Sunday, April 22, 2007

LSE workshop: 'How Well Do 'Facts' Travel?'

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.


Blogger TitaniaWrites said...

Clare, the workshop sounds absolutely fascinating. I am working on a collection of science-inspired short stories, and feel quite free, as someone who studied science quite a few moons ago, to make up science in my stories left, right and centre. I enjoy doing it... but I am not sure how scientists would feel about that. Maybe one day, if my collection sees the light of day, we can all argue about it!

Thanks for reporting on the workshop!

Sun Apr 22, 04:02:00 pm  
Anonymous Clare said...

Hello Tatiana. In my opinion it is perfectly OK to make up the science as long as it sounds plausible. Good luck with your short stories - it sounds an intriguing idea.

Sun Apr 22, 04:38:00 pm  
Blogger Lee said...

What a fascinating workshop! Are you allowed to bring a guest to the next one (hint)?

Sun Apr 22, 06:45:00 pm  
Blogger Maxine said...

Interesting post, Clare. We recently published a Correspondence (Letter to the Editor) about science in Hoyle's most famous novel, The Black Cloud (written with his son):

Nature 443, 506 (5 October 2006) | doi:10.1038/443506d; Published online 4 October 2006

(PS can only comment by logging into Blogger)
Hoyle's observations were right on the ball
Simon K Rushton1 and Rob Gray2

School of Psychology, Cardiff University, Tower Building, Park Place, Cardiff CF10 3AT, UK
Department of Applied Psychology, Arizona State University, 7001 E Williams Field Road, 340J Sutton, Mesa, Arizona 85212, USA

In his In Retrospect article "Out of the darkness" (Nature 442, 986; 2006), Jay M. Pasachoff notes the impact of Fred Hoyle's novel The Black Cloud (first published in 1957) and its contemporary relevance. We would like to add a further aspect: the contribution of two ideas in Hoyle's book to vision research and to our understanding of the perceptual guidance of action.

The characters in the book discover an ominous black cloud that appears to be heading towards Earth. Will the cloud hit Earth and, if so, when? The first question is solved when the characters examine the relative speed at which the cloud is translating across the night sky to the rate at which it is looming, or seeming to get larger. The second question is tackled with a bit of impromptu algebra in which the time until impact is calculated from the ratio of the current size of the cloud to its rate of change. A mathematical derivation of the formula is provided.

A footballer wishing to head an approaching ball needs to know where the ball is going relative to the head, and when it will hit or pass the head. The player could estimate the trajectory of the ball from knowledge of its position and velocity. However, David Lee realized in the 1970s that the brain can use the ratio of size to its rate of change, previously identified by Hoyle, to estimate the imminence of arrival. David Regan realized soon afterwards that the brain can use the ratio of lateral speed to looming rate to calculate where an object is travelling. These elegant solutions bypass the need to know position and velocity, so that the two quantities of interest can be estimated directly. This human ability is important for the characters in Hoyle's story because the position and velocity of the cloud are unknown.

An ability to estimate these quantities is of use not just for heading a ball, but also when trying to cross a street full of cars, return a tennis serve or pick up a cup of coffee while rushing past your desk. Since the early work of Lee and Regan, a considerable amount of research in areas including psychophysics, motor action, neurophysiology and computational modelling has followed (see D. Regan and R. Gray Trends in Cognitive Sciences 4, 99–107; 2000). The whole body of work that exists today can be traced back to a casual footnote and a couple of sketches in a science-fiction novel.
(forgive me filling up your comments by pasting it in, but you need a subscription to read it)

Sun Apr 22, 09:18:00 pm  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Clare, that does sound interesting. I have just finished reading Crichton's Timeline novel and have written a post about it recently. I found the novel both fascinating and frustrating at the same time. Fascinating because he was introducing complex ideas from quantum physics, complete with figures and bibliography. Frustrating because he was then using these ideas to underpin support for something as unlikely as time travel. It was cleverly done, but it felt like a confidence trick. On the other hand, it did make me feel I wanted to read more deeply about quantum physics - and medieval history - the other half of the bibliography.

Sun Apr 22, 09:33:00 pm  
Anonymous Clare said...

Lee: Heh. If I'm ever invited again I'll ask!

Maxine: Thank you very much for that. I found it all rather exciting because just recently I'd been reading about how a tennis player hits the ball before the ball is consciously registered. So all this estimating the trajectory goes on in the unconscious. That strikes me as quite amazing, really.

Can't understand why you have to log onto blogger because I haven't touched the comments...much be a glitch again - but thanks for telling me. I'll check it out.

And you've given me an idea. I'll tell you about it tomorrow.

Jonathan: Now how did I miss that post of yours? It sounds very interesting. Maybe it was when I was 'resting' (in blog terms). Shall check it out.

Sun Apr 22, 10:39:00 pm  
Blogger Jan said...

Thankyou Clare for "educating" me "scientifically".
This is a superb posting, it really is. I have gleaned so much.
NOW I shall have to lie down!

Tue Apr 24, 09:47:00 am  

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