Such is the way of the online world, this isn't the first time I've asked questions of Dr. Brooke Magnanti. Back when she was still anonymous, I emailed her, admittedly out of panic because I was such a fan of her blog, to check that she was real that she wasn't "Zadie Smith or Toby Young" as PopBitch had alleged, and the fact that Brooke's was gracious enough to reply with a denial was good enough proof for me. A year later when The Guardian ran a Q&A I asked for her favourite blog and her suggestion was unexpected but perfectly judged.
How did you become a scientist?
I wanted to study physics at university - it's what my dad studied - but ended up in anthropology and mathematics instead. Later, I kind of stumbled into the world of cheminformatics through people I'd met working in a laser lab. The people in that field really inspired me to go back and get a PhD, which was in applying algorithms commonly used in chemiformatics to studies of forensic human remains. Not the most accessible field of study exactly (its adherents more or less begin and end with me), but loads of fun to do.
What was your inspiration for The Sex Myth?
After coming out as Belle in 2009, I suddenly found myself a target for a lot of people who were against sex work, pornography, and so on, as if I was personally responsible for these phenomena. Erm, I'm not. But it did seem like writing a book was possibly the best way to answer the critics.
I was also aware anything I wrote after Belle de Jour would be criticised by people more interested in analysing me than analysing my writing, so writing a book that would purposely be a big, fat target for that was the thing to do. Whatever I write next, if people are still hung up on the call girl thing, that's really their problem and not mine. Play the ball not the man as they say.
What was the trickiest element to achieve?
I knew a lot of the topics are controversial, and perhaps because of that you can't win arguments on numbers alone. Getting the balance right between evidence-based arguments and things that, I hope, will appeal even to doubtful readers was really difficult. I was very aware that the majority of people who pick up the book probably won't share many opinions with me to start with, and really wanted them not to be threatened by it all, but to show a different approach to 'won't somebody think of the children?'
Of everything you've done what have you been most pleased with?
A review of Jordan's second book for the Times back when I was still anonymous. It remains, in my opinion, the strongest worded and most succinct thing I've yet written. Basically it asks why it's okay to dislike Jordan based on her image, and indeed women in general who make different grooming and career decisions to the lady columnists of Fleet Street. I've not yet had a good answer to that, by the way.
Back in the Belle days, was it ever frustrating that you couldn't blog under your own name and did you ever consider running a parallel blog as your real self?
Well, there was my old blog Methylsalicylate and for a while a cheminformatics blog called Cosmas. But because those were more link-logs and topic orientated, perhaps that's not really a parallel. If I had been writing about the more personal stuff in my life under my real name there's no doubt people would have made the connection with Belle immediately. Some did anyway. Blogging was such a small world back then.
Who's your favourite scientist?
Of all time? A tie between Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. Of people working today? My mate James (he used to blog as The View From Here, for old school bloggers who know). He's very hardworking and has a vast range of knowledge not just in chemistry, and is also a really sound bloke. These aren't qualities likely to make him rich or famous but he really is everything I think a professional scientist should be.
What stops you from feeling listless?
Sport. When I was living in London and writing as Belle it was rowing, for some years it was running, most recently I've taken up powerlifting. Clears the decks both mentally and physically.
Dr. Brooke Magnanti's The Sex Myth is out now.