This blog springs from my lifelong interest in how things came to be the way they are. Geology and deep time. Living things and their evolution. And from my discovery, late in life (I had a very sheltered upbringing) that there are people who simply do not believe in these well-established realities, and my attempts to understand them. Old Earth – Young Earth; how do we know how and why does it matter? Creationism and evolution – why is there an entire cottage industry devoted to dismissing everything that we have learnt in the life sciences for the past 150 years or more? Missing missing links; what we can and do find in the fossil record, and what we can’t and don’t.
I had a religious upbringing, which I rejected in my late teens after a road-from-Damascus experience, but none of this ever affected my attitude to science. I retain an affection for many aspects of religion, and unlike some of my colleagues I see no point in picking fights with believers unless and until they attempt to interfere with the teaching of science, or with the public understanding of morality. As for morality, that I regard as springing from our common humanity. If someone wants to believe in a God who created heaven and earth, that is not my business. However, it does very much become my business if someone wants to teach children that whales came into existence before land mammals, because Genesis says so, or that homosexuality is wicked because of Leviticus, or that condoms are useless because that fits Catholic doctrine. And we see all of these things every day.
On this site I will feature developments relevant to all these topics, scientific and otherwise, and to anything else I fancy. I make this promise to my readers; while, like everyone else, I rely on secondary sources to remain aware of a broad range of current developments, I will in every case that I discuss drill down to the primary literature, inform myself about the context, give citations and links as available, and verify what I write against the original publications.
About me: I spent most of my career at Glasgow University and the University of North Texas, and now live in Glasgow. I hold one undergraduate and two graduate degrees from Oxford, and have published over 120 scientific papers and book chapters and two specialist books, and have been cited in the primary literature over 4,000 times. I am on the committees of the British Centre for Science Education (see also here ) and of Secular Scotland (see also here), and my past collaborations include NASA’s Astrobiology Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and the Sandia/UNM Advanced Materials Laboratory. I am a regular contributor to Beacon, house organ of New Mexico Coalition for Excellence in Science Education, and to Reports of New Mexicans for Science and Reason, the BCSE blog and newsletter, 21st Floor (a sceptical website based in Scotland), and (occasionally) pandasthumb. My experience with British Centre for Science Education has forced me to become acquainted with the Creationist/Intelligent Design literature, a fact I now plan to turn to advantage.
Recent publications include my first non-technical book, From Stars to Stalagmites, World Scientific Publishers (Scientific American Book Club selection and excerpted in Scientific American), and the introduction to the recent Scientific American Classics special, Determining the Age of the Earth, http://www.scientificamerican.com/classics/.
My recent public appearances include Edinburgh International Science Festival 2011, 2012, and 2013, Edinburgh Festival Fringe (2011), Glasgow Galilean Society (2011), Glasgow and Dundee Skeptics in the Pub, and Glasgow and Dundee Humanists (2011 – 2013), on topics including the age of the Earth, current thinking on the origins of life, the significance of Darwin, the creationist assault on science education, the evolution of morality, and the future of religion.
Some comments on From Stars to Stalagmites:
Simon Cotton here in Chemistry World writes “well-researched, showing how deeply the author has read into the background. Although the articles are scientific, the author has carefully segregated chemical equations and formulae into the endnotes, which also contain a detailed bibliography for those who wish to delve further… Apart from being highly recommended for a wide adult readership, this would be an excellent book for teachers to give to students for enrichment, with the background to the chemistry going beyond the textbooks.”,
Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries writes: … extremely readable, even for those with limited scientific training. … an excellent resource for general readers with a wide interest in all aspects of natural science. Highly recommended.
“A superb combination of history and scientific explanation!”, Roald Hoffman, Nobel Laureate in chemistry, and writer. “It’s a terrific read and the idea of intertwining the facts of chemistry with the history and personalities of the scientists who discovered it works brilliantly.” – John Wiltshire, systems engineer, Nelson Gold Medallist for creativity. “Your writings are a wonderful compilation of chemistry, history, and human endeavors. The chapter on Haber was superb! … This text is something that every chemist should read!” – Prof Diana Mason, Regional Director, Associated Chemistry Teachers of Texas. Publishers’ description here.