Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘science writing’

How to turn science into a bestseller

In Free-thinking, media, Science on August 31, 2017 at 10:22 am

IMG_2731One of the problems with writing about science is that few people care; it’s something all science writers have to contend with.

It’s still puzzling though, and more than a little frustrating. If I was writing about something that doesn’t really affect anyone, it would make sense; but science affects everyone.

In fact there is no part of anyone’s life that isn’t examined by science. But that doesn’t seem to make any difference; people would prefer to live in a land of make-believe where events are defined by spirits and fictional characters given life by centuries of wild storytelling. There’s another word for that fairytale place: ignorance.

Science, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, is a candle to the darkness of ignorance; but ignorance is also a state of bliss for those uncomfortable with the thought of delving into the unknown. The job of a science writer is therefore to hold their hand and show them the wonder in the unknown; and the best way to do that is to hook it onto the known.

This is why after the publishing of my first book with Penguin Randomhouse – A Fox’s Tale – and I was asked by my publisher what was next, I immediately suggested a book about a controversial scientist with a high public profile: Professor Tim Noakes. They loved the idea, obviously: controversy sells. But for me it was an opportunity to write about science, specifically the context within which the controversy around Professor Noakes has played out: how media consumers make sense of science in a highly disrupted media landscape.

My strategy was simple but difficult: get a book about science onto the Current Affairs section of leading bookstores in South Africa. According to my research, this has never happened.

When the book was released, what I hoped would happen happened – there was a flurry of media attention, and a series of interviews with various radio and TV stations where I used the opportunity to talk about the main issue of the book. I had also prepared a series of excerpts from the book my experience told me would resonate with the media. That made my publicist happy and helped get the book enviable cover in the press and online media. Here’s an example from the Saturday Star, and here’s one in the Sunday Times where they asked me to write more about my shrewd idea to get people to read about science.

The result: passing by a leading retailer the other day, I noticed Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick sitting on the bestsellers shelves, in the company of two authors I admire – Richard Dawkins and Thomas L. Friedman.

And that’s cool.


Science and prejudice

In Free-thinking, Science on August 28, 2017 at 10:45 am

QUIET_MAVERICK_Front cover thumb small

I’ve been asked by a number of people about the suspicion towards science taking root in Donald Trump’s America, especially around vaccination and climate change. As an explanation, here is an excerpt from my latest book Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick, from the chapter titled ‘Newton, we have a problem’:

“We are not born distrustful of science, we are taught it. Like racism, homophobia or any other prejudice, it is the outcome of the opinions – or ignorance – of parents, teachers and communities, and the complicity of religion in this regard cannot be overemphasised. The shaping of attitudes towards science is not limited to the community-level preaching in churches, temples and mosques, or the propaganda taught in the schools they control, it’s in their continued influence at state level.

This can be overt, as in the control of Iran’s Islamic theologians over the election of their Supreme Leader, the deceptively quaint symbiosis between the British monarchy and the Anglican Church, or the more dissembling claims of separation of church and state in the US while the command ‘In God we trust’ still holds court in their legislative chambers and courtrooms. Or it can be covert – on a subtler level, acquiescence to the dictates of religions lies in the national celebration of religious holidays and the invocation of deities in national anthems, South Africa’s Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika being a case in point.

Yet, science is the only way of accurately understanding our natural world, anything else is make-believe. The unequivocal proof thereof is in the replicable application of science: technology. So much of what we take for granted as part of our modern world has been realised only by using science to understand – and thoroughly test – the underlying hypotheses. Bolts of lightning, formerly considered portents of doom or the designs of sorcerers, can be recreated in a laboratory. Heavier-than-air craft take to the skies daily because of our clear understanding of pressure differentials produced by the shape of a bird’s wing, not because those aboard all pray to the powers of an omnipotent being.

Despite Christian Scientists believing that a child’s fever, headaches and stiffness of the neck emanate from that child’s impure thoughts, modern medicine’s understanding of germ theory, and the technology it has produced, means we can do a simple test for meningitis, and if that is proved the case, treat the child with antibiotics. Of course the parents would probably disagree, refuse medication in accordance with their beliefs, and let the child die in excruciating pain while they stand beside his or her bed, their heads bowed in deference to the imaginary.

In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan explains this with typical eloquence: ‘Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.’”

A science journalist comes ‘out’…as it were

In Eish!, Fools, Politics, Science on July 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Sometimes science comes without a warning

“Hi, my name is Daryl, and I’m a science journalist.”

There you go, I’ve said it. I’ve come ‘out’ as it were. I admit that for many years my life has been something of a lie. I have been writing about science whilst posing as an op-ed columnist writing on socio-political issues. In fact I doubt very much if I would be able to write for most of the titles that I do if I pitched myself as a ‘science journalist’. But I am not entirely to blame for my subterfuge.

OK, this may all sound a little dramatic, but there’s a remarkable, albeit concerning, sliver of truth for my reluctance to brazenly announce my orientation. You see, for many years I have been operating under the rather bizarre belief, instilled in me by legions of editors, that readers don’t want to read about science.

However, as person who was schooled in the sciences, social sciences and humanities, I am acutely aware that such a belief is false. Readers are interested in science, they just don’t know it.

For the last nine years I have been covering issues around science without my editors and readers actually knowing it, and my columns have earned me both praise from my editors and respect from readers; but more importantly they have encouraged debate. In fact my most appreciated reward has been learning that a number of my articles have been included in school English and History exams to encourage creative writing and political argument.

But this is not a blog entry to fish for compliments, it’s to prove a point: to write about science, you don’t have to ‘write about science’.

There is a popular belief that ‘science is what scientists do‘. Although the statement is correct, it is not solely correct. Science is something we also consume and it is something that we are; so the secret to writing about science is to reconsider how it is presented and how it is framed.

Example: In April 2005 I wrote a piece that sparked a lot of column space on the letters page of The Star about the seeming futility of prayer (millions of people had prayed for pope John Paul II to get better, but he still died). However, I used it as an opportunity to suggest the psychological benefits of the act of praying.

In July 2006 I wrote in my column in the Saturday Star about the influence of the introduction of the iPod on radio. On the face of it, it was an article about the iPod, and how it would affect the radio industry (in which I was employed at the time). In retrospect it now seems quite prescient; but in fact it was simply an understanding of how advances in science and technology can radically alter consumer behaviour.

Around Valentine’s Day in 2009 I played party-pooper and scientifically corrected the public notion that it’s possible to love someone ‘with all their heart’.

I took a chance with this one in April 2011 where I espoused the virtues of science writers. That must have raised a few eyebrows!

And in February this year in my column in the Tribune I took the reader into the realm of conversion disorder – a psychiatric disorder – whilst masquerading it as a piece on the challenges of bringing up teenage daughters. Sneaky!

You don’t have to write under the banner of ‘science journalist’ to be a science journalist. You just have to hide in the closet and every now and then pop your head out and go “boo!”

The withering charms of poetry

In Eish! on October 24, 2011 at 6:37 am

Lord Byron - apparently people are no longer buying his albums

A retort I often fire at any man lunging at me with a broken bottle is that I am a writer, not a fighter. I usually underscore the defence by holding up my hands to show evidence of their softness, and wiggling my fingers to illustrate their dexterity. Admittedly it’s not a particularly manly thing to do, but women love it. Or do they?

I never really knew my father, but he did manage to pass onto me three things that defined me: his love of science, his appreciation for artistic verse, and his gangly, uncoordinated, completely unathletic frame – three things that would ensure I’d be bullied at school.

Yes, I was the skinny kid who always came last in physical education exercises; who hated wearing shorts; and who crumpled at the thought of standing on the edge of a diving board in a Speedo. I was useless at most sports because I was cursed with all the co-ordination of a newly born wildebeest. Contact sports filled me with dread. I tried to get out of playing rugby by claiming I was prone to nose bleeds. In a school where playing rugby was compulsory…read more

Dara O’Briain on science writing

In Science on October 12, 2011 at 8:42 pm

Not just a face for comedy

“There is a hunger for science writing and the audience have been fed nonsense for too long”. Such were the words of advice comedian and TV presenter Dara O’Briain gave young science writers at the 2011 Wellcome Trust Science Prize Awards on Wednesday evening.

Of course O’Briain is no stranger to the wonders of science. He is a graduate of mathematics and theoretical physics from University College, Dublin and is a well known and passionate proponent of science, and often takes the role of debunker of pseudoscience in his stand-up routine. He also co-hosted the TV series Stargazing Live with Professor Brian Cox.

Presenting the awards, which he helped judge, O’Briain pointed to the added challenges that science writers face, “knowing who your audience are – are they scientists, are they non-scientists, are they graduates, or are they non-graduates who have an interest in science? Added to this is the question of how much technical terminology do you use?” But he did have some words of encouragement: “Know this, there is a huge audience for science writing, and they are genuinely underserved. They are people who want the adrenalin rush of learning something new, and feeling it embedded in their heads by the way you write it”.

The inaugural Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, organised in conjunction with The Guardian and The Observer, was designed to find the next generation of undiscovered science writing talent. It attracted almost 800 entries; and, given the quality of the submissions, it seems there is passionate corps of up and coming science writers willing to feed that hunger.

The two prize winners were Penny Sarchet in Category A (professional scientists of postgraduate level and above); and Tess Shallard in Category B (anyone else with a non-professional interest in science, including undergraduate students).