Sci­ence writ­ing is in the spot­light at the Emi­rates Air­line Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture in Dubai. Award-win­ning au­thor Jo Marchant, for­mer PhD stu­dent Ben Miller and chil­dren’s au­thor Lucy Hawk­ing, daugh­ter of physi­cist Stephen Hawk­ing, tell Fri­day why they en

Friday - - Contents -

Jo Marchant, Ben Miller and Lucy Hawk­ing on how writ­ing makes sci­ence ac­ces­si­ble to all.

Dressed in a white gown and hair­net, 61-year-old Ana Maria is wheeled into the oper­at­ing room of a pri­vate clinic in Mex­ico City where Dr Jose Luis Mosso Vazquez is on hand to su­per­vise an op­er­a­tion to ex­cise a lipoma, a fatty lump, from her thigh.

In a riv­et­ing piece for an on­line sci­ence jour­nal mo­saic­, award-win­ning sci­ence jour­nal­ist and au­thor Jo Marchant de­scribes how Ana, whose blood pres­sure read­ing is 183/93 – nor­mal read­ing is 120/80 – is prepped for surgery and given lo­cal anaes­the­sia.

Un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances a pa­tient like Ana would usu­ally be se­dated. But Dr Jose slips a vir­tual re­al­ity head­set over Ana’s eyes and as the surgery pro­gresses, Ana is im­mersed in a three-di­men­sional re­cre­ation of the ru­ins of Machu Pic­chu, a des­ti­na­tion that’s high on her bucket list.

Al­though emer­gency med­i­ca­tion is there if needed the surgery pro­ceeds with­out a hitch and, 20 min­utes af­ter the surgery, Ana is all smiles. Thanks to vir­tual re­al­ity, she says, she barely felt the scalpel slice her flesh. Best of all, her blood pres­sure ac­tu­ally dropped dur­ing the surgery.

Tech­niques to di­vert the mind when un­der stress, place­bos, hon­est place­bos and harnessing the power of vir­tual re­al­ity in pain man­age­ment are just a few de­bat­able top­ics that Jo’s re­cent book Cure: A Jour­ney Into the Sci­ence of Mind Over Body, delves into.

‘The de­vel­op­ment of re­al­ity games and how they can help with pain is some­thing I talk about a lot in the book,’ says the au­thor.

Jo, who is in Dubai for the Emi­rates Air­line Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture, ar­gues the brain has

only lim­ited ca­pac­ity for con­scious at­ten­tion. ‘So re­searchers thought that if they could cre­ate a com­pelling, em­mer­sive 3D vir­tual re­al­ity game that could grab peo­ple’s at­ten­tion, then the pa­tient will pay less at­ten­tion to the pain they may be suf­fer­ing.’

The VR games were tested on pa­tients with se­vere burns, in­clud­ing on war vet­er­ans from Iraq and Afghanistan who, says Jo, ‘have seen the worst pain in medicine.’

‘Tri­als re­vealed that when pa­tients are play­ing those VR games while un­der­go­ing ex­tremely painful wound care ses­sions, it re­duced their pain by up to 50 per cent, in ad­di­tion to the pain re­lief they get from drugs. That’s a dra­matic re­sult of the mind and it is help­ing peo­ple who are in very se­vere pain.’

So what was the cat­a­lyst for writ­ing about the mind’s in­flu­ence on the body?

‘Place­bos and their ef­fects have al­ways in­ter­ested me,’ says Jo, who has a doc­tor­ate in ge­net­ics. ‘If placebo works, we need to un­der­stand how it works, and its ben­e­fits.’

An­other sub­ject she wanted to ex­plore was hyp­no­sis. ‘I also wanted to re­search mind­ful­ness and de­pres­sion,’ she says. ‘I re­alised that a lot of dif­fer­ent things that I was in­ter­ested in were ac­tu­ally all dif­fer­ent as­pects of the same sub­ject – they all had to do with the in­flu­ence of the mind on the body.’

But per­haps what tipped the scales for her was that ‘it was such a de­bat­able topic – the role of the mind on the body.

‘It’s such a po­larised one. Some al­ter­na­tive ther­a­pists claim the mind can do any­thing while scep­tics, often from the field of sci­ence and medicine, hate the very idea and will say it is dan­ger­ous quack­ery. It’s hard to have a sen­si­ble de­bate in the mid­dle. So I wanted to look at this topic from a sci­en­tific stand­point to see what the mind can and can’t do.’ Firstly she at­tempts to re­de­fine ‘medicine’. ‘As a noun, medicine is a phys­i­cal sub­stance like a drug that you give some­body [for the treat­ment or pre­ven­tion of dis­ease],’ she says. ‘But that shows how nar­row-minded we are; that we have to give some­one a phys­i­cal sub­stance to make them feel bet­ter.’

While she ad­mits it’s an im­por­tant part of medicine ‘there is a lot more to it – like the way that sub­stance is de­liv­ered, the way care is given, the way we treat hu­man in­ter­ac­tions be­tween care­giver and pa­tient… all of these things play into phys­i­cal and men­tal health as well,’ says Jo. She in­sists we need to be think­ing broadly about all these things when it comes to cur­ing peo­ple of a con­di­tion or pre­serv­ing health.

Jo, for her book Cure, trav­elled across the world re­search­ing and ex­plor­ing vir­tual re­al­ity ther­apy, the health ben­e­fits of friend­ship and so­cial con­nec­tions, the power of med­i­ta­tion and faith, hyp­no­sis and place­bos and how they can be used to im­prove well-be­ing.

‘There’s a big in­ter­est right now in place­bos. One area is hon­est place­bos – the idea that you can take a placebo and know that it is a placebo and it can still have a sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect on you,’ says the au­thor, whose first book De­cod­ing the Heav­ens was short­listed for the 2009 Royal So­ci­ety Prize for Sci­ence Books.

Jo de­tails a trial con­ducted in Por­tu­gal with pa­tients suf­fer­ing from lower back pain. ‘They had been on dif­fer­ent drugs for years and had recorded no change. This group was given hon­est place­bos and they recorded sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment com­pared to those on reg­u­lar treat­ment. In fact some of them re­ported dra­matic im­prove­ment. So it was nice to have con­fir­ma­tion that hon­est place­bos do have an ef­fect.’

Jo is also happy that us­ing vir­tual re­al­ity games to di­vert pa­tients’ at­ten­tion away from their pain is prov­ing ben­e­fi­cial.

‘Of course, it doesn’t mean that pain is go­ing to go away [if these tech­niques are used] but [games] cer­tainly dra­mat­i­cally im­prove peo­ple’s qual­ity of life and make pain more man­age­able and the con­di­tion that they have,’ she says.

So de­spite so much ev­i­dence, why is the sci­ence com­mu­nity re­luc­tant to ac­cept that the mind could have an ef­fect on the body?

‘There are a lot of things lead­ing to that – deep-seated bi­ases, prej­u­dices and at­ti­tudes that sci­en­tists have... There is an un­spo­ken feel­ing that any­thing re­lated to the mind is flaky and not sci­en­tific and a lot of sci­en­tists have a gut re­ac­tion against it. They don’t like it. Also there are so many ex­treme claims be­ing made and it is dan­ger­ous to put too much trust in the mind. It doesn’t cure ev­ery­thing and if peo­ple re­ject con­ven­tional treat­ments that they need, then they can die.’

Are pharma com­pa­nies down­play­ing the role of the ben­e­fits of the mind on health?

‘I don’t think they are pur­posely do­ing that,’ says Jo. ‘I think it’s a prob­lem when the med­i­cal sys­tem be­comes too re­liant on the money they are putting into clin­i­cal tri­als.’

She says pharma com­pa­nies ‘are ac­tu­ally very in­ter­ested in the role of the mind and the body. They are aware of huge im­prove­ments in pa­tients in placebo tri­als.’

Since she has dis­cov­ered proof of the mind’s ben­e­fi­cial ef­fects on health, has she junked Western medicine?

‘Not re­ally,’ says Jo, with a laugh. ‘I think al­ter­na­tive ther­a­pies [and place­bos] prob­a­bly can in some cases be very help­ful to peo­ple… par­tic­u­larly for chronic pain. These ther­a­pies can be bet­ter than drugs.’

Jo wants to see more re­search that teases out, in an ev­i­dence-based way, the real in­gre­di­ents of such al­ter­na­tive ther­a­pies so that they can be in­cor­po­rated into main­stream medicine.

In­stead of fo­cus­ing on drugs, she sug­gests con­cen­trat­ing on length of ap­point­ment time, the at­ti­tude of the prac­ti­tioner, the words the doc­tor uses, the hu­man aspect of care, the in­ter­ac­tion and re­la­tion­ship be­tween ther­a­pist and pa­tient, and ‘long per­son­alised con­sul­ta­tions, which are hap­pen­ing less and less in con­ven­tional medicine’.

Is it easy to write sci­ence books for a gen­eral au­di­ence?

TRI­ALS have re­vealed that when pa­tients are play­ing VIR­TUAL RE­AL­ITY GAMES while un­der­go­ing EX­TREMELY painful wound care ses­sions, it RE­DUCED their PAIN by up to 50 per cent

‘The biggest chal­lenge is to put forth com­pli­cated ideas in a sim­ple, clear way but not too sim­ple and with­out mak­ing peo­ple feel that you are talk­ing down to them and with­out be­ing vague or am­bigu­ous,’ she says.

‘I’m keen to en­cour­age more peo­ple to read about sci­ence and sci­ence-re­lated fea­tures… For me that’s what comes first and the sci­en­tific con­tent just comes in be­hind to sup­port their sto­ries.’

Jo Marchant’s ses­sion at EAFOL about her book, is on to­day from 10-11am. She’s also on the Won­ders of Sci­ence panel dis­cus­sion with Ben Miller at 3pm.

Can sci­ence be en­ter­tain­ing – even amus­ing? Per­haps the person to ask is a physics en­thu­si­ast who aban­doned academia and be­came a top TV comic ac­tor. Fit­ting this bill is Ben Miller, who started a PhD in ‘quasi zero-di­men­sional meso­scopic elec­tron sys­tems’ at Cam­bridge, but dropped out to pur­sue com­edy with fel­low grad­u­ate Alexan­der Arm­strong.

‘Well, I don’t get much spir­i­tual com­fort from physics. The uni­verse may be beau­ti­ful, but it is also vi­o­lent and ter­ri­fy­ing. Com­edy, on the other hand, is some­thing I would find it very hard to live with­out,’ says Miller, who re­turned to his roots, pub­lish­ing sci­ence books It’s Not Rocket Sci­ence (2012) and The Aliens are Com­ing! (2016).

‘I have al­ways loved sci­ence, and writ­ing the books was a great way of get­ting to meet some of our great­est sci­en­tists,’ says Miller. Grow­ing up in Cheshire, Eng­land, with both par­ents as teach­ers, it’s no won­der that Miller ex­plains dif­fi­cult con­cepts of physics in a way that al­lows even the sleepi­est reader to get it – a Dire Straits encore ex­plains the Drake equa­tion and a platy­pus in­tro­duces evolution.

He is one of the earth­lings who looks for­ward to the day sig­nals come in from an­other planet, some­thing that physi­cist Stephen Hawk­ing has warned us about.

‘I am a lit­tle more op­ti­mistic, though like Stephen Hawk­ing, the only ev­i­dence I have to go on is that on Earth,’ says Miller. ‘Meet­ings be­tween civil­i­sa­tions haven’t al­ways turned out badly. The Ro­mans did a pretty good job of mod­ernising Bri­tain, give or take a few mass slaugh­ters.’

His mis­sion has been to take sci­ence to the masses. If hu­mour, as some say, is truth plus ab­sur­dity, then for Miller, sci­ence is about un­cov­er­ing truth by adding fun. ‘Sci­ence is al­ready main­stream, thanks to ex­tra­or­di­nary ad­vances like the Large Hadron Col­lider at Cern, which found the Higgs bo­son, and Nasa’s Ke­pler Space Tele­scope, which has found a me­nagerie of plan­ets around dis­tant stars,’ says Miller. ‘In the same way that the Apollo moon land­ings in­spired my gen­er­a­tion to em­brace sci­ence, I think these star­tling dis­cov­er­ies have re­minded us that there’s more to life than crys­tals and ho­moeopa­thy.’

He has no plans to fin­ish his PhD, though. ‘When it comes to sci­ence, I am more of a roadie than a gui­tarist,’ he says.

His in­ter­est in sci­ence runs par­al­lel to his com­edy writ­ing and per­form­ing; sci­ence has al­ways been an in­spi­ra­tion for his com­edy. ‘At the heart of sci­ence is scep­ti­cism; the motto of the world’s very first sci­en­tific so­ci­ety, the Royal In­sti­tu­tion, is “take no man’s word.” And to my mind, that’s what’s at the heart of com­edy too. For in­stance, you don’t meet many co­me­di­ans who be­lieve in astrol­ogy.’

Miller’s ca­reer on the com­edy cir­cuit took off when he found his part­ner in hi­lar­ity in Arm­strong in 1992. The duo’s for­tunes changed when they were nom­i­nated for a Per­rier Award at the Ed­in­burgh Fringe in 1996. Soon, reg­u­lar TV gigs fol­lowed, first Satur­day Live, then the epony­mous sketch show with Alexan­der Arm­strong, The Arm­strong and Miller Show, which ran un­til 2001, and then reap­peared on the BBC in 2007, where it ran for cou­ple of years, with the pair win­ning a Bafta in 2010.

His pair­ing with Arm­strong has been the high­light of his ca­reer. Their dry sense of hu­mour and im­pec­ca­ble tim­ing lent them­selves per­fectly to a sketch series. ‘I’m not sure about this whole com­edy-is-tim­ing thing. The tim­ing tends to be good when you see things on film be­cause it has been edited and re-edited un­til it works,’ says Miller.

‘I don’t care how many alien civil­i­sa­tions there are out there; I think ours is the only one where a John Cleese and a Michael Palin have per­formed the fish-slapping dance.’

For now, Miller is look­ing for­ward to the Emi­rates Air­line Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val ; he also at­tended in 2013. ‘I met many fas­ci­nat­ing au­thors. One of the down­sides of writ­ing is you don’t get out much, and it was fab­u­lous to be in the com­pany of so many bril­liant – and barmy – au­thors.’

At this point in his ca­reer, you could say Miller has the best of both worlds – do­ing com­edy and pur­su­ing sci­ence writ­ing. Pro­fes­sion­ally, Miller feels that his sit­u­a­tion is al­most per­fect. He says, ‘I think you be­gin your life be­liev­ing in destiny, and you end it be­liev­ing in luck’. Hope­fully I’m some­where in the mid­dle. Of my life that is.’

Ben Miller’s ses­sion at the Emi­rates Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val called ‘The Aliens Are Com­ing’ is to­mor­row at 4.30pm. He joins the panel for ‘Flip the Script: Screen­writ­ers in the Spot­light’ to­day at 10am. Each ses­sion is Dh75.

‘I cried buck­ets the first time I saw it,’ says Lucy Hawk­ing of the pro­found ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing her fa­ther, the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist pro­fes­sor Stephen Hawk­ing, on screen.

Hawk­ing, a Lon­don-based chil­dren’s au­thor, who was at the Emi­rates Air­line Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture in Dubai last week­end, says the Os­car-win­ning 2015 film star­ring Ed­die Red­mayne and Felic­ity Jones mir­rored their lives. ‘It is a beau­ti­ful film and has a great qual­ity of au­then­tic­ity about it.’

Mark­ing a new chap­ter in their re­la­tion­ship, Lucy teamed up with her pro­fes­sor fa­ther to un­lock the se­crets of sci­ence for chil­dren in the Ge­orge series. The cos­mic ad­ven­tures of a lit­tle boy called Ge­orge are best­sellers that have been trans­lated into 37 lan­guages.

‘My fa­ther had never tried to write a story be­fore and I had not writ­ten about sci­ence. It was very ex­cit­ing to see the first book take shape. We are now on the sixth and fi­nal vol­ume of Ge­orge’s ad­ven­tures.’ The first book was pub­lished in 2007 and, in ad­di­tion to her fa­ther, Hawk­ing worked with a wide range of sci­en­tists on the books.

The idea for the books, Lucy says, arose at a party when one of her son’s friends asked her physi­cist fa­ther a ques­tion. ‘When the lit­tle boy said, “So, Stephen, what would hap­pen to me if I fell into a black hole?” I re­alised this was the start of an ad­ven­ture story. The idea was to de­scribe what we know about the uni­verse in the form of a roller coaster cos­mic story for kids.’ The re­sult was Ge­orge’s Se­cret Key To The Uni­verse.

‘Black holes hold huge power over the imag­i­na­tion of young read­ers. Space travel has the same ef­fect. Many adults cur­rently work­ing in sci­ence or the space in­dus­tries were in­spired by the moon land­ings as chil­dren. In the book series, we use these top­ics to draw young read­ers in and fire their cu­rios­ity,’ says Lucy, who has been recog­nised with a fel­low­ship from the Royal Astro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety of Lon­don. She also tours pri­mary schools to give talks on physics, astron­omy and cos­mol­ogy.

Work­ing with her fa­ther, she says, was an ‘enor­mous priv­i­lege and a joy’, but, she adds, ‘it was also a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for us both.’

Grow­ing up, Lucy says, she took sci­ence some­what for granted, liv­ing in a house where sci­en­tists were con­stant vis­i­tors, din­ner guests, hol­i­day com­pan­ions and great friends. ‘As chil­dren, we were able to ask lots of ques­tions and get real an­swers from ac­tual sci­en­tists who didn’t con­sider that we should be talked down to be­cause we were kids. This gave me a very good ground­ing in sci­ence even though I didn’t study it at a higher level,’ says the 46-year-old mat­ter-of-factly.

She was a de­voted reader as a child, and still is. ‘I wanted to study lit­er­a­ture with the aim of be­com­ing a writer. Which is what I have done!’ She went to Ox­ford to read Rus­sian and French, then be­came a jour­nal­ist.

Apart from the Ge­orge series, her adult nov­els Jaded (2004), Run For Your Life (2005) and The Ac­ci­den­tal Marathon (2006) were also well re­ceived. Did be­ing the daugh­ter of a ge­nius put her un­der a pres­sure? ‘No,’ says Hawk­ing, who is often asked if she had con­sid­ered be­com­ing a physi­cist. ‘I was lucky to grow up in Cam­bridge where many of my peers also came from aca­demic fam­i­lies so I didn’t count as any­thing un­usual. The wider world is more com­plex, es­pe­cially as my fa­ther’s fame has grown. I think there are ex­pec­ta­tions of the chil­dren of very notable peo­ple, al­though no one seems sure what they should be.’

Re­flect­ing on the highs and lows of be­ing the sci­en­tist’s daugh­ter, Hawk­ing says she ad­mires her fa­ther greatly for ex­celling in a very dif­fi­cult field – the­o­ret­i­cal physics – and man­ag­ing an ex­cep­tion­ally chal­leng­ing phys­i­cal con­di­tion. He has been wheelchair­bound for decades owing to mo­tor neu­rone dis­ease, re­quir­ing round-the-clock care.

‘As a fam­ily, we have all been im­pacted by both my fa­ther’s ge­nius and his phys­i­cal con­di­tion. We cel­e­brated his as­ton­ish­ing achieve­ments but I wish that my fa­ther had been spared the rigours of his con­di­tion.’

Un­doubt­edly, her fa­ther made a big im­pact on her life, but credit for her nor­mal, happy child­hood goes to the heroic ef­forts of her mother, she says. “My mother is a brave and re­source­ful wo­man. She brought up three chil­dren while look­ing af­ter my fa­ther who had pro­found health prob­lems through­out my child­hood.”

Her mother, Jane, pro­fes­sor Hawk­ing’s wife for 26 years, is a tal­ented mu­si­cian. ‘Her courage and com­mit­ment made a big im­pact on me as a child. My own ex­pe­ri­ence as a mother has been a very re­ward­ing one. De­spite the chal­lenges – my son has autism – be­ing his par­ent is a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence,’ Lucy adds.

She has just fin­ished the fi­nal Ge­orge book, Ge­orge And The Ship Of Time. And like many oth­ers in cre­ative fields, she’s often plagued by doubts. ‘It goes with the ter­ri­tory,’ says.

Lucy Hawk­ing: ‘I watched The­ory of Ev­ery­thing. It’s like see­ing your fam­ily photo al­bum come to life. I cried buck­ets.’ ‘As a FAM­ILY, we’ve all been im­pacted by both my fa­ther’s GE­NIUS and con­di­tion. I wish [he] had been spared the rigours of his con­di­tion’


A burns vic­tim is fit­ted with a vir­tual re­al­ity set that cre­ates a world of pen­guins and icy rivers as a dis­trac­tion for pain re­lief at Loy­ola Uni­ver­sity Hospi­tal in the US. Re­search is con­tin­u­ing on us­ing VR for pain man­age­ment

Lucy Hawk­ing with her fa­ther, the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist Stephen. They worked to­gether on a series of chil­dren’s books

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