It is time for number four of our series of interviews with shortlisted Young Peoples Book Prize authors. This time we asked Clive Glifford, author of “Eye benders: the science of seeing and believing” all about his book, background and favourite benders.
Yes, I’ve always wondered how things worked, and not just machines, but how our bodies and brains manage to do dozens of things pretty well all at the same time and how we are standing on a planet that is both spinning round at up to 1,600km/h whilst the whole rocky ball hurtles on its orbit round the Sun at over 100,000km/h. If you’re even a tiny bit curious about the world and how it works, you’ve got to be interested in science as it’s trying to explain all this and more.
But I wasn’t great at science at middle school. Far from it. Science wasn’t taught in as fun ways as it is today and many of the science lessons I had were dull and dreary. Imagine having to learn every bone in the body or the entire periodic table of chemical elements off by heart. Zzzzzz.
Mind you, I wasn’t the best science student and still feel pretty bad about the time I made a smiley face out of the guts of a fish we’d been dissecting and placed it inside the cover of Suzanne Leeson’s exercise book. Horrid!
It was making balloon rockets with my Uncle Bert and listening to him explain gravity in simple terms that really got me interested in science. He explained it in ways I understood and followed it up with lots of biology and chemistry experiments which got me hooked. I’ve been fascinated ever since.
When did you write your first science book?
Well, my first ever book was about early home computers and was published a couple of weeks after my 17th birthday which was…gulp…just over 30 years ago! I guess my first ‘proper’ science book was Essential Chemistry which I wrote for Usborne Publishing back in 1991. It was designed to help students pass their chemistry exams. I really enjoyed getting to grips with how chemicals react and combine and learned an awful lot from researching and writing the book. My first book on biology was far less serious as it showed the body in different layers and even came with a squishy eyeball you could press and squeeze.
“Why did you write this book?” – Lockerbie Book Group, Lockerbie
Thanks for your question. I was lucky enough to visit Lockerbie a couple of years ago in the autumn – it’s beautiful but I left battered and bruised after taking a big nose dive at the ice rink! I think we all forget how astonishing our brains are. To think that a cauliflower-sized lump of stuff that feels like tofu controls all the thousands of actions you perform and things that you think every day is mind-blowing. I am interested in how illusions show how much of what we think we see isn’t the work of our eyes, but the processing power of our brains. Illusions give us clues about how our brains work, how it makes lots of best guesses about what it thinks its seeing and how it sometimes gets it wrong. There are lots of books which just show illusions without any explanation. I wanted to try and describe how and why they happen and what they reveal about your brain and what it is up to.
“Hi Clive, really lovely book. I cannot detect some of the illusions even though I try for ages. Should they all work for everyone, or do your eyes have to work a certain way for some to be ‘seen’?” – Holyrood Panel, Chard
Thanks very much. It’s lovely to get positive comments. I’m sorry that you cannot spot all of the illusions, but please don’t worry about your eyes. Everyone’s eyes and brains are different so not all illusions work the same for everyone. It shows how we are all different on the inside as well as the outside and is actually an area that top neuroscientists are investigating heavily at the moment, using illusions that not everyone can detect to figure out how our brains work.
Which is your favourite illusion?
Oh, good question. This changes quite often. I started out when writing the book absolutely loving the turning cylinders illusion on page 19, then I got obsessed by subjective contour illusions (page 46 and 47) where our brains fill in the gaps and recognise patterns in pictures it views that are simply not there. After the book was written, I really turned to the simple illusions that make your brain think straight lines are curved or that one line is longer than another when they’re both the same.
But now, months after the book has gone on sale, my favourite, nailed-on number one illusion is the James Gurney colour cube where two squares which seem to be of quite different colours are precisely the same shade. It still astonishes me every time I look at it.
How did your partnership with Professor Seth come about?
We have the publishers of the book, Ivy Kids, to thank for that. They knew all about Dr Seth as he works at the University of Sussex near to where they are based and is a top, top neuroscientist. He’s a director of a major UK centre for brain science and has written more scientific papers than I’ve had hot dinners. I had read his really interesting articles in The Guardian, so, I was mega-excited that I got the chance to work with him. He’s a really friendly guy, loves surfing as well as all things about brains, and was very helpful.
Was it challenging to make the book accurate as well as accessible and fun?
Yes, it was a challenge in two ways. What we know about the brain is changing with new breakthroughs being made all the time so you had to try and keep on top of all the research and there’s an awful lot! Sometimes, I’d think I knew what was going on with an illusion only to find the explanation was quite different. It was also sometimes hard to boil down all the complex events happening when you view an illusion into short blocks of clear and (hopefully) entertaining text. I hope I did a reasonable job as I really wanted the book to interest and excite people.
“Did you have fun writing this book of fantastic illusions?” – Charlie and Joshua, Benfield Judges, Newcastle upon Tyne
Hi there, Charlie and Joshua as well as anyone else wondering the same thing. I have to say I had a HUGE amount of fun researching and writing this book. Some days, it felt more like going to a funfair or theme park than the office. I got to look at hundreds of different amazing illusions, try out some really fun experiments and chat with a number of super-intelligent scientists and doctors. I ended up both having fun and learning lots and lots of really interesting stuff – it’s why I wanted to become a writer in the first place.
The winner of this Prize is chosen by groups of young people in panels all around the UK. Is there anything you would like to say to them?
Yes…I’d like to say a massive THANK YOU for being on the judging panels. The Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize is a big, big deal for us authors (I’ve barely stopped smiling since I learnt Eye Benders was selected) because it’s decided on by the very people who we hope will read our books – you!
I hope you enjoyed my book and it gets you thinking about how you view the world. I do think that all the books selected this year are great so I hope you had a really good time looking through all of them and look forward to seeing some of you at the big bash in Newcastle in November.