T + 799 Writers' Toolkit Part Four

Posted by raetsel at Wednesday, November 24, 2010

After a nice buffet lunch and chat with a couple of other delegates, during which I managed to give away 4 of my business cards (246 to go ), I attended the ante-penultimate seminar session of the day.

Writing and Science

Many scientists have been excellent writers, both about their subject and in other genres. Arguably science needs good writers and writing is a way into science. Discuss…

Prof Chris McCabe: Professor of Molecular Endocrinology:University of Birmingham
Prof David Morley: poet, ecologist, Professor of Creative Writing: University of Warwick
Philip Monks (Chair): writer, Board Member: Writing West Midlands

David Morley began by putting the whole two cultures debate in a nut shell. Whilst at school he had a passion for poetry and the hummaties but was also good at science and his teacher said he would have to make a choice. So it was that after a degree in Biology he became a cold water ecologist obtaining his PhD whilst working at a research station on Lake Windemere.

After eight years working as a professional scientist, with the massive cuts to funding in the 80s, he was made redundant. He also found it hard to as he called it "get back on the fast moving train of science." He was working at the edge of knowledge in a subject so even a few months out of the loop put him at a disadvantage.

During this time he turned back to look again at poetry and writing ( not that they had ever been totally out of his life ) and won a Eric Gregory Award for some of his work.

He know runs a very successful set of creative writing courses for science and engineering students at Warwick University and it was to this mixture of science and creative writing that he spoke.

He quoted a couple of examples of where at its best science was a process of imagination (such as the work of Crick and Watson for the structure of DNA or Niels Bohr and the structure of the atom). Science had much in common with the practice of creative writing and poetry in particular. Both are concerned with the precision of observation and describing things in exactly the right and best way.

In opposition to the two cultures argument he quoted from Leonardo Da Vinci's Principles on the principles for the development of a complete mind:

"Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses- especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else."
David Morley also made the interesting point that at its best all writing is creative. It is the act of expressing thoughts and experiences in a way that has not been done before. Even something like reporting on this seminar session has that element of creation as I search for the right words to adequately describe what happened and my reactions to it. ( I like this definition not least because it salves my conscious as I write this blog instead of attending to my creative writing studies with the Open University).

Chris McCabe started by saying that he two was faced with a polar choice of the humanities or sciences and ended up doing a PhD about "what time fruit flies go to bed". Whilst working as a scientist in his words "he read a couple of crap books and thought. I could do that."

After the precision and prescription of scientific writing for his day job he took up writing anarchic comedies as a reaction and contrast to that. However his later fiction has been in the form of thrillers involving forensic science so he is drawing on his science background for them.

He expressed more of a contrast between the two disciplines than David had and said he enjoyed having a foot in both camps.

Both speakers made reference to the idea that scientists may often have artistic or humanities interests and there are perhaps lower barriers of entry for a scientist - who is in one sense only a scientist for 40 hours a week - into the arts than for an artist into the sciences. David Morley expressed the opinion that he knew many scientists who were "encultured" but the reverse was not often true for whatever reason.

In the open discussion the point was made that the Cheltenham Festivals were started by researchers at GCHQ and encompass arts and music. It was far less common for a group of writers to put on a science festival.

A particular bug bear of mine was also aired namely the almost pride with which some people may say they are no good at maths, computers technology etc. Whereas people might be more circumspect about expressing their illiteracy. ( Not that I think people should be ashamed of not being good at science and technology, far from it, but don't try to make a virtue of it either).

I made the broader point that it is not just an issue for writers but it goes to the whole problem of science education and the lack of basic scientific understanding in the population at large and this permeates through all aspects of life.

The role of popular science books was highlighted as an important area for bridging the gap and David Morley's courses for scientists may well go some way to helping more and more of them be able to write well and reach a larger audience.

This session was probably the one of the day where it felt like we had only scratched the surface of the issues involved before it was time to wrap up.

One thing I didn't get to mention was the portrayal of science and scientists in creative writing and entertainment culture in general. The stereotype of the mad scientist is all too common in popular culture and the scientific method horribly traduced. Oh and don't get me started on the portrayal of dedicated IT professionals in modern cinema.