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
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 mosaicscience.com, 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