I have been meaning to write about the LSE conference I went to last week. It was on the topic 'how well facts travel' and all of the papers, without exception, were very interesting.
The first was by Jon Adams, a research officer at the LSE. By looking at Michael Crichton's recent novels (e.g. Next
) he discussed the boundary between popular fiction and popular science. Some of Crichton's recent work use fictional material interspersed with fact so that the reader is not quite sure where one ends and the other begins. Of course that is what all novelists do to some extent, however Crichton apparently uses his mixture to mount campaigns and it is then that the fact and fiction divide becomes important.
Simon Singh described the compromises and tensions involved in converting interviews into documentary material using his TV programme Horizon on Fermat's Last Theorem as an example (the research from this resulted in his book
of the same name). He presented the changes he'd made for our consideration; for instance when one interviewee attributed a postulate to three mathematicians rather than the two everyone else was using this was edited out to keep the naming consistant.
Then there was me: I attempted to show how I had derived a voice for my Alfred Wegener from snatches from his diary and then converted scientific facts from papers from journals to the voice in my novel. There will be more on this topi later when I have completed my paper.
This tied in well with the talk that followed from Joan Richards. She considered the difference between the way narrative authors and academic writers present their facts; the first show rather than tell whereas the second tend to do the opposite. She then considered the possibility of finding some intermediate ground between the two. Her interest in this topic follows the success of her book Angles of Reflection:Logic and a Mother's Love
which combines autobiographical writing with a study of nineteenth century logic. It was written when her nine year old son became ill with a brain tumour (from which he recovered) and then a particularly nasty arm injury. Her descriptions of this were so interesting I have just ordered myself a copy now.
Jon Turney (whose work I have been reading recently
- I especially recommend his book on Gaia
) argued that even the 'straightest' explanations in scientific writing are a form of narrative and explained how this works.
The first day finished with Jane Gregory's summary of Fred Hoyle's work. Fred Hoyle was unusual in that as well as being a highly regarded astronomer was also a writer of science fiction novels (e.g. The Black Cloud
). In fact he used his fiction to develop his ideas once some of his more controversial ideas (that life and indeed evolution was due to intersteller dust falling to earth) were no longer accepted for publication in scientific journals. He seems to have been something of a maverick and I found this talk particularly fascinating. Apparently Hoyle was one of the first people to be convinced by Alfred Wegener's ideas on continental drift.
The second day started with a lecture by David Warsh on the different ways of communicating facts (in this case ecomomics) by journalists and the academic community. In some cases there is a difference of opinion about the 'fact/fiction' ratio. David Warsh, who was a columnist in the Boston Globe and is now the proprieter of the website Economic Principals,
has written a book about economics from the journalist's point of view called Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations
which I have bought because I know absolutely nothing about economics and this seems to be a good place to start. Although I've read just the first couple of pages so far the writing does seem extremely engaging (more to follow).
The next talk was by Greg Radick on Counterfactuals in the Darwinian Tradition. Counterfactuals are the 'what ifs' that Bryan Appleyard discusses on his blog
. Charles Darwin cometimes considered imaginary pasts and presents in his writing as did Stephen Jay Gould in his book Wonderful Life
and Greg Radick considered the influence of such counterfactual conjectures in the Darwinian tradition of scientific writing. I am grateful to Greg Radick because besides giving a very interesting talk he also introduced me to the writing of Stephen Jay Gould which I am enjoying very much.
Geoffrey Cantor looked at the way writers have interpreted Newton's discoveries about light and colours and the way the nature of light became a 'fact'. Another very interesting subject. Geoffrey Cantor is Emeritus Professor at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Leeds. His research interests seem to be mainly in optics in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and he has written several interesting books associated with this topic. His most recent is Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwin
which is a collection of essays on Jewish repsonses to Darwin's ideas. Sounds fascinating - and something I've heard little about. It would be interesting to contrast these with the ideas of the creationists, for instance.
Heather Schell's talk was different again but just as interesting. Heather Schell is Assistant Professor of Writing at the George Washington Universtiy. She looked at the way romance novelists (e.g. like those who write for Mills and Boon) have adopted the 'apha male' hero in defiance of feminist publishers. One of the justifications for this choice from these romance writers (who are often university academics in the US) is, rather surprisingly, evolutionary psychology. This does actually make sense really, when you think about it - and certainly Dr Grump nodded in agreement when I mentioned this idea to her.
The final talk was by David Kirby. David Kirby is lecturer in Science Communication at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester. He looked at the way scientific facts are used in Holywood films including block busters such as Jurassic Park. These films employ scientists as consultants to help them transform scientific facts into Holywood 'facts' and the talk looked at the role of these consultants and the outcome of their work.
The whole conference finished with a discussion and although I thoroughly enjoyed the lectures I felt slightly out of my depth during this part of the conference. Historians and economists have their own language, I find - and although it didn't seem to matter in the talks it did here. Or, perhaps it was just that by that stage I was even more tired than I thought.
Anyway, it was a fascinating couple of days and I was very grateful to Dr. Jon Adams and Professor Mary Morgan for inviting me. Although the papers were on diverse topics they blended together remarkably well and it opened a new world to me.