Saturday, 25 July 2015

Fiction Books That Shaped my Views of Science

As well as a science-fiend, I'm a bibliophile. When I move house, almost all of the boxes are packed with those papers bricks I so adore. They are stacked on every shelf, mantelpiece and bedside table. These days I mainly read factual books, but I do still find time for fiction.

I think the fiction we read can be a massive influence on our interest in science, and our appreciation of the ethics and nuances of different technologies and their effect on both the human and natural world. After all, much fiction is written in reaction to technological advances and people's reactions to them; the perceived threats and benefits.

So I've selected my top 10 picks, in no particular order. Where possible I've selected the cover of the edition I first read. I've tried to find as many non-sci-fi books as I can (difficult, considering). There are many more I could list, particularly the classics - such as the many H.G Wells titles. However, this selection sticks out as having influenced my attitudes to science and technology in the first 25 years of my life.

How do they compare with yours?

Oryx and Crake (2003)

by Margaret Atwood

Atwood is one of my favourite authors, and this was the first of her books I read, having randomly picked it up in a charity shop, chosen purely for the name (two rare species of animal). Published in 2003, it is the first on an ongoing series, set in the same dystopian future.
The most influential thing about this book for me was the application of genetic engineering: her 'ultimate humans'. I won't say more in case I spoil it, but I recommend this to everyone.

Cats Cradle (1963)

by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut's 1963 novel stands out as my favourite, probably because I have a thing for cataclysms caused by human technology, especially unintentional mishaps. This book deals with (among many things) the creation of a substance that could destroy all life on earth if a single mistake is made in handling or application. It's hard to say much without giving the end away, but essentially what struck me was the question of what would happen if all aquatic/marine ecosystems on earth were suddenly wiped out? I pondered over this for many months afterwards.

The Day of the Triffids (1959)

by John Wydham

This is one of my all time favourite books. Wyndham has such a wonderful writing style, and the topic is, of course, genetic engineering (and survival horror!). The re-imagining of this story in 2002 in the form of 28 Days Later (which is, in most ways, identical in storyline apart from the infected people rather than tripod plants) re-ignited my love for it. Everyone should read this.

Brave New World (1931)

by Aldous Huxley

It is one of the all time greats of sci-fi literature. While there are a many things I found influential about it, the most lingering scenes revolve around the people who live outside of the future dystopia. The revulsion at natural birth and the way people live without technology encouraged me to think differently about our perception of what is "natural", cleanliness, humans as animals, and the treatment of those without access to the technology that people in rich societies consider "good".
Much food for thought.

Jurassic Park (1990)

by Michael Crichton

Well it wouldn't be much of a list if this wasn't in it. As well as the obvious science here of genetic re-engineering of extinct species, the book is more multi-layered than the film. I spent a lot of time thinking about dinosaur behaviour, and how they'd react if placed in a modern context. Like many palaeontologists/biologists, it also sent me into an intense spiral of dino-fanaticism... *sigh*

The Hitchhiker Trilogy (1979-1992)

by Douglas Adams

(Note: these are not the editions I originally read, but I've forgotten what they looked like)
Adams' books got me thinking differently: about physics, about the possible and impossible, about the absurdity of the universe and the kind of mind-benders and illogical yet entirely logical arguments his written world is made of. Races that live time backwards, interstellar wars that end when it turns out one race is so large it can't even see the other race without a microscope, instant evolution, multi-dimensional mice... the list goes on. 
Of course they are also totally hilarious - teaching me that science is also fun.

The Earth Children series (1980-2011)

by Jean M. Auel

This is not the edition I read. Mine was pale yellow/green with shiny green lettering, I've never seen another edition of it.
I spent many hours in my youth pretending to be Ayla (the main character in these books): stalking through the woods, gathering grass seeds and grinding them between stones, learning the names of plants and their medicinal properties, and generally being a weird, wild, little girl (I read this book when I was 8, which was far too young.)
Auel's attention to archaeological detail is massively impressive, incorporating many significant finds into the narrative, including ideas about the origin of animal domestication, and Neanderthal vs human culture. You can forgive her the embellishments for the sake of good story telling. I still surprise myself with my knowledge of palaeolithic human culture, and almost all of it comes from reading the first in the series, The Clan of the Cave Bear, and the many sequels that followed it.
Real door-stoppers, but you just can't put them down.

Sphere (1987)

by Michael Crichton

Another Crichton novel, this one also adapted into a movie, but one that misses everything that's amazing about the book. My mind was blown by the conversations between the scientists about extra-terrestrial life, particularly the idea that something might exist in more (or less) dimensions than we experience. It was the first time I'd really given ideas like this proper thought. A great book.

The Island of Dr Moreau (1896)

by H. G. Wells

This book grew out of a movement against vivisection at the turn of the century. It is a masterpiece, dealing with ideas about what it is to be human, the conscious life of animals and their rights as living things. Like all of Wells' books, it retains a vitality and relevance despite it's antiquity, and does well to make you reflect on what drives people to alter 'nature'. Of course you can never go wrong with an H. G Wells novel.

I, Robot (1950)

by Isaac Asimov

Finally, Asimov's small collection of short stories on artificial intelligence (AI). I'd never been that interested in artificial intelligence, but these tales of pitfall, benefit and interaction between people and AI are considered among the best. The drawbacks of logic taken to the extreme interested me greatly, and are of course the focus of the namesake film. These stories go way beyond that though, and ought to be read by anyone contemplating AI and our role as creators.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Elizabeth Anderson Grey - Scottish Lady Palaeontologist

Have you heard of Elizabeth Anderson Gray? She was one of the most important and prolific female Scottish fossil collectors of her time, responsible for amassing collections that are still vital to our knowledge of the stratigraphy and species composition of the Ordovician and Silurian rocks of Scotland.

Born in Alloway, Ayreshire, to an Innkeeper, Elizabeth’s family then relocated to become farmers in Girvan, a small coastal town 60 miles south of Glasgow. Although she moved occasionally in her life (to Glasgow and to Edinburgh), it was from the rocks around Girvan that Elizabeth would collect most of her specimens during her long lifetime.
Elizabeth Anderson Gray spent her entire life fossil hunting. Her collections were vital to our understanding of early life on earth. (Picture from Carrick Scotland: Beyond the Tourist Guides)
Elizabeth’s father, Thomas Anderson (who had a trilobite and a coral named after him), introduced her to geology and fossil collecting when she was a child. From this point onwards she collected assiduously, continuing until the autumn before her death, at the age of 93. Like many women collectors, Elizabeth Anderson Gray was overshadowed publically by her husband Robert Gray, co-founder of The Natural History Society of Glasgow (NHSG), under whose name much of their joint wor was presented. This was necessary in the 1800s as most Societies where their finds might be presented did not admit women until the turn of the century.
Elizabeth Gray was dedicated to record keeping and extending our understanding of the diversity of early Palaeozoic life. Despite her modest early education, her lifelong learning was augmented in 1869 when she was invited to attend geology lectures for women at the University of Glasgow.
Elizabeth was clearly an astute woman. She ensured the importance of her finds was recognised by having them formally described by established scientists (who were of course, all men). Her legacy also survived in the Gray Collections, which were sold to museums across the United Kingdom, the main ones being the Natural History Museum in London and the Hunterian in Glasgow. Many of her finds are type specimens, the material that defines a species taxonomically, such as Hudsonaster grayae (an early starfish), Archophiactis grayae (also an echinoderm), and Lophospira trispiralis (a type of mollusc).

One of the fossils from the Gray Collection. ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Many specimens collected by Elizabeth are referred to in the proceedings of the Natural History Society of Glasgow between 1868 and 1878, and unlike many other women geologists of her time (notably Mary Anning) she even had the honour of having some named after her – although it was the surname she shared with her husband, rather than forename, that was mostly used for this purpose. Other material was named for Girvan, the area she found it in.
Using her detailed observational skill, Elizabeth presented a list of the fossils she collected in Ayrshire which was extensively used by other geologists in both Scotland and England. It formed an important contribution to the British Geological Survey’s volume on Silurian Scottish rocks.

The Grays were friends with the well-known geologist Charles Lapworth and fossil collector Jane Donald Longstaff.  Although considered by both herself and the professionals of the day as an amateur, Elizabeth was undeniably a skilled one; responsible for uncovering a great deal of the diversity of Palaeozoic rocks in Scotland. Years of collecting led Elizabeth to be well versed in geology and sedimentology, keeping careful records of her work. It is because she recorded the locations, geology and associations of each of her specimens that Gray’s collections remain invaluable to those studying the Ordivician and Silurian today. 

After her husband’s death in 1887, Elizabeth continued to collect fossils, often with the help of her two daughters, Alice and Edith, who undoubtedly knew a great deal thanks to the many “geologising” family holidays taken over the years. In 1900 Elizabeth’s contributions to geology were recognised by the Geological Society of Glasgow, who made her an honorary member. The Natural History Society of Glasgow followed suit a year later.

In 1903, at the stately age of 72, Elizabeth was awarded the Murchison Geological Fund from the Geological Society of London, for her lifelong contribution to early Palaeozoic geological research. She continued to collect and disseminate her material until the year before her death from bronchitis on 11th February, 1924. 
Elizabeth's daughters continued her work, they were known as "the Misses Grey". ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
She had spent almost a century working in the field, and yet so few people know her name. Her daughters – referred to as “the Misses Gray” - continued to collect; diligently uncovering new specimens as their mother had before them. They eventually sold her remaining collection to the Natural History Museum, ensuring their mother’s work would survive and remain available for future scientific study. 

Without her, our understanding of the early Palaeozoic in Scotland and the UK would be much the poorer.

(this article first appeared on 27/5/15)

To find out more about the Gray collection at the Natural History Museum in London, search for her fossils here:
For more on the geology of Girvan, and the rest of Scotland, try

Burek, C. V., & Higgs, B. (2007) The Role of Women in the History of Geology. The Geological Society; Bath.

MacBride E. W., & Spencer W. K (1938) Two New Echinoidea, Aulechinus and Ectinechinus, and an Adult Plated Holothurian, Eothuria, from the Upper Ordovician of Girvan, Scotland. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 229

McCance M. (2002) Hugh Miller, 1802-1856, Geologist and Writer: His Links with 19th Century Girvan. Ayrshire Notes No.23

Peach, B. N, Horne, J., & Teall, J. J. H. (1899) The Silurian rocks of Britain: Vol. I.Scotland. Glasgow: J. Hedderwick & Sons. Available from:
Weddel, R.  ‘Some Significant Women in the Early Years of the Natural History Society of Glasgow’ [online]. Available from: