Projects

Project picture

Science and the Short Story

Location
North West

Project Summary

The commission of four short stories by established authors, working in collaboration with three Early Career Science Researchers resulting in public events and a book.

Project Partners

Name:
Ra Page
Role:
Comma Press
Role Description:
Mentor
Name:
Sarah Fox
Role:
Phd Student, University of Manchester
Role Description:
Early Career Researcher

Benefits & Impact

Conducting this case study has enabled Comma to take a moment to pause and reflect on the development of what will hopefully be a further-reaching, on-going project, at an intermediary stage. It has shown us that despite the logistical difficulties faced by the project (for instance, having to approach many more scientists to suggest ‘eureka moments’ than were eventually used), the basic idea of forging an alliance, and co-ordinating a creative conversation, between these two very different practices, is a good one.

Reading through the feedback (both formal and informal on forums like Facebook) has given us confidence to continue with a project that was, in many ways, just an experiment. Audiences have been unanimously positive in their response to the basic concept of presenting science through properly ‘consulted upon’ fiction. Words such as ‘interesting’, ‘engaging’, ‘entertaining’ and ‘beautiful’ were used by audiences with regards to the stories presented.

 

This Case Study has also demonstration the benefit of gathering feedback formally, rather than just gauging the success of an idea or event from audiences informally.  For example, during an affiliated (physics event) we had to relocate rooms away from the public space under the Godlee telescope (as we had exceeded capacity due to the Literature Festival sending additional guests down to the event who hadn’t booked). Although everyone got a tour of the telescope, we expected this last minute relocation to considerably dampen people’s enthusiasm for the event. However the feedback forms suggest that people loved the venue, didn’t care about the relocation, and enjoyed the warm, informal, improvisational atmosphere of the event. This wouldn’t have been realised if we hadn’t asked for post-event feedback, something we wouldn’t have done if it wasn’t for this case study. 

Quotes

“The general public’s understanding of how science moves forward is too often over-simplified and limited to a small number of very famous breakthroughs. The aim of this project is to widen the general reader’s access to the diversity of different ways in which science has made breakthroughs – through accessible and engaging short fiction.” Founder and Managing Editor, Comma Press

Lessons Learnt

1.      Keep an open mind, stay flexible

Both authors and scientists embarked on this project with their own expectations as to how the process would unfold (some negative, some positive). However in most cases these preconceived ideas were soon challenged and as part of the process both scientists and authors had to adapt their expectations around one another. Although this was often challenging, it lead to new avenues of creative thought for both parties, and upon completion of the project everyone agreed that this had been an enjoyable and productive learning experience.

2.      Communicating with a non-scientist one-to-one     

This collaboration highlighted for the ECRs the importance of defining scientific terminology when communicating with non-scientists. Specifically one ECR (Sarah Fox) learnt to be wary scientific terms that also double as general usage words during (e.g. ‘plaque’ in neurophysiology has very different connotations in her field to, say, dental plaque).

3.      Communicating with the public in live events

For some of the researchers it was their first time speaking at a public event. Therefore, this project provided an excellent opportunity for them to practice communicating their own work in a succinct and understandable manner.

4.      Always be prepared

As a research scientist, who spends more time with computers than people, Sarah Fox admitted to being nervous with regard to communicating with the public at a live event. However, she found that arriving at the event with a prepared reading which had been well practised aided the process significantly. She even admitted to enjoying the ‘buzz’ she received from speaking, and hopes that in future she be less apprehensive about talking at public events.

5.      Widening your field of expertise

Research can and must focus scientists upon their specific area of expertise. However, it is also important for scientists to appreciate their own work as part of the larger sphere of scientific knowledge and advancement. For the ECRs involved in this project the act of collaborating with non-scientists and preparing an ‘interesting’ lay-scientific afterword required them to look beyond their specific line of research and appreciate its relevance to the wider world of science. This broadening of their academic horizons will undoubtedly aid them in their future careers.

6.      Do not fear the metaphor

From an editor’s point of view, Comma had previously been warned off approaching science as merely a ‘metaphor kitty’ (as it is often treated by poetry). This was the attitude of science fiction writers we’d previously worked with, and in particular the editor of the previous project, Geoff Ryman, who viewed it as an intellectual cop-out. And yet, as long as acknowledgements are made to its limitations, metaphor can be used, indeed in many cases it must be used. It’s often all scientists themselves have, and this project ultimately felt like a vindication of careful, conscientious application of metaphor in science communication.

 

Background

Comma Press is interested in exploring ways in which arts practitioners and scientists might inform and interact with each other’s practice. We believe that interdisciplinary collaboration between scientists and artists (in particular writers) can lead to the creation of a durable platform between both fields, upon which lay audiences can engage with the imaginative and conceptual processes of scientific enquiry. Indeed, we have previously published several collaborations between artists and scientists, most recently When It Changed, which paired 15 scientists with 15 short story writers. 

Aims & Objectives

This project co-ordinated a series of exchanges between three Early Career Researchers (ECRs) – Sarah Fox, Sohail Siadatnejad and Nicholas Love – and four authors – Kate Clanchy, Trevor Hoyle, Annie Clarkson and Tania Hershman – to produce four short stories, exploring pivotal moments of discovery in the fields of neuroscience and genetics. These stories re-told, in a semi-fictional manner, the circumstances leading up to these discoveries and, through active input from the researcher, explored the influence they exert over present day scientific enquiry.

It was hoped that the collaborative process would enable both sets of practitioners to gain valuable insight into each other’s work, be that insight into scientific thinking, or possible ways of communicating that thinking. It was also hoped that the resulting stories and their public presentation would give lay audiences new ways of interacting with the science involved, and challenge preconceptions within the lay community about how science works. 

Approach

Early Career Researchers based at Manchester University (and also MMU) were approached by Comma Press and invited to take part in the Manchester Beacon project, initially by nominating three ‘eureka moments’ (or breakthroughs – they didn’t need to be very eureka-like) in their particular field of research. A number of authors were then invited to take part in the project and select a ‘eureka moment’ they would like to write about from the long list of those nominated. Four writers came forward and selected breakthroughs from the realms of neuroscience and genetics (working with researchers Sarah Fox, Sohail Siadatnejan, and Nicholas Love). A series of conversations were then set up between the authors and their consultant scientists. This lead to three of the four authors visiting their allocated scientist, where they questioned and interrogated them to get a fuller understanding of the science behind the breakthrough and the experimental processes involved. (Due to time constraints Kate Clanchy was unable to make the visit, but communicated with her scientist over email).

 

The authors then wrote their stories, assimilating what they learnt, whilst continuing to ask questions of their consultant. The researchers also recommended academic papers, articles and other texts (including biographical and historical material) for the author to familiarise themselves with. Writers were permitted to introduce other, fictional elements into their stories (fictional characters and plot lines) in order to explore philosophical and ethical themes thrown up by the scientific discoveries. At the penultimate draft stage, the researchers were asked to read the stories and fact-check them with regard to the science so as to insure a correct use of the scientific material. The researchers were also asked to write a short ‘afterword’, expanding and reflecting on the scientific breakthrough, and introducing their own research in relation to that past breakthrough.

 

The stories were then read and discussed alongside the researcher’s afterwords, at two public events – one in Lancaster (at Storey Centre, Sat 23rd Oct, 3.30pm, as part of the  Lancaster Litfest) and one in Manchester (at the Anthony Burgess Centre on Thu 28th Oct, 6.30pm). The presentations were followed by a Q&A with the audience. The events were videoed and clips are being uploaded onto a special page of the Comma website, alongside texts of the story.

Comma also hosted a physics project running alongside this ECR one (culminating in two separate events held at Liverpool’s Bluecoat and Manchester’s Godlee Observatory). Putting on the two sets of events around the same time informed both projects, mutually.

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