Guest Book Review by Dr Julie Winnard: How Bad Are Bananas? by Mike Berners Lee

Dr Julie Winnard works flexibly with clients to identify and deliver their sustainability projects, from creating resilient strategies, business cases or innovation plans, to reporting and targets for transport energy and carbon. Finding practical and appropriate ways to deliver real-world improvements in carbon emissions, other environmental impacts or risk and opportunity management.

Profile photo of Julie Winnard

Dream has been poorly recently so appealed for science-related guest reviews. “How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything” from 2009 I find very interesting and useful, and just post COP26 kinda topical.

Guest Book Review –  Dr Julie Winnard

I’m a engineer-turned-sustainability consultant, and over the past ten years quite a lot of what I do has been encouraging all kinds of business people to educate themselves about carbon emissions; what matters, and what they needn’t worry about too much. With the aim of getting them to focus on the bigger stuff that they can reduce. I mostly read fiction in my own time, but I do like a good readable bit of non-fiction, especially one that distils a whole bunch of new science in a way that lets me educate myself, and that I usefully might be able to direct other people towards. This is definitely one of those.

I was sold on this book in the original intro when Mike Berners Lee (yes, son of that guy who invented the internet) -also a sustainability professional- commented he’d become fed up with CEOs angsting about how to dry their hands (the different methods of towel, paper towel and air-dryer aren’t as far apart in CO2 terms as you might expect) yet getting on planes every few days- waaay worse. Like, 10g compared to 1 tonne worse. So, he wrote the book to help people develop “carbon literacy”; basically an instinct for what matters in terms of what to change. The memorable title comes from the fact that if you’re green, you might worry about shipping bananas round the planet. Spoiler alert- not a huge issue, but having a blowout Christmas? Yes, big.

See the source image

The book is not so much a narrative story but a sort of directory, starting at the smallest stuff like bananas and working up to the biggies like flying. Berners-Lee doesn’t go into lots of mathsy detail often, just gives you the main facts and a bit of explanation for each item, sometimes with an interesting anecdote about his own journey of change. Doing carbon footprints is complex, so all you really need to know is clever people did stuff with data and spreadsheets and science. If you want to know more, there are extensive notes at the back of the first edition, and doubtless the new one from 2020.

This book helped me calibrate my own greening efforts, and I use it to show clients that there are easy-to-use references out there, when they want to change for the better. Until recently I would explain that although the exact footprints change as, say, electricity grids get greener, the rough order of impacts doesn’t move that much so the original book was still a good reference. And now I know there’s an updated one with new footprints and new things in, I can’t wait to find out about Bitcoin and hopefully, avocados!

Image result for sustainability

All opinions on this blog are my own

Guest Book Review by Dr Claire Walker: Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy

Girlymicro is currently laid up with shingles and despite having tried to negotiate with the virus, it appears they have not been able to come to terms in order for her to be able to be well enough to blog. The ever inspiring Dr Walker has leapt into the breach to ensure that you are not forced to spend a week without science based entertainment. She is, as ever, wonderful.

Guest Book Review –  Dr Claire Walker

Paid up member of the Dream Team since 2013, token immunologist and occasional defector from the Immunology Mafia. Registered clinical scientist in immunology with a background in genetics (PhD), microbiology and immunology (MSc), biological sciences (mBiolSci) and indecisiveness (everything else). Now a senior lecturer in immunology at University of Lincoln.

Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy. A genre bending thriller about female power and a fun take on the premise of asexual reproduction.

Judging a book by its cover?

What draws you to pick up a new book? In my limited time post baby two, I look at a few one line reviews on my Amazon account and hope for the best. Girl One By Sara Flannery Murphy caught my attention for being described as ‘Orphan Black meets Margret Atwood’. One of my favourite pseudo-scientific TV shows and my favourite speculative fiction author? Sold.

The Story

In Girl One Murphy focuses on a group of women who are the subject of a fertility experiment in rural America. She tells the story of the nine ‘miracle babies’ born without male DNA, the result of ‘virgin birth’, or to use the scientific term, parthenogenesis. The premise of the book is that a massive leap forward was made in reproductive science in the 1970s allowing human parthenogenesis. The actual process of human parthenogenesis is shrouded in mystery and lost with the untimely death of the rather shady scientist and would be father figure, Dr Joseph Bellinger. The progeny of the experiment scatter after this event and try to live normal lives away from zealots who target them for being against the natural order of things. The unexpected disappearance of her mother leads the first of these children, Girl One, on a road trip of discovery unlocking the secrets of their origins.

The Science

This is a science blog, so let’s put the superpowers and 1970s feminist manifesto to one-side for a moment. In the natural world, parthenogenesis is business as usual for some species of plants, insects, lizards and, most recently documented, California Condors. But what about humans? Has Murphy taken speculative fiction a step too far?

Until relatively recently, it was believed that parthenogenesis in humans never produced viable embryos. Human parthenogenesis itself is not actually such a rare event. The spontaneous activation of a woman’s egg without the presence of sperm is well documented. Unfortunately, this process results in the development of an ovarian teratoma. These tumours present as anatomically disorganised structures that have been documented to contain hair, limbs and even teeth. 

In his review On human parthenogenesis Dr Gabriel de Carli, discusses the serendipitous discovery of chimeric human parthenotes, or in plain English, children who have two cell lineages in their bodies – the closest thing to human parthenogenesis identified thus far. These children have cells that are the result of the normal fertilisation process, and cells that are the result of human parthenogenesis that have fused together. The first child, described in 1995, was a little boy whose white blood cells were shown to contain no Y chromosome whilst the other cells of his body were genetically male. The X chromosomes in the boy’s white blood cells were shown to be identical to each other, and both were derived from his mother revealing their origin to be from a ‘virgin birth’ event. So, whilst incredibly rare, we now know a form of parthenogenesis is possible, and more importantly, viable in humans.

Perhaps even more interestingly, Dr de Carli believes that rare cases of full human parthenogenesis occur and pass unnoticed. In fact, he thinks that as we enter the era of whole genome sequencing of all new babies, we are on the cusp of identifying these individuals. Only time will tell if they have the superpowers described in Girl One.

TLDR: A superhero take on 1970s feminism with a pinch of dystopian gender politics and smattering of not-quite-totally-fictional science. Not at all bad.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Guest Book Review by John Dodd: The Science of Storytelling

By John Dodd (millionwordman blog, dragonmeet convention, and

Dream asked for a review of a favourite book with actual science in it. I’ve been a writer all my life, and I’d always thought that the process of writing was more of an emotional process, rather than a logical one, and that there couldn’t be any actual science attributed to it, particularly when so much of what we read in fiction drives our emotions.

This was the book that changed my mind on the subject.

The Science of Storytelling presents a compelling case for there being a formula for which all successful stories come to be successful. This formula isn’t based on the number of acts that the book comes in, the setting in which it takes place, the length of the story, whether the story is crime, fantasy, or space opera, or any part of the background to the novel. It doesn’t matter.

What it relies on are the characters that inhabit the story.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve heard this, but never presented so clearly as it has been here. Written as a dual study of both literature and psychology, this contains a wealth of annotated references to other books, direct links to the social studies and psychology reports, and unlike many other books on storytelling, no mention of the authors own preferences regarding writing.

The book covers four parts of the storytelling process: Creating a World, The Flawed Self, The Dramatic Question, and Plots, Endings, and Meanings. 

Creating a world makes reference to the way in which the world is put together, making it clear that if you’re writing mass market fiction, the world you present is likely to be very different to the world that you would present for literary fiction, but the realism of the world should be relevant to the context of the characters journey.

The Flawed Self presents the characters and what makes them interesting, how the balance of the character is central, neither too flawed nor too perfect, like any real person, is what makes them interesting.

The Dramatic Question is posed as what the characters in the book want. If they are real, then they have real desires, whether unrealistic or not, they have needs and wants, and in the end, not all of those are likely to be fulfilled.  What matters is how the character deals with each part of their journey through the book.

Finally, Plots, Endings, and Meanings presents how and if a story should end, acknowledging that some stories do not end, and that, in itself, is more than acceptable as long as it works for the story.   

While not specifically a book to assist in the figuring out of the plot or the world in which the characters live in, it nonetheless presents a fascinating insight into how and why people read stories, and more importantly how and why people write stories. There is a propensity regarding books on how to write stories to believe that the books must come from a best-selling author. After all, if the person writing the book hasn’t been a best seller, how can they advise you how to be one?

Many of those books will tell you more about the person who wrote the book, less about their process for writing, and even less about how they themselves became a bestseller. In the Science of Storytelling, we have a book that’s purely about the science behind stories, and that’s something that all writers can benefit from.

NB from Girlymicro. If you’d like to submit a guest book review or guest blog drop me a line on the links on the right of the page

All opinions on this blog are my own

Guest Book Review by Dr Claire Walker: Oryx and Crake by Margret Atwood

By Dr Claire Walker

Paid-up member of the Dream Team since 2013, token immunologist and occasional defector from the Immunology Mafia. Registered clinical scientist in immunology with a background in genetics (PhD), microbiology and immunology (MSc), biological sciences (mBiolSci) and indecisiveness (everything else). Now a senior lecturer in immunology at University of Lincoln.

A clinical immunologist and part-time geneticists’ thoughts on Oryx and Crake by Margret Atwood.

This is Atwood’s vision of a dystopian future told across a trilogy of books. Each provides more detail on how we failed to avoid disaster despite multiple opportunities – art imitating life in 2021? A mad scientist bioengineers a humanity-ending virus and replaces humans with his genetically engineered vision of perfection, then leaves them in the hands of his old best mate. The protagonist struggles to survive in the dystopian future whilst recounting the tale of his pre-apocalypse life, and his role in the oncoming catastrophe. Well, we are all old hat at the viral apocalypse these days so let’s talk about something else; genetic engineering.

Atwood’s writing is speculative rather than science fiction. This slight bend of the genre bases its roots in technologies that exist today, and their potential consequences. Here, Atwood imagines profit as the sole motivator of advancements in genetic manipulation technologies with our ethical committees cast aside. Oryx and Crake was penned back in 2003 so whilst we may have had our suspicions about the tech back then, these days much of what Atwood discusses is inching closer to scientific fact.

Margaret Atwood

Let’s start with ChickieNobs, the nightmarish endpoint of laboratory grown meat. A bulblike object comprised of chicken parts with a head in the middle. Today’, laboratory grown meat is in its infancy and is hailed as an environmental wonder: the ‘no kill’ solution for vegetarians hankering for a burger. Just don’t ask about where those meat stem cells come from, or the nutrients required to grow laboratory meat.

Pigoons, or Sus multiorganifer to give them their Latin name, are described as a method of producing human organs in pigs. Sounds like a perfect solution to our growing shortage of organs for transplant. To see this reflected in reality, one only need look to the work of Juan Belmonte. His team uses CRISPR technologies to turn off genes that make pig organs and replaces them with those to make humans. In her dystopian vision, Atwood considers the ultimate consequence of this, the development of human-like intelligence in these animals to go along with their human genetic material.

With my word count rapidly diminishing we’ll consider the Crakers, the bioengineered quasi-humans. These gentle creatures epitomise the pinnacle of genetic modification: humans that don’t harm each other or their environment. Not quite the X-men we comic book geeks would like. Today, the application of CRISPR technologies seems to know no bounds. We are living through a time of unprecedented genetic developments at a startling pace. Each day science fiction merges a little more with scientific fact but thanks to our rigorous ethical approval process, one hopes we can avoid living in an Atwoodian nightmare for at least a little while longer.

TLDR: The epitome of biopeversity, edging into a little too close for comfort. So many lessons could be learnt from Atwood, but humans are rarely good at learning our lessons. After all, as the old saying goes, the bioengineered-quasi human species will inherit the earth.

Ref – for more details on the real Pigoons

or try if you like your science a bit more science-y

NB from Girlymicro. If you’d like to submit a guest book review or guest blog drop me a line on the links on the right of the page

All opinions on this blog are my own

Book Review: What I Love About the Science in the Newsflesh Series by Mira Grant

I’ve been having trouble sitting down to read actual paper books for a while now. The pandemic has my mind kind of worn out and, although I always used to have 4 or 5 paper books on the go at one time, right now I don’t have a single one. That’s not to say I’m not still getting my fiction/non-fiction fix. It’s just that right now it’s happening via audiobooks as I can just close by eyes and be transported.

This brings me onto a slightly new thing I’m going to try out: reviewing and giving some love to books that have science within them to aid that escape rather than making me irritated. I read the whole of the Newsflesh series by Mira Grant a few years ago at the suggestion of the wonderful Dr Claire Walker. As part of my insomnia strategy, I’ve rediscovered it and my love for the science within it.

The Newsflesh series consists of three main novels: Feed, Deadline and Blackout, as well as some short fiction.

Mira Grant describes the premise of the novels as:

“The zombie apocalypse happened more than twenty years ago. Contrary to popular belief, we didn’t all die out, largely because we’d had years of horror movies to tell us how to behave when the dead start walking. We fought back, and we won…sort of. The dead still walk; loved ones still try to eat you if you’re not careful; the virus that caused the problem in the first place is still incurable. But at least we lived, right?”

Nothing is impossible to kill. It’s just that sometimes after you kill something you have to keep shooting it until it stops moving

Mira GrantFeed (Newsflesh Trilogy, #1)

Most zombie fiction is either set during the rising itself, that moment when the dead rise, or during a post-apocalyptic future where the worst of humanity is on display. Within the Newsflesh series, and especially Feed, this isn’t the case. It’s set 26 years after the rising in a world that lives with the ever present nature of having the undead on your doorstep. This is partly because of the way the rising occurred.

The Virus

As in most zombie fiction, the rising was caused by science that went wrong. In this case a modified virus known as Marburg-Amberlee (Marburg EX19), invented by Daniel Wells, was designed to cure leukaemia. It was first tested on Amanda Amberlee, a young leukaemia patient in Colorado, and it succeeded in curing her, after which it remained dormant in her cells and those of others given the cure. A second genetically modified virus was also being developed, known as the  ‘Kellis cure’/’Kellis flu’. The aim of the Kellis cure was to provide a universal cure for the common cold. It contained a mix of coronavirus and rhinovirus proteins, with a fifth man-made protein that was designed to increase the virus’s ability to invade. When the Kellis cure is stolen from the research lab, where it is being developed by a group of activists who believe that this universal cure is being ‘held’ from the world and should be freely available, disaster occurs. The activists believe that the virus should be freely available to aerosolise the virus. The two RNA viruses underwent a combination event in those humans who had been treated with Marburg-Amberlee initiating a new infection, a virus now know as Kellis-Amberlee.

Now every mammal on the planet over 40lbs can convert into a zombie on reactivation of the latent virus in their cells. This can happen as a result of trauma, death or, like many latent viruses, due to failure of the immune system.

The World

This is the truth: We are a nation accustomed to being afraid. If I’m being honest, not just with you but with myself, it’s not just the nation, and it’s not just something we’ve grown used to. It’s the world, and it’s an addiction. People crave fear. Fear justifies everything. Fear makes it okay to have surrendered freedom after freedom, until our every move is tracked and recorded in a dozen databases the average person will never have access to. Fear creates, defines, and shapes our world, and without it, most of us would have no idea what to do with ourselves. Our ancestors dreamed of a world without boundaries, while we dream new boundaries to put around our homes, our children, and ourselves. We limit our potential day after day in the name of a safety that we refuse to ever achieve. We took a world that was huge with possibility, and we made it as small as we could.

Mira GrantFeed (Newsflesh Trilogy, #1)

I think we’re all living in small worlds right now, as I write this on the sofa during yet another lockdown. The think I loved when I first read the novels, and actually love even more re-discovering them in a lockdown world, is how society has adapted to answer the challenges of infection.

All areas of the country (it’s set in the States) are split into hazard categories. If you want to live in an outside space, where mammals could roam and it’s harder to control the movements of the walking dead, you have to accept higher levels of Infection Prevention and Control. Every car door has an antigen test that makes sure you are not in active viral replication before it will open so that you don’t risk fellow passengers. Every door into a home has the same risk. The world is split into those who have completely locked down and live for all intents and purposes an entirely virtual life. Whilst others, determined to have the right to maintain their freedom to keep animals such as horses, or other life styles choices, put their lives at risk to do so and also potentially risk others. Entire areas of the country have been declared ‘lost’, as the movements of the undead cannot be controlled. If you go into high-risk zones, all your clothes must be destroyed or, in less restrictive zones, sanitised whenever you leave the house. Every time you go outside you must be washed with dilute bleach on return. The rules are the law and following them is not supposed to be optional, although, as we are currently seeing, there are always those who will fall into the extremes of the two camps.

The Truth

The other thing that really resonates right now is the distrust of the media. During The Rising, the news is felt to have let down the public by being too much controlled by governments and institutions. The books themselves follow the Mason siblings, reporters Georgia and Shaun, as well as their news crew covering how a presidential election is run in this new world.

News is done differently in this new world because of the reaction to the number of deaths that were caused by the slow response of traditional media to covering the rapidly changing situation. Information is delivered by:

  • Newsies (of which Georgia is one), who aim to deliver neutral fact-based coverage of the news via blogs and websites.
  • Irwins (like Shaun Mason which are named after Steve Irwin), who seek to educate and entertain by going into areas that are off limits to non-reporters in order to give a true view of the world.
  • Stewarts, who aim to collate and curate the reports of newsies, pretty much a ‘one site for all things’.
  • Aunties, who share personal stories, recipes, and other content to keep people happy and relaxed.
  • Fictionals (like  Georgette “Buffy” Meissonier), who write poetry and fiction in order to explore everything that has happened to humanity since the rising.

One of the things that I currently worry about is how we will rebuild the trust and faith in science that may have been damaged by science becoming so politicised during the current pandemic. Although, in many ways, we’ve also seen the damage that going to individual blogs and echo chambers can do to the concept of evidence-based science. Re-engaging with the series right now does make you think about how difficult it is to communicate widely, and how important scientists having conversations across boundaries is.

In (not so, this post is longer than it should be) short, if you haven’t read Feed then you should. Read it because the virology is sound, and the Infection Prevention and Control makes me super happy. Mostly though, read it because it may give you a different lens through which to see our current situation, as well as being super entertaining.

All opinions in this blog are my own