My Top Ten Scientists
SF author and zoologist
Ken MacLeod cites the scientists and engineers born
in the 20th Century who have influenced him
I’m not really a scientist who became a science fiction writer. I’m a science fiction reader who tried to become a scientist, because science fiction made science cool. At school my progress in mathematics hit a brick wall at calculus, and in physics at electronics. So at university I chose biology -- then the least mathematical of the sciences -- and specialised in Zoology.
The course (in my recollection anyway) began, like multicellular life itself, with the invertebrates. We worked our way through the two-volume Pelican paperback, Animals Without Backbones by Ralph Buchsbaum, anatomising as we went. The vivid illustrations, by the author’s sister Elizabeth Buchsbaum, helped us to make sense of the dissections we carried out, chapter by chapter. Over the years thousands of students must have glanced from some preparation – a foil dish floored with black wax, over which they wielded pins, scalpels and tweezers on the innards of snail or locust – to Buchsbaum’s book. ‘Draw what you see,’ our demonstrators told us, as we struggled to diagram the resulting mess. ‘But I don’t know what I’m seeing!’ we wailed in reply. Elizabeth Buchsbaum helped us to see, and Ralph Buchsbaum helped us to understand.
Moving from animal anatomy to animal behaviour, my next guide was Dr Felicity Huntingford. Then a newly-appointed lecturer, she had studied at Oxford under Niko Tinbergen and Richard Dawkins. Dr Huntingford was well placed to skewer, with kindly rigour, my brash assertions derived from hasty readings of Noam Chomsky on behaviourism, Robert Ardrey on territoriality and Konrad Lorenz on aggression. Huntingford has since written a textbook, The Study of Animal Behaviour, and contributed chapters to numerous books, with so far 247 research publications to her name. Now an emeritus professor and Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, she has applied her world-renowned expertise in fish behaviour to the practical problems of aquaculture and fisheries.
Still trying to dodge mathematics, I specialised in Vertebrate Zoology. I was the only student to do so, and was assigned three lecturers as tutors. I enjoyed learning palaeontology from Peter Norton, and anatomy from Jim Cowie, but taxonomy and systematics defeated me despite the best tutorial efforts of Professor Roy Crowson. Taxonomy is among other things an education in the unavoidable fuzziness of concepts that must, for certain purposes, be treated as fixed: species evolve, but still we have to classify. Charming and acerbic, Crowson gave short shrift to my occasional allusions to dialectics – as a former Communist he had been around that particular block a few too many times. I had no idea that he was already world famous in his field. He had established the classification of beetles, a species had been named after him, and his collections are in major museums. Many years later I mentioned him to the Russian palaeontologist and fantasy writer Kirill Eskov, who looked at me wide-eyed: ‘You knew Crowson?’
At conferences on vertebrate biology in my final year I heard – and briefly met - a giant of the field: Stan Wood. Tall, lean, self-taught, immensely enterprising and energetic, this former engineer and insurance salesman became Britain’s most prolific 20th-Century fossil-hunter. He famously discovered Westlothiana lizziae, aka ‘Lizzie’, which at the time was thought to be the oldest known lizard. Its precise classification is now less certain, but its importance is not. Lizzie was only one of the many significant discoveries Wood made. He once bought an old farm wall for £25, found £50,000 worth of fossils in it, and reinvested some of the money in leasing the quarry the rocks came from and hiring heavy machinery – with which he unearthed even more fossils. Wood’s work outlives him in numerous scientific papers on fossils he collected, and in the shop in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, Mr Wood’s Fossils, which he founded and which still thrives.
With an Upper Second Class Honours degree under my belt, my next unwise decision was to plunge into postgraduate research not in palaeontology, where even I might have made some modest contribution, but in the study of living bone. This choice was based on nothing sounder than my secondary-school pass in Applied Mechanics and a purely literary appreciation of D’Arcy Thomson’s majestic On Growth and Form. In belated preparation I read and re-read another Pelican, The New Science of Strong Materials or Why You Don’t Fall Through the Floor by J. E. Gordon. A graduate of Glasgow University, Gordon’s distinguished career in materials science, aeronautics and biomechanics and his wide-ranging culture illuminated this wittily written book (and its likewise brilliant sequel Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down). Still widely used as textbooks, they can be read (and re-read) with delight. Few books can have inspired more engineers, or made more lay readers appreciate what engineers do.
The scientist whose work enabled me to – very belatedly – complete my M Phil was Richard Dawkins. I can add little to the praise for The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene, except to say that these books (and, incidentally, reading up on market economics) drew my attention to the problems of information and cost in generating the efficient structure of bone. We can look at the spongy lattice of the femoral head, and marvel (as D’Arcy Thomson did) at how its lines follow the lines of force. But we still have to understand why this pattern is determined, and how the cells ‘know’ how the stresses and strains run. This clue gave me a working hypothesis which raised the game of my thesis above a simple comparison of different loading regimens on the tibiae of a dozen luckless rabbits. Dawkins has his faults and his detractors, but no one who has read The Selfish Gene and understood it will ever think about evolution in quite the same way again.
The other widely-read expounder and original thinker of evolutionary biology in the 20th Century was Stephen J. Gould. A practising palaeontologist with an eye for the detail of the fossil record, his interests were in explaining and exploring the great tree of life and its branches, rather than in explicating the stepwise process by which it grows. His theory of punctuated equilibrium was presented in a way that gave rise to many misunderstandings. His wonderful account, in Wonderful Life, of the strange beasts of the Burgess Shale turned out to be mistaken in some details as more evidence came in. But his many volumes of collected essays and reviews have enthralled hundreds of thousands of readers with the truth Darwin enunciated and Gould reinforced, that ‘There is grandeur in this view of life...’
Long before completing my MPhil (to the delight and relief of my Brunel University supervisor Dr Alan Yettram, whose patience I must have sorely tried), I realised I wasn’t going to make it in science, and like many others in the 1980s moved into the fast-expanding field of computer programming – and from there, rashly, into full-time writing. Since then I’ve relied on and been inspired by the work of the great popularisers. I’ve been privileged to hear Steve Jones speak. ‘I’m a geneticist,’ he began. ‘My job is to make seχ boring.’ This, he said, is how he introduces his lecture course to his students. ‘They look a bit puzzled, but after 25 lectures, they get it.’ His books (like the talk he went on to give that evening in Edinburgh) are anything but boring. Almost Like a Whale: the Origin of Species Updated justifies the bold claim of its title, and (almost) makes reading Darwin’s classic redundant for modern readers.
I may or may not have met Richard Fortey in my undergraduate days – I have a dim memory of a kindly figure guiding me and Peter Norton through the labyrinthine basement of the Natural History Museum to the very display-drawer in which the foot bones of the Jurassic marine crocodile Metriorhynchus were laid out in a little tray lined with indented baize – but I’ve seen him on television often enough to make me doubt that identification. His books, Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution, Life: an Unauthorised Biography, and Earth: an Intimate History have enthralled and enlightened many readers, and I have on my shelf The Hidden Landscape still to look forward to and learn from.
One great populariser – and scientist – I have definitely met is Nick Lane, who at Aberdeen University’s 2009 Word literary festival signed my copy of his then just-published Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution. Lane’s research interest – widely shared in this book and three others likewise acclaimed – is in the energetics and biochemistry of evolution: the molecular detail of how it (could have) happened rather than in the genes and bones from which we trace the tale. Looking at the book now, I see I’m going to have to read it again. It’ll probably help with the book I’m writing.
I had the wrong sort of temperament to be a scientist. The least I can do, as a science fiction writer, is honour those who have it.
(And steal their ideas, but that goes without saying.)
Note: The only scientific paper with my name on it is McDonald, F., Yettram, A. L. & MacLeod, K. (1994) The response of bone to external loading regimens. Medical Engineering & Physics, vol 16 (5), p384-397. DOI:10.1016/1350-4533(90)90005-S.
Ken MacLeod is a Scottish writer whose SF is often hard-ish and a few of his novels are space operas. His first novel was part of the 'Fall Revolution' series that begins with The Star Fraction (1995) that won a Prometheus Award and was short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke (book) Award. His 'Engines of Light' trilogy began with Cosmonaut Keep (2000) that was also short-listed for a Clarke as well as a Hugo Award. His Learning the World: A Novel of First Contact (2005) garnered a Prometheus Award and was short-listed for the BSFA, Campbell, Clarke, Hugo and Locus Awards. He has, of course, written much more. He scripted the educational comic
Hope Beyond Hype and with Pippa Goldschmidt set up and edited The Human Genre Project,
a collection of works on genetic themes. His latest book is Beyond the Hallowed Sky from Orbit. He can be found online at kenmacleod.blogspot.com.and on Twitter as @amendlocke.
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