Philippa Thomas Online

Occasional thoughts about life, books and news.


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“No Need for Geniuses”. A rather surprising book about history and science.

I interviewed Steve Jones at the Write on Kew literary festival on Sunday. He is Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London and from the evidence of his books a very curious author.  

He’s written extensively on evolution and genetics – how did we come to be who we are? – and this book No Need For Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine  – sweeps through a series of fantastic stories about an extraordinary moment in history, a time and a place, revolutionary France, when a host of academic explorers made tremendous strides – across scientific fields from biology, chemistry and physics to astronomy, meteorology, and ologies I didn’t know existed (like metrology, which has literally changed our world).

When we think about Paris we often think about the arts. That is literally only half the story. As Jones put it, “The scientific landscape of the French capital is, without doubt, the richest in the world”. Continue reading


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The Warmth of Other Suns

I thought I knew the outlines of America’s racial history, from the battles of the civil war to the struggles for civil rights. I knew very little.  Isabel Wilkerson’s book helped me imagine the inside story, and absorb some astonishing details. 

It’s a great read about America’s 20th century “great migration”, the outflow of around six million black southerners over six decades.  It’s a vast “macro” book that’s anchored in three “micro” stories about Ida Mae, George and Pershing – ordinary characters who did the extraordinary thing of leaving everything they knew, risking punishment or worse, and heading north. Continue reading


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The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism?

This is my take on a fascinating article from John Bellamy Foster and Robert W McChesney, just published in Monthly Review. It argues that the internet should be treated as a public utility but is instead becoming the territory of capitalist robber barons, while the U.S. government is failing its citizens by standing aside. It’s quite rare to read a Marxist economic take on US communications policy, and I recommend the experience. We’ve just had a lively debate in our Kennedy School “2020 Vision” class about the assumptions made within this article; here are the points that stood out for me. Continue reading


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“Why the West Rules – for Now”

I just finished 620 densely written pages that propelled me through history from the Ice Age to the Atomic Age – filled with dramatic stories of war and sex and famine and migration and discovery – and suddenly realised that this is the best history book I have ever read.

Ian Morris began in the fields of ancient history & archeology. His book, published four months ago, reads like a life’s work. It aims to chart the entire course of human history “East and West”, tell us which trends matter, explain which factors had most impact and why, and extrapolate our probable future – or extinction – as a species. I’d be interested to hear any other readers’ thoughts on how he does it. Or what I should read next!

“Why the West Rules – for Now” is a book that made me think about why we need to study history, and why I want my little boy to enjoy it. If he grows up disconnected from the past, he’ll lack vital resources for shaping his future – and that of others. Especially now we feel as if we’re hurtling down the path of history thanks to the pace of technological advance – as if time itself is speeding up. My eight year old is going to get so much more out of life if he can adopt adaptation as a lifestyle. Continue reading