I rather help people understand existing scientific knowledge, than create new scientific knowledge myself.
Some students call me “people’s philosopher”; I must admit I like that phrase, and it describes what I am and do. In a fresh and accessible manner I try to show that science and philosophy can be understood – and done! – by almost everyone. I started my work by writing a children’s book about evolution, called Cheese and the Theory of Evolution. It was published in 2001, and won, among other prizes, the Golden Owl – the most prestigious award for Dutch juvenile literature. Since then over 100.000 copies are sold in numerous languages like German, Norwegian, Chinese, Italian, Korean. A free English translation is available here.
I am a philosopher with a Ph.D. in computer science, and professor in the Public Understanding of Science at Leiden University. I teach several courses: (i) bioethics – for bachelors in biology; (ii) scientific visualization and narration – about alternative ways to explain science; and (iii) on being a scientist – about the essence of science and scientific integrity. Moreover, I am the initiator and founder of the master program Media Technology, where students are encouraged to engage in small, unconventional research projects. And in 2016 I was awarded the “Clear Language Prize” for being the clearest and best understandable Dutch academic; something I am very proud of.
To summarize, I like the area where science and philosophy meet; I prefer to work in a playful and comprehensible manner; and I am interested in alternative forms besides text.
Still, writing is my favorite business, and since my first book I have written several more: Iron Will (2003), about artificial intelligence and the question if computers and robots can have free will (I think they can, even if they are completely deterministic machines). My third book – For a Successful Life (2007) – questions the concept of success, and makes a plea for an unsuccessful, but happy life. It more or less hypothesizes that our strive for success is a “meme” that is able to multiply itself, in contrast to the equally valid idea to live quietly. Thereafter I wrote Plastic Panda’s (2011), about the decay of nature. In this book I propose a rational and optimistic perspective on the loss of species and biodiversity. My last book, Why Milk is Cheaper than Coke (2017), addresses a field I was completely unfamiliar with: economics. It covers naïve questions like: Are we rich at the expense of poor people? Where does money come from? And what is the ultimate origin of interest? To answer the roughly 29 questions, I had to study economics. An interesting experience.
My current project is entitled Why Biodiversity Loss is not a Disaster. It’s an extensive essay that exactly claims what its title suggests, and it will be accompanied with a visual, interactive summary.