Cutting through the nonsense to get to the science

Luke O’Neill on his new book, Covid times, and taking inspiration from a Rubber Bandit

Over the past few months of chaos and change, a large proportion of our society has turned to science more than they ever have before, for clarity and, at times, for comfort. It has been really enjoyable to see the public actively engage in topics that otherwise would just be associated with those more directly involved in the world of science. Words such as vaccine, R number, and pandemic have become part of the average person’s daily vocabulary. Science communicators, like Luke O’Neill, have become beacons of light in times of despair- fizzling out any confusion over more complex concepts, and encouraging us to stay hopeful that the science will pull us through. 

It is safe to say that Prof. O’Neill has had a hectic but fascinating few months: being the face of communication for Covid-19, selling the company Inflazome, that he co-founded, for a staggering 380 million, and writing a book for good measure. 

“Never mind the b#ll*cks, here’s the Science” mosaics a variety of science topics that often find themselves at the centre of conversation, and therefore the centre of fake news: Why shouldn’t drugs be legal? Will we destroy the planet? Why shouldn’t you let people die if they want to? Why are you working in a bullshit job? 

I was thrilled to chat to O’Neill about the book, which he had been working on before the Covid-19 outbreak but altered to include some aspects more relevant to current times. When I first saw that Prof. O’Neill was bringing out a new book, I was immediately drawn to its front cover. The cover illustrations show an uncanny resemblance to the cover of the 1977 album ‘‘Never mind the bollox, here’s the sex pistols”.  O’Neill first makes his love for the band very clear, and then goes on to explain: “When that album came out, the UK was in bits. There were strikes, politics, endless politicians debating, and they kind of said look, never mind the bollox, we’re here, the sex pistols”. O’Neill likens the album release amidst the surrounding chaos in the late 1970s, to the release of this book, when we’re drowning in Covid talk and fake science news.  “I just thought, that’s exactly what the book is trying to capture”. 

The diversity of topics covered in the 317 pages is extremely unique. When asked about the part of the book he’s most proud of writing, he refers to Chapter 11 “Why are you working in a bullshit job”, and gives a brief overview of the main idea behind the chapter. “It’s all about the nature of work, and how 50% of jobs in the economy are bullshit, they don’t really do anything.” This chapter, he says, touches on the notion of fulfillment and is somewhat like a career guidance chapter, incorporating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  “The ultimate need is called self actualisation, which means you feel fully alive. Sportspeople get it, they call it ‘flow’. A goal of a career is to achieve that, we should all be living lives that are trying to achieve our full ambitions in some way, to give us full satisfaction, sadly in our society, so many people hate their jobs.”

“A chat between one of the world’s leading immunologists and a Rubber Bandit, as a source of inspiration for a science book, is hard to imagine.”

You can find inspiration in the most unexpected places, but a chat between one of the world’s leading immunologists and a Rubber Bandit, as a source of inspiration for a science book, is hard to imagine. Unlikely as it is, O’Neill found speaking with Blindboy on his podcast a great source of inspiration in driving him to finish the book.  

“To be honest talking to Blindboy in January, I had maybe 3 chapters left to write, I hadn’t finished it. That podcast really inspired me, it gave me that kind of a push, and I got it done in about 2 weeks. Blindboy was very helpful! He gave me the encouragement I needed.”  Doesn’t this just sound like two very unusual words colliding? If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend giving this episode of the podcast a listen, to hear Blindboy’s curious mind play around with outlandish science ideas, and then O’Neill putting some factual reasoning and explanations to them.  

With each chapter tackling a completely different topic, and each being very distinct from one another, people are going to relate to particular aspects of the book differently. “Speaking to Niall Breslin, he wanted to talk about the mental health based chapters. He was, like Blindboy, very interested in it. It resonates with people, people who happen to have a curious mind, that’s the idea I suppose”. So, for lack of a better phrase, there’s something in it for everyone!

The arrival of a vaccine: a glimmer of hope we’ve waited for for so long, has just crept over the horizon. The melting pot of opinions on vaccination is starting to bubble once more – as conversation turns to the prospect of it being available to the public in the coming months. Of course, I couldn’t pass the opportunity to bring up the v-word with a world-leading immunologist. On asking O’Neill about how the book covers vaccines,  he explains how he quite simply makes the case that vaccines are great, lays out the evidence, and allows the reader to make up their own mind.

“Vaccines are a massive benefit to humanity.”

“I’m a firm believer in liberalism, should we call it. If someone decides not to vaccinate their child, that’s their decision, they can choose to ignore the evidence,” says O’Neill. “They’re not known as anti-vaxers now, but as vaccine deniers, a bit like a holocaust denier. The evidence is so compelling that vaccines are a massive benefit to humanity, that if you decide not to vaccinate yourself or your child, you’re actually a vaccine denier because all of the evidence is there”. This chapter of the book could be a great starting point for someone feeling particularly anxious or unsure about the idea of vaccination, giving insight into the scientific basis of what vaccines are all about. 

Having completed his undergrad in Trinity, and being a member of the teaching staff for some time now, O’Neill is fairly accustomed to the norm of campus buzz and day to day of Trinity life. Although not the centre of his focus at the moment, he took the time to express his concern for students during these very tough and altered times. “We’re programmed, at that age to be making friends and getting your identity sorted, trying to figure out who the hell you are. That involves social activity for definite, we are a social species. Now it’s tough, because socialising is so limited, and so I’ve got great sympathy firstly and then secondly, you just gotta tough it.” He goes on to say that it’s very important to stay connected, and to look out for each other in these times: “It’s so important to keep an eye on the mental health issue. It’s easy to slip into a bit of a depressive state and feel down because you’re missing that social connection with your friends.” He ends with “we will get through this”.

As a premise for the book’s readers, O’Neill says that he hopes the book “helps, and informs you in your deliberations on these weighty matters”. From speaking to him, and giving the book a read, I think that’s very accurately put. “Never mind the b#ll*cks, here’s the Science”, enables us to do just that, laying out the basic scientific facts, without any room for them to be misconstrued, and allows the reader to mould their own opinions and stances on these topics. The book is a refreshingly filtered down version of topics we hear and talk about on the day-to-day.

Niamh Tiernan

Niamh Tiernan is the deputy SciTech Editor, and a Senior Sophister student of Zoology.