Sunday, November 18, 2007

Desert Island Books - Part 1

I was discussing books with friends today; in particular those books that have most inspired and intrigued us and those that have given the greatest pleasure. I was asked to list my Top 10 books; the books I'd want with me on a desert island. But I couldn't do it. There are just too many. So what I thought I'd do is break up my choices into several categories and have 10 books in each. And I'll start today with science.

I was always fascinated by science. For Christmas one year I was given a microscope. It wasn't very powerful and it worked intermittently as you needed to bounce light under the slide platform with a mirror but I can still remember the awe I felt when I first saw an enlarged view of an insect's compound eye. Soon I was sticking all kinds of things under cover slips to see how they were constructed. I did a bit of home chemistry too; typical boy stuff making my own explosives or dissolving the flesh from roadkill so I could keep their bleached skulls on my bedroom shelf. To this day I still have a badger skull that I prepared when I was about 10. But my interest in science wasn't all quite so visceral.

Me today with my old badger skull and a copy of a Diplodocus tail bone

I was lucky enough to watch the first Moon landings live on TV. My dad let me stay up into the wee hours to watch Neil Armstrong fluff his lines even though I was only eight and had school next day. Like a good boy I did turn up for registration, red-eyed and yawning, and found that I was one of only four boys that had bothered. Mr Luke was not impressed but he was the closest thing to a scientist I'd ever met and he loved to talk about space. He had his own telescope though I never got to see it and he taught us all about the stars and planets. I was rapt and found myself devouring every book or magazine I could lay my hands on.

I was fascinated by inner space too, partly because my grandmother worked at the marine research laboratories in Plymouth and occasionally I got to go 'behind the scenes' of the national marine aquarium (incidentally, she was one of the first people in the UK to handle a sample of Moon rock). The adventures of Jacques Cousteau were regularly on TV too and a whole world of amazing and wholly alien life was suddenly revealed to me. Consequently, I added many books on marine biology to my pile of reading and found myself lurking by the fishing boats in Penzance harbour before school trying to identify the odder-looking species that lay glassy-eyed on the piles of ice by the quay.

And then there were dinosaurs. I'm not sure where or when my fascination with them began or whether it's a phase that every kid goes through. All I do know is that I've never grown out of it and still read any new dinosaur book voraciously. And as my knowledge has grown and my circle of friends with it, I've found myself using that knowledge to good effect. Through good friends like John Coppinger and Dave Gavin I've been allowed to contribute artwork and sculptures of dinosaur reconstructions for the Natural History Museum in London and for Ireland's Dinocafe. I can even say with some degree of pride that as you enter the Natural History Museum and gaze up at the unbelievably huge Diplodocus skeleton in the main hall, you can see two or three small bones near the tip of the tail that I made. Yes, me. John had the unenviable task of moulding every bone in the tail and recasting them in lightweight fibreglass so that it could be lifted off of the floor. And there were a lot of bones to mould and cast so I helped out on the odd occasion. Hell, the project even made it into the national press.

My love of dinosaurs and prehistoric life in general ultimately led me to evolutionary science and to Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould who, between them, totally changed the way that I view the universe. So here, in no particular order, are the books that made the greatest impact on me.

Life before Man - a fantastic journey through the prehistoric ages illustrated by the extraordinary Zdenek Burian. I copied and copied his pictures over and over again, marvelling every time at the realistic portrayal of these majestic dead beasts. They seemed so real, especially as they were always painted living in a naturalistic environment. Dinosaurs of the Earth was an older book - probably the first I owned - and is badly painted and hideously inaccurate but it started me down the dinosaur road. As I learned more about evolution, I discovered Stephen Jay Gould's staggering Wonderful Life which told the story of the Burgess Shale fossils and, later, Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. Both books humbled me and made me realise just what a staggeringly complex process natural selection is. And then Dougal Dixon's After Man and Wayne Douglas Barlowe's Expedition took me to the next level, merging my love of art and science in two amazing books that demonstrated the processes of evolution both on Earth (in a far future) and on another world. Desmond Morris's The Human Zoo, his follow-up to the hugely successful Naked Ape, put a cap on the whole evolution business by explaining to me why humans are the way they are; not above and outside of the Earth's ecosystem but very much a part of it. And, perhaps, its Nemesis.

Me, 5 stones heavier and cuddling a sauropodlet in 2002

Now, two books that made me think about what the future has in store ... Kenneth K Goldstein's The World of Tomorrow is, like Dinosaurs of the Earth, wildly inaccurate now but at the time it showed me a future of gleaming futuristic cities, undersea homes, space stations, holidays on Mars and weird Thunderbirds-type trucks that could slice down the biggest trees with laser beams. And the brilliantly titled Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition by Ed Regis showed me the very edges of science where madness and genius are just a nanomachine apart. Regis introduced me to the concepts of molecule sized engines, cryogenics, downloading human minds into computers (amusingly named wetware to software transfers) and strange tree-like robots made from self-replicating silicon controlled by a DNA-like programme involving fractals. In this small pile of books I saw the origins of life, the extraordinary processes that developed a simple idea into a complex biosphere and also the possible future of our species.

And then there's my final book ... in fact my favourite book of all time. It's Last chance to see by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine. In the highly unlikely event I was ever asked to choose just one book to last me the rest of my life forsaking all others, this would be the one. Why? Because it's as funny as any other book Adams ever wrote. Because it's full of wonder and genuine excitement. Because I learned lots of new things about some of the rarest animals on Earth. And because it is sad, worrying and so horribly honest about the mess we're making of our stewardship of the planet. It's a wonderful book and a great tragedy that Douglas isn't around to write more like it.

Next ... non-fiction (but not science).

1 comment:

Me said...

Fiction list soon please!