Friday, 30 October 2009

I heart Zotero

I made a mistake when researching and writing my first book Lonesome George. I didn’t keep a detailed record of sources as I went along. If you’re writing non-fiction, this is very silly. I think perhaps I was overcome by the excitement of writing and neglected to plan. What it meant was several troubling days of trying to remember where I got all my facts from and then attempting to revisit them to double-check.

Get Zotero This time, I’ve done things differently. I used Endnote for my doctorate and liked it. I would have used it again had I been able to afford the hefty cost of the software. So I looked for a Freeware alternative and found one in the shape of Zotero. I’m not sure what the latest versions of Endnote and other reference managers are capable of these days, but Zotero is seriously impressive.

It works within the Firefox web-browser. So first, I had to switch over from Internet Explorer. Firefox has lots of great features of its own and it’s also one of the names of the lesser panda, which makes me happy. Having the application within a browser is brilliant. “Zotero is a free, easy-to-use Firefox extension to help you collect, manage, and cite your research sources. It lives right where you do your work—in the web browser itself,” the website explains. There is so much guff on the web that it’s terrific to have found an application with which it is easy to record exactly where I got which fact from.

It opens not as a web-page like Connotea but as a mini window (which you can maximise if you want) within the web page you’re browsing. This makes it really simple to pull data from the web – often just a single click of the mouse – and then add notes to the reference without toggling between different pages or applications. You can take snapshots of web pages so can easily keep track of photos. It’s a cinch to add books. You just key in the ISBN and all the details are sucked from the web. Registering with Zotero gives you an online master that’s regularly synchronised. This means you have a backup but crucially also allows you to work from different computers without losing track of the definitive version of your database. Zotero's designers have made a conscious decision to keep things simple, so you're not bamboozled by dozens of tabs with long lists of features you'll never hope to understand. There are about six buttons and they provide all the features I need. I had a query that I plugged into the Zotero forum and it was answered immediately.

I feel in control of my sources – a sentence that might not be out of place in a shampoo ad. But for a subject like pandas, where I need to keep track of books, journal articles, radio interviews, TV broadcasts, artwork, popular news stories, it is perfect.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

When is the giant panda not a panda?

When it’s a bear.

I’ve been writing the second chapter of my book. In this instalment, I will tackle the mystery of where the giant panda sits on the tree of life. Armand David, who “discovered” the panda, thought it a bear. Alphonse Milne-Edwards, who wrote up the formal description a few years later, considered it more like a lesser panda.

For almost 100 years, opinion was evenly divided. Some experts considered it a bear, others a raccoon and a few fence-sitters suggested it should lodge in an entirely separate group somewhere in-between. A stonking great monograph published in the 1960s by Chicago anatomist Dwight D. Davis seemed to settle matters in favour of the bears.

Except that there was no let up in the number of studies addressing the apparent puzzle. The reason, I suspect, lies in the availability of new data – notably molecular data – and the invention of new methods to analyse it. The temptation to use these data and methods to take a peek at a crowd-pleaser like the panda was just too great for successive generations of researchers to resist.

The first molecular-level analysis of the giant panda came in the 1950s, when a couple of biologists from Kansas University requested a sample of giant panda serum (blood minus the red-blood cells) from the Serological Museum at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

You didn’t know there was such a thing did you? Coincidentally, an article on this intriguing institution appears in the September issue of Endeavour, the history-of-science journal that I edit. The Serological Museum’s raison-d’ĂȘtre, according to a report in Nature in 1948, was “for the collection, preservation and study of the proteins of the the belief that such proteins are as characteristic as other constituents and are as worthy of preservation and comparison as skins and skeletons.”

The Kansas researchers used an immunological method to assess the closeness of bears, giant pandas and lesser pandas, and concluded that “[t]he serological affinities of the giant panda are with the bears rather than with the raccoons.”

But the studies still kept on coming. Last Saturday, I interviewed Dr Stephen O’Brien of the National Cancer Institute, who was the lead author of perhaps the most thorough molecular analysis of the panda’s position published in 1985. Normally O’Brien works on the role that genes can play in complex human infections, but he found himself drawn into the panda question in the early 1980s. “I could not resist this one, a century-old debate, unsettled and looking for a new approach,” he wrote in his 2003 book Tears of the Cheetah: and Other Tales from the Genetic Frontier.

The giant panda’s a bear, he and his colleagues concluded. So David, who rooted for bears, was almost certainly right and Milne-Edwards, in siding with the lesser panda, was probably off the mark. What his misdiagnosis did give us, however, was a cracking common name for this species. You’ve got to admit it – the “black-and-white bear” is not half as good as the “giant panda”.

Monday, 26 October 2009

New epilogue for Lonesome George

I had some good news last week. The Charles Darwin Foundation, which supports scientific research in Galapagos, has asked to buy up 2000 copies of my first book Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon.

The book works on lots of levels – or it’s supposed to. At its simplest, it’s a gripping story of a Galapagos giant tortoise called George. NO. It’s not children’s fiction. If you haven’t heard of Lonesome George, shame on you he is the sole-surviving giant tortoise from one of the Galapagos Islands. All his immediate relatives got eaten by whalers and sailors in the 18th and 19th centuries or collected by scientists in the 19th and early 20th. Since 1971, when he was first spotted, he has worked away steadfastly to become the most famous Galapagos resident and a poster-boy for the conservation operation in the archipelago.

George’s personal journey is a terrific way to explore the Galapagos. You need to understand its geology to figure how tortoises reached the islands, ecology to appreciate where they fit in and evolutionary biology to make sense of the diversity of tortoises. Galapagos also gives easy access to a rich history of exploration and history of science (notably Charles Darwin).

Galapagos is like a crucible right now, where tensions are being played out between a will to conserve it, a desire to visit it and a wish to live there. Similar thorny tussles are being played out all around the world in just about every eco-tourist destination you care to name. So Lonesome George is a story about a tortoise, a rather special group of islands and the challenges facing global conservation in the 21st century.

It’s very gratifying to know that the Charles Darwin Foundation wants the book in their shop on the island of Santa Cruz (near where Lonesome George has been in captivity since the early 1970s). There will, of course, be a small royalty that will eventually come my way, but more importantly I see this is a seal of approval for the book.

My publishers Macmillan Science asked me to update the ending. I’m quite happy to do this as lots of things have happened to Lonesome George since the paperback came out in 2007. This shouldn’t take me too long as I’ve already written them up elsewhere: the discovery of Lonesome George-like genes on Isabela for New Scientist; the appearance of eggs in his enclosure in 2008 and the follow-up news of their infertility for Nature News; and the laying of yet more eggs this year in The Times. Meanwhile, an expedition has been launched to Isabela to see if there are more Lonesome George-like tortoises out there.

The thing is that in exchange for putting this together, I would quite like Macmillan to give me something in return: a commitment to publish more than the 2000 copies. You see, the paperback version of my book has been “out of print” – or as I prefer to put it “sold out” – for more than a year. I could personally have shifted several hundred copies had I had any to sell. Amazon could presumably have done more. But Macmillan, for some completely inexplicable reason, refused to reprint or to revert the rights to me (which would have allowed me or a more switched-on publisher to do so). Now the Charles Darwin Foundation order is triggering a reprint, they should take the opportunity to make some more copies.

So I asked them how many more. They didn’t know and were finding out but in the meantime could I get on and rewrite the epilogue. I said not until I had an idea of how many extra. They hazarded 500, but could I get on and write. Not so much as a please. I will, but I’m coming away from all this feeling like I am little more than an unavoidable nuisance. With any luck though I will have some books to take to my ongoing string of tortoise-related gigs...

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The evolution of the political panda

So when did pandas become political animals?

Since my last blog post, in which I discovered the British Cartoon Archive (BCA), I’ve had a chance to consider panda cartoons in more detail. This is what I’m thinking:

Satirising, sending up and poking fun at pandas did not really start in earnest until the 1960s, when the “British” panda Chi-Chi got together with the “Soviet” panda An-An. To flesh this out a bit, I’ve gone through all the panda-related cartoons in the BCA – all 192 of them – and curated a selection on the BCA’s nifty website to illustrate my argument.

During early 1939, the Evening Standard published a series of children’s cartoons that followed the antics of “Pindar the Panda”. As far as I can tell, the first of these appeared on 2 March and introduced a huntsman in “the wild plains of Tibet”. He was “looking for something to shoot”, when he came across a sobbing panda called Mr. Pindar ” The huntsman, who “really had a kind heart and hated to shoot anything” took pity on Pindar the Panda and brought him back to London. And so the adventures begin. It’s simple, sweet and wholly innocent.

The arrival of Lein-Ho in 1946 triggered a couple of rather more edgy panda cartoons but still nothing in the least political. This one, published in the Evening News in May, depicted London Zoo’s newcomer Lein-Ho. Unlike his popular predecessor Ming, Lein-Ho was prone to bouts of aggression and in this cartoon, he is throwing a tantrum because he “Hasn’t had [his] picture in the paper...” It’s fairly standard anthropomorphism but nothing more.

Chi-Chi’s arrival in the late 1950s triggered a few more cartoons and the first I’ve come across with explicitly political overtones. In this draft, the famous cartoonist Ronald Carl Giles has Nikki (a Russian bear that Nikita Khrushchev gave to Princess Anne during his visit to Britain in 1956) writing a letter to his new “Comrade Chi-Chi”. In the final version, which was published in the Daily Express on 25 September 1958, Nikki asks: “Well, how do you "like life under the bourgeois capitalist beasts?”

There was another spate of panda cartoons in 1964, when rumours first began to circulate about the possibility a Chi-Chi/An-An match. But when this finally came off in 1966, there were dozens – no fewer than 31 in the BCA. All of them are humourous and many of them tie in with political events. Like this one, which appeared in the Daily Mirror on 29 September before the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool. The leader of the opposition Ted Heath is depicted as an anxious An-An and the “disgruntled Tory party” as Chi-Chi. The forthcoming conference is billed as their “last chance to mate”.

There are a further 18 panda cartoons in the BCA from 1968. This one is representative. It appeared in the Evening News on 23 January to coincide with Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s diplomatic visit to the Soviet Union. He sits on one sofa, chained to Chi-Chi. Opposite them are their Soviet counterparts Premier Alexei Kosygin and An-An. The caption reads “Agreed, then – enough politics and down to serious matters..."

After the failed affair between Chi-Chi and An-An, there are more cartoons, notably in 1974 when the Chinese gave Ted Heath two replacement pandas for Chi-Chi. This, from the Daily Express is nice. In everything that appears from the 1960s onwards, pandas are figures of fun.

If anyone knows of any pre-1958 panda cartoons of a humourous or political nature or any post-1968 panda cartoons with no gags or political content, I’d like to know. Nicholas Hiley, the extremely helpful head of the BCA, informs me that there may be other panda cartoons that aren’t coming up on a search for “pandas” or that haven’t yet been digitized. And obviously it would be good to broaden this out beyond Britain. Have the Chinese gone in for panda cartoons? I’d love to know.

Monday, 19 October 2009

No sex please, we’re pandas

Why do pandas find themselves the butt of so many jokes?

I think I’ve come up with the answer. On Friday, I spent the entire day at the Zoological Society of London’s library on the edge of Regent’s Park, where I pored over scrapbooks of press cuttings from the 1960s that mention Chi Chi, London Zoo’s most famous panda.

If – like me – you were not alive in the mid-1960s, it’s very hard to imagine just what a massive phenomenon Chi-Chi was at this time. These scrapbooks bring it home. There are three of them, they are A3 in size and their brittle pages are absolutely filled to the brim with these cuttings. There are snippets from an extraordinary range of British publications with marvellous names, like the Northampton Evening Telegraph, Swindon Advertiser, Worcester Evening News, Newcastle Evening Chronicle and the Yorkshire Evening Press.

There are at least three impressive things about these thudding great scrapbooks:
  1. It's amazing that anyone should have gone to these lengths to clip out all this stuff. It would be hard enough to do such a thorough job today, even with the internet and applications like Google Alerts. I’ve absolutely no idea how, in the 1960s, you’d have begun such a task.
  2. The press cuttings are taken almost exclusively from British newspapers, when this incident went global. So the scrapbooks represent merely a small fraction of the coverage this story got.
  3. The cuttings are taken over the course of just two years, from 1966 to 1968. The focus was on Chi-Chi’s relationship with the “Soviet” panda An-An. “No Czar on the evening of nation-uniting nuptials ever gained more publicity,” wrote John Hillaby in New Scientist in 1966 as Chi-Chi flew out to Moscow. What’s clear from the deluge of news stories about this unproductive fling is that the headline writers, columnists and particularly cartoonists had an absolute field day. The opportunity to satirise the affair was so tempting that the two pandas soon became the butt of many, very excellent jokes.
My favourite cartoon appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 10 November 1968 just before An-An returned from London to Moscow Zoo after another unsuccessful liason. A thuggish looking man sits in a cage. He is wearing a panda suit, has removed the head and is speaking into a walkie-talkie. The caption reads: “Hello Moscow, this is An-An. They’re sending me home. I have failed on my mission but I’ve contacted two gorillas who could be useful to the organisation.” This and dozens of other gems, reveal what a farce these two pandas became. This was the first really high-profile instance of what we now know so well – that captive pandas are extremely unenthusiastic breeders.

The level of coverage of Chi-Chi and An-An, I believe, embedded the giant panda deeply in public’s psyche as a faintly ridiculous species that is fair game. This is not to say that comedians like Ricky Gervais would not have made panda gags without this historical episode, because of course they would.

But maybe sending up pandas would not have been strong or so coherent a tradition.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Troubleshooting the title

I need your help. I’ll give a copy of my forthcoming book to anyone who can come up with the right subtitle...

This, in a paragraph, is what it’s about:

The many, many ways that we humans have seen, revered, laughed at, championed, exploited, pitied the giant panda as it made its way from obscurity to celebrity in just 140 years. In parallel, I will argue, China’s rise as a global political and economic force has tracked a remarkably similar course. It’ll be a fascinating blend of history, politics, economics and cutting edge science. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

In my pitch to Profile Books (who will be publishing my book next year), I proposed calling it Political Animal, where the political animal is both the panda and modern China. Clever heh?

But my editor emailed me this morning. He gave me feedback on the first chapter I sent in – it’s up to standard, which is nice to know – and took the opportunity to appraise me of the latest thinking in the office regarding the title. “There is a strong feeling,” he wrote, “that the book should be called The Way of the Panda, like your blog,” I’m delighted someone’s reading it. The suggestion is that “political animal” should then appear somewhere in the subtitle. The rationale for this seems to be that it’s pandas that will sell the book and not some smart-arse play on words that takes an entire blog post to explain. On reflection, I think this makes a lot of sense.

So if The Way of the Panda is the main title, I now need to come up with a subtitle that contains the words “political animal”. Here are a few possibilities:

  1. The Way of the Panda: the incredible story of a political animal
  2. The Way of the Panda: the meteoric rise of a political animal
  3. The Way of the Panda: the fraught journey of a political animal
  4. The Way of the Panda: the trials of a political animal
  5. The Way of the Panda: a political animal’s journey from obscurity to global domination
  6. The Way of the Panda: how a political animal took on the world

I don’t really like any of them, but you get the idea. So I now solicit all feedback and suggestions, serious or not. If someone gives me a subtitle that ends up on the jacket, I will sign and send them one of my gratis copies. Wow, now there’s an incentive.

Members of my family or employees of Profile Books need not be excluded from taking part. In fact, I demand that they let their views be known.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

From collecting box to collectors’ item

Some arty pandas are up for auction at Selfridges in London on Monday.

Just over a month ago, the famous Oxford Street department store opened an exhibition entitled Pandamonium at Selfridges on its ground floor. Pandamonium is such a well-worn play on words that I am determined to keep it out of my book Political Animal (except to point out how frequently editors and producers have been unimaginative enough to resort to it).

Thankfully, the panda-inspired artwork in the exhibition is really rather original. It’s all come about through a collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund-UK, who were scratching their heads over what to do with a whole load of decommissioned collecting boxes. Together with contemporary art curators and consultants Artwise, the conservation charity challenged 16 leading British artists to work some magic. They have turned the collecting boxes into collectors’ items.

The results – by the likes of Sir Peter Blake, Paul Smith, Tracy Emin and Rachel Whiteread – are rather nice. Just flipping through the online catalogue, I particularly like Smith’s “Cheerful Stripy Panda”, but am saddened to see it is already sold. I’d like to know who bought it and how much they stumped up to take it out of the auction? So frustrating, as I would surely have offered more.

This gives me an idea I might weave into my chapter on the origins and history of WWF. When did charities hit on the idea of fundraising auctions like this one? In its very early years, WWF certainly came up with some very innovative ways of loosening banknotes from the wallets of the public that were copied by other charities. The artwork auction is now a common and very successful fundraising tool. It certainly was last month at the Galapagos Conservation Trust’s Galapagos Day.

I’d like to go along to the Selfridges event, but with half-term looming I have to use every available hour to push on with my book. I had a good day on Friday, pretty-much wrapping up the opening chapter (on Armand David and the extraordinarily violence that beset China during the 19th century) and mapping out the second (on the niggling question of whether a panda is a bear).

The arty pandas will be on show Selfridges until 28 October.

Photo by The Style PA. Reproduced under the Creative Commons License.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Jumping the good ship Endeavour

As of 1 January 2010, I will no longer be the editor-in-chief of Endeavour, a quarterly history of science journal. This is of some sadness to me as it is a publication that has given me a lot of joy over the last eight years.

By my reckoning my first issue was June 2002, since when I have seen through 31 issues, each carrying an average of 6.5 articles, each of which comprised of about three illustrations around 3250 words. That’s more than 200 articles and almost as many authors, 600 illustrations and 650,000 words.

At the beginning and end of my stint in charge, I oversaw the publication of these articles with minimal assistance – editing, copyediting the text and sourcing images myself. In the halcyon middle years, however, I had the pleasure of working with the excellent and invincible Arthur Wadsworth. Whilst I’ve always been a fan of Endeavour, Arthur was possibly more enthusiastic about the enterprise than me and potential authors would frequently assume he was the editor. It’s been a struggle without him and now, as Endeavour floats towards its next incarnation as a peer-reviewed academic history of science journal, I’ve decided it’s time to jump ship. It needs an academic editor not a journalist and writer like me.

Poring over back issues of the journal that I've seen to press, there are many highlights, most of which Arthur was involved with. I’ve produced here a shortlist of articles all of which have a lovely structure, are beautifully written and are strikingly illustrated.

I particularly liked the structure of Janet Browne and Sharon Messenger’s Victorian spectacle: Julia Pastrana, the bearded and hairy female. The authors looked at the public reaction to the “freak” Pastrana as she toured exhibition halls before, during and after the “Darwinian moment” of 1859. This allowed them to consider how thinking changed in the light of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. In Relics, replicas and commemorations, Soraya de Chadarevian marked the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA in a completely original way – tracing the story of one of the metal base pairs used in original Watson-Crick model from its conception and manufacture to its neglect and ultimate apotheosis. There is another coming in my last issue - December 2009 - by D. Graham Burnett with a really fresh take on the apparent analogy Darwin set up between artificial and natural selection. Burnett argues, extremely persuasively I think, that it isn’t an analogy at all.

There were several authors who could really write, for whom I had to do virtually no editing at all. For example: Mary Anne Andrei wrote with consummate ease about The accidental conservationist: William T. Hornaday, the Smithsonian bison expeditions and the US National Zoo; John C. Waller created a wonderfully accomplished article on Parents and children: ideas of heredity in the 19th century; James Delbourgo’s Underwater-works: voyages and visions of the submarine was a treat from beginning to end; and all 30 articles delivered by Patricia Fara were pretty much word-perfect.

was rather special for the room it gave to illustrations. In recent years, the budget for sourcing images has been tightening and I wouldn’t be surprised if the stream of illustrations gradually dries up in the coming years. But while it lasted, there were plenty of visually arresting pieces. Robert A. Jones’ article ‘How many female scientists do you know?’ had some super stills from British films from the 1950s and 1960s that had some of the earliest portrayals of female scientists. In Sherlock Holmes: scientific detective, Laura J. Snyder reproduced some lovely cover images and engravings from Arthur Conan Doyle’s books. And Kristian Hvidtfelt Nielsen brought us some marvellous unpublished satirical cartoons as he went In search of the sea monster.

I have a longlist of articles that's too long to list, but looking down it exposes my bias for the history of biology and more specifically the history of natural history. If I’d been a better editor, I would have resisted indulging my own interests. Then Endeavour might have had more history of chemistry, physics, technology and medicine. I expect the new editor – whoever it is – will be able to put this right. I just hope they also manage to maintain the journal's relative readability.

Moving on, sad as it is, now frees me up to concentrate on writing Political Animal and then, I hope, other books. But I am determined to stay in close contact with the history of science community I have got to know and like so well. I have met many hundred super people and enjoyed working with all of them.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Am I on target?

I have just completed the first chapter of my book Political Animal, which will chart the joint fortunes of pandas and China over the last 140 years. I am supposed to have a further 11 with my editor at Profile Books by the end of January. Am I on target?

I can’t say. This is not because my editor will be reading this and I’m having to be all secretive, but because none of my chapters is a straight narrative that I can simply knock-off in a day or two. Each involves at least a dozen different asides that I will weave around the central panda-related story. A chapter then becomes like a jigsaw. I start with the outline of a chapter, which is like having the picture on the jigsaw box. But as I set out I have at most three of the actual pieces and must locate the rest (some of which I don’t even know I need until I get writing) before I can even begin to think about jiggling them into place.

So, for example, the chapter I’ve just written mainly tells the post-mortem story of Chi Chi, the famous panda bear that lived at London Zoo between 1958 and 1972 and was the inspiration for the World Wildlife Fund’s logo. In addition to reconstructing this museum-based story, I have embellished it with several asides. And finding out about the history of London Zoo, the stories of famous zoo animals, reading up on methods of taxidermy, looking at dioramas, tracking down a retired mammalologist, sourcing material from the Foreign Office archives and dipping into a biography of Conservative politician Ted Heath all take time.

I am pleased with what I’ve produced, though it was not without a stab of anxiety that I emailed the chapter off to my editor last week. However many intriguing layers I have moulded onto Chi Chi’s carcass, there’s no getting away from it: this is a chapter about a dead animal and some people might find that odd. I am hoping my editor is not one of them.

So back to the original question. Am I on target for submitting the complete 80,000-word manuscript by the end of January? Doing the math, I have four months to produce another 10 chapters. Or to put it another way, I must write a chapter every 12 days. The problem with such calculations is that it’s going to take a long a lot longer to assemble all the pieces I need for each jigsaw-like one of them.

Charting my progress with this book then is a frustratingly imprecise exercise. Like I think I’ll have to have another couple of chapters in the bag by the end of October and I’m guessing I should have made a start on a further three. There, at least, is something I can work towards, but what will it mean if I miss it? Will I be behind or was it just a target that was poorly conceived?