It was the best of space-time, it was the worst of space-time...

Scientists and novelists have joined forces to pen dramatic tales of discovery. Matthew Reisz writes

January 5, 2012

The great advances in science - the moments when the periodic table, mirror neurons or green fluorescent proteins were first discovered - are full of passion and drama. Yet they have largely been neglected in literature.

A new anthology, Litmus: Short Stories from Modern Science (Comma Press), brings together 17 fiction writers and 16 academic scientists in order to fill the gap.

One of the great myths in this area, explains editor Ra Page in his introduction, is the idea of "the isolated scientist having an iconic 'eureka moment'".

Most science is "intrinsically collective" and, in cases such as the discovery of nuclear fission, the result of "an ongoing to and fro of experimentation, dispute and rivalry across disciplinary, geographic or even political borders". All this is fertile territory for fiction.

In order to ensure that the project was led by scientists, Mr Page invited dozens of them to suggest turning points in scientific history that they saw as "important and still relevant". Established writers were then offered the chance to choose from a shortlist.

Provided the science was accurate, they were left free to do whatever they liked to turn the material into a powerful piece of fiction. The scientists contributed afterwords.

Sarah Hall chose the discovery of HIV in 1981 and used it as a backdrop for the story of an English doctor working in a South African clinic. "A relatively contemporary idea appealed to me", she said, "so I could frame the narrative within the lifetime of one junior doctor. I'm interested in the drama of HIV's spread across the world."

Her scientific adviser, James Higgerson, a PhD student at the University of Manchester, provided papers, articles and statistics in response to her questions, and checked the first draft for accuracy.

A rather less obvious topic for a short story was proposed by Robert Appleby, lecturer in the high-energy particle physics group at the University of Manchester: Hermann Minkowski's invention of the concept of space-time.

When author Stella Duffy decided to take this on, he recalled, they "got together for a long lunch. She was intimidated by the complexity and the mathematics, so we tried to find common ground. From that she constructed a story and turned it into a narrative that carried the spirit of our conversations."

Ms Duffy also found the collaborative process rewarding: "It helped me clarify what the story needed to be about. It added a whole other layer to my writing process and gave me an insight into someone else's working process."

Mr Page hopes that the anthology will help people understand better "the scientific progress that has really changed our lives". He added: "Writers are like sponges. The project gives them a whole new world of material to work with."

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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