The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Mick O'Hare

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Mick O'Hare


Summary: The New Scientist's annual books of answers to tantalising questions have always entertained and educated us here at Bookbag, so the opportunity to interview Mick O'Hare about this year's offering - Why Can't Elephants Jump? was too good to miss.
Date: 7 October 2010
Interviewer: Keith Dudhnath
Reviewed by Keith Dudhnath

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The New Scientist's annual books of answers to tantalising questions have always entertained and educated us here at Bookbag, so the opportunity to interview Mick O'Hare about this year's offering - Why Can't Elephants Jump? was too good to miss.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Mick O'Hare: I don't think I've ever done that. But from what I gather it's a varied cross-section of society. I suppose the image that would give me most pleasure would be of a parent buying the book as a stocking filler for a keen (but not too earnest) offspring. The kind of child who likes school, but isn't solely obsessed by academic aspiration. They have as much fun playing football, building stuff with Lego and enjoying holidays which don't involve sitting on the beach and theme parks. If they like the books and realise there's more to science than Bunsen burners then I'd be moderately happy.

  • BB: What brought you to the New Scientist?

MO: A juxtaposition of disparate events I suppose. I had no great desire to work there. I'd set out as a sports journalist and worked for Autosport magazine. But I found the industry too hard-nosed (not the journalists or the racing drivers, strangely, but those behind the business). So I headed off with my girlfriend around Eastern Europe after the Wall came down. On my return I took a temporary post with Video Trade Weekly magazine which was owned by Robert Maxwell. Following his demise the magazine closed and there in the media ads was a job at New Scientist. I had a journalistic and print production background, and I had a science degree, so I applied. 20 years later I'm still here.

  • BB: Are you ever surprised by the range of questions you get, or - perhaps more likely - the depths of the answers?

MO: Amazed actually. When my science Q&A column started in 1994 we thought it might run for five years before the questions dried up. Now they are getting better and better. Who would think of asking How fat do you need to be to be bulletproof? More amazingly is the fact that our readers had the answer to hand (it's 100-stone, or 60 cm of fat around your vital organs). Brilliant! And I knew they'd be able to answer it - I have great faith in the readership. And children observe more keenly than adults (especially in the things that interest them, like bodily emissions). One of the more enduring things I'm asked in interviews is why is snot green? It was first asked a by a child 15 years ago and people still dig it out (if you'll forgive the pun).

  • BB: What question do you most want to be answered in next year's Last Word book?

MO: Why pulling out nasal hairs makes your eyes water in a way that a similar level of pain elsewhere on your body wouldn't? I spend much of my life worrying about this kind of stuff and probably I shouldn't. Then again, I couldn't do the job if I didn't.

  • BB: Is there any question that you'd not let anywhere near the book?

MO: On the childish level there's one that intrigues me because I'd noticed it from an early age, and people often write in to ask it. It's why do farts smell different in the bath? They do, and it must be something to do with molecule exchange between gas and liquid. But it's just the wrong side of silly. On a societal level I avoid religion. I have strong opinions on the evolution of the universe and life and I know that I couldn't handle dispassionately and impartially any questions regarding creation. We do get a lot of people, from creationists to atheists, pushing for such questions to appear. In any case they are outside the remit of the Last Word column, which is everyday science.

  • BB: Is it hard for popular science/trivia books to get the balance between popular and science right?

MO: Yes, if you are writing a book from scratch I presume it is very difficult and it takes a skilled writer to do so, perhaps somebody like Marcus Chown. But in some ways my task is easier. My readers provide the questions and other readers provide the answers. I just have to make sure those answers are broadly correct and then repitch them at a level the general public can (I hope) understand. We get replies from university academics and from children, so it's a fine art to pitching their answers at the right level - stripping out the complex stuff and recasting it as 'normal words'. Sometimes I have to leave equations and the like in there - we try not to dumb down, but we also know that nobody will buy the books if they are suddenly thrown into an argument between academics over quantum mechanics and superstring theory. Hell, I don't even know much about those.

  • BB: Did you ever envisage the series of books would be this successful?

MO: I'd like to say yes. But the honest answer is not at all. When Does Anything Eat Wasps? (the first in the series) was published it had an initial print run of 10,000. It ended up selling half a million, so you can see we clearly didn't have such sales figures in mind.

  • BB: What's your favourite joke about elephants?

MO: Erm, I'll have to ask my son if you want a clean one. But if you dare print it, it's this. Way back in the days of the British Empire a new soldier arrives in India. He reports to his officer who tells him it will be a tough and solitary life. But, he adds, when you do find yourself a little lonely there's always the elephant out there in the courtyard. The new soldier raises his eyebrows but goes off about his duties.

A few weeks later he seeks out his officer again and says What was it you said about being lonely?

Well, says the officer, some soldiers make use of the elephant in the courtyard.

The new soldier is still unsure but, a few more weeks pass and he's finding life a little intolerable. One morning he approaches his officer and says I couldn't stand it any longer sir so I did as you suggested. I took advantage of the elephant last night and made love to it.

Good grief private, replies the officer. That's a bit desperate isn't it? Most of the men ride it into the nearest town to chat up a young lady in a bar.

  • BB: Haaaaaaaaa! Brilliant! What are you reading at the moment and how are you finding it?

MO: Living Dolls by Natasha Walters - a critique of the way society pigeonholes boys and, especially, girls from a young age and the increasing sexualisation of childhood and young women. It's well argued but I'm finding it frustrating because it assumes in parts that men will take an opposing view. I think her fears presume this. So while I agree with 90% of the conclusions in the book, I feel as though I'm expected not to. When I get overwhelmed by socio-politics I escape into the subjects that interested me as a child: space, polar exploration and sport. The shelves at home are collapsing under the strain of books on these subjects.

  • BB: What's next for Mick O'Hare?

MO: 2011 will - we hope - see another book, we'll have the nose hair question answered, pseudo-science will no longer guide government policy, Nick Heidfeld will become Formula 1 World Champion and Huddersfield will win the Rugby League Challenge Cup.

  • BB: That's quite some year! We're particularly looking forward to the next book and the end of pseudo-science! Thanks for answering our questions and for the hilarious joke!

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