Science Book a Day Interviews Tom Jackson

Tom JacksonSpecial thanks to Tom Jackson for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Micro Monsters : Creatures That Live on Your Skin, in Your Hair, and in Your Home!

I spend my days finding fun ways of communicating all kinds of facts, new and old, to every age group and reading ability. I studied zoology at Bristol University and have had spells working at the zoos in Jersey and Surrey. I used to be something of a conservationist, which included planting trees in Somerset, surveying Vietnamese jungle and rescuing buffaloes from drought-ridden Zimbabwe. Writing jobs have also taken me to the Galápagos Islands, the Amazon rainforest, the coral reefs of Indonesia and the Sahara Desert. Nowadays, I can be found mainly in the attic. – From Tom’s Homepage

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#1 – How did you come to write this book?

I was approached by Amber Books to produce something about the unseen world. There is so much animal activity going on all around us, but it is either too small to see at all or is only really tangible when seen blown up big enough to see the details. It’s a simple idea but it came out well.

#2 – Can you tell us a bit about how these images were created?

They are scanning electron micrographs (SEMs). The samples are all dead, vacuum dried and frozen in time. They are then coated with a thin layer of gold or another highly conductive metal. The specimen is scanned with a beam of electrons which reflects in various ways into detectors which then process an image. This allows SEMs to produce detailed images with a large depth of field, but can’t magnify as much as other forms of electron microscope.

#3 – You spent months compiling the beautiful images in your book. How did you decide which photographs remain in the book?

The images came from a London-based agency called the Science Photo Library. From my point of view I wanted the images that could tell the stories I wanted to tell, so certain features needed to be visible in each one. The exact image used and how it was artworked was through discussions with the book designers and editors.

#4 – How have electron microscopes changed how we see the world?

The thing I liked about Micro Monsters was the micrographs allowed the reader to understand all these little animals in the same way they might view a whale or polar bear or something more familiar. If anything these beasts look even more awesome. In general, electron microscopes allow us to see objects that are smaller than the wavelengths of visible light—which is pretty tiny. We can see into cells and that revolutionised the way we understand how living things function. For example, it showed us that the cells in our body are really highly integrated teams of smaller bacteria-like cells that ganged together one or two billion years ago. The latest designs—the scanning tunnelling electron microscope—can image individual atoms!

#5 – Have you got a new book or project you can tell us about?

I’m currently involved in a series of science histories called 100 Ponderables. They are published around world by Shelter Harbor Press and Worth Press and tell the stories behind sciences through the people who discovered them. The fifth book on Philosophy is out next year, but we have already published:

Elements: An Illustrated History of the Periodic Table
Universe: An Illustrated History of Astronomy
Physics: An Illustrated History of the Foundations of Science
and Mathematics: An Illustrated History of Numbers.

There is also talk of doing a 3D TV programme based on the biology of the microscale world. Keep an eye out for that.

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