Tuesday 9 October 2018. In 2003 my second book – The Silent Landscape – was published. It caused something of a stir at the time, combining as it did scientific knowledge of the oceans with a recounting of the 19th century voyage of HMS Challenger, the first marine expedition devoted solely to scientific discovery. It was even optioned for TV.
The Silent Landscape developed out of an approach that I had used in my first book, Architects of Eternity: The New Science of Fossils, where I combined science with good old fashioned stories about the scientists who had made the discoveries,
I have continued that approach since, in my book Lives of the Planets and in my forthcoming book The Isotope Man.
But I found myself wondering what it was that united these people and the only answer I could find was the simple pleasure of finding things out – the satisfaction, if you like.
In The Silent Landscape I mentioned how the naval officers and crew aboard HMS Challenger referred to their crew of onboard naturalists with the quasi-ironic homage ‘the Scientifics’. This reflected, then as now, a respect for science and also a certain wariness of its practitioners.
These days you will sometimes see the term ‘nerds’ used to describe those who study science (largely, I suspect, as a result of the TV show The Big Bang Theory) but it is no longer the pejorative it used to be. Instead it connotes a certain respect as well as a slight bafflement that people can make a career out of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. On the other hand, that pursuit has given us a lot; medicines, communications, transport, space exploration as well as other, less wholesome outcomes. Anyhow, I like the name Scientifics so I have decided to collect my essays under the title A Satisfaction of Scientifics.
These essays are a bit different from what we might term my commercial writing – for magazines and the internet – in that they take as much time and space as is required to understand new developments in diverse fields of science. For I am not a specialist scientist, I am a generalist who seeks to tease-out general themes from specific lines of scientific research. And if you enjoy my rather irreverent writing style, then that can’t hurt either, Right?
Having spent far too much of the past two years in and out of doctor’s surgeries, clinics and hospitals I now have a far deeper understanding of the applied side of science than I ever thought possible. I have had so many X-Ray’s I can eat my meals raw and they are cooked by the time they hit my stomach. I can practically take apart an MRI scanner with a bent paperclip and my knowledge of medical pharmacology means that I could consult for the scriptwriters of Breaking Bad.
Having walked the hallways of the John Radcliffe Hospital in the wee, small hours of the night wondering if the Ferryman now takes PayPal, I have a new and profound respect for doctors, nurses and support staff and the life-and-death decisions that they take every day.
A Satisfaction of Scientifics is dedicated to them.