Sylvia McLain was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her father designed nuclear reactors, something she didn't know until after he died. She has been a laboratory technician (genetics), raft guide and kayak instructor, a cleaning lady, fisheries field technician at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a bicycle mechanic, an English language instructor (Wuhan, China) and a high school teacher. Sylvia has an undergraduate degree in Zoology, a Master's in Education and a PhD in Chemistry. She is now the Principal Investigator of a research group in the Biochemistry Department, University of Oxford. She blogs at Occam's Typewriter.
Why do you blog? > I am never really sure. I was talked into it by a friend of mine who insisted I had something to say. Perhaps he just wanted me to be opinionated in a different venue other than his ear. I do like the interactions with people who read my blog - I am pleasantly surprised when they do. I think blogging is pretty powerful for sharing opinions and contacts with a number of interesting people I would never meet otherwise.
Who are your intellectual heroes? > My husband and his best mate, Mary Midgley, Stephen J. Gould and Dmitri Shostakovich.
What are you reading at the moment? > A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell, Science and the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead and The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud.
What is the best novel you've ever read? > One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.
What is your favourite poem? > 'somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond' by ee cummings.
Who is your favourite composer? > Bach.
What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to combat? > Replacing religion with science – people that replace a faith in god with a faith in science. Its not what science is about. Science, as presently defined, cannot be a belief system.
Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major and lasting influence on how you think about the world? > The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen J. Gould. This book consolidated my belief that many human-created hierarchies are either false – grading people by 'intelligence', a concept almost impossible to define – or relative: you may be the tallest kid on the block, but you are still only on the block. Leaders and hierarchies have their place, but they are not globally 'right' or indeed immutable.
Who are your political heroes? > Martin Luther King, Eleanor Roosevelt, William Pitt the Younger and King Christian X of Denmark.
What is your favourite piece of political wisdom? > 'It's the economy, stupid' - (Bill Clinton running against George H.W. Bush in 1992). If you fix the economy everything else usually follows - and Clinton did balance the budget.
If you could effect one major policy change in the governing of your country, what would it be? > To get rid of the extremely unpatriotic Patriot Act forever (US).
What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world? > Peak oil: when we run out of oil, we run out of a way to make fertilizer, never mind global warming and not being able to drive cars; half of the world will be set to starve.
Do you think the world (human civilization) has already passed its best point, or is that yet to come? > Who knows? It depends on who you are and what you do. Some eras were great for some and absolutely awful for others.
What would be your most important piece of advice about life? > To quote Mark Twain, 'Don't go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.'
Do you think you could ever be married to, or in a long-term relationship with, someone with radically different political views from your own? > No.
What do you consider the most important personal quality? > Humility (not false humility or insecurity but true humility).
What personal fault do you most dislike? > Unsubstantiated arrogance.
In what circumstances would you be willing to lie? > To protect someone or something precious.
Do you have any prejudices you're willing to acknowledge? > Fundamentalist and Born-Again Christians particularly bother me and I am biased against this group of folks sometimes quite unfairly – a product of growing up in the southern United States.
What is your favourite proverb? > If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop diggin'.
What commonly enjoyed activities do you regard as a waste of time? > Watching reality shows or 'talent' shows on TV. Having watched them once or twice myself I am convinced of this.
What, if anything, do you worry about? > Most things - my research, my job, money.
If you were to relive your life to this point, is there anything you'd do differently? > Yes 1000 things. Some big, some small.
What is your most treasured possession? > My engagement and wedding rings.
What would be your ideal choice of alternative profession or job? > A concert cellist.
Who is your favourite comedian or humorist? > Stewart Lee.
If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true, what would you wish for? > That I could live in a house that I own with my husband in the same city.
If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be? > Franklin D. Roosevelt, David Hume and Johnny Cash.
[A list of all the normblog profiles to date, and the links to them, can be found here.]