Category Archives: Writing

BOOK UPDATE! Extract and discount code now available

Herding Hemingway's CatsOH MY GOD – it’s all getting a bit too exciting! My new book, Herding Hemingway’s Cats, has finally gone off to print. I’ve recorded the audiobook (amazing fun but such hard work)  and you can now read an extract from it here on the interwebs.

It’s launching in the UK on Thursday 14th January, and I’ll be hosting a fantastic event at the Royal Institution in London that evening from 7pm-8,30pm (SQUEEEEE!!!) featuring talks and discussion from me and two characters who appear in the book – Anne Ferguson-Smith from Cambridge University and Ben Lehner from Barcelona. Find out more and buy tickets now.

And if that has whetted your appetite, my publisher Bloomsbury Sigma is offering a super discount if you pre-order it direct from their website using the discount code GENES. Click here and buy buy buy!

Have a lovely Christmas and new year. Roll on 2016 – year of The Book!


A quick pimp for BPOD

BPODNo real blogging for the time being – I’m still mad busy. In the meantime, here’s a quick pimp for something that’s been taking up my time – writing for the Biomedical Picture of the Day (BPOD), run by the Medical Research Council.

The premise is simple, based on the Astronomy Picture of the Day – the editors pick an intriguing and/or beautiful biomedical image, and get one of the writing team to conjour up a few lines about it.

I’m thrilled to be involved in this project, as I think it really showcases the beauty in the biological world. Here are a few of the pics I’ve written about:

Pop over to the main BPOD site for a daily dose of biomedical beauty, and join their Facebook page to get in on the action.

On slang – I’ll show you mine if you show me yours

The Winner TacoEvery group of friends and colleagues has their own slang – words they use to signify things that are peculiar to that group – and it’s something that fascinates me.

As a child, my friends and I would describe something particularly good as an “Eggy one!” (nope, me neither – I still don’t quite know where it came from), although it was obviously very uncool if your Dad started using it…

At university it got worse. Regardless of the slightly archaic language of Cambridge in use in everyday life (bedders? plodge? P-hole?), we developed our own. Toilets became the “lageteria”, andanything that reached the pinnacle of awesomeness was referred to as “the Winner Taco”, in reference to a popular Spanish icecream.

And it still goes on. Within Sunday Driver, we have a habit of referring to a kurta, a traditional Indian shirt worn by several members of the band, as a “Norris”. Coined by Matthew, our old tabla player, this is nouveau cockney rhyming slang: Norris McWhirter = kurta.

I’ve shared a few of mine, and I’m intrigued to hear yours. What are the words that have become common parlance in your social group. Where did they come from, and why do you love them (or hate them)?

International Women’s Day – Suffrage Science launch

Nancy Roman

NASA's Dr Nancy Roman

Today sees the launch of Suffrage Science, a booklet celebrating the work of some of the top women in science.

I wrote the chapter featuring Liz Robertson and Sohaila Rastan, who were fantastic interviewees and both very funny. Unfortunately, their most scandalous anecdotes didn’t make it into the book…

Here’s the blurb:

“We’re delighted to launch the digital version of Suffrage Science on the centenary of International Women’s Day, March 8th 2011. Featuring conversations between leading female researchers in neuroscience and psychology, embryology and genetics, structural biology; and the biology of cancer and HIV, the publication brings to light a collection of stories about the significant contributions that women have made to science over the past 100 years.”

The booklet is available online today, and I’m off to the launch of the limited-edition print version tomorrow night at the ICA, featuring a public debate entitled  “Are Women Changing Science?” Exciting!

On the politics of cake tins

Cake tin

The amateur baker's most precious possession - wars have been fought over less...

Ask any amateur baker what their biggest concern is, and I’m willing to put money that their answer won’t be about traumas with leaden sponge cakes or temperamental macarons.

It’s cake tins.  Not the ones you actually bake stuff in (that’s a whole other discussion…) but the ones you lovingly put the fruits of your culinary labours in for transportation to the lucky recipients.

Good cake tins are surprisingly hard to come by. Every Christmas I’ve seen fights break out over who in the office gets to keep the tin once the traditional Roses chocs are eaten.  I lost a treasured tin at a recent gig – that’s occupational hazard of baking cakes for the audience, I guess.

And when I sent a tin of cookies along with my boyfriend to his workplace, the tin never came back. Despite my repeated requests for its safe return, like a closed community hiding a criminal, nobody apparently remembers ever seeing it in the first place.

The biggest dilemma for me is what to do if you’re baking cakes as a gift and can’t hang around to rescue the tin. Do you leave the tin with the recipients in the vague hope that they might remember to give it back next time you see them? Or do you just write it off, mourn the loss, and sharpen your nails for the battle for the next Quality Street tin that appears on the office filing cabinet?

My twitchy paranoid vigilance has only increased since I bought a Cupcake Courier for taking cakes to gigs. I’m now terrified that some low-life bakery/music fan will swipe it while I’m on stage, and I’ll have to go back to dragging around piles of battered tins filled with squished cakes.

So here’s a question for all the bakers out there – how do you transport your goodies? Are you obsessive about your tins? And how far would you go to nab a new one?

Review: An Optimist’s Tour of the Future by Mark Stevenson

Optimist on tour cover

Click to buy on Amazon

I first met “The Optimist” – or Mark as I like to call him – when he rescued me from a bothersome sex pest at a formal dinner (insert your own frying pan/fire joke here…).

We instantly hit it off with a shared love of geekery, music and bad jokes, meeting up whenever our diaries permit to drink pricey booze and laugh till it hurts.

After more than a year of travelling, researching and writing, he’s finally finished his first book – An Optimist’s Tour of the Future. Like its writer, the book is by turns geeky, funny, thought-provoking and  – at times – controversial.

An Optimist’s Tour is a rollercoaster headfuck of a book that leaves you shaking your head and muttering “wow!” as it speeds around the world asking the question “what next?” The premise is simple, but the answers are incredible and have the potential to change humanity as we know it.

Rather than all the doomsayers predicting war, famine, death, drought, pestilence, climate catastrophe and Katie Price’s next book, Mark asks what would happen if all the amazing technology that scientists are working on actually comes off. What if we can make robots that can think and feel? What about cheating death and engineering humans that can live for thousands of years? Solving the energy crisis using only some humble algae or a giant cauldron? How about restoring the drought-stricken Australian outback with nothing more than a few fence panels and a motorbike?

To answer these questions, he went on an incredible journey to meet some of the most visionary (and geeky) people in the world – Google’s Vint Cerf, futurist maverick Ray Kurzweil, Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed, transhumanist Nick Bostrom, one-woman Kiwi superhero Vicki Buck and robot “godmother” Cynthia Breazeal are just a few of the characters brought to life in glorious detail. You get a real feel for what it’s like to meet these people and get caught up by their energy and ideas. It helps that much of the book is written using direct quotes as the scientists set out their stalls in their own words, handily sidestepping the acres of dreary prose that can dog popular science books.

The stories they have to tell are just as vivid, and have major implications for the future of humanity.  As I read the book, my mind kept filling with plots for schlocky science fiction stories – The man who lived forever! The sludge that saved the world! – but these are real-life scenarios that Mark’s describing. Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace, and he finds out that we already have – or nearly have –  within our grasp a lot of the tools that we need to significantly improve human health and lifespan, reverse rising CO2 levels, solve the energy crisis and even create a networked tube of toothpaste that can re-order itself when it’s empty.

But here’s the rub – how do we actually cope with it all? There’s a nice bit of pacing at work in the book, as Mark pulls the reader through three sections entitled Man, Machine and Earth, laying out not just the “what ifs” but the “what whens” of this new technology. It’s enough to leave you feeling amazed, dazed and not a little bit frightened. How does it all fit together? What will the future look like?

It’s hard to imagine that our lives will be significantly different from today in ten years time, or even 20, 30 or 50. Will it really have changed that much, or will I still be yelling down the phone at my broadband provider while dodging the feral children roaming the streets of Hackney? And haven’t we always had this promise of a glorious techno-future dangled at us? It’s 2011 already – I want my hoverboard, dammit!

Luckily just at this point, there’s the final section – Re-boot – where Mark tries to pull it all together and make some kind of sense from the tsunami of ideas he’s collected. The main conclusion seems to be that human curiosity, ingenuity and creativity has never been a problem – after all, that’s why we’re not (mostly) still living in caves and grunting at each other. It’s whether we actually have the will, both personal and political, and the vision to embrace change and run with these new ideas that could make the world a better place.

To me, this is summed up in the quote from Mark Bedau, telling us that “Change will happen and we can either try to influence it in a constructive way, or we can try and stop it from happening, or we can ignore it. Trying to stop it from happening is futile. Ignoring it seems irresponsible.” In summary, Yay! For technology, and fingers crossed for human nature.

An Optimist’s Tour is an exciting and engaging book, but not just because of the gee-whizz subject matter. It’s clear that Mark knows his stuff and has done his research, as the book bristles with facts, figures and scientific detail. That’s not to say it’s a dull read. He uses stats like Rocky uses his left hook, delivering killer blows to support his arguments. Clever analogies and metaphors, coupled with his easy-going, conversational writing style, make complicated scientific principles pop off the page into graspable reality.

Although I really enjoyed reading the book, I do have to vehemently disagree with one of Mark’s premises. Duran Duran are clearly NOT better than the Pet Shop Boys.  Despite this lapse in musical taste, An Optimist’s Tour is an absolutely cracking read, providing plenty of food for thought and discussion, and I highly recommend it.

On women, music, feminism and all that


Don't rock out too hard, little lady, you might hurt yourself.

I guess I’d call myself a feminist. Although, in order to avoid the negative baggage that seems to have got lumped in with that tag, I’m more “equalitist”, or whatever the word is – striving towards a place where men and women have genuinely equal opportunities. Sadly, looking at the world today and the place of women in it, I don’t think we’ve reached that state quite yet.

In my working life, I’m lucky enough to have swapped a relatively male-dominated world – science – for the female-dominated charity sector. It’s not uncommon to find myself in meetings consisting entirely of women, or peppered with just one or two men.

I’m surrounded by exceptionally talented and passionate women (and men!) all working hard to make a difference.  Where I work, as far as I can tell, your gender is unremarkable – what counts is whether you can do your job, although a love of musical theatre helps…

This all sits happily with my egalitarian leanings. But there’s another world I inhabit – the world of popular music.  And it’s here that I need to challenge my own prejudices, and some ingrained baggage that I seem to have picked up along the way. Namely, why do I do a mental double-take when I see women playing rock guitar, drums, or bass, DJing or fiddling about behind a mixing desk?

I’ve been wondering about this for a while, but was inspired to write this pathetic-excuse-for-a-brain-dump-of-a-post by watching the Michael Jackson documentary This Is It. Among the cast of dancers and musicians I noticed a stunning blonde female guitarist (the awesome Orianthi Panagaris) shredding it up and pulling off some kick-ass solos.

Clearly, this woman wouldn’t be have been picked to be in the band if she wasn’t an exceptional musician, but she stood out as being the only female.  And she totally rocked. But it still seems unusual to me to see women in the ‘back line’ – seeing a female drummer makes me want to run around shouting “LOOK! LOOK!! THERE’S A LADY PLAYING DRUMS! AND SHE’S GOOD AT IT!”

I have no idea why I’ve picked up this bizarre notion that there’s something odd about women being guitarists, drummers, sound engineers, bassist or whatever.  Perhaps it’s the legacy of growing up feasting on male bands like the Beatles and U2, and a popular music culture that says that women can only be singers (oh, OK, maybe they can strum an acoustic guitar whimsically or bash a piano a bit. or even – god forbid –  play the flute…).

Or perhaps it’s years of subtle indoctrination that says women simply can’t rock, have crap taste in records, and can’t tell one end of an XLR cable from the other.  None of which is true, but all of which I have heard more than once in my life.

But why should we be surprised when a woman can shred a guitar better than most guys? What’s the difference between a girl who spent years learning classical violin and the one who spent hours a day fiddling the frets on a Fender Strat? Nothing. They’ve both diligently put the hours in to master their instrument, and we should celebrate their expertise.

And while there’s still a gender disparity in classical music, it feels to me – trawling round the live music scene – that the situation is even worse on the other side. There are certainly plenty of women out there who are incredibly talented, and rock it hard, from the famous ones like Kim Deal and Meg White to the not-famous-yet ones like Laura Kidd and Dana Jade.

However, I’ve been gigging for more than 15 years now (I started young, OK?) and I’ve seen endless female singers, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of lady bassists, drummers and sound techs who’ve crossed my path.

Do girls lack the nerdiness and dedication required for those long hours of practice? I say not – after all, I’ve done my time in solitary, as have the many talented female musicians I know. And although I’m pretty nerdy, they’re certainly not.

So what’s the problem? Are women discouraged from learning instruments like the bass, electric guitar or drums? Where are all the female superstar DJs? Do we still have a sexist culture in popular music? Who are your female music icons? And why are there so few female sound techs?

I don’t know – you tell me.