Books: A Literary Feast with Cambridge Literary Festival
Cambridge Literary Festival is back this month, bringing an array of brilliant writers and engrossing topics. Hannah Critchlow, Science Outreach Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and author of The Science of Fate, tells Velvet’s Sarah Ingram about her fascination with the endlessly interesting human brain
How did it all start for you – have you always been interested in science?
I've always found science fascinating. It offers us the ability to understand the mechanisms by which life operates, to really understand, at fine detail, the beauty and simplicity of even the most seemingly complex phenomena (the creation of a baby, for example). It allows us to simultaneously be in awe of the world around us while also giving us a deep understanding of it. That said, I did spend a lot of my GCSE science lessons in the corridor with my hands over my head. I was quite chatty and noisy in class so got sent out by the teacher fairly frequently!
What first inspired you to study neuroscience?
My own fascination with the human brain came out of working with children suffering from psychiatric disorders. I was intrigued by the question of resilience: why some people can move on from a seriously negative life event while others struggle to recover ever afterwards. During the late 1990s, I was a nursing assistant at one of the UK’s leading psychiatric hospitals where I worked with children aged 12-18, the majority of whom had experienced abuse or neglect early in life. They were extremely vulnerable to peer pressure and found it difficult to lead a healthy, happy life in the outside world. A high number of them had criminal records, and they had varying diagnoses from schizophrenia, personality disorder and severe autism to bipolar disorder. Although I have positive memories of my time there, the whole experience created a deep desire to contribute to the search for more effective help for them. It also left me with the question about what makes us, well, us. Many of the staff working in the hospital had experienced similar challenges in life but they were able to go home after their shifts whereas the sectioned patients weren’t. Why was that? What were the underlying differences that produced such divergence in life trajectory? Can anything be done to bulk up a person’s self-protective abilities so that they can flourish no matter what life throws at them?
You appear regularly on TV, the radio and at festivals - how do you fit writing and research into what is clearly a very busy schedule? What’s a typical day like?
When I'm not filming or speaking at events such as the fantastic Greenbelt Festival, then I largely work from my home in Cambridge. I drop my son off at nursery in the morning, go for a jog down the towpath for an hour or so to clear my head, then settle at my table and research and write, perhaps interviewing people either face to face or over the phone/Skype. For lunch I head into the beautiful Magdalene College, where I'm a Fellow. This gives me a great opportunity to speak with colleagues, many of whom are working in different disciplines, and our conversations really help me to take other subject perspectives on board. Then I head back home to continue writing and researching, usually attempting to complete some more routine life administration tasks directly after lunch when I'm feeling a bit snoozy and less alert!
Communicating is obviously very important to you - did you always have an ambition or desire to share with other people what you’re discovering and thinking about?
I've always enjoyed Drama, Art and English Literature, and that opportunity to perform and invite people into different worlds, to explore different spheres. That's what I'm doing now, communicating aspects of the world of science to others. Technological developments are occurring at an unprecedented rate, and as a result we are learning more and more about brain and behaviour. With that information comes important decisions: how we use our knowledge as a society. Take, for example, the recent use of gene editing to create designer babies – do we want to create future generations that only have those behavioural attributes we currently consider to be of worth? Do we really want to remove some aspects of our current neurodiversity like, say, autism? We need to get the public engaged in these debates, and science communication plays a key part in helping to make that happen.
One of the reviewers of The Science of Fate, Bettany Hughes, said that it doesn’t just explain how our lives might pan out, it helps us live better. Was this something you set out to achieve in the writing of the book?
Yes, I definitely wanted the book to be empowering. There was a danger that a book eroding free will would leave the reader feeling dejected and powerless, which was certainly not my intention. I think neuroscience offers a wonderful prism through which we can start to get a better grip on understanding our own and others’ strengths, and our idiosyncrasies or flaws. Then we can begin to put in place structures that help bring out the best in all of us, which is no bad thing!
You’ve been named a top 100 UK scientist by the Science Council, and one of Cambridge University’s ‘inspirational and successful women in science’. How important is that recognition do you think?
Oh, very important! I love a good accolade, it makes my ego feel very happy! It also helps other people have faith in you when you are starting new projects together. It's an all-round confidence boost. Recently, Nature Magazine named me as one of Cambridge University’s 'Rising Stars' in Biological sciences. I literally yelped with surprise and joy when I found out!
What do you think will be the next big discovery in your field, and will you be writing about it?
Well, that's one of the things that I love most about my job, discovering all the exciting progress that's occurring in science labs across the world. I think the next big things coming out will be massive leaps in artificial intelligence and melding our minds with computers to enhance our cognitive capacity. It's a slightly terrifying thought but one that has the potential to bring about great progress for our species.
According to your Twitter feed, you’re already working on your next book, a sequel to The Science of Fate - can you give us a little foretaste of what it will be about?
Called The Science of Us, it offers an empowering and invigorating investigation into us as a species, our intelligence, and how we might meld our minds with artificial intelligence in the future.
You can hear Hannah Critchlow in conversation on November 30 at 4pm in the Palmerston Room, Fisher Building, St John’s College, St John’s Street, Cambridge CB2 1RB.
Make a Date
Cathy Moore, festival director, invites us to “mingle with like-minded folk, to share ideas, laughter and collective joy, and to be inspired by the roll call of uplifting writers and performers” - and we’ll be heeding that call. Here are four other highlights from the festival
Richard Mabey has been writing about nature for more than 40 years and is described as a pioneering voice in modern nature writing. From his 1972 classic foraging guide, Food for Free, to his encyclopaedic Flora Britannica, in which he investigates how plants are deeply embedded in our popular culture, Mabey has explored new ways of thinking about nature and its relation to our lives. In his latest book, Turning the Boat for Home, he reflects on his rich writing life and the evolution of his ideas over the course of his career. He will be in conversation with fellow writer and festival patron, Robert McFarlane.
Friday, November 29, 4-5pm, TTP Stage at Cambridge Union, 9A Bridge Street, Cambridge CB2 1TP, £12/10.
For Raymond Blanc OBE, chef-patron of the legendary Belmond de Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, early autumn mornings are his favourite times to be walking in Le Manoir’s orchard of 2,500 trees. He says it’s a perfect tonic for the mind as he reflects on all the dishes he has created with these wonderful fruits over the years. Blanc's beautifully illustrated new book, The Lost Orchard, is filled with stories of lost heritage varieties from England and his native Franche-Comté and, of course, some carefully chosen recipes. Blanc will be talking to Tim Hayward, owner of Cambridge’s Fitzbillies, about his life and his work, as well as the miraculous orchard that inspired his book.
Saturday, November 30, 5.30-6.30pm, TTP Stage at Cambridge Union (see above), £12/10.
Jenny Eclair has been making us laugh for donkeys’ years. The first woman to win the prestigious Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival in 1995, she’s a writer as much as a performer and her latest novel, Inheritance, was published in August this year. Hailed as an ambitious, epic saga by Philippa Perry (author of The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read) - who ‘bloody loved it’ - it’s a poignant examination of tragedy and turmoil across generations. Eclair will be in conversation with Alex Clarke and we’re told to expect liberal helpings of both laughter and tears.
Sunday, December 1, 4-5pm, Palmerston Room, Fisher Building, St John’s College, St John’s Street, Cambridge CB2 1RB, £12/10.
The festival closes with a terrific finale: a conversation with the internationally acclaimed writer Jung Chang, author of the bestselling autobiography, Wild Swans, which the Asian Wall Street Journal called the most read book about China (13 million copies were sold worldwide). Chang’s new book, only published in October, reveals the lives of three very different and extraordinary women who helped shape 20th century China. Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister tells the stories of the Soong sisters and takes us on a sweeping journey from Canton to Hawaii to New York.
Sunday, December 1, 5.30-6.30pm, TTP Stage at Cambridge Union (see above), £12/10.
The Cambridge Literary Festival runs from November 29 to December 1. To download a brochure, visit cambridgeliteraryfestival.com. To book: visit cambridgelive.org.uk, call (01223) 357851 (Monday-Saturday, 10am-6pm), or book in person at Cambridge Live Tickets, Wheeler Street, Cambridge CB2 3QB (Monday-Friday, 12-6pm; Saturday, 10am-6pm).