Monday, October 15, 2012

A Few Days in Bremen

Bremen: a place of metal pigs

an elegant Bahnhof,
and a fine medieval Rathaus
with golden-lit
and gold-embellished arches
and quartet of animal acrobats.
that Professor Otis stroked for luck.
In the cathedral
the orchestra rehearsed
while down another alleyway
there was different music.

In the northern suburbs there is a different feel
and a collection of modern university institutes line boulevards
in a perfect grid.

I was there to give a talk about my book at the Fiction Meets Science Workshop at the Centre for Marine Environmental Sciences (MARUM), at the University of Bremen.
After a day of fascinating presentations on various aspects of literature and fiction I gave my talk on Wegener's Jigsaw, which was afterwards discussed by Norbert Schaffeld (a literary scholar), Reinhard Krause (a science historian at the Alfred Wegener Institute) and then Gerold Wefer (a geologist, the director of the MARUM and winner of the Science Communication prize in 2010).
It was somewhat nerve-wracking (especially since it was filmed) but people were kind and now I feel privileged to have three such speakers devote so much time and consideration to my work.
After the talk we went down to the basement and were shown core samples from the oceanic bed.  The brown mark on the bottom core is the sediment laid down when a meteorite impacted and wiped out the dinosaurs.  To the right of the brown layer is the older greener glassy rocks caused by heating, and then to the right the ash that fell.
This poster explains more.
Ocean drilling is the subject of Susan Gaines' book Carbon Dreams which I read before I went, and this helped me appreciate what I was seeing in the basement.  Carbon Dreams is the absorbing story of a research chemist making a geochemical discovery.  The sacrifices and life-choices that she has to make to devote herself to her idea are convincing and drive the story along.  It described an era I knew well, and I recognised many features of life in the laboratory which was very satisfying because 'lablife' is rarely evoked so accurately in literature.  One sequence, which described going out on a scientific cruise ship, brought to mind one of the T.C. Boyle books I'd read recently: When the Killing's Done.

The conference continued the next day at the Institute for Advanced Study, which is a little outside Bremen.
This looks to be an exciting place with a collection of different scholars living and working together.  My contribution that day was to take part in a discussion with Susan Gaines and the novelist Simon Mawer.  Simon then finished the meeting with a talk on his excellent book Mendel's Dwarf.  Mendel's Dwarf, I've just read, was 10th in line for the Booker Prize, and I am not surprised.  It features Gregor Mendel, the priest who discovered genetics, and his fictitious descendent who happens to be a geneticist and a dwarf.    As Wilfried Wackernagel, an Emeritus professor of genetics at the university of Oldenburg, said - there are diamonds (references to genetics) scattered throughout.

I learnt a lot during the two days, and found the whole event exciting and stimulating because there were so many ideas and good speakers.
Thanks and Congratulations to Susan Gaines for organising the event.  I hope it has a successful outcome.


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