Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Science of Ideas - Lucy Coats

I am an ignoramus as far as science is concerned.  I freely confess it.  My education consisted of Biology (to O-Level only), and given the fact that we had a maiden lady as teacher who had to call in another member of staff to teach us basic human reproduction, it is surprising that I know anything about biology at all.  My all-girls school didn't teach physics or chemistry.  In that particular place, it wasn't seen as necessary to educate females in those sorts of things.  I've felt cross about it ever since - and rather ashamed at the scientific lacunae in my brain. 

Why should I care?  My particular sort of work as a writer means I don't really need physics or chemistry - they don't often crop up in mythology or fantasy novels. I guess it's because lately I've begun to find the whole physics thing fascinating, and I know I'm missing stuff.  I also (strangely enough) find it incredibly stimulating to my imagination. Take the recent BBC2 Horizon special: The Hunt for Higgs.  Among other things, there was a lot of talk about matter and anti-matter, and how they shouldn't exist in the same space.  Right away, my 'writing' brain clicked into life.  Perhaps they don't, I thought.  Perhaps they exist in the same space, but a different timeframe, a nanosecond apart. (Scientists, please note, the Nobel Prize is mine - unless someone's already come up with that one! *joke*) I've found lots of other examples too, where my brain goes off exploring possibilities.

What I particularly like about the more arcane sort of physics and science I heard discussed both on that programme, and on Stephen Hawking's Brave New World (C4) is that it is partly about imagining the unimaginable.  There's a lot of 'what if' about it all - and surely, as writers, that's what we do too?  I wouldn't dream of imposing my own 'what if' ideas on a scientist, but maybe there is a case for someone like me, with no pre-conceived notions, having a place in a lab experiment. I'd love to get a small group of open-minded writers and physics scientists together for a discussion and see what happened! 

For me, it's nice to embark on a new intellectual challenge midway through my life, and I'm thankful to have a fellow ABBA author (Anne Rooney, who is MUCH cleverer than me) to guide my first faltering footsteps along the path with her wonderful Story of Physics.  I'll leave you with the following serendipitous link between science and literature. Quarks, particles discovered in the last half of the twentieth century, are named after a passage in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. I find that very encouraging. Perhaps we're not so far apart after all!


JO said...

Good for you, chasing physics thoughts. It's never too late to catch up on things we missed out on at school. (Hopefully no school would dare not teach science to girls - so at least we've made some progress!)

Lucy Coats said...

True, Jo, but I feel I have a considerable personal mountain to climb before I catch up to today's kids!

Sue Purkiss said...

I've had - am having - a very similar experience, Lucy. There are some great science programmes on TV at the moment. And I too have earmarked Anne Rooney's book to help me catch up!

Savita Kalhan said...

I went to a girls' school too, but science lessons were firmly on the agenda there. It was with me that the problem lay! I think I'm more interested in science now than I was at school, so I too will be looking to Anne's book to guide the way!

Dan Holloway said...

I never pursued science at school (Physics O level was my only nod of the hat) but I've been fascinated by it since being enthralled by Carl Sagan's Cosmos as a child (there's something to note, there, in the way that the subjects were taught so as to make the fascinating dull). A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of putting together an anthology opf short stories and poems inspired by the quest for the Higgs Boson - science is definitely something that can inspire the arts - I think that was the thing that stayed with me most from Cosmos. My wife and I watched it again a couple of months ago on DVD and it was equally inspiring as it was 30+ years ago

Emma Barnes said...

Enjoyed your post, Lucy, and hope your new interest takes you on all kinds of new imaginative adventures!

I've always felt it was a shame - the yawning gulf between science and literature! My first book os about a girl, Jessica Haggerthwaite, who is determined to become a famous scientist one day, and finds all things scientific fascinating. After I wrote it, I realised how few such characters there are in children's fiction. Or books with scientific themes - in my book, Jessica conducts a scientific experiment, and the result is crucial to the culmination of the plot.

As a child, reading historical fiction was vital in sparking an interest which later led to me reading history at university. Surely there should be "scientific" fiction (not always the same as "science fiction") to do the same thing? But can anybody think of examples?

Book Maven said...

There is no apostrophe in Finnegans, Lucy! I am reading The Story of Physics too and hope to become less ignorant as a result.

Mine was an all girls school but there were science lessons. What spoilt it was the choices: Chemistry/History/Art so gave up Chem after one year. And never had a Physics lesson.

alberta ross said...

me to I think we did a sheeps eye once - seem to remember - def back in late 50s no science for moi - fascinated in it for decades and when I watch brian cox talk about the hibbs and the stars,you know for a moment I think I do half understand it - magic all around us - going to try that book - and The New Scientist good mag full of inspiration for writing

Lynda Waterhouse said...

When I was at school I wanted to to study A level Biology as well as History and English but this was not option -you had to be arts or sciences!At the last CWIG conference in Cambridge I arrived early and attended a superb science lecture which was about how science influences art.It made a huge impression on me. I am just about to read Bernd Brunner's book Moon- A Brief History

Lucy Coats said...

Goodness, what a lot of lovely comments - thank you all.
Dan - what's your anthology called? Would love to read it. I'd forgotten about Carl Sagan...the Brian Cox of his day.
Emma - you might like Tania Herschmann's collection of short stories 'The White Road and other stories', which are science-based.
Book Maven - consider my knuckles severely rapped. I knew that perfectly well. *goes off to correct rogue apostrophe*

Nicola Morgan said...

Lucy, at my girls' school we did do phys and chem but I was useless. I was deemed useless at all science and am proud of my final science report: "Nicola shows no aptitude for science subjects." I then went on to devour books about all the sciences and ended up writing two books on the brain, which is, methinks, two more than my science teachers ever did! Pfffthptfffpth.

I'm even interested in Maths now. Even though I can't "do" it. I recommend Ian Stewart's books.

Stroppy Author said...

Ooh, lots of people are reading my book! *smile* - I hope you all find it interesting. Thank you, Lucy!

Lucy, as for Finnegan[']s Wake, it's probably the Waterstone's apostrophe - it's looking for a new job, the poor thing.

Lynda - me too! I was told I had to to do three arts or three sciences, but I wanted to do English, Biology and Maths. So I did three sciences AND English. They told me no decent university would take me, and it's true that I got a lot of rejections. But it paid off in the end.

Emma, I am today putting finishing touches to a story that revolves around science - prions, to be exact. So there are some. But I have had a couple of battles with an editor who wanted some of the science taken out so as not to intimidate kids who aren't keen on science. No suggestion that the science in a story might inspire them to *be* interested in science. It's an uphill struggle to get it taken seriously and accepted in art. Not helped by the large number of people who seem to be proud of not knowing any science!

Dan Holloway said...

Yes, agree with Nicola about Ian Stewart. The other great name from my childhood was Richard Feynmann.

Lucy, the anthology is available for free download from http://yearzerowriters.wordpress.com/2010/04/24/the-higgs-boson-anthology-yours-to-keep-and-share/
It was released the day the Large Hadron Collider first fired up. The brief was very simple - write something inspired by the Higgs Boson. The result is a diverse and rather extraordinary mix with contributions from people I'm sure you know like Alison Wells, Marc Nash and Lev Parikian to some of the best writers of alternative science fiction like Marc Horne and Daisy Anne Gree's devastating piece of slacker apocalypse "The Protracted Series of Mildly Humiliating Events That Lead to the End of the World"