Skip to main content

Justin Pollard – Four Way Interview

Justin Pollard is a historical writer/consultant in film and TV. He is a researcher for the TV show QI and the author of five books. His most recent title is Boffinology – the real stories behind our greatest scientific discoveries.
Why Science?
When I was a child there always seemed something perfect about science. It was carried out by brilliant people in immaculate white coats who would invent audacious experiments leading, inevitably, to stunning results. In this way science would take another giant step forward, the scientists would congratulate one another, then clear their benches and start all over again, on a new and even harder problem. So I wanted to become one of those scientists but somehow ended up an historian.
Why this book?
As a historian I get to spend a lot of time with dead scientists. There are thousands of them in history books and reading the stories of their lives taught me something about science itself. Real science is not done by the perfect white-coated men and women I imagined as a child. It does have it heroes, of course, but it also has its villains, its disasters, its brilliant ideas that turn suddenly to dust and those handfuls of dust that, quite unexpectedly, lead to moments of genius. There is just more chaos in science than I ever imagined in my youth. It is a field populated by humans, together with all their triumphs and failings, their valiant strivings, their dogged determination, their indomitable spirit and their bitter rivalries, prejudices and tempers. That is what this book is about.
What’s next?
I’ve just finished work as historical advisor on the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie (POTC 4 – ‘On Stranger Tides’) and I’m moving on to work with Sir David Hare advising on a modern-day spy thriller about MI5 called ‘Page Eight’. Then in January research for the new series of QI should kick off.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Currently I’m most excited by the inside of my head. Having had a MRI scan (which turned out to be fine) I persuaded the very lovely radiographers at give me a copy of the dataset, so I’ve been exploring my brain, such as it is. Another advantage is that on Facebook I can have a profile picture of the inside of my head rather than all those normal, boring shots of the outside of people’s heads.


Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …

Ten Great Ideas About Chance - Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms ***

There are few topics that fascinate me as much as chance and probability. It's partly the wonder that mathematics can be applied to something so intangible and also because so often the outcomes of probability are counter-intuitive and we can enjoy the 'Huh?' impact of something that works yet feels so far from common sense.

I think I ought to start by saying what this is isn't. It's definitely not an introductory book - the authors assume that the reader 'has taken a first undergraduate course in probability or statistics'. And though there's an appendix that claims to be a probability tutorial for those who haven't got this background, it's not particularly reader-friendly - in theory I knew everything in the appendix, but I still found parts of it near-impossible to read.

As for the main text, if you pass that first criterion, my suspicion is that, like me, you will find parts utterly fascinating and other parts pretty much incomprehensible. Th…