The newspaper of Imperial College London
 Issue 131, 11 July 2003
International recognition for branding project«
A vision for the future«
Imperial 'double' in Queen's Birthday Honours«
Statistician elected Fellow of the British Academy«
The Dambusters!«
Helping Romanian farmers to make hay«
Green Design Challenge winners«
Wellcome to a new beginning«
Dr Olivia Judson's animal magic«
Academy of Medical Sciences Fellows«
Science of pulling togetherů«
Third IDEA League Sports Events 2003«
Farewell to Ann Shearer«
College Intranet launched«
Focus on volunteering«
Flying the flag for Imperial«
In Brief«
Media spotlight«

Dr Olivia Judson's animal magic

WHEREAS Dr Dolittle merely talked to animals, biological scientist Dr Olivia Judson has delved so deeply into their psyche that her findings have catapulted her into the bestsellers' list.

Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, published in Britain last month, transports the associate research fellow into the realms of concerned agony aunt for the animal kingdom.

They certainly need help if the questions are anything to go by. Wretched in the Wilderness, an Australian redback spider, demands to know why his partner refuses to eat him. (Pick your moment and wait until she's hungry.)

As for Too Much Heavy Breathing Near Malta, she's in a right pickle. The green spoon worm with an itchy nose, decided to sniff and inhaled her husband. (It's no use crying over snuffled husbands. He wanted to be snuffled and he's not coming back.) The male is 200,000 times smaller than the female and has sex with her by making himself at home inside her reproductive tract.

Quite how such a refreshing formula retains its scientific thoroughness, is a major coup for the 33-year-old. Writing The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex was like giving birth to an elephant, she says.

The book took four years to compile and write, drawing on others work and crediting them accordingly, hence the 63 page bibliography. Imperial's libraries and databases proved a godsend.

"It meant it wasn't just a gimmick but a serious project," she explains. "I wanted to write a book that could be understood by everybody, not just professional biologists. It also seemed a useful vehicle for making natural history vivid while posing important questions."

Just how important was reflected in its nomination to be shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

Last month's prize-giving included a short film by BBC4 featuring an actor who played Dr Tatiana, quizzed by animated animals including a queen bee and sage bush cricket.

"I felt very privileged. I was the youngest person in the room. If I'd have won, I'd have been a pioneer."

Exploding honey bees
The idea for the book came from an article written for the Economist which grew out of a three page special about the evolutionary biology of sex.

"The first draft was rather stiff. But I went to a party with some colleagues and was joking about the problem with the queen bee - that her mates explode - and someone said, imagine what it would be like to be a sex expert getting that sort of question. I rewrote the draft in the style of an advice column."

In 1998, the article won the Glaxo Wellcome British Science Writers Association Prize. "On announcing the winner, Sir Richard Sykes handed me the cheque for £2,500 and said: 'The sex advisor has it.'"

Olivia spent a year trying to find the right voice for her book. The original article wasn't substantial enough, was too heavy handed and overly technical. A better balance was needed.

In Dr Tatiana, she found a lighter prose. "When I first write something it sounds more like a text book. If readers aren't familiar with certain words, they trip and reading becomes a chore.

"I've written my way around technical terms as much as possible. I've constantly tried to make things clear without over-simplifying them."

Nothing is clearer than the sad plight of the queen bee. 'All my lovers leave their genitals inside me and then drop dead. Is this normal?' she asks, perplexed.

The answer? 'When a male honey bee reaches his climax, he explodes, his genitals ripped from his body with a loud snap...His mutilated member is intended as the honeybee version of a chasity belt'.

Science is very much in Olivia's blood. Her father, Horace Freeland Judson, wrote The Eighth Day of Creation, a history of molecular biology, and her brother is a microbiologist at MIT.

She considers anthropomorphism is often wrongly condemned - as well as being amusing, it can be a powerful aid to the imagination.

"When I took animal behaviour classes, I was told that anthropomorphism was a big no no. But when |I went to graduate school, I started reading more widely and saw that both Darwin and Bill Hamilton, my PhD supervisor, regularly put themselves in the places of organisms they were watching, gaining invaluable insights."

In America, the book has become a tool for postgraduate reading groups, while middle school teachers in Kansas city are using it to interest students in biology. The University of Arizona has included it in biology courses.

"People at different stages get something from it - for some, it's a springboard for discussion."

The book's success has guaranteed television coverage worldwide, as well as some David Bellamy moments. The Washington Post insisted she sit in a penguin enclosure where the more knowledgeable birds waddled over to peer inquisitively at the book over her shoulder.

Her future looks equally busy. She appeared on CNN on Valentine's Day although television and radio interviews make her nervous. "I turn into a gibbering wreck and remote TV is the worst - just you, a camera and a voice in your ear.

"Television amplifies movement, particularly eye movement. At one airport with CNN, there I was, looking totally insecure with demented eyes."

Meeting her in the flesh, she is witty, hilarious and fun. With a follow-up book on the horizon, she'd better start practising for more television appearances.

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