I have gathered a collection of some of the greatest books on writing by some of the best scribes in the field. Ernest Hemmingway’s On Writing (in sum: use fewer words). Strunk & White. Stephen King’s On Writing, which is shockingly good and devastatingly honest (describing his children holding up “blood spattered coke spoons” at his intervention just floored me). And of course, Why I Write, by George Orwell, which I re-read once a year a) because I love Orwell with a fervent passion and b) because it’s utterly spectacular. And short. As I age and my time becomes ever more limited, authors with the good manners to keep their works to a manageable size rise ever higher in my estimation. (Mantel… 900 pages? I don’t have the space in my life for you. Sorry. Be more considerate next time.)

There is only one work on the meaning and purpose of writing which I can recite by heart. I keep it nailed to my wall, and glance at it weekly.

It is a letter to me from Roald Dahl, replying to my fan mail, sent in 1990.

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Roald Dahl died on the 23rd of November 1990 – less than two months after he sent this to me. Apparently he spent his dying days replying to his mountains of fan mail, because the impact that he had made on his readers truly did matter to him.

That is a lesson I never want to forget.

This weekend I held events at The Barbican for their Brain Waves weekender, an intense cornucopia of cultural offerings exploring neuroscience and art at one of London’s biggest and most adventurous cultural institutions. Chuffed? You bet. I created an audio tour exploring the question: what does the brain sound like? You can listen to the Sonic Tour of the Brain on the Guerilla Science website.

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My good friends over at The Monitors (whom you should already be following, if you care at all about good music and good writing) asked me to join them for their monthly podcast.

“It would be awesome to bring in some new ideas and theme the podcast around science!” said the ringleader, Dan Garber, referring to my double-life as a science writer and Guerilla Scientist.

“Sure we could do a science podcast – or you guys could just make dick jokes for an hour, as per usual,” I said. “Let me know.”

Here’s the result. We talk wolves, climate change, remote viewing, walking statues and more. I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I did making it.

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I would also like the record to show that I am the first woman to join the podcast team – and this is the 19th recording. Tsk tsk.

BBC Focus have asked me to write about a somewhat rebellious olfaction scientist named Luca Turin, who has this very cool but controversial theory about how smell works. I actually interviewed the guy *ten years ago* in his garden in Camden when I was just 20, and wrote a feature about him for The Varsity, the student rag at the University of Toronto.

I thought he was funny and ballsy then, and I still think so. Our chat was deeply enjoyable. Choice cut: “The perfume industry is craven, mendacious and trivial. Companies operate by a different principle called money – and it’s not that interesting.”

On an editorial in the journal Nature, which describes his theory as having “almost no credence in scientific circles” and which has received an “extraordinary—and inappropriate—degree of publicity  from uncritical journalists”, he simply comments: “An egregious piece of drivel.”

Long story short, this is what rival scientist Leslie Vosshall of Rockefeller University said in a BBC News piece about his work:

“I like to think of the vibration theory of olfaction and its proponents as unicorns. The rest of us studying olfaction are horses. The problem is that proving that a unicorn exists or does not exist is impossible. This debate on the vibration theory or the existence of unicorns will never end, but the very important underlying question of why things smell the way they do will continue to be answered by the horses among us.”

So he has this as his email signature.

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I wrote this five years ago, and although much of it remains true, I feel it’s time to give the Facebook “about me” a bit of a makeover. For now, I’m leaving my “about me” as just “English people make me laugh”.

Though I have kept my religious beliefs the same: “1. Animals are cool. 2. Turn up the bass.”

For posterity, here is an old essay I wrote about my lame self, penned in 2007, probably late at night with a bottle of wine and an inflated sense of self importance.

According to “The Birthday Book” I was born on “The Day of the Storyteller,” which is pretty accurate. I’m a freelance journalist and an incessant chatterbox.

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Likes:

Photography

Worrying

Biology, nature, reality

Writing and rewriting

Correct spelling

Turns of phrase

My friends

Being organized

Bass

Passionate Geeks

Good food (esp proscuitto)

Working hard

Playing hard

Myself

Being alive

Dislikes:

Illness

Boredom

Broken cameras

Losing stuff

Forgetting things

Worrying

Pollution

Excessive use of synthetic chemicals

Bad food

Quiet and meek girls

Cold weather (except for skiing)

Fascist hippies

Bullshit

Cynicism

Apathy

Anger

Elitism

My ambition in life is to become a walking thesaurus.

I admit it: I’m a bit of a hippy, and a hopeless romantic. My feelings about plants and animals are borderline religious. I find the intricate structure of life inspiring beyond words. The fact that we are alive at all is astoundingly cool. I try to find reason every single day to be grateful.

But I’m also a journalist and a scientist – hence skeptical and sarcastic. I detest bad writing (of which there is a lot) and willfully ignorant people (of which there are a lot).

I don’t get to sleep easily and I don’t wake easily. I am a hardcore caffeine addict.

There’s nothing I hate more than being bored – so I never am.

I love to catalogue and archive information. My flickr site contains almost 10,000 photos, and my professional site holds all my published work. You should see my storage locker back in Toronto.

I’m loud, but I’m not an angry person. I hate rage. It takes a *lot* to make me lose my temper – but if I do it’s pretty explosive.

I’m pretty vain – but I’m not self-absorbed. I’m interested in just about everything anyone has to say to me, even stupid people (they provide fodder for comedy).

I make no apologies for my vanity: there’s no point in trying to be the person you want to be unless you’re proud of it. Self deprecation is for cowards. If you don’t like something about yourself, just fucking change it and stop whinging. It’s *not* that difficult.

Besides: my vanity extends around me. I think I have the most awesome group of friends in the world.

I have strong opinions on everything, but there’s just about only one thing in life of which I am positive: it’s too short.

English people do rock so very hard sometimes.

On the queen’s jubilee weekend, I would have liked to have seen a bit more anti-monarchist dissent. This wasn’t quite the outburst of republican outrage that I was hoping for.

But I guess after several decades of seeing the punk protests come to little, and national opinion still overwhelmingly approve of funding inherited puppets, it’s fair that kids these days might just figure the best they can do is throw a big, filthy party and have their own kind of fun.

The lack of police was pretty miraculous – obviously they had bigger fish to fry elsewhere, national security and all that. Don’t expect I’ll see so many people hoofing balloons, smoking weed and snorting lines next to Broadway Market any time soon. Hats off.

Best part: The guy swimming through the lock, obvs.

My favourite boat: The one with the extra little yellow pool full of rubber duckies.

“Hey guys – why don’t we go skiing in Vermont in March? It’ll be awesome. We’ve been going to this lovely hidden place in the mountains for 20 years – it’s brilliant.”

Smuggler's Notch, Vermont: March 19 2008

Enter: Climate change.

Aaaand, scene:

Smuggler's Notch, Vermont: March 22, 2012

Cloudless. Sunny. 24C.

Andy got a sunburn. I poured with sweat. And Slunt strode through the crisp spring streams barefoot, defiant and deliriously happy.

Normally you can walk over - not through - this river.

“For too long winter has destroyed our crops, blocked out the sun, and put an end to our summers!” he proclaimed. “No more, we say! At long last, mankind shall vanquish our primal foe. ‘Tis now that we see man’s penultimate triumph over nature.”

And so we did. With the aid of the world’s  Brobdingnagian fossil fuel infrastructure (which we used to fly to Vermont, hooray!), combined with the incessant, effortless consumption of three billion lazy people who buy too much shit.

End result: gorgeous summer walk in the woods in March.

I simultaneously love and loathe when environmental specialists (like myself) are proven correct in our assertion that climate change will progress more dramatically than anyone ever thought possible.

Back row, left to right: My brother Ben, mother Martha, grandmother Gloria, cousin Ella, aunt Mary. Front row, cousin Ruby, and me.

At her birthday dinner, my grandmother said as we paid the bill: “But this is all very strange – I’m NOT old, I’m young!”

One might easily dismiss such a statement as nothing more than a doddering denial of her mortality. Admittedly a bit adorable – but nonetheless a bit deluded.

In fact, she had simply repeated something that I have heard many elderly people say, and apparently her own parents said as well: the way they felt inside never really changed. They felt like the same singular person at the age of 15 and at 85. Our mental dexterity might decline, short term memory fade, but knowledge increase and wisdom thus accumulate (hopefully – only if we’ve been paying attention). But from what I’m told, there is an immutable, endearing sense of self that doesn’t really change.

There’s something rather comforting in that.

My side project Guerilla Science has a lovely new office in King’s Cross at the terribly wonderful Centre for Creative Collaboration, which we share with dozens of other young funky organisations, like MzTEK, Pavegen, and The Public Domain Review.

I left our business card tacked up on the wall, amid a collage of pictures from our most photogenic exploits. The next day the card was gone – I figured somebody had seen it and thought, “what cool cats, I’m gonna look them up.” Then I found this on the floor. Our card, poached for roach. Alas. That wasn’t quite what we meant by “Mixing Science With Art Music & Play”. Sigh. It seems you can take Guerilla Science out of the festival… but we’re always at a bloody festival.

Published with Guerilla Science  following the Astronomers’ Ball at the Royal Observatory.

The first message bashed out on our vintage Underwood typewriter, pinned to the sparkly silver message board, set the tone:

“Beware of bears. Send food and supplies. Xo”

Most that followed struck the same chord.

“We are here and we are having fun. Come and join us, come and join us, now.”

“So here we are, trying to talk to you, but you never call or write, what is that all about?”

Some chimed more in tune with current Zeitgeist.

“Are there any jobs out in space??? I am looking for work.”

Quite a few discussed (and apologised for) what’s on the telly.

“Hullo, Hope you’re well. Maybe you’ve seen some previous transmissions from our planet. Just to say, please don’t judge us too harshly for Hollyoaks. Many of us hate it. Ta muchly. Jim.”

“If Jeremy Kyle is your first experience of Earth, I am not sorry! We are not all crazy, I promise! ☺”

And a few were far from frivolous.

“Mum. I hope you are looking down on me.”

Each of the 47 messages left by our guests at the Astronomers’ Ball at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich said something, in its way, about the very odd thing that is the human condition. And every one will be sent into deep space from a parabolic dish antenna in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Using satellite broadcasting equipment with redundant high-powered klystron amplifiers connected by a traveling wave-guide to a five-meter parabolic dish antenna, owned and operated by the Deep Space Communications Network, these messages will travel for four years from Earth at a frequency of around 6,250 MHz.

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