A Conversation with Lewis Dartnell

Last week I spoke over Skype with Lewis Dartnell, author, presenter and Professor of Science Communication with the University of Westminster, best known to the public as a popular science writer and author of The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch.

GJ: Can you start with telling me a bit about yourself?

LD: I am a professor at the University of Westminster in Science Communications. My role is split fifty-fifty, with the first half involving writing books, doing bits and pieces on radio and TV, giving education and science outreach lectures to the public and schools. The other part of my time is spent on research in astrobiology which is all about looking at the possibility of live beyond the earth. I’ve come from a biology background and I focus on if there could be life on mars, hardy bacterial life, how would we go about detecting it. What tests would we build to look for signs of life, to look for biosignatures. I have two PHD students in my lab at the moment working on different biosignature detection equipment and techniques to look into the possibility of Martian life.

GJ: Wow, that’s real frontier science.

LD: It gets me out of bed in the morning, it’s interesting.

GJ: What sort of books do you write and how did you come to publishing your work?

LD: All of my books so far, Origins is now my fourth book published, I essentially wrote the books I wanted to read but realised didn’t exist yet. My first book was Life in the Universe Beginners Guide, a general popular science introduction to this new field of astrobiology about where we think alien life is most likely to be found. My second book was an illustrated children’s book for Dorling and Kingsley called My Tourist Guide to the Solar System and Beyond. It was very big and colourful with lots of lovely graphics and illustrations and is all about if you could take a holiday anywhere in space, where would you go and what be the unique adventure activities you could do in these different planets. Although it was all very fun and very colourful, it had real planetary science behind the adventure holidays I described. And my last book, The Knowledge, was about how you could reboot civilisation after an apocalypses. It is a thought experiment book on scientific discoveries and technological inventions throughout human history that have enabled us to build the world that we all live in today.

GJ: Which I have read and thoroughly enjoyed, as did my ten year old son.

LD: Thank you very much.

GJ: I am a fan of a popular science books. Would you call it a popular science book?

LD: That’s exactly what it is. It’s a book for the general public.

GJ: You present in schools and lecture at popular events about popular science. How important do think it is for those non-scientifically minded people to engage to with science theory and how it shapes the world around us?

LD: Yeah, clearly I think it’s important, but some of the answers can sound quite po-faced. I think it’s important to communicate science to the public, not so that they can learn particular facts and figures, it’s not like educating the public because they don’t understand something. I think it’s more about engaging the public with what science is being done because a lot of it is being paid for by tax payers money, but also to give people a bit more of a BS detection ability by talking about science and scientific method and how scientists view the world and test things to find out what more likely to be true. If people start applying the same kind of critical thinking to their everyday lives we might have fewer people who refuse to vaccinate their children or make what I would think to be quite bad decisions in their lives for themselves and for all of us. But I think there is also other very good reasons to get involved in science communication and the only reason I became a scientist is because when I was seven or eight years old someone inspired me. I was much younger and they fired up my imagination and my enthusiasm which took me down this path. So a lot of it is paying it back to the community, but ultimately I do it because I enjoy doing it and get a great deal of satisfaction out of giving a talk at a school and having a million and one questions fired at me afterwards from the kids who start to think about the subjects.

GJ: I write fiction about the apocalypse and I really like your take on the long term effects of an apocalypse and how we could rebuild. I do something called a Bug Out Bag which is just a bit of a tongue in cheek bag that you can grab if you need to run out of the building. In the UK it’s something you’re not likely to need but in places where there’s active volcanos, or you live in earthquake regions, it’s something that needs real attention. You’ve given me some more ideas what I should put in the bag for the immediate future, including the book itself just in case it really goes wrong.

Are you fearful of an apocalyptic event or do you think we are reasonably secure in our current way of life?

LD: It should be clear that The Knowledge is not really an actual manual for preppers. I don’t really think the world is about to end. I think the notion of the apocalypse and all that we take for granted in our lives is a really good vehicle for peering behind the curtain of the world and seeing how it works behind the scenes and where all the things we use on a day to day basis come from, where they’re made and how difficult to find they would be if you had to start doing that for yourself. So that’s what I was really exploring with The Knowledge.

But that being said of course, it would be very arrogant of us to assume that our current civilisation is immune to some sort of external or internal threat or hazard. Throughout history once powerful civilisations have collapsed suddenly and that is the norm for civilisations. If anything our current civilisation, which is essentially medieval European civilisation which has continued for centuries, is something on an anomaly because we’ve been continuing to advance and progress for this long. I think just being aware of the fact that we are not immune, that we could suffer some kind of catastrophe, will hopefully be the kind of warning that would prevent it from happening in the first place. If people are aware of the risk we can take steps to prevent it from happening.

GJ: What would you say was the biggest challenge in producing the book and I can imagine it was the research but I guess that is something you’re used to?

LD: Yes. It was the enormous amount of research that went into The Knowledge. I think about two years of researching and writing went into that book. The book talks about what you see in the world around you is only the tip of the iceberg of all of the knowledge and capability of technology and this vast interlinked network of how things are done that lies behind the scenes. The book is its own metaphor in a sense, there is an enormous amount of research around the book that might not appear on the pages itself but is very much underpinning what I’ve written about and a huge amount that was edited out when we were going from first draft to published copy.

What I did really enjoy about that process is that it gave opportunity to try a lot of things hands on from first principles myself just so I could write about it with first-hand experience. I had a bunch of mini projects when I was researching from making a photograph from scratch right down to mixing the simple chemistry in order to take a selfie by mixing it together myself and making glass from scratch like some sort of Robinson Crusoe beach experiment and reprinting a page of the book using primitive printing press, which is something that the book talks about. So there was this whole load of mini projects I got involved in which ended up being enormously satisfying and good fun, but they all fed into the research.

GJ: What a fabulous job you have!

LD: Yes it was a joy.

GJ: I’m an engineer so I thoroughly enjoyed those elements of the book. Can you tell me about your latest book, Origins: How The Earth Made Us?

LD: Origins came out end of January and it in some sense continues the story and build upon The Knowledge. The Knowledge was a way of looking at how human ingenuity, scientific discovery and invention built the modern world. What I have tried to do with Origins is to broaden out the perspective and then the canvas even further to look at how the planet itself, the planet we live on, has been a defining role and effect on our human story. Everything from what were the weird conditions in East Africa that forced our evolution to be such an exquisitely intelligent species of ape through thousands of years of histories of civilisations and the rising and falling of empires, through to even the modern day with current affairs and modern political maps. How has the Earth itself been behind all of those processes and helped make us who we are today.

GJ: Sounds like I’ll have to pick that one up as well.

LD: Yeah they should do some sort of 2 for 1 offer shouldn’t they.

GJ: So what are you working on now?

LD: Now that Origins is out I’m trying to catch up on a bunch of stuff that has been pushed to the side lines for a couple of months. I have the two PHD students in the lab working on biosignatures for Mars and I’ve been supporting them. I’ve got a lot of book tour venues coming up both around the UK and internationally. In the next couple of months I have events in Germany, Italy and Dubai and a couple of cities in Australia.

GJ: Is there any part of your job you don’t like?

LD: Yeah, I hate sleep it seems. I seem to be always travelling.

GJ: Have you ever tried your hand at fiction?

LD: No. That’s a good question. I’m not convinced I would be particularly good at it in terms of characterising humans and their motivations and their dialogue. I think it’s something that wouldn’t come naturally to me.

GJ: How easy did you find to get a publisher for your works? Did they all lead from the first book?

LD: Quite often when you sign a book deal in the contract is basically a first refusal term for the next book. We went through a big competitive process with lots of different publishers when we proposed The Knowledge. My agent and I decided to go with OneWorld Publications, the hard back imprint of Penguin Random House and they then got first refusal on Origins and were keen to publish. My first book, Life in the Universe came out of winning a science writing competition in the Daily Telegraph. They published my article and the editor at a publishing house in oxford called One World Publications dropped me an email out of the blue said I’ve just seen your article in the paper and I thought it was really interesting and just wondered if you had any ideas on a book you would like to write because we’re always looking for fresh new ideas. Why don’t you come up and sit on our sofa and have a cup of tea and talk through some ideas. Which I did and one thing led to another and Life in The Universe came out of that.

GJ: Fantastic and the rest is history. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me Lewis.

You can check out all of Lewis’s book at his website http://lewisdartnell.com plus there is a dedicated website for both The Knowledge and for Origins.

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