Susan Greenfield: After the science, the fiction

This professor doesn't do leisure. In between seeking a cure for Alzheimer's she's written a novel. It's bleak, she's anything but... Matthew Bell meets Susan Greenfield

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The Independent Online

So what makes a brain scientist write a novel? You don't hear of Hilary Mantel taking a few weeks off to cure Alzheimer's. But Baroness Susan Greenfield is the sort of breezy Oxford bright-spark for whom a novel is like a degree, or a dinner party: it's just what you do. She already has 30 honorary degrees and, at 62, is still in the laboratory every morning at 7.30. The professor never takes a holiday.

"Have you actually read it?" she smiles when we meet. Silly me – I thought I was asking the questions. Greenfield is a headmistress in a mini-skirt: part authoritarian, part rule-breaker. Followers of her research will know she is not afraid to cause alarm. A few years ago, she coined the term "mind change", to describe the effects of internet use on the brain. According to her findings, children's attention spans are being shortened and we are all becoming self-centred and addicted to instant gratification, because of Facebook and Twitter.

Reading her novel (in between checking status updates), you can't help feeling she has got it in for the internet. 2121 is a "terrifying dystopian novel" influenced by 1984 and Brave New World, which imagines a future in which humanity has been ruined by technology. It features two tribes, the decadent dissolutes, and the cold-headed Neo-Platonics, of which our hero, Fred, is one. It's a kind of logical extension of mind change, but is mind change actually happening?

"Most people, from school teachers and parents, agree with what I'm saying," she says. "The evidence is there. What I've done is pull together the science, and suggested there is a new phenomenon that has analogies with climate change, in terms of being unprecedented, controversial, and global. Mind change is value-free. It doesn't say it's good or bad. If you want to read something into that, that's your problem."

Crikey. Greenfield is combative on this because of years of attack from the Bad Science blogger Ben Goldacre. He dismisses her theory as reactionary scare-mongering, and says there's no evidence.

"There are 200 papers on this. It's a rather cheap and nasty barb to say there isn't any evidence," she retorts. "If he [Goldacre] wants to debate the science, I'm very happy to." She plans to publish a mind-change book next year outlining the evidence.

Meanwhile, the novel reveals a rather bleak outlook. In one passage, she describes the past (that is, now) thus: "There was no longer any meaning to life … the mindless, meaningless, endless quest for sensation was really taking hold …." Gloomy stuff, and yet, in person, Greenfield is all bright lipstick and smiles. And as we talk, she reveals herself to be astonishingly idealistic, a crusader for world happiness.

"I want a debate on what we want society to look like," she says. "If you give humanity complete health, and complete leisure, how are you going to spend the second 50 years of your life? Playing golf? What do we want people to do? To be? We've never asked this before."

Aren't we getting ahead of ourselves? We still haven't eradicated war or disease. "No we haven't, but I was imagining that we have. And that shouldn't stop us from deciding what kind of society we want." Greenfield doesn't like conventional activities, like cooking or gardening, and prefers to spend the weekends thinking. "I think I'm quite different. I don't count what I do as work. It's why I don't take holidays."

So, what does her ideal world look like? "I want people to have a strong sense of who they are. I want them to be fulfilled in what they do. Sadly, not everyone in society has that wonderful feeling – they have brain-numbing jobs. And I want people to feel they are useful. I think those three things are very important, and the one process essential to that is creativity." It's rather ambitious. "Of course it is! Is that wrong? That's why I wrote a novel, because clearly you can't write those kind of lofty vague thoughts in a science paper." But can we really have a world where six billion people are leading creative fulfilled lives? "Eventually."

Greenfield has never even been on Facebook. Shouldn't she try it just once? "No," she snaps. "I don't have to go bungee-jumping to have an opinion on it." Is she worried she might like it? "I've got other things to worry about, like curing Alzheimer's." She is a curious mixture of future-resistant yet forward-looking. She was the first woman president of the Royal Institution in London, and campaigns for more women to go into science. Her stint at the RI, the 200-year-old science foundation off Piccadilly, ended abruptly in 2010, when she was dismissed because of mounting debts. She had overseen a major refurbishment, and sued for sexual dis- crimination, but settled out of court. Today, she has no regrets. "One learns from experiences, but would I have done anything differently? No, no and no. I was very proud of what we achieved."

In her Oxford lab, she is working hard to find a cure for Alzheimer's. It's all the more impressive given she's not a conventional scientist. Her A-levels were in classics and maths, and her first degree at St Hilda's, Oxford was in philosophy and psychology. She only became a scientist because her tutor said "wouldn't it be a laugh?", so off she went to the physiology department. "Oxford at that time put a premium on enthusiasm and motivation as opposed to box-ticking," she says.

She thrived and, except for a couple of spells abroad, has lived in Oxford ever since. Doesn't she find academic life a bit, well, stifling? She quotes Kissinger: "University politics is so spiteful because the stakes are so low." She rises above it all. "If people are hostile or bitchy, it may be because they feel threatened, and I do try to understand that. But if they don't like you as a person, what can you do?"

She was married to an Oxford professor of Chemistry, Peter Atkins, but they divorced in 2005. When we talk about religion, she hints she has been more open to it since then. Her father was Jewish and her mother Christian, but both rejected religion and she was brought up in a "ruthlessly anti-religious environment – I wasn't even allowed to go to Girl Guides.

"My husband was a very extreme atheist, and after that I mixed with a wider range of people," she says. She has been on a retreat to Ampleforth Abbey, and even suggested going to Lourdes with a friend suffering from a brain tumour. Even so, she can't believe. "I feel I'm spiritually like an autistic person. I have great respect for people with faith. I feel they have a dimension to their lives that I can't buy in on. I'm the one who's deprived."

Home was a stimulating environment, with lots of debating, and she was an only child until 13, when a brother arrived, "which put me off having babies". Really? "Well, obviously he attracted all the attention. I mean I like children. But you don't wake up one day and say, right, today, I'm not going to have children. I've never really regretted it."

Some scientists would say the point of life is to reproduce. "That's rather sad," she frowns. "There's a biological imperative to reproduce. But what's wonderful about being human is this individuality. We're not goldfish or sticklebacks." All she wants, she says, is for everyone to revel in their individuality, and to be happy and fulfilled. Is that all! I chide her for her wild idealism, and later, she quotes Oscar Wilde. "All of us lie in the gutter, some of us look at the stars", she texts. It's rather touching that Susan Greenfield is trying to reach them.

Curriculum vitae

1950 Born 1 October, in Chiswick, west London. The daughter of a dancer and an electrician.

1968 After attending Godolphin and Latymer School, goes to St Hilda's College, Oxford to read philosophy and psychology, the first member of her family to go to university. Gets a first-class degree .

1977 Completes a PhD on the origins of acetylcholinesterase in cerebrospinal fluid. Goes on to become a professor of pharmacology at the university, and a fellow of Lincoln College.

1991 Marries Professor Peter Atkins, also a fellow of Lincoln College.

1998 Becomes director of the Royal Institution. Awarded the Michael Faraday Medal.

2001 Made Baroness Greenfield of Otmoor.

2003 Awarded the Légion d'Honneur for her research into Parklinson's and Alzheimer's disease.

2004 Publishes Tomorrow's People: How 21st-century technology is changing the way we think and feel.

2006 Made honorary Australian of the Year.

2010 Sacked from the Royal Institution over spiralling debt problems after an ambitious refurbishment programme. Sues for sexual discrimination and settles out of court.

2013 Three years after starting writing, publishes 2121, her first novel, set in a dystopian future.

Matthew Bell