We met, talked and then whoosh!

October 21, 2005

A new service links researchers with authors who want real science in their fiction. Anna Fazackerley tagged along on a 'blind date' to see the results

When she began her first novel about the "adventure story" behind the development of the atomic bomb, Clare George avoided delving too deeply into the complicated science. But her agent had other ideas.

"She said, 'If I've read a whole book on splitting the atom, I want to be able to talk about it and impress people at dinner parties!'" Clare recalls.

For her latest book, Clare has again turned to science for inspiration - which is why she is wandering through the atrium of the British Museum on a wet Thursday morning trying to spot a scientist she has never met before.

The "date" has been set up by SciTalk, a networking website that aims to introduce scientists to novelists, playwrights and poets. Writers can e-mail questions to any of the 60 scientists who have registered on the site. If a writer and a researcher like the sound of each other, they arrange to meet.

Clare has come to the museum with a long list of questions, and she hopes that Jonathan Cole will be able to answer them in a way she will understand.

At a table in the museum's restaurant with only a bottle of sparkling water to break the ice, the pair are a bit awkward at first.

"Broadly speaking, the book is about the way that people relate to each other," Clare explains to Jonathan. "One of the characters has lost the muscle control in his face, and that will heighten the way everyone behaves. I'm trying to get the pathology - or whatever you call it - right."

This is an area Jonathan knows a lot about. As well as his experience of neurological patients, he has a friend who has no sensation of movement in his face as the result of an infection. The conversation gathers pace, and Clare begins to wave her hands animatedly as she discusses her novel.

After they go over possible illnesses for her character, Jonathan concludes that what she is looking for is "bilateral Bell's palsy".

Clare scribbles eagerly, frequently interrupting to check medical spellings. "If it's quite rare, that's absolutely fine. That's very nice from a dramatic point of view."

After half an hour, Jonathan is starting to assist Clare in drafting the narrative. "Hopefully, when he is discharged from hospital, he might see a physiotherapist. Hopefully, he'll find one who's helpful."

To judge by the body language, things are going well. The two are leaning across the table, and both wave their hands as they talk.

Clare wants her character to have trouble opening his eyes in the morning, but Jonathan steers her in a different direction. "The problem with Bell's palsy is that sometimes you cannot close your eyes and they have to be taped down at night," he says.

Medicine often overlooks the social impact of such symptoms, Jonathan states. "Not being able to control salivating, blinking, talking - these are big things to deal with," he says.

Clare gets excited. "Yes, yes! I am really interested in this. For a man who hasn't been ill before, this would mean real courage."

Jonathan corrects her: "People with neurological disorders tend to say 'courage' is a label put on them by others. They are just getting on with things."

But the novelist remains enthusiastic. After an hour's discussion - which strays even into the theories of Wittgenstein and Hobson - Jonathan picks up his briefcase to dash off to a scientific meeting, taking with him ideas to follow up as "homework".

"This has set me off," Clare tells him happily. "You get an idea and - whoosh!"


Strangers from different worlds

The Novelist

Name: Clare George

Profession: Writer. She has published two books, The Cloud Chamber and The Evangelist.

Background: Clare's father and grandfather were nuclear physicists at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, but she shunned science at school and studied English literature at university. "I knew about the whole splitting the atom thing before I could read. I grew up in the shadow of a nuclear power station. I thought Father Christmas lived there."

Reason for being here: Clare is working on the early stages of a book and needs some scientific help developing a character.The Scientist

Name: Jonathan Cole

Profession: Neuroscientist. He divides his time between a professorship at Bournemouth University and a clinical post at Poole Hospital.

Background: When he is not treating patients in the hospital, Jonathan's research focuses on the absence of sensation, particularly in the face. He advises the charity Changing Faces, which aims to help people adjust to living with facial differences.

Reason for being here: "Part of my science is about narrative and biography - that is what my first book was about. I'm passionate that people should be aware of the experience of others."


How was it for you?


The Verdicts

The Scientist:

Jonathan insists that he approached the meeting with few expectations, wanting simply to help Clare present neurological conditions realistically.

He admits, nonetheless, that meeting a novelist who was clearly very intelligent was reassuring. "I thought Clare was great," he says.

One might expect a scientist to be precious about how his ideas are used, but Jonathan remains relaxed about what will appear on the page.

"My concern is that there has to be a story and the science has to underpin it but not dominate it," he says. "Sometimes novelists fall in love with neuroscience and become enslaved to it. But as Philip Pullman says - the story is it."

The Novelist:

Clare says that when she heard about SciTalk, she thought: "Oh my God, this is what I've been looking for all my life!"

But despite her initial enthusiasm, she explains that her biggest fear was that Jonathan would be "prickly" about the questions she asked.

"If you are going to have a dialogue of this sort, you have to be forgiving," she says.

"I'll always come up with the wrong words. Sometimes you come up against scientists who don't understand what it is like not to understand."

However, she says that with Jonathan this was not a problem. She found him easy to understand and not at all condescending.

Will the two of them talk again? "I hope so."

Details: www.scitalk.org.uk

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