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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Fact and fiction on course to the future - Charles Fernyhough and Ben Marcus, 11 August 2012

Genomics Forum blogging team at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2012
Blog by Pippa Goldschmidt

Some fiction writers are apt to be magpies with science and pick off the shinier bits for use as metaphors to adorn novels that otherwise have little to say explicitly about the subject. And scientists’ activities around communicating their work usually assumes that the science itself will remain unchanged.

But yesterday’s event with Ben Marcus and Charles Fernyhough turned this assumption on its head to consider the influence of fiction on science. In his latest novel ‘The Flame Alphabet’ Ben Marcus makes concrete the power of language to hurt us; children’s language has become toxic to adults who struggle to find an antidote. It’s a metaphor for the inevitable separation between parents and their children, as well as the gap between speech and thought. Charles Fernyhough is an academic psychologist and author who has written both non-fiction as well as fiction. His most recent book ‘Pieces of Light’ is an exploration of the science of memory and his forthcoming novel ‘A Box of Birds’ tests a neuroscientist’s view that her sense of self is only an illusion.

Both speakers talked about the capacity of fiction to put science under the microscope – Charles Fernyhough stated that if neuroscience’s recent theories of how we think and remember aren’t convincing in fictional settings then it should be neuroscience that is found wanting. Ben Marcus views fiction as a way of telling the truth about the world.  This shouldn’t be particularly startling, after all science relies on thought experiments such as Schrodinger’s Cat – experiments which are undoable in the real world and yet which tell us something about how that world operates. Fiction can be seen as a thought experiment – one where the author sets up the initial conditions and the reader creates the outcome. We all do science, every day, when we interact with the world and try and make sense of it. And scientists are influenced by apparently non-scientific thoughts and ideas. See ‘What Scientists Read’ for a neat little experiment about literary influences on science.

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