The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Stephanie Pain
|The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Stephanie Pain|
|Summary: Farmer Buckley's Exploding Trousers is another fantastic book from New Scientist, this time looking at odd events on the way to scientific discovery. It's brilliantly written and compiled, and endlessly fascinating. We leapt at the chance to interview editor Stephanie Pain.|
|Date: 24 May 2011|
|Interviewer: Keith Dudhnath|
Farmer Buckley's Exploding Trousers is another fantastic book from New Scientist, this time looking at odd events on the way to scientific discovery. It's brilliantly written and compiled, and endlessly fascinating. We leapt at the chance to interview editor Stephanie Pain.
- Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?
Stephanie Pain: There's a first time for everything. I'll give it a go. Actually I see all sorts of people who, like me, simply enjoy a good yarn. Like all New Scientist readers they have an unquenchable curiosity about practically everything to do with science and technology, but Histories fans also have a finely honed taste for the obscure, the bizarre and the unexpected. Most of New Scientist's Histories told tales that readers were unlikely to come across elsewhere. That's because they came from sources few people have access to – friendly museum curators itching to share their favourite stories, rare or forgotten books in specialist libraries, or they were prompted by esoteric studies published in journals even I had often never heard of before. Our readers like being able to tap into all that expert knowledge.
- BB: What brought you to New Scientist originally?
SP: The Thatcher government. I lost my job on a dull medical journal – and New Scientist advertised for a reviews editor the same day. If I was a romantic, I'd say it was serendipity. As it turned out, losing that job was the most brilliant thing to have happened. I spent a fantastic 25 years at New Scientist, during which I travelled the world, met amazing people, and wrote about the things that most fascinated me – which I reckoned meant they would fascinate everyone else too. There was some tough stuff too: trying to extract information from tight-lipped government scientists and oil company executives was more challenging than chatting to experts on cicadas or piecing together the life of the demon duck of doom... and of course, there were ten years of Histories, which must have been one of the world's best jobs.
- BB: In ten years of editing New Scientist's Histories column, do you have a favourite story?
SP: There are many that were a real pleasure to research and write and lots from other contributors that were a real joy. I particularly enjoyed the ones that revealed another side to famous scientists we thought we knew all about – Charles Babbage's interminable battle with the buskers who played their hurdy-gurdies outside his house, for instance. If it hadn't been for them, he might have completed his difference engine... Another favourite was the revelation – courtesy of Michael Wright at the Science Museum - that James Watt indulged in a bit of fraud, passing off his poorly made flutes (he made flutes before steam engines) as the work of a famous craftsman. And of course, I have to include Farmer Buckley's exploding trousers – not just because it's a great mix of science and social history and provided a great title for the book, but because our story alerted the IgNobel Prize committee to the original research the story was based on – and clinched a well-deserved IgNobel prize for New Zealand historian James Watson.
- BB: Were there any stories that you wish had made it into Farmer Buckley's Exploding Trousers?
SP: Plenty. But the book would be more than twice the size if they had all been included. I have to admit to a soft spot for the King of the Duckbilled Dinosaurs – the extraordinary tale of Baron Nopsca – Transylvania's second most famous son after Dracula. Nopcsa was a self-taught expert on European dinosaurs. He was also a flamboyant gay aristocrat who hung out with Albanian bandits, travelled wild mountain roads on a motorbike in a huge velvet cloak with with his lover riding pillion - and tried to have himself made King of Albania. It all ended very badly. But his ideas on dinosaurs are still good.
- BB: Who do you admire more: those who fail gloriously or those who succeed serendipitously?
SP: Well the failures did at least try, so they score highly for effort, while some of those who succeeded serendipitously simply got a lucky break... but it's rarely so clear-cut. The big breaks and eureka moments tend to follow years of slog and many of the failures deserved to fail. It's hard to sympathise with the Spanish monk who became the first vulcanologist in the Americas – because his only interest was in getting his hands on what he imagined was gold bubbling in the bottom of his local volcano. On the other hand, you have to admire the young astronomers who spent their lunch breaks secretly digging a great hole in the ground to create their own radio dish. They did at least have something to show for all that hard graft – they discovered the centre of the galaxy. That's a lesson to all of us: instead of snatching a sandwich at our desks, take a proper lunch break. You can do a lot in an hour.
- BB: Who, in science's rich history, do you particularly look up to?
SP: I'd like to say the geniuses with the sort of brains that conjured up Big New Ideas – but I'd be lying. Before I was a journalist I was an ocean-going zoologist and got at least a hint of what it must have been like for the early explorer-naturalists setting off on voyages into the unknown. The wildest shores I ever visited were in the Outer Hebrides and the most dangerous port of call was probably Ardrossan on a Saturday night. Those early naturalists faced enormous perils, terrible voyages in vile conditions and then horrible diseases, poisonous snakes and dangerous animals, not to mention unfriendly people. So I'd pick scientists such as Alfred Russel Wallace and his friend Henry Bates, and of course Charles Darwin during his Beagle days - and before them the band of men known as Linnaeus's apostles – sent by the great man himself to collect and record new species of plants and animals in some of the worst places in the world. I would have loved to be the first zoologist to see some fabulous new animal in an unheard of place – but I can't cope with spiders and snakes.
- BB: What were your three favourite books as a child?
SP: That's impossible to answer. I read just about everything I could lay my hands on – mostly books from the library. I was enchanted by The Borrowers and loved The Family From One End Street. But animals were definitely a theme. I related to Ratty and Mole (The Wind in the Willows), liked the idea of talking to the animals (Doctor Doolittle) and wanted to be Gerald Durrell (My Family and Other Animals). As you can tell, I wasn't much good at arithmetic.
The only childhood books I still have are the Observer's Books of Birds, Wildflowers and Weather and my most treasured volume, the still exceedingly beautiful Concise British Flora in Colour. The Rev. William Keble Martin spent 60 years working on it – which impressed the 9-year-old me as much as the wonderful paintings. My parents clearly thought it was an odd thing to ask for as a Christmas present – but they hunted it down and bought it anyway.
- BB: What are you reading now and how are you finding it?
SP: I have a pile of books building up by my bedside – including Patrick Barkham's The Butterfly Isles and Richard Mabey's Weeds. But I'm currently reading Nella Last's Peace. Readers might know Nella as Housewife, 49, Victoria Wood's drama based on Nella Last's War, the first volume of extracts from the diaries Nella wrote for the Mass Observation project. This is history as seen by ordinary people, a record of what life was really like, including details too trifling for the history books but which paint such a vivid picture of the times. The diaries from the immediate post-war years provide a fascinating insight into what life was like for my parent's generation – a time of food shortages, power cuts and a new Labour government. I'm looking forward to the next volume, Nella Last in the 1950s – to find out what it was like when I was born...
- BB: What's next for Stephanie Pain?
SP: I live in Brighton so I'm hoping to free up enough time this summer to finally explore the Downs... I'm also working on one or two book ideas but it's too soon to reveal what they are.
- BB: Ooh, we love the Downs! Thanks so much for a fascinating interview, Stephanie. All the best with the new books.
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