Tuesday, May 3, 2011

David A. Kirby

David A. Kirby is Senior Lecturer in Science Communication Studies in the Center for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester in the UK.

He has published numerous professional and popular articles on the intersection between science, media and entertainment including cinema’s depiction of genetics and biotechnology and science’s role in storytelling and media production. His recently published book Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema explores the role that science consultants play in the production of popular films and the impact of these films on science and technology.

A few weeks ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I watch a lot of movies and television shows for my research and teaching. So, I tend to read books rather than watch television when I relax after work. This means that I end up reading a fair number of books each month.

I recently read Shooting in the Wild by Chris Palmer to learn more about the process of wildlife filmmaking. The best way to describe the book is that it is both educational and disturbing. For those who love wildlife films like I do, you should be prepared to learn how the sausage is made. Palmer’s tell-all is not afraid to reveal the lengths that some in the wildlife filmmaking trade are willing to go in order to obtain dramatic footage of animals. Some of the more ethically questionable tactics include baiting, staging, and provoking animals and the use of enclosures, trained animals, and special effects. Palmer is sympathetic to the pressure his filmmaking colleagues are under to get the most spectacular shots possible, but he does not excuse their lack of ethical judgement. He clearly has a passion for wildlife films and for how they can be used to help conservation efforts. I think this is an important book and hope wildlife filmmakers adopt the recommendations Palmer makes in the concluding chapter.

I teach a science fiction class and, in this case, I do enjoy taking my work home with me. I try to read a wide variety of SF including classics in the genre such as Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End as well as more recent work like the Hugo Award winning Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. In fact, Wilson’s book appealed to me because it reminded me of Clarke’s story which is one of my favourite novels. Both books feature extraordinary non-violent events that presage the end of the human race and leave the final human generation contemplating the meaning of their existence. In the case of Childhood’s End it is the arrival of an alien race that facilitates the fusion of the last generation’s children into an intergalactic, hyper evolved group mind. In Spin, a mysterious shell surrounds the world and slows down time on earth such that the rest of the universe, including our Sun, ages at a rate of 100 million years for every year on Earth. The story is told from the perspective of Tyler Dupree who Wilson has crafted as a flawed but ultimately sympathetic character. Tyler nurses a serious inferiority complex, pines all his life for an unrequited love, coddles his brilliant but unstable best friend and, yet, has clearly kept a moral center despite living in a world where most people have been numbed by a lack of future.

As part of a book club I read the historical novel The Street Philosopher by Matthew Plampin. Since I am an American living in Manchester, England it was fun to get a sense of what this city would have been like in the mid-nineteenth century. Plampin's historical research was very impressive and he does an excellent job conveying the smog filled atmosphere of industrial age Manchester. His research also shows through in his descriptions of the Crimean War, which is considered by many historians to be the first “modern” war. Plampin plays around in interesting ways with the standard class warfare found in many British historical novels set during this time period. On the one hand, the Irish working class newspaperman Richard Cracknell uses his work to shine light on the military incompetence of wealthy officers who had purchased their commissions, while on the other hand he is also shown to be a selfish, drunken individual whose sense of morality does not extend to his personal relationships. Even the (literal) moustache-twirling aristocratic villain is not depicted as inherently evil. He merely sees nothing wrong with his actions since he believes he is entitled to act this way by virtue of his high born status.

My next reading challenge will be to tackle Neal Stephenson’s philosophical novel Anathem.
Visit David A. Kirby’s webpage or learn more about Lab Coats in Hollywood at the MIT Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Lab Coats in Hollywood.

--Marshal Zeringue