The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Patricia Fara

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The Interview: Bookbag talks to Patricia Fara


Summary: Patricia Fara's definitive history of science is a wonderfuly informative read. It's packed with interesting detail and thought-provoking conclusions. She was kind enough to discuss it further with Bookbag.
Date: 25 February 2009
Interviewer: Keith Dudhnath
Reviewed by Keith Dudhnath

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Patricia Fara's definitive history of science is a wonderfuly informative read. It's packed with interesting detail and thought-provoking conclusions. She was kind enough to discuss Science: A Four Thousand Year History further with Bookbag.

  • Bookbag: Other than the modern era, which era of the 4,000 years covered by your history of science would you most like to live in and why?

Patricia Fara: The 18th century, because it was a time when great changes were taking place and new opportunities were opening up. I like to imagine I’d have been another Emilie du Chatelet, the French mathematician who loved dancing, beautiful clothes and gambling, but who also translated Newton’s book on gravity from Latin into French.

  • BB: In your introduction you say in passing that the book is about "men (and some women)". What changes do the scientific community have to make to ensure this inequality is consigned to history?

PF: Nowadays roughly half our undergraduates are women, but relatively few of them stay in science to reach the top levels – that's known as the 'leaky pipeline' effect. Concealed discrimination still exists, but some women are deliberately passing up opportunities for promotion because they value other aspects of their lives more highly. Perhaps men too should recognize that life can be enjoyed outside the lab as well as inside.

  • BB: You've included quotes (from both non-fiction and fiction) at the start of each chapter. Which quote in the book is your favourite and why?

PF: The verse about John Ruskin on p. 223, because it's written by the man I dedicated the book to:

It was the Lord's deisgn he made apparent -
These bands and blocks of azure, umber, gilt,
Set in their flexing contours, solid flow
That had composed itself in its own frame:
Red garnet neighbouring mica, silver white;
A slice of agate like an inland sea...
- Cliver Wilmer, 'Minerals from the Collection of John Ruskin' (1992)

  • BB: Over the 4,000 year history, what achievement can science be most proud of, and which mistake or misunderstanding should it learn most from?

PF: Medical advances are the most important for me. But I hope that doctors will think carefully about the eugenic implications of genetic engineering.

  • BB: What would you most like to ask a creationist?

PF: I'd prefer to ask Richard Dawkins why he alienates people by behaving as a scientfic fundamentalist.

  • BB: Haha. Excellent! What job did you want to do as a child?

PF: I wanted to earn my living through reading. When I was four, my mother went into hospital for a fortnight, and I packed everything I needed for a stay with friends: the bottom half of a pair of pyjamas, and lots and lots of books.

  • BB: Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

PF: Studying physics at university was a big mistake, and I've never done any since. My school was so delighted to find a girl who could do maths and science that nobody stopped to think that perhaps I should do what I enjoyed rather than what I was good at.

  • BB: What are you reading at the moment?

PF: Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father. I've nearly finished it, and I now admire him even more than I did before.

  • BB: Which book has most influenced you and do you still have a copy?

PF: George Eliot's Middlemarch, and yes, I've got a battered copy. Like Dorothea, I believe in the importance of effecting change through small, local actions.

  • What's next for Patricia Fara?

I'm writing a book about the politics and poetry of Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather. And I love my job (supposedly half-time!) as Senior Tutor at Clare College, Cambridge.

  • BB: Wonderful! We can't wait to read the book about Erasmus Darwin. Thanks very much for your fascinating answers.

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