied that they didn’t seem to want to dig into deeper political issues or really challenge the systems at play.

They do ask us to think about ownership of resources and the book ends with an answer to the question “What can I do?” which I’m personally quite strongly behind. Namely, rather than just small individual actions at home like recycling, remember you are part of a global social system which runs the larger infrastructures at fault and put pressure on politicians and business leaders to change.

Many of us feel that we’re too insignificant to make a difference, but the social and political ripple effects of our efforts may be more powerful than we’d expect. After all, human society is every bit as much a complex system as the climate itself. Everyone is influenced by everyone else. And most of us are only a few degrees of separation from someone in a prominent role. Every helpful action or comment lubricates every other; every unhelpful action is a brake on progress

Nice sentiment. But this point is a scant three pages long. It may well be all that point needs – say it, then put the book down and get on with it – but I’d have liked a bit more reflection on how power is expressed and might be unpacked to run throughout the book, and think this conclusion could well have been extended with some examples.

The discussion of stranded assets – which comes largely via the Carbon Tracker Initiative – frames the debate very much within financial systems. This is useful, and helps open a new and important area of activism. At the very least, it focuses public attention on a form of social infrastructure which all too often gets to fester away unnoticed. Similarly, McKibben likes to juxtapose the difference between the huge challenge of changing the financial system with the even bigger one of changing nature. This is an important juxtaposition, I think; one that has sat behind much environment politics for decades and is only likely to become more obvious in years to come as we debate it more in the context of new technologies such as geoengineering and more philosophical frames like the anthropocene. Why should money, not nature, be the limiting factor? Money is just something we made up to help us make society run more smoothly. Why should we let this make-believe tool rule us to the extent we endanger our planet? When did we get more scared of this thing we made up called economics than the planet we were born to?

Still, there is something about the emphasis on the idea of stranded assets that leaves me uneasy. I don’t think we should necessarily give in to seeing the planet in such a way. Moreover, I don’t think the issue is as simple as that. People sometimes talk about a new industrial revolution – a green one – which will transform the way we live to a more sustainable future. It’s another one of those simple analogies which can be very useful. But as ever, beware of the spin on reality it takes. Because it’d have to be a very different form of industrial revolution from previous ones. No one will make gazillions of pounds from find new technologies we didn’t realise we wanted/ needed. It’s not about making markets. If anything, it’s about closing them. And that’s a hard sell (so hard we use the word ‘sell’ as a way to even talk about it). Because it is not just about changing finance rather than the planet, it’ll require a host of cultural and social changes too, and the rarefied graphs of Much of the Burning Question, like McKibben’s insistence that we just need to ‘do the math’, is in danger of loosing a sense of that, even if they also offer some really important starting points.

The Burning Question offers a very clear introduction to questions of energy and climate change but, as with any expression of clarity, it’s a slight spin on things. If you think it’s the way we do capitalism which is at heart of the climate change problem, you’ll probably enjoy its more normative points. However, if you have larger economic questions and more revolutionary aims in terms of the sorts of changes required (for more than just the climate) you’ll probably find its prescription a bit of a sticking-plaster. Much I’d recommend this book, I can see why politicians felt comfortable being seen to read this book: It doesn’t really challenge them much.

Book Review: Genes, Cells and Brains

  • Hilary Rose and Steven Rose (2013) Genes, Cells and Brains: the Promethean promises of the new biology (London: Verso). This review first appeared in Red Pepper.

Hilary and Steven Rose’s new book is about the politics of biology, but it’s also about themselves. The Roses are professors of sociology (her) and neurobiology (him), both with long-standing and vocal commitment to the left. They’re married, as the book quickly informs you with a touching reference to their meeting in a New Left Club on Oxford St. Such anecdotes reflect not just ways in which the personal is political but that the history of biology is both of these things too.

As junior academics in the 1960s, they received an extra £50 a year to their salaries for each of their children. This was due to the influence of William Beverage who, as a keen eugenicist, wanted to encourage such bright young academics to breed. This story warns us to beware of simplistic hero-building, but also that ideologies, bodies, science and administration wrap together in the Roses’ life history, just as their book argues such matrixes of technoscience effect us all.

The book is also about the large and important abstract entities of its title – genes, cells and brains – and the institutions, people, ideologies, offices, publications and above all, money that not only helps bring such entities into human understanding but direct what we do with them. It is a book critical, pointed and clear in explanations of the political economy of modern biology, and how this is significant not only for our understanding of how the world works, but how we imagine ourselves in it and how we choose to engineer it, including engineering ourselves.

The spectre of reductive materialism haunts this book, as one might expect from a Marxist take on biology. This is a reading I have never quite got behind. It is, itself, just too reductive. I remain unconvinced Victorian ideologies that influenced early Darwinian concepts of evolution really explain that much about the politics of biology today. There is nothing ‘inherent’ in the sociology of science. Humans are just not so mechanically simple. Still, the Roses offer several useful lines of critique. There’s a neat passage on the ‘outsourcing of ethics’ through the structures and uses of specialist bioethicists. They raise a sceptical eyebrow at Lord Sainsbury’s £11 million worth of donations to Labour and oh-so-generous refusal to take a salary when he did, finally, get the job of science minister he so coveted. They also note the influence of the Wellcome Trust as “the ten-thousand-pound gorilla in the genomics room”, not only significantly bankrolling their own science but lobbying the government to follow their lead too. They could probably be more critical of the Trust, which may have done an enormous amount of good, but is not be above questioning. As Stella Creasy’s asked, should they invest in Wonga?

In some respects the Roses paint a picture of a society that sleepwalked into significant and dangerous changes to the life sciences. Science journalism is partly held accountable, failing in its role as 4th estate with an over-reliance on churnalism. There’s also a finger pointed at the architects of the new left for simply not paying enough attention to science. I’d personally cast some blame at the sociology of science for a lack of public engagement, although these issues are complex, and the forces that have aimed to narrow, ‘outsource’ and obfuscate public debate on the politics of science to rather neoliberal ends have been a strong force to reckon with.

In some ways, I was left with a sense the Roses feel it’s too late to save science for the people. There’s a tempting whiff of truth to such pessimism, but I’m personally more hopeful. For all it’s socialism, the story told by the Roses seem rather preoccupied by big names. Arguably this is appropriate for a book about science, which is a highly hierarchical business dominated by loud personalities, for all its occasional posturing to be otherwise. But I suspect more social history/ ethnographically inspired empirical work talking to the middle-ranking workers of science would have pulled out a slightly different picture. More normatively, I think it’s through the building of horizontal networks between such workers that we’ll see positive change.

The book also felt slightly tired, and a bit dated in places. It’s all a bit old-new left. What about the newer-new lefts, the ones that write blogposts not books, that build and break networks online, that flirt with sceptics in the pub, make internet memes to parody Dawkins and are increasingly more worried by environmental sciences than biology? Where do these new monsters of technoscience fit into the scheme of science in society? Are there ways they might occupy scientific spaces, reclaim areas of knowledge and the very notion of techno-utopianism? Might they break the institutionalised nature of much so-called citizen science and public engagement, ignore the publication relations messages of groups like the Science Media Centre, agree and disagree in equal measure with Ben Goldacre and make new social movements for the 21st century all their own? I think they might. Or at least I think they have potential.

If you’re interested in science in society (and you should be, because those who are hold the keys to our futures), read this book. But don’t be taken in too deeply by its neater stories, and certainly don’t let it depress you too much. Let it make you angry enough to want to learn from more than just the good Professors Rose.

Captain Eco and the World of Tomorrow

My set the inaugural Green Showoff last night was also a chunk of my talk at the Story today, so I thought I’d post it here.

eco books

I did my PhD on kids science books. When I tell people this, they often get a sort of “aww bless” expression on their faces.

Patronising f*ckers.

Written by one generation for the next, children’s books are full of concern over what aspects of the past to maintain and what might be different in the future. They can be deeply anxious often self-conflicted cultural products; both futuristic and nostalgic at once, full of guilt and pride about what sort of world we leaving along with fears and hope for the future. Such anxiety is especially obvious when adults try to tell stories to young people about the environment. There are all sorts of inter-generational hang-ups going on here and it’s bloody fascinating.

There was a boom in kids’ environmental media loosely surrounding the 1992 Rio summit and another running up to Copenhagen in 2009. I have a small collection of the books that were part of that, which I thought I’d share with you, and I want to focus on something interesting I found in them – the recurring character of the eco-superhero.

At first I wanted to turn my nose up at these characters. Who needs a bloody superhero to save us? I kind of find it offensive even. I don’t like a great man view of history, why the hell should we have it about our future? We need to find ways of talking about mass, cooperative action, not some magic pseudo-religious superhero savor from the sky. But – actually looing at the books – these eco-superheroes are quite diverse (well, gender aside). Some are, indeed, quite patronizing. But others take the piss. And they all sit an a social context which say something about our ideas of agency with respect to climate change.

Books aren’t the only place you see this character. Flying far above all eco-superheroes stories is TV star, Captain Planet. As the theme tune repeatedly told viewers, “he’s a hero, gonna take pollution down to zero”. Created by Ted Turner and Barbara Pyle, the show ran from 1990-1996 and is still syndicated today. Though Gaia “the spirit of the Earth” was awakened by human destruction of the planet (a nod to James Lovelock) and sends five magic rings to five chosen young people across the globe, “the Planeteers”, to fight environmental destruction and, occasionally, social injustice. When the Planeteers faced a particularly tough foe, they could pool their magic rings to create the superhero character of Captain Planet. This caped crusade may fly in to assist us, but as a booming voiceover informed audiences every episode, it is only “by your powers combined” that change really happens.

Captain Planet is anything but subtle, and very earnest in its message of world peace as well as care for nature. There was a memorable episode where Captain Planet and the Planeteers tacked peace in the West Bank, South Africa and Northern Ireland, as well as episodes on animal rights and attitudes to HIV (there are quite a few online, google). When a movie remake was announced last year, Funny or Die satirised this tone, as well as contemporary inaction, with Don Cheadle as the Captain gone rouge; cynically loosing faith in humanity he manically turned people into trees ignoring the pleas of preppy Planeteers before switching his hand from a peace sign into single middle finger and shouting “the power is MINE” as he flies off.

As earnestly played as the original Captain Planet, but published more recently, in 2007, is “Understanding Global Warming with Max Axiom”.

Max Axiom  and Global Warming

Part of a series of science-themed comic books, Max is a muscle-bound (and not always fully clothed) character who, after being struck by lightening, was inspired to travel the world collecting degrees in as many subjects as possible to become a Super Scientist. His lab coat allows him to travel through time and space, he has x-ray sunglasses and the ability to shrink to the size of an atom. Other books cover photosynthesis, bacteria, sound or light. Importantly perhaps, here the heroism is less about saving the planet, and more about the adventure of finding out.

It’s not just Americans who apply superheroes to green issues. Take, for example, Jonathan Porritt’s 1992 large full-colour hardback, “Captain Eco and the Fate of the Earth”. We’re told Captain Eco comes from the Earth, angry with the way humans are mistreating it (again, perhaps a nod to Lovelock) he flies around waggling his finger at everyone for being lazy or stupid.

Captain Eco

After being introduced to “Clive” aged 9 and “Michelle” aged 12 (both more interested in books, television, sleeping, music and football than the environment) Captain Eco exclaims “Suffering Solar Systems! If these are “standard” earthings, no wonder the Earth’s in such trouble”. Whereas Captain Planet was powered by the collaborative action of young people (albeit in response to a supernatural force), Captain Eco only really features child characters to be spoken down to.

Fast forward to 2009, and the Science Museum’s “Your Planet Needs You” takes a very different approach. Here the superhero character is called upon from space by politicians but, with very British tongue in cheek, he is clearly constructed as possessing more glamour than intelligence and has to turn to a group of young people to explain the problem of global warming. They take him to their climate club where the force of knowledge is clearly introduced as the science teacher, Miss Weatherbottom. He’s a joke, as well as a sort of scientific straightman the explanations can be told to.

Equally interestingly, the Eden Project’s “George Saves the World by Lunchtime”, from 2006, features a small child dressing up as a superhero, making small changes around the home. Similarly, in “Michael Recycle” (2008, Ellie Bethel and Alexandra Colombo) we see a superhero fly in from the sky, but it is one with a colander as a helmet, clearly painted as a child playing fancy dress. Further, crucially, change here is enacted by people in the polluted town in question talking to one another (there’s a joke about threads of environmentally friendly toilet paper connecting them).

In these last three books, the superhero guise is a bit of a joke, domesticated and made juvenile, with a knowing rather postmodern incredulity for saviour narratives. Like Don Cheadle’s satire of Captain Planet, they laugh at the earnestness of the 1990s and yet, less cynically, they seem to revel in the basic narrative too.

Perhaps they are best described as having their superhero and eating it.

Looking at my collection of eco-superheroes as a whole, one omission was strikingly recurrent: a clearly articulated villain. Some locate blame with human stupidity or laziness but its usually kept vague. The closest we get to anything concrete is Captain Planet, though even here it is a cohort of baddies symbolizing a range of problems such as misapplied, uncaring science or reckless business as well as characteristics such as greed, gluttony or hate (and interestingly specifically, nuclear power). In a few episodes they even join forces in an echo of the composite powers behind Captain Planet to make an alter ego, Captain Pollution. Environmental problems have multi-causal, complex explanations, even on the Cartoon Network.

Whether this relative lack of baddie is because such stories accurately depict the abstract nature of climate change or more simply because media producers are too nervous to point fingers at people who might advertise with them, I’m not sure.It might also reflect an approach to climate communication which focuses on the positive actions people can take. One might argue fantasy super-villain characters devolve public responsibility as much as the idea of a savior from the sky, so perhaps it is for the best.

Moreover, Captains Planet and Eco, Michael Recycle and Max Axiom are merely the stories adults offer to young people. They may be offered ready-made, but they can be re-made by their audiences too, or simply ignored. There is Captain Planet fanfiction if you know where to look. I’ll leave you with that thought, and you can make your own mind up about what it means for public engagement with climate change.

inside captain eco

Energy and Climate Change: Some Good Reads


This post originally appeared on the New Left Project

A friend recently asked me for book recommendations on energy and climate change. “I want books” they stressed, “not policy briefing papers or essays or scientific reports. Something to curl up on the sofa with, something that digests and explains the issues and spins a few good yarns along the way. A good read.”

Here are my suggestions. I know I’ve missed loads: e.g. Merchants of Doubt, The Carbon Age and The Oil Road. I’ve stuck to factual literature, but if anyone wants to suggest some fiction, please do. Arguably we could do with some better fiction on this issue (good essay in the LA Review of Books on this), and I could also have included long form journalism like Bill McKibben’s piece for Rolling Stone last summer, or books for kids. What would you add?

The Discovery of Global Warming. Spencer Weart (2nd edition, 2008).

Global warming, like most scientific discoveries, was less a singular moment and more a long process of many discoveries. Weart weaves a tale involving many people over many years, gradually learning about the phenomenon and coming to terms with it (as continues to be the case).

Such a picture of slow, gradual development, refinement and sharing of human understanding of climate change might seem a bit depressing. A simple “eureka!” (or perhaps “oh, bugger” would be more appropriate) might seem easier to deal with. We’d see, know and just do something about it. Except the world really isn’t that simple and in many respects, discussion of the complexity is liberating. It’s crucial for understanding where we are now on the science and the policy and, I think, key to thinking about what we might do about it too. It also makes for a much more interesting read. Eureka tales don’t really take you anywhere.

It’s also, in a way, quite a hopeful book, as Weart is keen to stress that we have taken actions to learn more and do something with this knowledge in the past. We can continue to do this, and do more. It’s a story of change, with a real sense that more change is possible.

As well as being the best introduction to climate change I’ve read, this book is also simply a great case study in how scientific discovery works, and fascinating in terms of the interactions between international policy and science in the 20th century. It’s also reasonably short, clearly written and engrossing. Weart’s published a hypertext version too but the linear dead tree version’s my favourite.

Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. Mark Lynas (2007).

A neat bit of narrative non-fiction which won the 2008 Royal Society science book prize, turning scientific modeling into a very literary experience worked step-by-step as we’re invited to imagine first a world where the average temperature is one degree warmer than now, then three, then four, and so on. It’s a form of fantasy fiction, perhaps, but where the rules of this different world are based on scientific research, not simple make-believe (comparable with the way the Mr Tompkins stories tried to explain modern physics in the 1940s). This is a global story, as any on climate change will be, although this time the characters are largely waters, winds and other non-human entities. It’s a science book, although political in a way, it’s about things, not people, and expect a small amount of numbers, but it’s not hard to understand at all.

It’s a bit scary in places. But climate change is scary. I re-read the four degrees chapter at the end of last year, while the Doha conference was crawling on and we were going through quite a cold snap, and found myself hiding under blankets with jumpers and legwarmers, the howls of the sea ominously mingling with the noise of the traffic outside, the heating resolutely off and only a small solar powered torch to read by. It’s when it gets to six degrees it really gets a bit scary. As the climate modeling scientists he’d been using as a guide up till then fall by the wayside, generally falling short of simulating six degrees warming, he starts to uses sketchier geological information about extreme episodes in the Earth’s distant past. There’s something of the horror movie narrative to it, starting in the relatively familiar, gradually unraveling into chaos as he invites readers into “the sixth circle of hell”.

This is another book that manages to end on a relatively hopeful note, arguing we can build a low-carbon society, and leave it as a gift to the future so the nightmare image he presents really is just a nightmare. You might disagree with him on his version of how, which is arguably the rub, but if Weart provides a “yes we can” message, Lynas’ book says “you better bloody get on with it”.

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. Daniel Yergin (1991).

This isn’t a short book, but it’s a page-turner, and if you give it time, you get really drawn in. It’s got a lot of characters, spanning many countries and covering a historical sweep of over a century. But it’s well structured, so you won’t get lost. It’s choc-full of stories, and would make a good commuting read if it wasn’t so bloody heavy, because you can read it small chunks (perhaps this is what e-readers are for).

You’ll find that learning about the history of the oil will teach you a lot about other aspects of the world (insert your own joke about oiling the wheels of modernity here). Just as Weart teaches you something about the way we invested in climate science partly as an odd attempt at peacekeeping during the Cold War, from Yergin you can expect to learn something about the slow construction of the type of capitalism we’ve built for ourselves over the last few centuries. You’ll also read a lot about war. And you’ll never look at a petrol station in the same way again.

Did you know Shell is called Shell because they used to sell shells? (In the East End of London, not by the seashore, sadly) Or that the American oil market started off selling small veils for medical purposes? (burning came later).

Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. Alexis Madrigal (2011).

We might think of wind energy community co-ops or electrical taxi cabs as something new, a recent response to concerns over climate change and peak oil, but they’re not. There is a long history to both, as there is for solar power, wave energy and more. Madrigal even suggests that, at one point in the late 19th century, it looked like the future of transport in America would largely be a matter of electrically powered public systems, not the fossil fuelled individual vehicles we have today (apparently it’s partly the bike’s fault this didn’t happen). Electrical cabs were reasonably common in Manhattan in the 1890s. Londoners can see one built for their own city in 1897 in the ground floor of the Science Museum.

In some respects, this is a book of roads not travelled and, like Weart’s description of the slow, gradual ongoing story of the discovery of climate change, it could be quite depressing, yet it also manages to be inspiringly hopeful. It is a story of how energy could once have been something different, and so might be something else again. More explicitly than Yergin’s epic, this book helps you realise technology is something we make, and invites you to think about can we might remake it, or at least pay more attention to the structures which build such things so new technologies can be built to meet the needs of the planet, not exploit it.

Madrigal also makes some interesting comments in the concluding chapter about the way we imagine environmentalism, especially with respect to any sense of division between people, technology and nature. The “creation myth” of American environmental movement might be that they put the protection of nature first, but many environmentalists are highly aware that an idea of “natural” is both complex and not necessarily a substitute for “good”. Madrigal stresses the worth of a human focused environmentalism (or at least one rooted in an idea of the anthropocene) which acknowledges how much of an impact humans have had on the Earth and aims to be clever about our role in its future. He weaves into this ideas of national identity and the idea of the American sublime – American wilderness as some ultimate authenticity – and nods to David Nye’s sense that there is a strong history of the American technological sublime too. My critique of Nye’s (in many ways brilliant) book is that he doesn’t unravel the inequality involved in politics of the human construction of this sublime, something which a human focused environmentalist critique, for me, would have to do. But I think Madrigal’s book does help us reflect on this political aspect.

Book Review: Secrecy and Science

Wanna know a secret? Of course you do. Ok, it’s not really a secret, it’s just a story that’s a bit closed off. It’s an interesting story, about a military research centre which held an open day, but it’s in a niche academic book with a £55 pricetag. It’s a good book, painstakingly researched and thoughtfully written, just not one aimed at a large audience. It’s about secrets, hence this slightly folksy start, and here’s my review.

Science is often seen as both being about uncovering secrets and doing so in open, and yet large parts of it are done in secret: for military or industrial reasons, or more mundanely, everyday professional competition between otherwise apparently open scientists, or the privacies of peer review and other practices of scholarly publishing (e.g. embargos on press releases). As Balmer describes the Manhattan project; at it’s time, an almost unprecedented achievement in organised science, and yet one which was organised on a strictly need-to-know basis.

Key to Balmer’s thesis is that secrecy changes science. Secret science not simply open science enacted behind closed doors. Knowledge is fundmental to the social interaction which helps make so much of science. Secrecy disrupts that. Secrets separate scientists from aspects of their community at large, and with that they not only block off information and ideas but reward systems which enforce scientific norms and/or broader attitudes to morality and behaviour. That, in itself, doesn’t mean secret science is necessarily bad science (even if it might be seen to go against Mertonian norms) but it does make it different.

Balmer is also keen to stress that there are degrees of secrecy; it’s not as simple as if it’s open or a secret. Often the two work together, not least in that story of an open day I promised you. It’s chapter six of the book, on how a mix of political pressure and media coverage led to the secrecy at Porton Down being complemented by a measure of transparency culminating in a series of open days. The very idea of an open day for a research center undertaking secret research might sound quite weird but it was all about how they co-managed both openness and secrecy. As Balmer concludes, this story is not one of a complete secretive organization being forced to open, but a transition from secrecy embedded in culture to one that managed openness and secrecy in public.

By June 1968, with various representatives of the media, peace activism and parliament were, sometimes literary, knocking on the door of Porton Down. The BBC requested to film. Porton Down had to check with the Prime Minister as Number 10 had “preferred in the past not to go out of our way to promote interest” (Balmer, 2012: 93) It wouldn’t be a matter of unfettered access it’d always be controlled and the PR agents asked to preview film so as allow chance to persuade BBC to remove any “unsuitable material”. The CND magazine, Sanity, had published an aerial photograph of the site with the caption “The picture no one dare to print”. In contrast, the director of the Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment director told the BBC “I would like to introduce a sense of realism about this claim that Porton is a super-secret establishment” (Balmer, 2012: 106) which seems rather pompously patronising to me. Claims to “a sense of realism” are always rhetorically interesting, especially in a context where information is closed off to many (I mean whose realism, and how are doubters to check?). It’s pretty telling that a lot of the fallout of the television covered seemed to led to the familiar pattern of fights over impartiality with claims of bias from both sides.

Balmer writes that plans started to gather pace, and from late June 1968 they were planning open days at the end of October. This was a tight deadline so “emergency measures” (the very idea that it was that tight showed amount of prep required: managed openness) and a committee of scientists was setup to design exhibits and demo, others gathered information about how other defence establishments had managed open days (it wasn’t unprecedented). The open days were invite only, divided into a “dignitaries day” (MPs, senior local officials, industrial representatives , a senior scientists day and another day for other scientists and laymens [sic] (Balmer, 2012: 109-9). Members of the various peace associations and student protesters would not be welcome.

Fascinatingly, they also worried about vivisection. Animal experimentation wasn’t a central topic for public controversy at the time, but it had been an area of ongoing sensitivity, and a trickle of parliamentary questions had been noted. Porton Down had a farm on site, which bread around 600 cats, 10,000 rabbits, 30,000 guinea pigs, 50,000 rats and 10,000 mice a year for research. Should this be one of the things that was hidden? As one of the organiser remarked: “There is little doubt that a visit to Allington farm would give some of the press the time of their lives in reporting on the kittens and puppies it is best to face this once and for all” (Balmer, 2012; 109). A reply from the Minstory of Defence was that the secretary for state “has expressed the hope that it may prove possible to concentrate the public gaze on the rats, mice and guinea pigs kept for experimental purposes. If puppies and kittens are allowed a prominent position in proceedings, and unfavourable public reception to the work of the establishment is guaranteed” (Balmer, 2012:109-110). Whatever your own views on transparency and animal testing, it was interesting to see a different area of science-related managed un-openness folded into those of chemical and biological weapons research.

One of the other really interesting parts of the book is a chapter on the way doubt and uncertainty function in secret science. As Balmer shows, many of the scientists working under secrecy drew on authority to lay claim not just to certainty but uncertainty. As he argues, science studies sometimes too keen to lend a deconstructive hand at expense of studying those scientists who are all too happy to express gaps in their knowledge (Balmer, 2012: 74). This is not just the case for military research, as Balmer refers to several studies of environmental and regulatory scientists where “confessional uncertainty” becomes a positive sometimes defensive, resource (Balmer, 2012: 78-9). Uncertainty, just like certainty, is a contestable ground and a useful political tool on occasion too. We all know uncertainty exists in science policy disputes – YAWN (or as he puts it more politely “that is an over-familiar observation”, Balmer, 2012: 89) – but the ways uncertainty is constructed, managed and utilised by scientists could do with more scholarly attention.

Overall, I liked this book, but there is scope for a more ambitious work on science and secrecy; something that is historically less ambitious, but more sociologically so, and says more about secrecy in science at large. Although Balmer makes a few interesting general points (e.g. the ones I led with, and the points about uncertainty) he is also limited by his case studies. How do military cultures of secrecy differ from, for example, contemporary industrial contexts? Or more everyday competition between scientists, or the more normalised, protective secrecy of peer review? How do these all interact, as with the vivisection issue at the Porton Down open days? What are the different types of secrecies in and around science, and what do they mean for the future of science policy? What about new stuff like the Google-funded research drones for WWF? How can we build a more developed vocabulary for the various types and layers of interacting open and closed spaces of science? I enjoyed Balmer’s book, but for that very reason it inspired a lot more questions too.

Advertising the Space Race

Book review of Megan Prelinger’s, Another Science Fiction: Advertising the space race 1957-1962 (New York: Blast Books). A shorter version of this appeared in the August edition of Public Understanding of Science.

Another Science Fiction cover

There’s a lot of loose talk about science fiction; about the great influence fiction has on science or, conversely, a great cultural crash between the two fields. This isn’t to say science and fiction do not influence each other, or that there aren’t tensions between the two; only that there can be more waffle than study on this topic.

There is a growing body empirical work on the topic which attempts a realistic examination of the topic; work which often creatively looks beyond the flashy lights at the front of the cinema to consider the various ways science fiction exists, and various ways it is influenced by and influences science (and vice versa). David Kirby’s (2011) book ‘Lab Coats in Hollywood’ (on scientific consultants for films) is one, and Megan Prelinger’s ‘Another Science Fiction’, which considers her database of 600 1950s and 1960s adverts for space race technologies is another.

Much has been made of the hype and promises of science fiction. Here amongst the trade magazines of the mid-20th century (e.g. Aviation Week) Prelinger shows us that some of the most fascinating discourses of hope weren’t in pulp fiction, but those aiming to cash in on the ‘new frontier’ of space. It’s a study of a form of science fiction which I suspect fans of the sociology of expectations (e.g. Brown et al, 2000) will enjoy. The book is, in many ways, a story of at least one thread of the social construction of science and technology.

It’s also a chocolate box of a book too; bursting with lush reproductions of these sometimes exuberantly illustrated adverts. In many respects, it is a piece of art and design history as much as it is a history of the rhetorics of science technology. It’s easy to play spot-the-influence of Klee, Mondrian or Kandinsky in places; images that provide a visual treat as much as an intellectual one (and, arguably, add something to the similarly too often loose talk about connections between science and art). The ephemeral as well as semi-technical nature of the material (amassed from the library in San Francisco Prelinger runs with her husband) also makes you feel like you have access to an area of social life at least less accessible than blockbuster movies. They are images that are at once familiar and yet also unfamiliar. It really is another science fiction, one you are unlikely to have quite seen before, even if you will feel quite at home in it. I have a small personal vice in that I occasionally like to take a break from work by spending my lunchbreak with the Science Museum library’s archive of New Scientists, having a good sniff at their particular type of paper mold, and tracking cultural changes in science by looking at the adverts. Reading this book, I got a sense of a similar joy, mediated by Prelinger along with her thoughtful and well-researched commentary.

The advertisement on page 174 of Prelinger’s book sums up her material very neatly. “Want to build a space motel?” a large banner title asks next to image of floating spacemen and tiny cap of curve of Earth in background. A subheading informs: “Thompson Products can help.” The text continues “It’s bound to happen in the not-too-distant future: an American space motel for rockets will be orbiting about the earth! While the U.S. Government may send it aloft, private enterprise will help build it. And right now, Thompson Projects is ready to design and produce important components and assemblies for such a space station of tomorrow. Fantastically difficult? Perhaps… […] If you’re considering the development of an advanced product, let Thompson help get it into production”

This is very much a story of the commercial side of the space race. A story of companies that were engaged not only in making money from the process of dreaming about the future – as with pulp fiction, a big budget sci fi movie, or indeed, much popular science – but a sense that these dreams might be made into tangible, sellable products. As Prelinger notes, many of the adverts were for recruitment. Similarly, this Tompson Products is not advertising actual products as much as a relationship with the company. The text I edited out with boxed parenthesis in that quote above is filled with blub on their company’s history of work in the field. They are running a discourse of hope on reputation. These adverts are a fiction of sorts, but the fiction of advertising, not the more philosophical and entertainment based fiction that mid 20th century space-themed science fiction is known for. They are still playing with ideas of possible futures, but as an advertising fiction, these are ideas of futures where the implication that they might be real is key. Arguably, all science fiction (all fiction) has some key connection to a sense of the real, but this is perhaps a different form of real, a montisable one. Or at least one you are invited to bet on happening.

To end on a pragmatic note, I can’t be the only science communication lecturer to note advertising as a career path for graduates. As one ex-student put it: ‘those semiotics lectures were especially useful’. I bit my tongue rather than suggest I wasn’t sure that was what their tutor had in mind when she asked the class to deconstruct references to scientific authority in advertising. We may not be comfortable with this, but it’s a reality of the communication of science. For all ‘the public understanding of science’ movement’s lofty educational aims, a lot of science communication is about making money (c.f. Fyfe and Lightman, 2007, or simply the next paid-for touring exhibition you visit at your local natural history museum). Advertising is part of what constructs science and technology; in public and within most closed expert communities too. We’d do well to recognise this.


  • Kirby, David (2011) Lab Coats in Hollywood (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
  • Brown, Nik, Rappert, Brian & Webster, Andrew (eds) (2000) Contested Futures: A Sociology of prospective techno-science (Aldershot: Ashgate).
  • Fyfe, Aileen & Lightman, Bernard (eds) (2007) Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press).

Five Books

Marvin standing

I was interviewed for the Browser’s “Five Books” feature last week, talking about children’s science literature.

I did my PhD on kids’ science books. People sometimes think it was a strange, even trivial, thing to study – that children’s literature is just a bit of fun compared to the serious business of science, or that non-fiction somehow lacks artistitic credibility – but it’s an incredibly rich subject. Literary, and yet also often explicitly rooted in a sense of the material, hands-on and yet abstract, deeply metaphorical in places and often overtly realist, wonderous and mundane, textual and illustrated, diadactic and keen to inspire and open questions. In fact, did you know first ever children’s book was a science book? (well, ish, I like to tell people this anyway).

You can’t really pick five children’s science books that everyone is going to enjoy, and I’m certainly not about to provide a ‘canon’ everyone should read. Instead, I went for five books I thought reflected some of the diversity and sub-genres of the form as well as its history. Here they are:

1) How Your Body Works. I picked this as a nice exampe within the sub-genre of kid’s books about the human body (which at times can be more self-help than science). It  also reflects the number of children’s science books which use cartoon-ish illustrations that offer a somewhat metaphorical form of visual explanation. White blood cells as white knights guarding the ‘battlements’ of a scab, lungs as bellows. One of the illustrations adults seem to remember vividly from reading the book as children is the sex education via robots bit. Clearly the illustrator has really thought about the reproductive system – if you know what you are looking for you can see how it is meant to link to parts of the reproductive system – but it is also taken out of explicit reference to human sex with very box-like robots (second picture down in this blogpost).

2) Eyewitness: Dinosaur. I wanted to include an Eyewitness as they are such an iconic brand in the field. I could have chosen any but thought dinosaurs should probably be included in my list in some way too, so went for this. In many ways, it’s a quite interesting example because they have to rely on several artists’ impressions of dinosaurs, compared to most other books which are very photo-based, reflecting a museum-like approach to science as something immediate, about things you can see and possibly touch. In many ways it is very photo-realist in its approach (like Walking with Dinosaurs, maybe) but still reflects how much content in any science book is based on ideas, whatever the rhetorical references to a sense of the hands-on.

3) The Boy’s Playbook of Science. Here we have a clear sense of the hands-on, as this is an activity book, which instructions of things to make and do. This is also an example of a Victorian book (old blogpost from last winter on it and some others) but there are still a load of science books published sold on the premise of having a go with science. A suggestion that you should put the book down and do something more empirical instead, perhaps. There’s a great essay on John Henry Pepper by Jim Secord if you are interested (and I think everyone should be, a fascinating chap).

4) Uncle Albert and the Quantum Quest. This was a bit of a personal choice in some ways. I never read this as a kid, but writing an essay on it in the middle of my BSc was what sparked the interest that my PhD. I also picked it as an example of fictionalisation to explain science. The Magic School Bus books being a key brand I was tempted to include in my list, which do similar things. I also really wanted to choose it as a book which, despite it’s narrative structure, ends with questions. This might go against the idea of children’s science books (or narratives in science literature) necessarily presenting science as finished fact, but the idea that there might be further questions is key to many views of how science works, but is, I think, especially important in children’s literature because it provides a sense of the possible future of science which young people might contribute to if they choose to grow up to be scientists.

5) How to Turn Your Parents Green. I chose this because to reflect the wave of books on enviromental issues aimed at children that have come out in the last five to ten years. As I’ve written before, there was a wave of similarly explicitly green media for young people in the late 1980s and early 1990s too, and a long history of nature books for kids. What makes this book slightly different from others is that it takes a sort of ‘kids know best’ attitude, compared to the ‘sit down and listen now, dear child’ tone. A load of analysts have talked about this in the context of fiction and enteratinment media (brilliant essay on this using Timmy Mallet as case study in this book) but it’s less common when it comes to books about something as serious as science, which tend to be a bit more reverant to adult authority. So this stands as an example of some of the generational politics implicit in any children’s media as well as, being a ‘green’ book, the way science is political even (or especially) when discussed with young people.

Other books I wish I’d had space for include any and every piece of science fiction, one of the many popup scuience books, any of the Horrible Science books I did my PhD on, an Isotype book, a manga science book, a revision guide (dull, boring and possibly a bit evil, maybe, but they are also a significant bit of the market), books for under 7s, books for over 13s and the more nature-spotting literature end of things.

What else have I missed?

Book Review: Free Radicals

With his new book, Free RadicalsMichael Brooks has done something which surprised me: he’s produced a popular science version of Against Method.

Against Method, if you don’t know it, is a philosophy of science book by Paul Feyerabend, published in 1975. It argued against the idea that science progressed through the application of a strict universal method, and caused quite the fuss at the time (it continues to, in places). Brooks is keen to distance himself from the more extreme ends of Feyerabend’s version of this view, but agrees with a central sense that, when it comes to doing “good” science, “anything goes”.

Subtitled “the secret anarchy of science” Brooks’ book argues that throughout the 20th century, scientists have colluded in a coverup of their own inherent humanity, building a brand of science as logical, responsible, gentlemanly, objective and rational when in reality it’s a much more disorganised, emotional, creative and radical endeavor. This, Brooks argues, is not only inaccurate but dangerous; education and public policy would be much more successful if science was only more open about its inherent humanity.

This picture of the anarchy of science is done with affection and a clear strength of belief in science. I’m sure some would be tempted to dub it Against Method Lite, but Against Method, With Love might be more accurate. The message seems to be that scientists are people who do amazing things, even though (and sometimes because) they take drugs, lie, cheat, are reckless, work on stuff other than what they’re supposed to, are horrible to their wives, fudge their results, are motivated by money or are simply a bit of a dick. In places, Brooks also emphasises the religious beliefs of many great scientists, and the way in which religion could sit easily alongside, even inspired, their research.

Personally, I’m unconvinced anarchy is the right word here. Messy and human is perhaps better. Or, as a colleague put it at a conference earlier this month: “just people doing people things, in people ways” (I appreciate this doesn’t make for such a sellable book though). Still, the result is a warm, engaging and neatly plotted trundle through aspects of the history of science which the more cheerleading heroic histories tend to avoid. In some respects, the book’s approach of short historical tale after short historical tale is reminiscent of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. There is a key difference though. Bryson’s book, when it came out in 2005, bugged me. Bryson is famous for his travel books, in particular a chatty style which talks about the people he encounters with a fair bit of pisstaking (affectionate, and often respectful pisstaking, but pisstaking nonetheless). But, witty as A Short History was, Bryson seemed to have left his ability to take the piss at the door of the Royal Society. It wasn’t a warts and all view of the world-weary observant traveller; more a cleaned up polished pictures you save for the tourist brochure. The scientific community welcome Bryson’s book with open arms. I was left thoroughly bored by its reverence. Brooks on the other hand, perhaps because he has a scientific background himself, doesn’t seem to be nearly so star-struck (and isn’t, I’d say, nearly so boring).

Again, let me stress Brooks’ approach is not “anti-science” in any way. But that’s not to say such an Against Method, With Love approach is without problems. I suspect many of my colleagues in the social studies of science would worry about this somewhat celebratory twist on the idea of anarchic science. They’d want more critique, more probing (because, I should also stress, they see such critique as a way to better science, they generally do this with love too). I also suspect Brooks’ focus on the big names of science – Nobellists and the like – would jar with those who eschew great men stories in favour of uncovering the less obvious, more detailed and often anonymous networked texture of science. Brooks might have produced an anti-hero popular history of science, but it’s still one with a focus on great men. Indeed, there is a way in which these stories of slightly crazy scientists simply constructs a whole new mythical image of the scientist, one that adds new and different forms of barriers between science and society. I’m not convinced science is necessarily a “bad boy” any more than I believe in the mythical branding Brooks aims to puncture.

(An anti-hero history of science isn’t a new one, nor are critiques of it. Rosalind Haynes touches on it in her history of the fictional representation of scientists; work that was neatly reapplied to non-fiction contexts by Elizabeth Leane. There’s a section of my PhD on the rhetoric of an anarchic image of science presented in some kids’ books too)

I’m really not the intended audience for this book though. I’d love to know what a more general reader from outside the scientific community makes of it. I’d also like to know what professional scientists think of the books’ image of their work, and how other scholars in the history, philosophy and sociology of science felt about this refashioning of their ideas. I did enjoy reading it though, I think the concluding points about the political worth of accepting the human side of science are, at the very last, worth more public debate.


Breasts, by Genichiro Yagyu.

Part of the Japanese My Body series, this children’s book about breasts comes from the people who brought the world Everybody Poops, The Gas we Pass, The Holes in Your Nose, All About Scabs and, my personal favourite, Contemplating Your Bellybutton. It focuses on the relationship breasts play between mother and child, and includes several pictures of breastfeeding. It’s presented through cartoons, but there is something deliberately realistic about it, they do not want to hide behind metaphor or euphemism (see previous posts on mechanical metaphors in kids’ body books and ‘poo’ books). There are explanatory diagrams (cross sections, etc) as well as scenes of people laughing at their-own and others’ bodies. As with all the books in the series, the message seems to be that it’s ok to giggle and be interested in our bodies: our bodies are pretty interesting afterall, and pretty funny.

Breasts, by Genichiro Yagyu.

I thought about this book when, in Chicago last week, I spotted an ambulance with “medics for melons” scrawled along one side, on it’s way to a breast cancer fundraising walk. There was also a car with two large pink cushions strapped to the back, which after some thought I realised were meant to be a giant pair of breasts. I could see the appeal; a jokey way of declaring breasts as something worth talking about, and a couple of big cushions to sit on at the end of the walk. I wanted to take a photo, but it felt like a bit of an intrusion. These cushion car breasts were oddly life-like. Moreover, people were standing next to it, and I was conscious that these events, for all their humour and desire to raise awareness, are often a time where people remember friends and family who have died. They are pilgrimages of grief. It felt rude to get my camera out, so here’s a drawing instead:

A car and its cushion-breasts.

Moving in the opposite direction to the people on this walk, I was struck by the diverse set of cultural imageries of breasts they were working within: in some cases applying, in some cases trying to transform. A bit later, in another part of town, I also walked by an event called ‘sausagefest’ which seemed to be, amongst other things (i.e. selling sausages) raising money for prostate cancer. (The semiotic play with body parts utalised by cancer campaigns is maybe a whole other issue itself though).

Like any bit of out bodies, breasts are not just bits of our bodies. They have a multitude of symbolic, personal, social, political and scientific meanings; meanings which often cross, even clash. I’m tempted to say this is true of breasts more than others parts of our bodies, but we could say similar of hands, legs, eyes or the penis. Or even of parts of us we see less often (e.g. hearts, guts, lungs, the brain), including those we need scientific understanding and/ or equipment to see (e.g. blood cells, chromosomes, neurones, enzymes).

There’s the subjective experience of having breasts yourself, there are medical ideas of them and artistic representations which may well be more objective, or at least accumulate further subjectivities. Breasts are also objects their owners share with others. I remember a friend talking about the way he had to “reclaim” his girlfriend’s breasts after they’d had their first child. He quickly received a clip round the ear from her, I should add. Again, this isn’t unusual in terms of bodily parts. We might offer a hand for shaking, holding, a high-five or a fist-bump. We  might offer to “lend” a hand too, metaphorically or otherwise. We share blood, or at least we may choose to donate it to shared social blood banks (as long as our blood is declared safe), we share lips to kiss, shoulders to cry on, an arm to lean on, etc, etc.

Breasts come in a range of shapes and sizes, and change over time. Their semiotics are similarly shiftable. Just as breasts may be used to symbolise something else entirely, they may themselves be understood or reconsidered via analogies with other forms or cultural objects. A friend, listening to coos over how much her baby daughter had grown, patted her chest with both hands and smugly beamed “goldtop” (translation: very creamy brand of milk). Anyone who has taken a life class will know what it is like to be asked to consider a model’s breasts geometrically. There’s a neat line in Alan Bennett’s A Question of Attribution where a character says he thinks Titian’s depictions of breasts look like they’ve been put on with an ice cream scoop. It’s used by Bennett as a way of showing a clash of cultural and sexual identity between two very different characters, and is an example of the ways breasts can be divisive too.

Here’s a final image of breasts in culture, from a 1970s cake decoration book by Jane Asher. I’m tempted to just laugh at it, the book certainly invites you to. Still, I can see how it’s offensive too. For me, the cake seems very 1970s, reflecting a changing attitudes to breasts. Perhaps the days of the booby cake will come again though. Other things I bumped into last weekend in Chicago included the site of the first a Playboy mansion (to background of protests at the reopening of a London club) and a El train full of young women returning from the city’s Slutwalk. Just because cultures of bits of our bodies change over time doesn’t mean the change is linear, or that everyone’s changed in the same way.

Alan Bennet: “It’s like they’d been put on with an ice cream scoop”.

David Kirby’s ‘Lab Coats in Hollywood’

dinosaur!Dinosaur model from the 19thC, still on display in a South London park.

Verisimilitude. Good word, isn’t it? It’s one of my favourites.

It means ‘the appearance of being true or real’. It’s not just a term for people who study semiotics: philosophers of science use it too (or at least Popper does), as a way comparing theories’ claims to closeness to truth. It’s more ‘truthlikeness’, than truthiness, but has a range of uses and applications, many of which get somewhat intermingled when it comes to actually putting science to work in society at large.

Top tip: After much swearing at my laptop while writing up my PhD thesis, I discovered typing verysimilartude into Word gets you the correct spelling prompt.

This is a slightly abstract way of introducing a great new book I’ve just finished reading: David Kirby’s Lab Coats in Hollywood. The book is the product of several years of Kirby’s sociological research uncovering the backstage role some scientists play in the film industry, as consultants on the depiction of scientists and scientific ideas on screen. Kirby also seems to love the word verisimilitude, and the occasional messiness of its uses. It’s even on the dust-jacket. But this isn’t an esoteric tome of jargon-filled social science. It’s a neat little book for a generally interested reader; direct, clear, thoughtful and communicated with a genuine interest in the people it studies.

Although the bulk of his examples are films of the last decade or so, in some respects, there is a long history to this sort of work. Kirby refers to my favourite example here: the Crystal Palace dinosaurs (pictured). In particular, the way Richard Owen, back in the 1850s, jumped at the chance to be the scientific advisor, so these models would match his ideas of what they looked like, not those of his rival, Gideon Mandell (Kirby, 2011: 15-16). As Kirby stresses, the construction of a movie is a very complex business, one which involves a huge number of specialists and has some rather unequal power structures. Arguably, Owen had more clout over the Crystal Palace dinosaur models than the scientists involved in the Jurassic Park films did. A scientific consultant may well be listened to at times, and in places within the making of a film, and then later ignored. Indeed, in some respects it’s an odd fluke that any films have scientific consultants at all, and there is no standardised method for integrating them into the film-making process (Kirby, 2011: 42-3).

It’d be wrong to think of film-makers as dismissive of a scientist’s point of view though. They wouldn’t invite them on set in the first place if so. Indeed, one of the key points Kirby makes is how important a scientist’s version of verisimilitude is to the film industry. The book has loads of examples of this (seriously, the number of films that have used advisors might surprise you) but my favorite example is Finding Nemo‘s missing kelp. As Kirby tells it, marine biologist Mike Graham was asked by the animators if there was one thing in the film that might disturb him, what would it be. Graham replied that he’d hate to see kelp in a coral reef (it only grows in cold waters). There was an uncomfortable shuffling in the audience. But go check your DVD: there is no kelp in Finding Nemo. Each frond was carefully removed, at a considerable cost (Kirby, 2011: 102-3). Even films which sell themselves on fantasy (e.g. talking fish) rely on a certain sense of reality too: they need to be credible even in their love of the incredible, and science can help them do this. There’s a lot film-makers can find inspiring in scientific research too; a lot of visual beauty and novel ideas, a lot to make people go ‘wow’. That’s all good material for movie-making. Kirby has a lovely example of a visual used in the 2009 Star Trek movie, inspired by input from astronomer Carolyn Porto (Kirby, 2011: 12).

Kirby also stresses how it important the verisimilitude of films is to scientists, something you can see very well from the fact that remuneration is not simply financial, and often relates to their work. Some do get paid for their work. Some feel this as inappropriate and so take alternative payment like tickets to premiers, some ask for funding for research programmes. Some see it as part of their responsibility to the public understanding of science, some want to promote their ideas, or see them realised with movie-technology, some find it simply fun (Kirby, 2011: 56-63). The National Academy of Sciences has a project to connect scientists and engineers with  professionals in the entertainment industry ‘to create a synergy between accurate science and engaging storylines in both film and TV’. Personally I’m not entirely sure if this is a constructive approach to the perceived ‘problem’ of science in fiction or a giant red herring compared to less showy education and public engagement work (? genuine question mark here, I don’t know. Kirby refers to audience research, but conclusions and comparisons are very hard to draw here), though it may well make professional scientists feel a bit happier; to let off a bit of steam.

Kirby has some constructive advice for anyone who does want to try promoting science through Hollywood: worry less about how you might make the science in entertainment products more accurate, and more about showing filmmakers that accurate science could actually make their film better (Kirby, 2011: 10). Other advice for scientists include get involved early on, and respect the filmmakers’ expertise too. Kirby further invites the reader to think about what scientific accuracy might mean within the necessary shortcuts and sometimes fantastical contexts of the film business. Yeah, there’s Finding Nemo‘s coral, but there’s also Brian Cox’s role in Sunshine, a scientific consultant who was brought in to talk to actors about a scientist’s psychological motivations as much as scientific ideas (Kirby, 2011: 71, 73). Those wanting to have an impact on the public discourse about science through movies would do well to think beyond a narrow sense of  ‘scientific literacy’. As Kirby stresses in his conclusion, based on what we know from the fossil record, the representation of Dilophosaurus in Jurassic Park is completely inaccurate, but the film had much greater public impact (for good or bad) in terms of its depiction of scientists as heroes, as paleontology as exciting, and as genetic engineering as potentially dangerous (Kirby, 2011: 230).

I’ve been recommending Kirby’s research to students for years (links on his site), and I’m glad I can now recommend a whole book to a much wider audience too. If you are interested in the politics of science fiction, some of the oddities of the film industry, scientific accuracy in popular science or simply an interesting mix of cultures, it’s worth a read.