While many scientists welcome the opportunity to engage the public with their work, most don’t write popular books about it. There are many reasons for this, ranging from the fear of trivializing subtle technical concepts when rendering them in everyday language to a broader philosophical belief that the advocacy of specific scientific views should best be left to designated academic mechanisms like peer-reviewed journals.
For most, however, the major stumbling block to writing popular accounts of their work simply boils down to a question of time, aware as they are that the act of conveying advanced scientific concepts to a general audience requires a tremendous amount of effort to do it properly. Given the many priorities and demands on her time that an active researcher has, the decision to refrain from writing popular books is eminently reasonable, but the natural upshot of this is that the domain of popular science is principally left to a combination of “professional popularizers” who aren’t themselves engaged in any real form of frontline research and retired authorities looking to cement their scientific legacy. Both can certainly be interesting and worth reading, but neither is likely to give you a clear sense of what is actually happening in today’s laboratories and why.
But then there is UCL’s Nick Lane, author of no less than five highly detailed popular books on evolutionary biology and the specifics of energy-conversion mechanisms in biological organisms, who consistently refers to himself as a biochemist and a writer. How is it possible that Nick can be such an exception to the rule?
Well, one key factor, it seems, is that he had a different sort of scientific career trajectory from most, one where the act of writing played a significant role for him relatively early on. After completing his PhD on specific aspects of the bioenergetics of mitochondria in an effort to improve organ transplantations, he found himself uncertain about what to do next. So far, so normal. But then things took an interesting turn.
“I had wanted to do a postdoc, but I had entered a writing competition while I was doing my PhD and I happened to be a runner-up; so, I thought, Well, maybe I can write, then.
“But I had no idea how to go about writing. So, I looked in the back of New Scientist for jobs — either a postdoc, ideally something to do with bioenergetics and mitochondrial function but nothing to do with transplantation, or a writing job — and I happened to get a writing job before I got a postdoc.
“It was for a small, medical education agency — I had no idea such things existed — and it was basically soft marketing for the pharmaceutical industry, but it was good fun. And it was, in retrospect, very worthwhile: I learned to write that way and I learned to communicate with very different audiences.
“I realized that you could become an ‘expert’ in areas you knew very little about, relatively quickly. Now, for me there was a key common factor: for so many of these diseases that I couldn’t spell one day, it turned out that when you read about them you’d discover that free radical biochemistry was central to the disease process, so I found myself quickly on home ground.
“This was really the motivation for writing books down the line: that all of these different diseases seemed to have the same basis in chemistry as to why they were going wrong. So that was thrilling, actually.”
Eventually, however, the desire to focus on this exciting insight naturally clashed with the requirements of the rather more prosaic requirements of the corporate world.
“After a couple of years it was really enough, because you had to hop whenever the client said, ‘Hop’ — there were always subjects that you didn’t choose yourself and you never had time to follow through in the kind of depth that you might want to. So I became almost desperate to build on that, somehow — and the ideal way out for me was to write a book that tried to address the deeper, intellectual question of why this free radical biochemistry is underpinning all of these diseases: examining what was really going on there.”
That first book, Oxygen: The Molecule That Made the World, successfully launched Nick as a writer, so much so that for a time it looked like he was going to forever leave science itself.
“I had an honorary position at UCL, so I still had a connection with the lab, which was a very useful address for me to have. I published occasional papers and was writing feature articles for Nature, New Scientist and so forth. I’d written another book, Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life, and that was pretty successful in a small kind of a way, I suppose; but I was particularly keen to be addressing these big questions.
“I had really developed a lot in how I was thinking over that period of 5–6 years or so, and it was clear to me that there was a limit to how much one can write for Nature or New Scientist about the same theme: you can do it once every couple of years, perhaps, but they don’t want to have an article from the same writer on the same subject every three or four months.
“So I was faced with a choice: either I was going to become a journalist and write about other people’s work and other people’s interests or I had to get back into research and really follow through with the kinds of questions that I was becoming more and more interested in. I tried to engage other researchers to do some experiments and to begin to test some of the ideas I had, but I realized that there was no way of making sustainable progress there — people, obviously and reasonably, have their own interests and their own drives.”
Finding himself on the outside looking in, increasingly viewed as “a science writer” by his colleagues rather than an active member of the establishment, the opportunity to cross the boundary, as it were, back to frontline research seemed increasingly remote. And then, suddenly, a sort of miracle: the powers that be at UCL decided that a conscious effort was required in order to trigger risky, potentially game-changing ideas that otherwise wouldn’t be considered in the naturally conservative environment of standard academe, developing a specific mechanism, the UCL Provost’s Venture Research Prize, to shake things up for innovative, unorthodox thinkers.
In 2009, Nick won. And suddenly, he was back in the club, actively pursuing his agenda of demonstrating the overarching importance of looking at an enormous range of key biological questions — from the origin of life to diseases — in terms of fundamental energy-transfer mechanisms.
But through it all, he kept writing: Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life was followed by Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, which was followed by The Vital Question: Why Is Life the Way It Is? His next book, Transformer, is due to be released in 2021.
Why does he keep going? Well, partly, I suppose, because at this point being a writer is now an essential aspect of who he is. But partly too, it is because the very act of writing clearly helps him sort out his research ideas.
“One of the great things about having written books and thought about this broader picture, is that I now have what I hope is a very solidly grounded picture of how these things fit together across a large scale; and this has led me to conclude that the answer has to be in a certain well-defined area. Maybe I’m wrong in the details, but I’m convinced that it has to be there somewhere. I find that that’s true of a lot of these types of questions: people who are in a particular field and are not taking that broader, synoptic view will tend to compare different ideas solely on their own perceived merits or demerits: ‘This idea has these strengths and it has those weaknesses, and that one has these strengths and those weaknesses’.
“But the reason that I think the answer lies there has got nothing to do with the quality of the science in the other fields, it’s got everything to do with the philosophy that’s associated with the very notion of life itself, leading me to ask, ‘Well, these proton gradients across barriers are so fundamental to life that they must have arisen early; and they must have happened in an inorganic context originally, so what could that inorganic context possibly be doing?’ — a question to which there’s only a very limited number of answers.
“So whether or not it works for me in the lab, I’m confident that it will work — that having a broader view can funnel you down into a particular question; and even if the evidence for it at the moment is weak, which it is, I think 10 years down the line, the evidence for it will be strong. And if it’s not, then I’ll be out of a job.”
Well, maybe one job, anyway. But quite likely not that one either.”
This is the introduction written by Howard Burton of the book called A Matter of Energy: Biology From First Principles. This extensive book is based on an in-depth, filmed conversation between Howard Burton and Nick Lane, Professor of Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London. The book is broken into chapters and includes questions for discussion at the end of each chapter.
The book is also available as part of the 5-part Ideas Roadshow Collection called Conversations About Biology, featuring Nick Lane, Frans de Waal, Mattew Walker, Stephen Scherer and Alcino Silva.