Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Art of Writing; Or the Science of Writing

'Stop it with all the damn metaphors'
Kirk to 'Bones' McCoy in irritated exasperation 
Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

Science writing has held a peculiar interest for me this week, given my Trekkie credentials. I've seen the new Star Trek movie twice and have contemplated buying the original 'Wrath of Khan' to compare the change in writing and production styles. However for the purposes of these notes, the quote above is the perfect introduction to the Birkbeck Science and Writing Symposium, 21 May 2013.

A universe of cheese and worms
A rare group of people – two poets, a playwright, an astronomer, a science/history/cultural academic, two actors and a cartoonist - were brought together not just to discuss the way they communicate their ideas but to actually demonstrate and showcase their skills. I’m not going to simply narrate what each person said but try to highlight themes. What I must say is, so often at academic symposia the emphasis is on the presentation of paper after paper with little or no presenter animation. No matter how interesting the topic, my eyes glaze over eventually but not here, not this time, we were off; starting with the Big Bang. Before I come on to the themes, I want to dwell a little on the poets and their poetry.

Anyone who has written poetry is aware of the painstaking care that goes into the selection of words, creation of sentences and the presentation of it on paper. Simon Barraclough is instantly 'get-able' with his ability to have words fall out of his subconscious. He is currently working on various projects; the first is penning a contribution to a collection of poems inspired by Light Show, the recent Hayward gallery exhibition, as well as his own Sun inspired collection. He entertained with his series of From Big Bang To Heat Death, my favourite being this one, because of the perfect combination of religion, science and cultural reference:
Our fusion
Which art in heaven
From evil 
However Rosie Sheppard is a different kind of poet. With her scientific background and a fascination with DNA she uses the everyday, such as food, as a way of conveying the complex patterns and processes of nature and science. Earlier I was rereading one of the poems she recited and her astonishing images conjured by words and situations are tightly structured in a way that is suggestive of the double helix. But only because she told me it was there. Which is like telling a person who likes flowers purely for their scent that behind all the pretty smell is a complicated list of chemicals and chemical reactions. Interesting but without the specialised knowledge, some of the clever stuff goes over my head.

The themes which predominated were roughly these:
  • Science fiction is the absolute favourite way of linking writing and science. From wildly speculative space travel to the sci-fi closer to home, as demonstrated by Nick Payne with ‘Constellation’, the enduring popularity of the incorporation of science into fiction will continue. Science provides a way into a story, writers can play with it, laugh at it, imagine all possibilities and explore what would otherwise be difficult topics. As Nick said, the cosmologists he spoke to rubbished his multiverse theory but he has none-the-less produced a wondrous ‘what if’ play about death. 
  • Rise in popular science and the use of accurate and clear summaries of contentious science to inform the public. Darryl Cunningham, cartoonist/graphic novelist has used the power of the image to blast bad science such as the MMR Scandal.
  • Scientists spend a lot of time writing, whether it is grant applications, reports or articles, communicating with the public, so a number of different styles are required. The Public Astronomer Marek Kukula emphasised the importance of getting precisely the right words, which was then immediately echoed by the poets. Another interesting linguistic point Marek made was the importance of foreign scientists working in English, for example, returning to home institutions and having to create new words in their own language to explain new concepts. 
  • A continuing collaboration between the writers of art and science. The more theoretical and exploratory areas of science are perhaps more aligned to the arts; financially speaking they may not have a direct payoff but it’s culturally vital to have that inspiration and ‘blue sky’ understanding of our infinitely complex world. Scientists are working on imagining unimaginably abstract ideas, multiverses, esoteric maths, string theory, god particles, black holes. Some writers use art to explain science and this scientific language in turn enriches art. Science provides new metaphors. As Laura Salisbury stated, this is a hybrid language, a juxtaposition of communications 'abraiding' with one another. 
  • An undeveloped theme was science as a new faith. For the majority of us, we live in a world in which we have to trust because we don't understand the science behind every-day objects. Laura Salisbury in her cool articulate way outlined the importance of cultural assumptions, drawing on the ideas of French sociologist of science anthropologist Bruno Latour. Interestingly he said that we only become truly modern when we separate the rational from the irrational/superstitious. Scientists and their theories are often found to be wrong and the conservative religious right suggest this is a flaw. But all theories and ideas are incomplete and the enquiring mind is happy to uncover layers of truth. 
  • Unrealistic expectation in medical science was also touched upon with examples of illness and resuscitation on television discussed. Marek says that there is no problem with fiction bending  scientific rules but when you're on a real operating table you want it right. This takes us back to the way that hard science is communicated and the style that the doctor, scientists selects when disseminating methods, procedures etc. No art or metaphor required there. 
  • There is a perception that science is dull because of the way it is taught in school and this raised some interesting points. Nick in his role as everyman said he had no clue what he was getting into with cosmology and multiverses but he spoke with people who did know. It was suggested that scientists are like dancers - they have learnt the basics and practiced and practiced - they use their knowledge, analytic thinking, and experience to put on their performance. School children are still learning; exercising at the barre, not yet ready to perform and what they need is ‘cool science’ to inspire. 
The evening generated plenty of interesting discussion, each one easily a separate essay topic. There was a final note of caution from Laura on the dangers of metaphor, not just as a Star Trek character devise, but that it may cause a blurring in the precision of scientific language. But despite this, the most important feeling to take away was the acknowledgement that science and art are actually of equal importance; certainly the language of each, informs and enriches the other.

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