Blog post

A Sticky Situation


2.5 years ago, I sat down at my desk to write a blog post. In it, I told you, my lovely readers, that I’d signed a contract to write my second book – Sticky: The untold story of the forces that built civilisation. Reading the post back now, my excitement and disbelief are palpable!

Since then, I’ve hardly mentioned it on the blog at all. That hasn’t been intentional – if you know me ‘in real life’, or if we’re connected on social media, you’re probably sick of hearing me talk about all things Sticky. But, on here, it’s been almost entirely absent. So, I thought I’d give you all an update, mainly by answering the questions I’ve been asked most often in the past year. If you have any others to add to the list, please feel free to comment below, or message me on Twitter – if I can answer them, I will 

** Q1: What’s it about? **
Sticky is a book about surfaces, and the importance and implications of the interactions between them. That sounds…niche, I know, but as I see it, the science that happens on – and between – surfaces is the most fascinating science of all. Not only is it full of weird quirks and mysteries; it also forms the basis of countless products and vital technologies. Their ability to manipulate surface forces have given many species of flora and fauna an evolutionary leg-up…. We might think we know it all, but on interfaces, humans are actually playing catch-up!

At its heart, Sticky is a materials book, but it touches on everything from Olympic sports to the ecology of rainforests, so I hope it’ll offer something for everyone. The science is a bit trickier than it was in SATC, and there’ll be a few equations thrown in for good measure. But I’m staying true to my natural style – I want to be your friendly science guide, rather than the professor at the front of the room. Also, I’ve been interviewing some truly incredible people for this book. I can’t wait to introduce you to them.

** Q2: What will it cover? **
In my last post, I gave you ten chapter titles and descriptions as they appeared in the proposal. This has changed a lot, and to be frank, I’m still working on the details. This – I am assured – is completely normal, and that no published book has ever matched the proposal entirely, so I’m trying not to worry too much. There are a couple of things I’m certain of, though.

* The first is that I’d rather cover fewer topics in more detail, than try (and fail) to cover absolutely everything on my “Oooh that’s interesting!” list. This is in major contrast to SATC, which took abroad-but-ultimately-shallow approach. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I just want to try to produce something richer with Sticky. That will naturally mean that I’ll have to leave things out. This book won’t be a comprehensive look at everything sticky or slippery. It will instead pick the best possible (in my opinion) examples, and tell you all there is to know about it. So, in my proposal, Chapter 2 was going to include lots of different animals. It is now about just one. But it’s a reeeaaaallly good one.

* Secondly, I want to talk about people. I think my gaze is naturally drawn to ‘the thing’ – the theory, device, equation, challenge, installation, equipment…. So even though I’m a vocal champion of the people behind science, all too often my stories have focused on the thing. Quotes from researchers have been there merely to support that, rather than to act the driving force in the narrative. I’d like to change that in Sticky.

With all that said, here’s an updated (and very minimal) table of contents, which includes my working titles – these will change before the book comes out. I’ve also included a few details on each chapter, to hopefully whet your appetites.

1. Stick
This chapter will look at the science of ‘obviously’ sticky products – think superglue, paint and printer inks, and you’ll be on the right track.
2. Climb
The superstar of this chapter is the gecko. You’ll learn all about the atomic forces that this incredible lizard taps into, and meet the engineers developing hardware inspired by it.
3. Flight
Here we’ll talk about aerodynamics – from how to break the sound barrier to perfecting the curl of a cricket ball.
4. Wet
In this chapter we’ll uncover the pseudoscience of slippery swimwear, talk about sharks, and meet a boat that both sails and flies
5. Grip
We’ll explore the forces that hold cars on the road, meet the materials that keep machines moving, and journey into a Formula One team garage.
6. Slip
This chapter will uncover a ‘scientific spat’ in the world of curling, learn the secret of speed skaters, and finally have an answer to the question, “why is ice slippery?”
7. Crunch
Here we will look at surface interactions on a geological scale, and find out what earthquakes have to do with toothpaste.
8. Touch
Tactile technologies are everywhere. This chapter will explore their history and potential future, and figure out what it really means to ‘touch’ something
9. Cure *
Materials science has long shaped medicine, and our understanding of interfaces has led to life-saving technologies – implants, wound dressings, and drug delivery (* this chapter may not make it into the final book)
10. Shrink
In this chapter, we’ll peer into a fundamental mystery – what actually is friction? As our devices continue to shrink, answering this question will become ever more important.

** Q3: When will it be published? **
This is where the bad news begins. In the first post I said that Sticky “…will hit shelves in late 2019 / early 2020”. Given that it’s now December 2019, and I haven’t been promoting the shit out of it, you can probably guess that this is no longer the case.

Due to various factors – see next section – the current deadline for my first draft is December 2020. Going from a first draft to a final manuscript is an incredibly slow process, so realistically, if I hit the first deadline (and it’s a big ‘if’), Sticky will appear on shelves in late2021; perhaps in September or October.

I’m sorry if this is later that you’d like. It’s later than I wanted it to be too!

** Q4: Why is it so delayed? **
Ah, the ultimate difficult question! There are lots of reasons.

For a start, six months before Bloomsbury gave me the thumbs-up, Rich and I had moved to NZ. I foolishly thought that the move wouldn’t take a fidge out of me. I had this idea that I’d immediately settle in, find work, make friends, and fly through the book-research. This was not the case. The first year in NZ was actually really tough, socially and professionally. I missed my friends and family, and had to start looking for freelance opportunities in a place I didn’t know. Thankfully my personal life was – and is – in a very happy state  but starting from scratch was HARD. Sticky was way down my priority list.

At the same time, reviews from SATC started to come in from all over the world, and carried on, both formally and informally, well into 2018. Most of them were lovely, and as expected, many were not. That’s just how it is, and I’m absolutely fine with that. Something I’m not fine with is receiving horrible, abusive emails from random men (yes, they were always men) questioning my qualifications, and insulting me. I deleted all the emails, but the whole thing still sucked, and it really knocked my confidence. I decided to share the experience on Twitter. I’m happy I did 

Then there’s the ‘life logistics’ stuff. Some of it is lovely and exciting – e.g. in 2018, we got married and bought a house. Organising those things take time! The other stuff is way duller. Being self-employed means always chasing work, and not having a salary means that anytime I’m not working, I’m not earning any money. And while I have zero interest in being rich, I do actually enjoy being able to pay my bills. Paid work has to take priority over the book….but that’s been happening a bit too often. I hope to change that.

And finally, the topic is ENORMOUS, and I’m not an expert on any of it. So that means reading tonnes of papers, and interviewing many more scientists than will make it into the book. At times, it’s incredibly exciting. At other times, it’s a slog. And because I am a giant nerd, I keep getting pulled down tangents and uncovering various mysteries  Deciding on which story to tell and how to tell it (see my response to Q2) takes a lot of thought and experimentation.

** Q5: How is it going? **
This question is almost always asked by the loveliest, most well-intentioned, kindest, friendliest people. But on bad days it strikes like a dagger to the heart.

If I’d written this post six months ago, my answer would have been ‘it’s a disaster and I am hating every minute of it’. But right now, I’m feeling more positive about the whole thing – daunted and anxious, yes, but also determined. Jim and Anna at Bloomsbury have been wonderful throughout all this, and I don’t plan to let them down.

However, work-wise, I have a mountain to climb. I’ve only written a third of the book (about 26,000 words). At the moment, the Dec 2020 deadline seems….possible. But I’ll know better in a few months. I do have a plan for the year ahead, but I’m aware it might be too ambitious. I also need to fit paid work around all of this, which is a never-ending challenge. But you can be sure I’ll do my absolute best to make it happen.

I WANT to write this book. I want to share Sticky with the world. But it will take time. I hope you can be patient with me