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Horrible Science

Nothing wrong with grabbing reader attention

How did you stumble on the hilarious 'horrible science' angle for your books?

The key to presenting science is to grab the reader's imagination. To do this I use a blend of horrible but not disturbing facts and humour. When it comes to selecting the right level of detail I try to build on my reader's existing knowledge and interest. I believe that if a reader is interested in something he will want to read more about it. This means that I sometimes cover complex science that is normally considered too demanding for my readers.

Do you ever worry that populist packaging of science might end up dumbing down its communication?

There is always a danger of this happening if people forget that science is exciting and important in its own right. It is important to start with the scientific facts and then seek to present them, rather than selecting the science to create some kind of entertainment. Having said that - and as long as the science is sound - I believe that there is nothing wrong with grabbing the attention in a powerful and imaginative way. Anything that gets people talking about science must be a good thing!

Where does technology figure in conceptualising things that you want to put across?

It's wonderful to have so much choice and so many ways to reach people. I have used many of these media myself. That being said, it is important to remember that the medium is the servant of the message rather than its master. That means that you select the media that best suits what you want to say. This is also true in my own books where I use multiple styles of presentation but always with the intention of explaining the science in a more exciting and effective fashion.

Just as opportunities for science writers have multiplied, so have those for the antiscience brigade. Who is winning the war?

Those who argue against science often assume that science is a fixed body of belief rather than a way of finding things out. By misunderstanding science they miss the point. On the other side, most scientists see no need to debate with those who hold views that cannot be verified using scientific methods. It's a funny war when one side shoots and misses and the other side can't be bothered to fire back! As for who is winning I don't think anyone ever can win. Ultimately faith is its own justification and science is too valuable to lose.

Do you consider science fiction a part of science communication?

Science fiction based on accurate science is a great way of interesting people and teaching a few facts. Sadly, a lot of science fiction is based on bad or out of date science and can be misleading. I must confess to including some science fiction in my own books but it's usually there as a fun device for presenting facts and I do warn the reader when something isn't really possible.

Could you list the five great science communicators across ages?

Here in no particular order is my personal choice of five scientists with a real passion for communicating science. Humphry Davy - in his time his lectures were the hottest ticket in town;Michael Faraday - a self-taught experimenter of genius;Carl Linnaeus - he told jokes too;Richard Feynman - he made theoretical physics fun and that's a tall order!; Paracelsus - a Swiss "horrible scientist" and doctor. He was often wrong but always worth listening to.

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