Science inspired by fiction

A new series of short films reveals the often unexpected books that have inspired scientists at Cambridge.

June 8, 2015

"Novel Thoughts" is launched on 8 June with postdoctoral physicist Paul Coxon sharing his childhood love for the adventures of a boy inventor in Jan Wahl’s SOS Bobmobile.

Further films, to be released every Monday and Friday until 3 July, will show how fiction has reminded scientists of the richness of human experience, illuminated the individual stories behind scientific achievement or inspired them to to try change lives through science.

For Amy Milton, lecturer in experimental psychology, it was Hubert Selby’s Requiem for a Dream that spurred her to complete her PhD on cocaine addiction by giving her “a real insight into what it’s like for individuals living with addiction” and how it has “not always been taken seriously as a disease by psychiatry”.

Early career researcher Guy Pearson was struck by similarities between the young protagonist’s pursuit of the beautiful and flighty Fancy Day in Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree and his own pursuit of elusive molecular truths.

And Clare Bryant, professor of innate immunity, came across A. S. Byatt’s Possession at a pivotal moment in her life and career. Its page-turning portrayal of two historians racing to uncover hidden truths reminded her of the excitement of scientific discovery and persuaded her not to turn her back on research.

The "Novel Thoughts" series originally arose out of research by Sarah Dillon, now a lecturer in literature and film at Cambridge, when she was based at the University of St Andrews. Although much has been written about science’s influence on literature, she was keen to see if this applied in the opposite direction, with literature also making an impact on the world of science.

She therefore teamed up with social scientist Christine Knight, Wellcome Trust senior research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, and astronomer turned creative writer Pippa Goldschmidt for an investigation into “what scientists read”, which eventually led to the new films.

Scientists from across the world are being encouraged to tweet their own inspirational books using the hashtag #novelthoughts.

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