The Planet Remade

So, I meant to set up a new website and everything, but what with, well, you know, stuff, I haven’t quite got round to it. And right now, I am away on holiday. But this doesn’t mean I am not immensely proud of and excited by my new book, “The Planet Remade: How  Geoengineering Could Change the World”, published by Granta in the UK on October 1st and by Princeton University Press in the US on November 3rd. Here’s the Kirkus review, which is the only one out yet. It concludes:

An important account of cutting-edge research that will fascinate serious readers and demand the attention of policymakers.

But I should add that frivolous readers are utterly sure to find stuff in it for them, too.

Other people have said some nice stuff, too, when asked to by me or the publishers (a lot of it is at the publishers’ links above). I am fond of and grateful for this from Marek Kohn:

Written with the grace and clarity its subject demands, The Planet Remade offers just what the issue of climate change needs: fresh thinking about what can be done, based on deep respect for the planet, the science, and the concerns of people with differing points of view. It’s an enriching addition to the literature of possible worlds.

And the Samuel Johnson Prize, rather fabulously, has put the book on its longlist.

As with Eating the Sun, I’ll be posting links to all the reviews that I see. But not til we get back from our holiday.

You can pre-order/buy on Amazon UK, pre-order on Amazon US, or buy it from a bunch of other places.

If you’d like to hear me talk about this stuff, here are some places where I will be doing so in the UK over the next month; more will follow, along with US dates early in 2016. Or you could try this podcast from The Guardian

Places to see me
September 16, 2015, 2:12 pm
Filed under: Books

So, The Planet Remade is coming out on October 1st, if you live in the UK, or November 3rd, if you are in the US. You can pre-order through Amazon (UK|US) or a number of other sites. To help spread the word about this I will be making various appearances at literary festivals and the like. Here’s the list as of mid September. Do come along if you can

September 25th: I’m part of the inaugural Write on Kew festival. I’ll be in conversation with Jonathan Drori (@JonDrori) at 12:30 (details and tickets). Then at 19:30 I’m part of a special edition of Radio 4’s Inside Science, a panel at Kew that will be broadcast, I believe, the following week (for tickets email writeonkew@kew.org with BBC Inside Science in the subject line. Sold out!)

October 10th: I’m part of a panel on “What Happens Next”, part of the London Literature Festival at the Southbank at 14:00 (details and tickets). The other panellists are Eve Poole (@evepoole) and Mahesh Rao. The website says it is moderated by Sarfraz Manzoor but I have reason to believe that his place is in fact going to be taken by my dear colleague Emma Hogan (@hoganem)

October 11th: A discussion called “Our Sunburned Planet” at the Cheltenham Literature Festival with Nathalie Bennet of the Green Party (@natalieben) and my friend Chris Rapley (@ChrisRapley3131) at 18:45 (details and tickets). Earlier that day I expect to be in conversation with Simon Winchester about his new book Pacific: The Ocean of the Future (details and tickets)

October 16th: The Ilkely Literature Festival, at 19:30: this one seems at the moment to be just me! (details and tickets)

October 25th: The Manchester Literature Festival, where I believe I will be in conversation with Jo Bell (@Jo_Bell) at 16:00 (details and tickets). Earlier that day there will be events with writers from the nature-themed issue of Granta magazine that will by then be out and with Sarah Hall and George Monbiot. And here is Jo Bell’s lovely poem Doggerland.

I’ll add more dates as more come up: events in the US will probably be in January and February

David Raup, RIP
July 16, 2015, 5:15 pm
Filed under: By, Eating the Sun | Excerpts, etc, with or from EtS

The great palaeontologist Dave Raup has died: here’s the NYT obit:

An audacious theorist widely viewed as among the most singular thinkers in his field — Stephen Jay Gould once referred to him as “the world’s most brilliant paleontologist” — he made his mark in the computer laboratory and in published works rather than in the literal dust of history.

He never dug up a dinosaur and was the first president of the Paleontological Society, an international professional association founded more than a century ago, never to have formally described a new species in the scientific literature. His ideas, however, helped transform the study of the history of life on earth.

I met him pretty early on in my career, and found him fascinating and generous with his time. He’s in part responsible for my subsequent fascination with asteroid impacts. There’s an account of my first encounter with him in Eating the Sun: I’ll paste it below.

But first a little detail that I found fascinating. To me in the 1980s, Raup was immensely forward looking, breaking the bounds of what palaeontology could be. But he was also, in his time, stubbornly resistant to change. I remember him telling me that he rejected plate tectonics well into the 1970s, shocking students by showing them the famous Bullard Fit — a recreation of the Earth without the Atlantic, showing how well Africa and South America fit together — and then showing them a fit of his own devising that looked just as good — but had Africa upside down.

I don’t know the details of his dubiousness about  plate tectonics; I wish I did. They would have been highly unusual, I think, for a palaeontologist; as Naomi Oreskes’ brilliant “The Rejection of Continental Drift” points out, palaeontologists were well disposed towards believing in continental drift pre plate tectonics. The fact that, as had been the case with Kelvin and the age of the Earth, the people looking at fossils had been right and the physicists (whose arguments weighed most heavily in the pre-plate-tectonic rejection of continental drift) had been wrong has since then been one that palaeontologists have been happy to crow about whenever they are accused of being “mere stamp collectors”.

But while not understanding its basis, the very fact of Raup’s doubt in the matter seems to me to speak well of him. He was not just sceptical about the status quo. He was sceptical about the most successful overthrowing of a status quo in the history of his science. If he had just been someone who enjoyed seeing orthodoxy stood on its head he would have embraced plate tectonics straight away; coming of scientific age, as he did, in the 1960s, if he had been a mere contrarian, or a young man in a hurry, nothing would have been more natural than to have joined the storming of the barricades. But he was somehow unconvinced. And so he lined up with the conservatives and refuseniks.

More simply: he could be right big time; he could be wrong big time.

Anyway, my condolences to his wife, his colleagues, and his pupils. Continue below the break for the extract from Eating the Sun.

Continue reading

Gravity assists and precious encounters
April 19, 2015, 3:20 pm
Filed under: Published stuff, Science fiction

I see from twitter that my latest column for Intelligent Life is now online; it deals with gravity assists — specifically the one that got New Horizons to Pluto at such an impressive speed. Seeing it up prompted me to update the recently neglected home page for those columns which I keep here. There seem now to be over 20 of them – how time flies.

The column led my friend Bronislaw Szerszynski to share with me a poem he had written about the loss of someone close in which he used Jupiter gravity assists and planetary fly-bys as a metaphor. It’s rather lovely, and Bron has kindly given me permission I am posting it below:

(for Patrick)

I have lost count of the times
We plotted our orbit
To bring us close to you,
Our greatest wandering star.

Again and again we matched our pace
With yours along your path,
Then fell towards you,
Looped, quickened around you, by you,
Brief moons in your expansive skies,
Faces shining with your reflected light,
Then departing with course replotted and tales to tell.

Yet in those latter, remaining years,
With each flyby,
We saw you moved less
As we were moved even more:
Which was action, which reaction?
With each whip-crack of your ebbing revolve
We span faster, higher,
In the moment gifted to us by your mass.

Again and again we fell, and wailed –
But then soared, and laughed,
As you turned the talk
From closed, dismal stories to open jest,
From parabolic fall to hyperbolic flight.
By what magic, what alchemy,
Did you thus turn dread weight into light,
Gravity into levity?

We looked out of the port
And knew this was the last time
We would see your shining face.
But we will always recall your name:

— Bronislaw Szerszynski

[Soundtrack, should you wish it]

Nobel prize winners: one for my fellow hacks
April 1, 2015, 8:46 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

This isn’t really apropos of anything, but I got to thinking about the use I make or allow of “Nobel prize winning” in things I write and edit. Sometimes it is obviously relevant; when I wrote about Paul Crutzen’s intervention in the geoengineering debate in my book, the meaning the prize had for his stature made it germane; when I wrote about Haber and Bosch the irony, especially in the context of Alfred Nobel’s business, seemed worth pointing up. But are other mentions worthwhile, or fair. Or are they thumbs on the scale? For example, if one says that Hans Bethe was a Nobel prize winner and nearby have cause to mention John von Neumann without such an accolade, will the reader take it that Bethe was a bigger deal in some way? When I mention Sydney Chapman close to where I mention Crutzen, do readers take the fact that I can’t say Chapman got a Nobel as evidence that he wasn’t a scientist of like stature (which he surely was; I would love to learn why his amazing work wasn’t honoured*).

I think most of the time when we are writing about science and a Nobel prize winner crops up we mention the accolade just to make our story stand a little taller — we think it will matter to the reader. But in a news story, as opposed to a feature that has time to get into who’s who and what’s what, are we not also adding a bit of bias, suggesting that this is the person to take seriously in the debate? And is mention of a Nobel prize that isn’t really germane to the story, just to the past accomplishments of one player in it, really just a way of puffing things up?

There’s an added wrinkle when you think across disciplines. It seems to me that it is in some ways easier to get a Nobel prize (or “Nobel prize”) in economics than in the natural sciences; the size of the pool is just smaller. And the rhetorical weight an economics prize adds to statements that are more likely to be policy-germane is as great or greater. So should Nobel prizes be mentioned for economists? After all, the prize isn’t for general stature, or for likeliness to say true things. It is for a specific piece of work that may have no relevance to the matter at hand.

Anyway, it seems a vaguely interesting ethical/standards-and-practices issue for people in my line of work to consider. I doubt anyone else cares all that much, and it’s quite possible most of my colleagues don’t, either. And it may be that this is mostly just to say “Sorry, Robert Shiller, I needed to cut a line…”

*When I say that I would love to know this I mean I would love someone to tell me, or to happen across the info while looking for something else, not that I would love it enough to go and , like, do some research…

If smart drug makers were serious about their stuff…
March 4, 2015, 7:35 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Interesting article in Fusion about nootropics spurs the thought that if these companies think they are selling something that works, they should sell it in trial form. You’d get a blister pack with numbered wells, half containing the active product, half a placebo. You’d record — maybe through an associated app — whether you felt that day’s pill had worked or not. At the end of a month, or whatever, the company would unblind your blister pack for you and you’d get a sense of whether the days on which you had felt the drug had had an effect were days on which you had in fact taken it.

Best if you do it with a range of drugs — that way people can find the one that works for them (assuming individual responses vary). It’s all very citizen science rah-rah and win-win: the company ends up with a good rep among evidence-oriented types and knowing more about its product (maybe you get a discount if you share some genome data with the provider?); consumers get a product that they can have some faith in; sum of human knowledge is increased.

Boyhood v Birdman
February 22, 2015, 7:15 pm
Filed under: film

It’s interesting that for the first time in a long while there seems genuine doubt over which film will win best picture tonight. Guild voting says Birdman, Baftas say Boyhood — as did most everything else before the guilds voted. And there is room for reasonably people to have different opinion as to who will win best director and best actor, too.

My understanding of the Academy is far too meagre to allow me to think I can call any of these races. I have some preferences, though.

The Birdman Oscar I think I would most like to see (other than Lubezki’s, which I take to be a done deal) would be Keaton’s. I am old enough to like the idea of an oldest-ever best-actor Oscar, and it is a tremendous performance. Redmayne’s performance is terrific, too, and technically remarkable — but less moving and in the service of a far lesser film.

I’d be OK with Inarritu winning, too, though he wouldn’t be my first choice—as long as Birdman didn’t win best picture too. I think both Birdman and Boyhood are very fine films, but Boyhood is a singular achievement that deserves singular recognition. And beyond the remarkable way in which it was done — though no discussion can really avoid that — Boyhood seems to me to use the precision with which it sits in its setting to say something in a quasi universal way, whereas Birdman is less easily ported to other concerns. I would like to see it win and see Linklater win as director — but though Boyhood is clearly Linklater’s achievement, it seems to me an achievement that goes beyond what it is to direct something. So I’d be OK with Inarritu’s work as a director being recognised.

All that said, I rewatched Grand Budapest Hotel last night. If the way that the voting works sees it sneak up the middle in between the two B-beginning-bi-syllables and take the statue I think I might be quite happy. I think there’s a real chance of it being watched for longer and with more lasting pleasure than anything else on the list.

Update: Tom Shone, who is wiser, more tasteful and better informed than me, prefers Birdman (and indeed Redmayne). And the Predictinator says Guardians for VFX, which I would be fine with


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