Thursday, 24 May 2012

Audio Book Review: Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson

Geek Manifesto – Why Science matters
Author: Mark Henderson
Read by Tom Lawrence

Published by Random House Audiobooks
ASIN: B0082100GK
(ISBN : 0593068238)

This book was published in May 2012 and was available in audio format within days.  I had been in twitter contact with Mark Henderson and as is the way with twitter and serendipity, came across a twitter feed on the subject.  These chance encounters usually depend on who is following the topic and so timing is crucial.

With Twitter it is possible to get suggestions on who to follow and occasionally a retweet from someone else can appear in the feed.  However, I find I have probably maxed out on the number of twitter sources I can follow (Visually impaired have to listen on a screenreader with limits of a narrow band) and as I do not restrict myself to any particular subject find that if a person replies then it is usually a good sign. 

My profile probably has me down as being interested in audio books, hardly surprising as I cannot read print.  Some people think an e-book would be suitable in a larger font or with a text to speech facility but having to listen to a screen reader for most of the time it is a treat to have an audio book playing with a human voice.  Some well written books can be ruined by a poor audio version and I have given up on some, on account of poor diction and poor pronunciation of proper names.  I have also come across a book which has been so badly written that even a good reader fails to transform it into an enjoyable book.

My career path is the reverse of Henderson’s.  I did my PhD in inorganic chemistry at the University of Edinburgh in the 1970s and worked within the industry or business until I lost my sight. I then did an Arts and Humanities course for 5 years at the Open University - a temple for geeks in 1970s.  Mark Henderson notified me by twitter that the audio version of his book Geek Manifesto was being finalised and as I had encouraged him to make an audio recording in the first place, naturally bought the audio version when I had the link.  I asked a friend to download the audio book on to my lap top as my Talking Book machine was temporarily unavailable due to my hip replacement; it was “out of reach”.   

The book is available via , a part of  When buying the audio book, you are given the option of either downloading the book as a one-off or joining for a monthly subscription and getting this book for free.  I opted to buy the book as a one-off.  When downloading, you are asked to select the machine format you will use to listen to the book.  I opted for my computer, but if selecting a different medium, you will need to connect it to the computer via the USB port for the book to download.

The book is over 10 hours long and there is no publisher’s blurb on the recording.  Many visually impaired “readers” have got used to the DAISY format of the RNIB Talking Books.  Navigation is key to this feature, though in wanting to read the Geek Manifesto, I had to get used to the format and would suggest downloading the book to a player. 

I gave myself about 15 hours to cover the book. Sometimes I wanted to go back to a specific example Henderson had cited.  Often I would “rewind” the book on starting another session.  One skill I have not got is to tweet while listening to a talking book or even the radio.  I finished the book on Monday evening.

As an audio book this book is very well read and the switching of accents by Tom Lawrence is to be admired. During the book launch I heard Mark Henderson on BBCRadio3 Nightwaves (One of my favourite radio programmes) discussing science policy with (Lord) Robert May.  Samira Ahmed was in the chair and as is usual with this programme there are often pleasant arguments conducted in a very civilised manner (unlike Westminster) Mark Henderson was suffering from a sore throat but managed to speak. Robert May had to fall on the House of Lords as being a source of science based legislative capacity. (Hmm)

I found myself nodding in agreement with much of the contents of chapters 1-8 and found myself having to go over chapter 9 a few times. In this chapter Henderson starts to wind up the manifesto and there are many themes concerning climate change, Greenpeace, nuclear energy and politics in the UK and USA that I wanted to go over it again. This was doubtless fuelled by the UK Government Energy Policy being awaited and the Secretary of State, Ed Davey making  appearances on the airwaves including the Flagship BBC Radio 4 Today programme. 

The science research budget is very well discussed and Henderson has analysed how politicians minds work. He has some good things to say about William Waldegrave and Alistair Darling in past HM Treasury decisions.   However, the book also gives many examples of UK and USA legislators having little knowledge of scientific methods.  Some examples in terms of evidence abuse are made. Henderson rightly, in my opinion, condemns some UK politicians for their  twisting of evidence. US readers will be able to make up their own minds.

The acceptance of geeks and scientists having more accountable roles in society is an idea whose time has come. A proposal to have an Office of Scientific Responsibility is essential. In Prime Ministers Questions on May 23, answer to Dr Julian Huppert, David Cameron committed a science policy for the benefit of long term economic development. Cameron also admitted that politically it would hardly be noticed were the budget to have been cut.  This shows that much of the political education programme as outlined by Mark Henderson needs to be monitored and prodded/shamed when required.

Henderson also chronicles the interaction with the media and science, with the Today programme and Justin Webb coming in for attack as well as the otherwise revered Evan Davis.  

I took a pot shot about BBCRadio5live and an irritating  mid afternoon slot called Help. One expert had suggested using caustic soda (baking soda was intended) the BBC did correct this but that “expert” should never have been on the airwaves. Another gem from this show was the use of a “Pro Biotic Cleaner” in removing stains, it is also pet friendly Ugh!

He has certainly mobilised me to be a bit more active in countering any stupid off the cuff remark by some of the media and politics finest.   In common with some visually impaired people, I shout at the radio when something daft has been said.  In the past I have ‘phoned the duty controller, sent an email to the programme though with twitter there is instant access to making your voice heard on matters of concern.   Shoddy journalism can be addressed as can ridiculous and fatuous presenters and programmes claiming to have “scientific content”.

Not having a television means I can miss out on the science celebrities including the comics.  Science comedy has been lucrative for many stand up comedians and the popularisation of science through festivals and shows in museums can only be praised.  I can remember the School Christmas Lecture which the University of Edinburgh laid on for pupils and I heard my future supervisor when going to my first one in late 1960s.  During open days as postgraduates we would show off liquid oxygen and show reactions with a fruit shortcake biscuit and steel wool. Explaining why liquid oxygen is blue and paramagnetic involves some appreciation but this shows the importance of doing science as opposed to reading about it.

Henderson makes a point about ignorance levels of science being treated almost as a badge of honour. In polite society knowledge of the arts is deemed essential for some social status.  As a trained scientist, I have never come across antipathy to science among my friends, few of whom are scientists, but Henderson may be going over board in claiming that we should know about the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. In my mind it is not knowing what the 2nd law says, it is more understanding the concepts of heat and entropy and using the formulae associated with them.  (In the same way one may know all the 10 commandments without knowing the order in which they come – much less about their relevance or applicability in daily life !)

I can probably be described as a scientist who can be a bit sniffy about some science trivialisation. It may be that sciences are no longer taught in schools with so much “health and safety” issues in mind. As a schoolboy my father and I managed to burn a hole in the Formica kitchen table with some magnesium metal which we had set on fire and which had slipped out of my tongs. Of course I had a chemistry set and though never a ‘real’ train spotter or bus spotter, was a geek with maps, routes and timetables of any transport. I would thus qualify as a real geek though few of my friends would consider me as such. 

The Geek Manifesto has encouraged me to fight on and join in with other like minded souls. Henderson also has some practical tips in promoting real science and countering pseudosciences, especially in the Health Service. Much of Henderson’s sharp observations are aimed at such pillars of our society as the Prince of Wales, many MPs and government ministers. 

Henderson has practical advice which can be used for visually impaired geeks. Virtual communities can be joined and I have found few problems in saying that something is inaccessible when it ought to have been.  I am encouraged to form a VIG group of VI Geeks and not make it the preserve of the techy geeks. Pure scientists are said to be seldom practical in the flesh. Creative-yes

In conclusion I would recommend this book as an ideas source rather than a reference book or even a chronicle though there are good accounts in the book which have been well written.  The strength of the book is in making connections with many like minded people both in science and having an interest in science.  Not all of us are versed in the machinations of either the Westminster Bubble or the Beltway.

Professor Whitestick blogs on science related posts on a regular basis.  Here are some links to recent blogposts in terms of science policy, nuclear energy, renewable energy, science and health:

 Blind Chemist: Future Cities Royal Society of Chemistry Road Map

Blind Chemist: Resonance, Renaissance and Reminisces

A touch tour of a touch piece at the Wellcome Collection: scrofula and tuberculosis

Clean Water - chemistry at work

Blind chemist - Marie Curie - Light Fantastic

Blind Chemist out and about with the Royal Society of Chemistry

The Professor, with some sighted help, has also left comments on The Guardian's ( and Athene Donald's blogs (