An interview with Peter Macinnis

It’s taken a while, but here’s that interview with Peter Macinnis the hordes have been waiting for. Peter Macinnis is the author of a range of excellent books, including Mr Darwin’s Incredible Shrinking World, Lawn: A Social History, 100 DiscoveriesAustralian Backyard ExplorerAustralia’s Pioneers,Heroes & Fools and The Speed of Nearly Everything.

Embiggen Books is a fan of Peter’s writing because he writes as someone aware of the need for scientific literacy in the community. That is, he pens compelling stories about people passionate about learning. He knows that joy and enthusiasm are an integral part of scientific endeavour and that  these qualities are equally important in communicating about these very discoveries. His books don’t just describe impressive technological feats but the world in which they were created. They provide both detail and context to important works. This is excellently illustrated by Mr Darwin’s Incredible Shrinking World where he describe a world in a state of massive change both socially and technologically and it’s here that Darwin’s great work On the Origin of Species is developed and then born into.

Macinnis admires the great science writers of present and past but has a fear that they are not being replaced.

“Where are today’s versions of J. b. S. Haldane, Lewis Thomas, George Gamow, Isaac Asimov, Peter Medawar, Stephen Jay Gould, Jared Diamond and Primo Levi? Who can draw our young people into science by informing them and sending them outside to discover for themselves? I think one or two of those authors are still alive, but there are few replacements rising.”(ref)

My own feeling as the owner of a bookshop dedicated to supporting scientific appreciation in the general population is that we have a ever growing and diversifying range of great science writers (Brian Greene, Simon Singh, Michio Kaku, Jennifer Ouellette, Mario Livio etc) but we also have a far greater array of pseudoscience writers out there. This is making it increasingly difficult for the average person on the street to sort the wheat form the chaff. So along with this promotion of scientific literacy must come critical thinking skills to help provide the tools necessary for people to spot the holes in pseudoscientific thinking.

“It is appropriate to speak in terms of an ability to spot the flaws in the babble of pseudoscience, but when we work with children we are trying to help them move along a continuum. Just as some beginner readers struggle yet may one day emulate Marcel Proust, so some of our school science students may one day emulate the chemist, Joseph Louis Proust. Right now, we don’t know which ones are which, or which may be both.”(ref)

Macinnis recognises that scientific thinking and literacy must start with children and that it is teachers and parents that must encourage those with the interest and aptitude to pursue science as much as we encourage those who enjoy sports, writing, art and business. In a recent review the number of students taking advanced maths at secondary school fell by 27 per cent between 1995 and 2007 and science and maths both fell by 15% at university level (Luke Slattery and Nicolas Perpitch From: The Australian March 10, 2010). It writing like Macinnis’ and the other authors mentioned that could help to combat this downward slide. I hope we can encourage the schools to take up using books like Mr Darwin’s Incredible Shrinking World rather than just the dry text books normally used, because they convey the intrigue in the subject’s development as human stories with amazing real world consequences.

Note: we will soon have Peter Macinnis’ full Shrinking World talk uploaded to the site.


Peter Macinnis at Embiggen Books from Embiggen Books on Vimeo.

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