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Science Book Club Episode 1

If you want to improve your chances of survival, you must explore.

It was my first attempt at a book, and it started out as being the story of the last 100 years and how we utterly transformed our expectations of survival. I mean, when you look at the start of the 20th century compared to now, the things that we expect, you know, just to be routinely survivable, it’s, you know, unrecognisable.  And so, most of it’s about that journey from the start of the 20th century when life expectancy languished around the sort of third or the fourth or fifth decade of life, and then all the way through to today where a child has a better than one in four chance, a child born today has a better than one in four chance of reaching the age of 100.  And, more than that, the diseases we’re expected to survive, the injuries we’re expected to survive, the way we’re expected to survive just in casual exploration – is different.  So that’s kind of how it started out. 

Now, along the way it became a slightly more personal thing, because it was, it became about this guilt I felt, I guess, about this double life that I led, you know, as a junior doctor on the one hand, and then getting on a plane at the end of a shift and going off to Houston to work with spacemen and have straight-faced conversations about going to Mars. So, really, the book combines those two elements. It combines, you know, the story of the 20th century – science, medicine and survival – and my own personal attempt to reconcile messing around with astronauts with the job of medicine.

I think my starting point in writing the book was not actually space, it was my career as a junior doctor, because when you’re a doctor working in a hospital, you are so focussed on the task, you’re so busy with the task in hand.  You look up and you reach for the next thing, and you hope it will work.  You’re not really thinking, you don’t have time, you don’t have the luxury of time to stop and stare.  You don’t sit there and say ‘I wonder where those scissors came from’ or ‘I wonder when we started using that chemical or that drug or that procedure’.  And so, for me, the start of it was all about stepping back and asking myself where did all this pretty miraculous stuff come from?  And what I learnt was that the way we advanced in medicine at the start of the 20th century was really, looks much more like an act of exploration than it does this sort of Blue Peter timeline of one great thing happened, then another great thing happened, then another great thing happened.  You know, there’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing.  There’s a lot of pioneers who are in some cases pretty arrogant-stroke-possibly unpleasant characters, you know, pushing into areas where no one can be certain it was the right thing, and then withdrawing when they got scared.  And it had a lot more parallels with exploration than I ever thought.

And so what I learnt in the writing of this book – or at least where I ended up – was this guilt that I always felt about medicine on the one hand, you know, this thing that was all about looking after people, versus exploration on the other.  I don’t think there’s any need to feel guilty.  I think that it’s all exploration.  And I genuinely, by the end, I came to the conclusion that, you know, it’s obvious that if you want to explore, you must continue to survive.  Obvious.  But the reverse is almost certainly also true, that if as a species you want to improve your survivorship, if you want to improve your chances of survival, you must explore.  And I don’t think I’d ever really understood or reconciled that before.  But I think that’s all we’ve ever done, you know.   It’s part of the human condition.  Exploration.

‘Extremes’ by Dr Kevin Fong

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