The birds,

the bees, and

the platypuses


Michael Gross:
The birds, the bees, and the platypuses
Crazy, sexy and cool stories from science.
Wiley-VCH May 2008 (EU);
J. Wiley & Sons July 2008 (US)
pp. 248 + xi, ISBN: 978-3-527-32287-9,
$37.50 , £ 18.99 , € 24.90

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Science is fun! In seven years as a hobby reporter, and almost eight as a full-time free-lance science writer, I have accumulated dozens of stories which I still remember fondly, because they were so much fun to write (and hopefully just as much fun to read). These are the stories that still tempt me to waste my time rereading them for the n-th time if I stumble across them in my archives. These are the stories that I have used and reused over the years, cited as examples or attached to my CV. These are the stories that -- in my eyes, at least -- demonstrate that science is a cultural activity just as rich and varied as literature and music, and just as rewarding.

What makes these stories stand out among the ~1000 others I have written over the years? I have identified three defining criteria, of which my favorite science stories may display one or more. Borrowing a title from TLC, I sorted them into a table with the headings crazy, sexy, and cool. Crazy stories include the weird, the unexpected, and the plain crazy stuff that scientists come across, and quite often discover to be actually useful. My favorite example of this kind are the wildly unorthodox antibodies found in camels and llamas, which have turned out extremely useful for biotechnology. There are also some stories of challenges so daunting that only crazy scientists would take them on. The genome sequence of our Neanderthal cousins springs to mind. Sexy stories are sometimes about sex (from attraction through to reproduction), but sometimes about other obsessions and characteristics of our race. Some of them just tell us what makes us human. Cool stories are mostly about cool inventions, devices, gizmos and gimmicks. Many of them were invented by scientists, but there are also a few that were invented by evolution.

For each of these stories, I have started from a manuscript I wrote for publication (in a magazine or newspaper), revised and/or expanded it, and added an introductory paragraph explaining what makes this particular story special. Where appropriate, I also attached an epilogue summarizing further developments. Within each of the three main sections, stories are arranged more or less chronologically, so one also gets a feel of how science has progressed in the years I’ve covered. At the bottom of each piece, the year of its first publication is given in brackets.

Many of these stories appeared originally in Chemistry World, the magazine of the Royal Society of Chemistry, or in its predecessor, Chemistry in Britain. A few articles from Nachrichten aus der Chemie (magazine of the German Chemical Society, GDCh), and Spektrum der Wissenschaft (German edition of Scientific American), however, were published in German only, so I’ve translated them for this book. A couple of old Spektrum pieces reached this book via reflection by the earlier books Life on the Edge, and Travels to the Nanoworld. So it’s all a big hall of mirrors, like the Y chromosome (page XXX).

Some of these stories have also appeared in Bioforum Europe, Bio-IT World, Current Biology, The Guardian, New Scientist, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Chemie in unserer Zeit. I am grateful to all the editors who have commissioned my work over the years. Some of them developed the ability to read my mind, which can speed up the process and make life easier for me. But even when they ask challenging or really silly questions they help me to share my excitement with the readers.

Fifteen years are an extremely long time in scientific research, as I realized when editing the stories from the 1990s, some of which already had a somewhat historic, pre-genomic feel to them. Some of the things that I found exciting back then (and still do) appear to have fallen from fashion, while others have blossomed spectacularly. Some of the researchers involved have now got a Nobel prize to their name, others appear to have disappeared from the radar. Such is life, even in science.

Above all, however, I am hoping to convey the impression that science in the last decade and a half was never boring, and that with every new answer that researchers work out, a host of new, even more exciting questions are likely to pop up, providing an endless supply of crazy, sexy and cool findings.



Order The birds, the bees, and the platypuses from:



A German version is due to appear in September 2009:

Der Kuss des Schnabeltiers
und 60 weitere irrwitzige Geschichten aus Natur und Wissenschaft.
Wiley-VCH September 2009 (EU);
pp. 278 + xi, ISBN-13: 978-3527-32490-3,
€ 24.90

available to pre-order from

All other translation rights still available. (contact)

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