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The Life Scientific: Explorers

Buckley life scientificBBC Radio 4 has, for the past seven years, broadcast The Life Scientific, Professor Jim Al-Khalili weekly talking with a leading British scientist about their life and work. Delving into the scientist’s inspiration and motivation, they discuss how this work has affected humankind. People who know well the interviewee and their work contribute insights. Since the first (11 October, 2011) interview of Paul Nurse, winner of the Nobel Prize and President of the Royal Society, there have been 176 episodes, all available as podcasts on the BBC’s website.

In The Life Scientific: Explorers, the BBC has moved into print. The result is a fascinating and very readable book.  Rather than transcribe past interviews verbatim, Anna Buckley (the series’ producer) has taken highlights from selected interviews and interwoven them with autobiographical information provided by the scientist. Each chapter commences with a sidebar detailing where the scientist grew up, to whom they are married, and their job title. It provides less mundane stuff too, such as their inspirations (parental encouragement; a visit to Pompeii; hearing a radio advert saying “Astronaut Wanted”). Advice to aspiring scientists is presented, such as “persist” (palaeontologist Richard Fortey), “don’t let men do all the talking” (astrophysicist Lucie Green) and “follow your passion” (volcanologist Hazel Rymer).   

One interviewee noted that science can be a lonely endeavour. However, several of them have done much to bring their science to the layman, and so have wide contact with others. Astronomer Chris Lintott (“I take the ‘Citizen’ in Citizen Science very seriously”) has involved the public in classifying the shapes of galaxies, while lichenologist Pat Wolseley has engaged with people nationwide in a project using lichen to monitor air pollution. 

This book strikes just the right balance between insights into the interviewees’ lives and talk of their work. True, I sometimes I found myself wishing to know more about the science; but in these Google-infested days, such information is readily available. At other times, I knew that no amount of reading would enlighten me greatly, the science being so alien to my experience. Such was pretty much the case, for example, with the work of mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, who explores symmetry and has mathematically modelled a shape symmetrical in 196,883 dimensions.  However, I enjoyed reading about his work demonstrating the role of mathematics in Mozart’s music. I would recommend this book not only to seasoned scientists, but also to aspiring young people looking for inspiration and motivation.

Reviewed by Brent Wilson

, by Anna Buckley (with a foreword by Jim Al-Khalili), 2018. Published by: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 321 pp. (hbk.) ISBN: 9781474607483 List Price: £18.99 W: