Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Ian McEwan and the English Pen/MRC debate: 'Creative Energy: What Drives Writers and Scientists'

From the Hayward Gallery I crossed Waterloo Bridge with its fine views of London to the west

and east

then over to the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington.

The debate was on 'What drives writers and scientists?' a question of interest to me since I have experienced a little of both. It was organised by English Pen and the Medical Research Council and featured Ruth Padel, Chair of the UK Poetry Society and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; Sir Aaron Klug who won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the structure of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus and Dr Sheena McCormack a HIV researcher at the MRC Clinical Trials Unit. It was chaired by Sîan Ede, Deputy Arts Director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Sir Aaron Klug spoke first and said that inspiration had come to him in two different ways: both as a flash of insight (his realisation that it would be possible to determine a 3D image from a set of 2D X ray images - which formed the basis of the X-ray CAT scanner) and something he had worked on over a long period (the gradual elucidation of the structure of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus). The Tobacco Mosaic Virus has an interesting shape - a little like coaxial cable on first sight - the RNA moelcule in the middle and the protein overlapping like slates on the outside.

Ruth Padel talked a little about what other poets had thought about creativity - invoking ideas from Blake before going on to mention how the metaphor is crucial in both science and poetry and is the 'leap that unites two worlds' (according to Lorca) and also mentioned Coleridge's 'hooked atoms'. Now this phrase immediately hooked my attention because it was a phrase Poincaré used to describe his Eureka moment. Afterwards, in the reception, I asked Ruth Padel about this and she said Poincaré had got the phrase from Coleridge, and googling this I find that it is mentioned in a book called 'The Road to Xanadu - A Study in the Ways of the Imagination' by John Livingston Lowe which I am now hankering after but am going to try to resist, for now...at least. Maybe...

She also talked about her forthcoming poetry book - which is still being created - about her great great grandfather Charles Darwin. Next year is the centenary of his birth and she is writing poetry about his life to commemorate this. She read some out and I thought it gorgeous...but then I would...

Sheena McCormack talked about her very interesting and worthwhile work on a vaccine for AIDS. For a second or two I thought I had missed this great discovery - but no, she told us that there had been a series of disappointments, and they had not found one yet. She advocated brainstorming as an essential tool for her creativity and also mentioned that paperwork has a stifling effect.

And then the last (unexpected) guest spoke. I took a picture which is not very good because I didn't want to disturb anyone by using my flash - but maybe you can see who it is on the left (the others in order are Aaron Klug, Sheena McCormack and Ruth Padel on the right...)

I have long been an Ian McEwan fan and, after hearing him speak, think even more of him. He had been asked to join the panel at short notice but even so he had managed to compile a fascinating list on what the creativity process in science and literature have in common. These included persistence; tolerance of drudgery, luck, playfulness, ambition, muddle, and a kind of abandonment to a determined stupor.

He then went on to consider how the territory of literature and science are now merging and to some extent swapping over. Emotions are being studied by neuroscientists, for example, and are no longer the exclusive preserve of the novelist.

Science and literature are bound together by an investment in human nature, and in truth and beauty. He says that science becomes open at the point where the layman can see its beauty and truth.

On the subject of general creativity he mentioned the concept of a compellingly beautiful idea - that some ideas are too beautiful not to be true and he also remarked that creativity has a tendency to become a habit - so much so that Hardy wrote a poem on his death-bed.

On the subject of responsibility (which came up in the discussion at the end), he said that the novelist has to be internally coherent. Even if a book is a fantasy it has to be true to its own logic. In realist novels the characters have to be socially recognisable. While Ruth Padel said that poets have to be true to their own imagination.

At the end Sîan Ede challenged the audience to think of an ugly idea in science - as a counterbalance to the idea that if it is beautiful it must be true...but I don't think anyone came up with anything.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Clare--
This seems so "you," and must have been thoroughly enjoyable...

Tue Jul 15, 01:21:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Hi Marly, lovely to hear from you again! Yes, it was 'me' - tailor-made, I think!

Tue Jul 15, 10:01:00 pm  
Blogger Jan said...

I agree with Marly.
This must've been A Perfect Day!

Wed Jul 16, 07:13:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a lovely post, Clare, and a fascinating meeting. The last part is particularly uplifting, though I suppose the audience were predisposed in science's favour, but still, heartening.

It is also nice to read of the modesty of one of my literary heroes, Ian McEwan, who often tackles scientific questions in his fiction.

Wed Jul 16, 09:32:00 am  
Blogger Susanna said...

I finally did your questions! what great questions this year.

love your picuters!!I have some catching up to do on your blog. Lots of fun stuff to read. THe building thing looks really far out.

Wed Jul 16, 04:31:00 pm  
Blogger Tania Hershman said...

That discussion is my idea of heaven, talking about science and writing in the same space. As someone who studied science but always wanted to write fiction (and is attempting to fuse the two somehow), I think they have so much in common: science is just not the dry discipline many believe it to be, it requires great creativity, inspiration. Thanks for reporting on this, Clare. Thrilling!

Wed Jul 16, 04:50:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thank you all - yes, Maxine - that's what I found refreshing about Mr McEwan - the fact that he had obviously thought carefully about the 'question in hand'- extremely modest and intelligent.

Susangalique - thank you for answering my questions so magnificently - and with your usual verve. I much admire your take on life.

Tania - I didn't realise you have an interest in science and writing too. I'm looking forward to reading your stories when they're published.

Thu Jul 17, 06:46:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

And Jan - yes, another perfect day...I've had a string of them recently!

Thu Jul 17, 06:48:00 pm  
Blogger Tania Hershman said...

Clare - half the stories in my collection are "inspired" by articles from New Scientist. That's my attempt at fusing science and fiction. By the way, your book just arrived in the post, One Day the Ice Will Reveal its Dead. Very much looking forward to reading it!

Fri Jul 18, 07:47:00 am  
Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

I can think of a very good example of an ugly, but very successful idea in science: renormalization.

It's a way of inserting, 'by hand', fudge factors into the integrals of quantum field theory to make them converge (i.e., to make them yield finite values). By so doing, quantum field theory became the most empirically accurate theory in the history of science. Yet it's a theoretical manoeuvre of staggering ugliness.

Sat Jul 19, 11:33:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Gordon - that's exactly the sort of thing I was trying to think of - fudge factors (but in a branch of science I was familiar with) - or theories with so many exceptions that you can't really predict anything very much. I am sure there must be some...and they would be very ugly.

Sat Jul 19, 11:38:00 pm  
Blogger Laura Nelson said...

Clare - great that you enjoyed the event, and good to hear everyone's comments. Check out the Medical Research Council podcast (25 min documentary-style) and news article about it:

Also, Tania and others, if you're interested in finding out more about science and scientists to inspire you in your writing, look at profiles of Medical Research Council scientists on the English PEN website:

Best wishes,
Laura Nelson, 'Creative Energy' organiser, Medical Research Council

Mon Jul 28, 08:49:00 am  

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