Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Fiction shines a light on the Universe

This year we invited a number of guest bloggers to write about the Book Festival, including Pippa Goldschmidt who is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers Team. Pippa caught up with science communicator and non-fiction author Stuart Clark before his event about his first novel The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth’

You were a professional astronomer for some time before you moved into science communication – why did you make that move?
I realised that I was more interested in the broad pictures of astronomy than in the nuts and bolts of doing research – debugging computer codes and arguing over marginal data held no appeal for me. So writing about astronomy provided a more natural fit.

There have always been two passions in my life: story telling and space. Story telling developed into writing, and my interest in space turned into a BSc and then a PhD in astrophysics. I self-funded my PhD by writing for science fiction magazines, reviewing films and interviewing actors and directors. I even wrote the video sleeves for Star Trek for five years – it was that job that largely funded my PhD. I was also asked to write my first astronomy book at that time, Stars and Atoms, an illustrated family encyclopaedia. However, I think my research allowed me to develop the critical eye that I use to get to the bottom of stories. And my interest in story telling allows me to present it in a hopefully accessible way.

And then you made another move – to fiction. How big a jump was that?
When I began writing The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth it didn’t feel like a big jump at all but looking back I realise it was a leap into the dark. Having said that, I’ve always written fiction. There are a couple of finished and half-finished science fiction novels lurking on my hard-drive and a detailed synopsis and sample chapters for a novel called The Stone Ocean about Mary Anning and her fossil discoveries. However, Tracy Chevalier beat me to that one with her wonderful Remarkable Creatures.

I’ve been a voracious reader of fiction all my life, starting with science fiction. Now I read widely across genres and the main stream, looking for stories that resonate. As for the writing itself, it is very different. You simply can’t ‘tell’ in fiction, you have to ‘show’. Journalism or non-fiction writing is more direct; you have to tell as clearly as you can. I’m not saying either is better. They suit different stories. I have a number of ideas for possible books that would have to be large-scale narrative non-fictions rather than fiction. But fiction is something I’m concentrating on at the moment. I’ve just completed the second volume of The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth and I’m looking forward to starting the third book in the autumn.

Your first novel is actually a fictional account of real historical events. Why did you decide to tackle this in a fictional format?
The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth came about when an editor mentioned to my agent that the history of astronomy was like the plot of a thriller. It had danger, power plays, rivalry, intrigue. We found this fascinating and perhaps a way to move popular science onward. So I began to think seriously about whether you could write convincing fiction based on breakthroughs in science. I wanted to stick to the facts as much as possible, flexing things only where necessary.

As I was researching the lives of Galileo, Newton and Einstein, which form the bedrock of the three parts of the trilogy, it became obvious that the stories were so dramatic the best way to write them was indeed as novels. I took inspiration from authors such as Philippa Gregory and Robert Harris who are both brilliant at this style of historical fiction. I figure that if the public enjoy stories about kings and queens, generals and soldiers, why not about scientists too? After all, they helped shape their times just as certainly as the rulers of the day.

Were you hoping to attract new audiences with this approach? People who might be put off by non-fiction science books?
Yes. Everything I do convinces me that many people are fascinated by science but that they perceive a barrier to understanding it. These novels show science not as a daunting edifice but as a personal endeavour, driven by individuals with belief and passion. I think that makes these stories something that most people can relate to.

I want to present Galileo, Newton and Einstein as real people, embedded in their times and cultures, and grappling with new thoughts that blossom into science and a new way to understand the universe around us. Don’t we all want to make some sort of sense of our lives in the time we’ve got? I’ve learnt so much about what science is and what it isn’t by writing these books that I hope others will do the same.

Do you think a fictional treatment adds to our understanding?
Yes, because it invites us to empathise with these scientists as fellow human beings. As we follow them through their stories we confront the same question that they do: what does it take to stick to a belief or a course of action, even though you are being pressured by the authorities to stop and your family are suffering because of it? 

The first book takes place as Europe is ripping itself to pieces in the aftermath of the Catholic-Protestant divide. Into this uncertainty, Galileo in Italy and Kepler in Germany bring new insights into Nature, new ways of understanding the Universe and mankind’s place within it. They hope for certainty in an increasingly uncertain world. The story is how they follow these personal convictions and the consequences for them and their families for doing so.

At the very core, these stories are about how do you believe? Do you need evidence or are their certain beliefs that require none? Evidence or faith? And I’m not just talking about science versus religion. All of us decide how much faith we place in individuals and beliefs, and how much evidence we need to be persuaded otherwise. The benefit of the doubt, the burden of proof – we’re obsessed with this tension of faith versus evidence. It’s one of the key balancing acts in every one of us, and there are no concrete solutions. It’s an individual’s choice, and so exploring it in a fictional setting is the best possible way to do it.

Thank you very much! I’m looking forward to the remaining books in the trilogy.

Originally from London Pippa used to be an astronomer. Now with an MLitt in creative writing from Glasgow University she has had several short stories published. Much of her writing is inspired by science and she is currently writing a novel about a female astronomer. Visit her website for more information.

'How do the cells know about the jungle?

This year we invited a number of guest bloggers to write about the Book Festival. Today’s post is Ken MacLeod who came to see Ian Stewart in conversation with Joan Bakewell. Ken is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team.

Joan Bakewell is a speaker who needs no introduction, and in this capacity she's been introducing and interviewing speakers on key ideas for the 21st Century. Yesterday's topic was numbers, and the speaker was Ian Stewart. She introduced him by saying that of all the topics in her series, she found mathematics the hardest to understand, but that Ian Stewart was the best person to explain it.

Professor Ian Stewart is one of the great science popularisers - and not just in his own field of mathematics. Some of his many books on science were written with Jack Cohen, reproductive biologist and oft-invited speaker at SF conventions. In recent years, the two have teamed up with the wildly popular fantasy author Terry Pratchett to write (so far) three books on 'The Science of Discworld', which cleverly exploit the contrast between the eponymous flat planet (which runs on the rules of magic and the caprice of gods) and our universe (which doesn't) to explain an astonishing range of serious scientific points ... including the ways in which magic does work in our world, through the human propensity for Story.

Stewart began by asking 'Why maths and biology?' Biology has after all traditionally been the science for people who want to do as little mathematics as possible. (That was certainly why I took Zoology. How I ended up with an MPhil in biomechanics is another story.) The only mathematics used in most biology is statistics. We do experiments, and then we test whether the results are statistically significant (i.e. that they're unlikely to be chance). Ian's new book, Mathematics of Life, is not about that. It looks at ways in which mathematics is informing the science itself, in fields such as understanding how proteins fold into the shapes that (largely) determine their function, how ecosystems hold together and whether diversity is indeed the key to stability, and even in considering the possibilities of life on other planets.

To illustrate, he picked two topics in current research: animal markings, and animal gaits. Both are about patterns, and patterns are what maths is very good at explaining. As far back as the 1950s, Alan Turing studied animal markings and worked with equations whose solutions (when shown graphically) looked very like animal markings. Cue diversion about Turing wandering about with a sheet of blotchy paper, telling his colleagues that 'this looks like a cow' and being patted on the back - 'Yes, Alan, that does look like a cow'. Anyway, modelling reaction and diffusion together produces patterns similar to most of those found in nature, and the equations generate interesting predictions - such as that on a small animal, the stripes will move, and it turns out that they do, very slowly.

Gait, likewise, can be patterned, and the structure of the arrangement of nerves that would have to fire to generate the various gaits can be predicted, and one can even predict gaits we don't often see - Stewart and a colleague in Texas suddenly realised that one anomalous pattern was being acted out before their very eyes, as they watched a bucking bronco at a rodeo.

Joan Bakewell then asked a few questions. Why are tiger stripes vertical, rather than horizontal? Well, said Ian, it's because the stripes are camouflage, and tigers live in jungles, and tree trunks are vertical. Yes, but, Bakewell asked - and this is a direct quote - 'How do the cells know about the jungle?' Ian Stewart then broke the news about the recently discovered principle of evolution by natural selection.

The second part of his talk ranged from the discovery of evolutionarily stable strategies that follow the paradoxical pattern of the 'rock, scissors, paper' game, to the contribution of mathematical modelling to showing the possibility of plate tectonics (and therefore, by a long chain of inference, life) on rocky planets much larger than Earth. An even more wide-ranging discussion followed, and we all trooped out into the sunshine and the Book Festival and its magical buzz of Story with some new stories running in our heads.

PS: The principle of evolution by natural selection is explained in a book by Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen, and Terry Pratchett: Darwin's Watch. Other popular introductions are available.

Born in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Ken has been a full time writer since 1997 authoring thirteen novels, including The Star Fraction (1995) and Intrusion (forthcoming, 2012), plus many articles and short stories. His novels and stories have received three BSFA awards and three Prometheus Awards, and several have been short-listed for the Clarke and Hugo Awards. In 2009 he was a Writer in Residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum. Learn more from Ken’s blog The Early Days of a Better Nation.