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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.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The scientist in fiction – does science and literature have more in common than we imagine? - 22 August 2012

Genomics Forum blogging team at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2012
Blog by Chris Berry

When mention is made of science and literature, it is all too easy to immediately think of the genre that is “sci-fi”. Engaging and important though the literary genre of science fiction is, it by no means represents the only manifestation of science and scientists in creative writing. Since science started to have a major impact upon society – during the Victorian period – it simultaneously began to have an influence upon literature. From Frankenstein to Dr Jekyll , from HG Well’s Time Machine to Ian Fleming’s Dr No, science and scientists form a rich vein that runs through much of our recent literature.

But does fiction portray scientists (and science) accurately? Are scientists, in reality, merely boring academics or are they more akin to the creative – or sometimes crazed - geniuses frequently represented in the pages of novels? These were some of the questions up for consideration in the ESRC Genomics Forum’s final event at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival: Scientists in Fiction- Creative or Crazed Genius?

Representing the literary side of the equation in this debate was award-winning author of fiction for young people, Sophie McKenzie. Sophie has written a number of books where science is an important plot component – including the Blood Ties and Medusa Project series. Despite the importance of scientific technology, such as cloning and genetic manipulation, within her storytelling, she is often astonished that her work has been portrayed as “Sci-Fi”.

“I’m interested in the emotional impact of science rather than the mechanics of the science itself”, elaborated Sophie. “I use technology such as genetic engineering just as a device to give my characters certain traits – such as the psychic powers.” Interestingly, Sophie admitted that she didn’t really possess a scientific background, but this was not a disadvantage to including science in her writing. “Ignorance about the exact mechanics of science can be a very liberating thing – I never think ‘that can’t be done’”, she noted. However, she is meticulous in her research, even, for example, using scientific discussion forums to explore the ethics around cloning.

Providing insight into the scientist’s perspective of fiction was Dr Alistair Elfick, who is the Director of Edinburgh University’s Centre for Biomedical Engineering. As might be expected, Alistair has an interest in the way in which engineering, biology and medicine can come together to develop new technologies, and provided the audience with an insight into the world of synthetic biology – the design of new, or redesign of existing, biological systems (a subject that might readily lend itself to science-based fiction).

Alistair suggested that the way that scientists often present themselves and their work to the world might have a major role in the popular perceptions of science. Like science itself, scientists are highly diverse in both background and personality, but this frequently fails to be communicated in the traditional channels, such as scientific journals, through which their work is presented. Alistair elaborated on this theme further, when he suggested scientists often experience two sides to their work: “Day Science” – the papers, conferences and posters that convey satisfactory outcomes from research; and “Night Science” – the frustrating time spent in the lab when experiments don’t go as planned, and much effort is dedicated to a particular approach that results in a dead end.

The concept of there being two sides to the work of scientists – with many frustrating dead ends being encountered in the development of a polished final product - would also be highly familiar to most writers, Sophie McKenzie concluded.

Positioned at the fulcrum of the debate – and acting as both panellist and facilitator - was Dr David Kirby, who is Senior Lecturer in Science Communication Studies at the University of Manchester. Author of Lab Coats in Hollywood, David provided some revealing insights into how the film industry approaches the representation of science, including employing scientists as advisors in order to try to ensure the portrayal of scientific characters is more “realistic”.

David recounted that a palaeontologist employed by the makers of Jurassic Park was asked to describe how such a scientist might react if they turned a corner to be confronted by a live Tyrannosaurus Rex. The response, which would probably apply to scientists and non-scientists alike, unsurprisingly referred to fainting and the need for clean underwear!

Yet perhaps more telling of the approach of scientists to fiction was the response of astronomer Brian Cox, when providing scientific advice for the film Sunshine. He was asked by the filmmakers what might possibly persuade him to undertake a mission to study the sun, even if this would ultimately prove suicidal. Professor Cox responded that “…nature was more beautiful than could possibly be imagined”, and undertaking scientific work to explain such wonders is what motivated him.

Interaction with the event audience – which reassuringly included a substantial number of young people – covered a diverse range of topics.

Did the panel have an issue with cloning? Generally no, was the panel’s response, although using it to recreate a loved animal or person which had died was viewed as pointless – the originals being more than a mere transcription of genetic code.

Was science leading fiction, or with technology now so readily facilitating information exchange, might it be necessary for science to catch up with social trends?

Is there a “disconnect” between the fictional portrayal of scientists and reality? The panel concluded that there probably was, but this would be the same for many fictional characters in other professions.

Yet perhaps the most telling statement about how similar science and fiction might actually be came from Sophie McKenzie, when she identified that “…good fiction is usually based around a person with a problem or a need”.

It could be argued that good science is based around someone working hard to solve a problem or need.

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