Interview 44. – Dr Helen Pilcher

Helen Pilcher headshot

Helen Pilcher is a tea-drinking, biscuit-writing science and comedy writer. She writes for the likes of Nature and New Scientist, and is currently working on her second book, which is about the changing face of evolution. In a former life, Helen was a scientist but she managed to escape from the lab, and now spends time teaching scientists how to communicate more effectively.  Helen also comperes debates and comedy shows, and gives talks at festivals, live shows and other events.

Twitter: @HelenPilcher1

Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

I write about science and the natural world for a living, so am continuously amazed by the new discoveries that are made. Most recently, I’ve been thinking about how humans are shaping and skewing the trajectory of evolution. In Puerto Rico, city-dwelling crested anole lizards have evolved stickier toes to help them cling on to buildings. Mice in New York’s Central Park are evolving the ability to digest pizza, whilst the London Underground has its own genetically unique strain of mosquito. Human activity is forcing evolution into overdrive. I find that amazing. It makes me feel very small and very big all at the same time. Small, because evolution is such a powerful force, and big, because human activity – the things that you and I do every day – are having a profound effect on evolution in the natural world.


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

‘Wonder’ is the feeling you get when something is so beautiful or perfect or complex or ‘out of this world’ that you struggle to comprehend it and your heart feels like it will burst.

‘Awe’ is ‘wonder’ after six cans of Red Bull.

‘Curiosity’ is a constant urge to ask questions and understand the world.

How do they relate? Wonder and awe can lead to curiosity. If I’m struggling to understand something, it will lead me to ask questions and try to work it out. But curiosity can lead to wonder too. My curiosity about evolution led me to discover these cool facts about how the natural world is changing.


What inspires you to be creative?

So many things. Scientific papers. Books. Comedy shows. Galleries. The news. Interesting people. My family. My dog. And deadlines! There’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind.


Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?

I work as a writer. If I’m struggling to be creative, I go for a walk with my dog and let my mind wander. Ideas tend to spring up which I’ll then record into my phone. When I’m working on something particularly big, like a book, then I find that creative thoughts come to me in the middle of the night. I keep a notebook next to the bed and write them down before I go back to sleep. I think this is my brain trying to refine ideas whilst I’m asleep. It’s exhausting.


What do you love about magic?

It makes me feel happy, because for a moment the impossible seems possible. If you suspend disbelief, then for a short time, the normal rules of physics and biology can be dispensed with and anything can happen. I like the unpredictability and the ‘not knowing how it’s done.’


What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?

If the magician is genuinely rubbish, because then the illusion is ruined. Good magicians are good showmen. They put the audience at ease because they are totally in control. If they can’t do this, it becomes bum-clenchingly awful and all wonder is gone.


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

I like to think that it’s innate. As adults, we often crawl through the mundanities of the day without finding time for wonder. Young children, however, see wonder in so many places that adults take for granted. Maybe we grow out of it as we get older and our understanding of the world improves, but that’s a shame. There’s something rather beautiful in finding wonder in a puddle or a sunset or a shoal of fish.


Can you tell me more about your career? Are there any core strands to everything you’ve done?

I used to work as a scientist then moved into journalism. I now write and talk about science for a living, and teach others to do the same. I’ve also done stand up comedy for a long time. I would say the core strands to my work have always been curiosity and humour. I try to thread humour through everything that I do. My last book; Bring Back the King, was all about the ability of scientists to bring extinct species back to life, including Elvis Presley. It’s hopefully a book that will make people think and laugh in equal measures.


You’ve managed the Royal Society’s ‘Science in society’ program and now teach academics to communicate their research in an engaging manner. What are the biggest obstacles academics have in effectively communicating their work?

Scientists tend to be very good at talking to other scientists, but less good at talking to non-scientists. I think this is because the language of science can become deeply engrained. Scientists use long words, too much jargon and too many decimal places. The biggest obstacle is getting them to think about who their audience is. When I teach, I ask academics to put themselves in the shoes of the audience they will be talking to. What questions would that audience ask? What will they be interested in? What level of detail would they want to hear? So my first bit of advice is; think about your audience, and my second bit of advice is; have fun. Don’t be dry and dusty and boring. Tell me a story and make me smile.


With “Bring back the king” you write about de-extinction. What was the appeal about writing that book? What surprises did you have along the way? And, of course the inevitable question, which animal would you most like to bring back?

I have a lifelong interest of fossils and wildlife, and a PhD in cell biology and genetics. This book marries all these passions together. It gave me the chance to delve into an area I find fascinating, and to talk to loads of interesting people at the forefront of de-extinction research. Surprises? I learned about a frog gives birth by burping up fully formed froglets, a bird that was once so numerous that a single flock could take a week to fly past, and that DNA can be extracted from fossils (but sadly not from dinosaur fossils, so Jurassic Park is off the cards).

Which animal would I most like to bring back? This surprised me. When I started writing the book, I imagined it would be something like a woolly mammoth or a Tasmanian tiger, but in the end I decided the animal I would most like to de-extinct is an animal that is currently still alive. There are just two northern white rhinos left alive on our planet. They are two females; a mother and daughter, who live in a wildlife reserve in Kenya. Their species has been all but wiped out because of civil war and poaching. Here is a species that is physically still with us, but that is dead already. These animals are ghosts. They are functionally extinct. Given recent advances in cell biology and assisted reproduction, it may be possible to bring them back. I’m a huge supporter of this work. There are many endangered species that, despite the best efforts of conservationists, are slipping away. I’d like to see technology used to save them, so if I could choose one animal to de-extinct, the northern white rhino would be it.

What stood out for you? Any questions? Things you disagree with? Write a comment and join in the discussion.

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