Monday, October 25, 2010

Eureka Commissions at Manchester Literature Festival

Since science and scientific thinking have been preoccupations of both my novels Too Many Magpies and The Birth Machine, I was very interested in the Manchester Literature Festival event on Saturday evening: 'The Eureka Commissions.' In an ongoing project, Ra Page of Comma Press is commissioning short stories around the concept of the 'eureka' moment of scientific discovery - those 'breakthroughs and bolts-from-the-blue that change the game and shift the paradigm', as he puts it in the blurb - and in particular around the understanding that such moments 'are themselves a kind of fiction, a useful apocrypha for simplifying a complex blend of calculated experiment and pure accident.' Each story focuses on a particular moment of scientific discovery and is written after consultation with a scientist, and that evening Stella Duffy and Zoe Lambert were to read from their commissioned stories, and the scientists who had advised them would speak - astrophysicist Tim O'Brien and historian of science James Sumner, respectively.

The meeting was due to be held in the Manchester Astronomical Society's Godlee Observatory at the top of the university's Sackville building, and there was great excitement and security as we, a strictly limited number, gathered. With great ceremony and import we were let through a turnstile one at a time by the Astronomical Society's Tony, who shouted strict instructions after us to wait for him when we got to the top in the lift. Then we were escorted up some tiny wooden stairs to a small room in the centre of which an ornate metal spiral staircase went up - and up and up! - to the observatory above. But in spite of the regimentation things went haywire: only 36 people were allowed in the room at one time, and somehow 40 had ended up there, and we weren't going to be able to have the meeting there after all, but in a lecture room elsewhere. Before that, though, and excitingly, those who wished - and who didn't have vertigo, Tony said - were to be escorted by him in groups of seven up the stairs and into the observatory. I went in the first lot, telling myself, no I didn't have vertigo. And I damn well couldn't afford to have it, as first Tony and then fellow writer Annie Clarkson shot up before me, leaving me climbing much more slowly and gingerly and working on blanking the spaces opening up beneath me through the lacy metalwork, and wondering when on earth the top would come... And, via a precarious metal ladder at the top, out we came into the tiny round space with its domed roof made, apparently, of papier mache, which slides sideways to allow the view of the sky. The telescope, made in Dublin in 1903 for the society which was founded that year, takes up the main floor space. The woman behind me was a bit dizzy, I think, as she arrived at the top, and she kind of swayed towards the telescope, and Tony jumped in alarm and told her to get back and made us all stay flat against the wall, well away from the precious equipment. And now we had to go down, and although I'd come up in high heels I knew there was no way I could go down in them. But then I had my eureka moment: I would carry my shoes in my teeth (no way would I be able to let go of the rails), and so I did, although this had the unfortunate result of obscuring my view of the steps - but then it also had the fortunate effect of obscuring my view of the spiralling spaces below.

We repaired to the lecture room, and Zoe read a moving story about a female chemist (shame on me, I have forgotten her name!) cut out of the discovery of a radio isotope, and Stella Duffy gave us some stunning literary space-time pyrotechnics around that very subject, space-time. Then historian of science James Sumner spoke about the fact that, while eureka moments are a populist concept, in reality they rarely happen: scientific discoveries tend to come about by accretion. The audience didn't seem all that convinced of this. John, whose recent writing of a textbook on the way we learn language seems to have been a whole series of eureka moments - we will be out walking and he'll suddenly get a new insight and have to rush back home - questioned the premise, and another man suggested that scientists themselves believe in eureka moments. James conceded that this last was so, that scientists as well as the public need to believe in such a phenomenon as a way of shaping and narrating events, but held that that didn't mean it was an objective truth. On the other hand, he did also concede that there were moments of sudden movement forwards. He agreed with one questioner who pointed out that some famous discovery - maybe something to do with DNA - was actually made by a third-year undergraduate, and while he seemed to see this as proof of the accretion effect (it wasn't just the famous scientist having the eureka idea) it seemed to me proof rather of the opposite - the eureka moment as the sudden insight of an individual person outside of the system. And surely, I thought, the eureka moment is after all just the moment when all the connections suddenly come together and make a meaning or a proper picture, the 'turning point' that even those arguing against the eureka moment kept referring to. In the end, I decided, maybe it just depends how you define it...

Tim O'Brien, asked what popular misconceptions about science he'd like to address, said that most people like to think that science is about certainty, but in fact science is very much about doubt. I liked this very much, but I also thought 'Tell that to the doctors in The Birth Machine...'

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