To many people, science and literature could not be further apart, working in different worlds in different ways. Yet, as the Manchester Literature Festival draws to a close and the Manchester Science Festival kicks off, one event ties them together and makes them inseparable. Comma Press and the Institute of Physics united in an effort to bring writers together with scientists to develop stories around the “Eureka Moments” that become legendary in science.
The event began in the wooden Godlee Observatory, which was built with money from Francis Godlee, a prominent cotton baron in Manchester during the 19th century. In a cramped, octagonal room, a winding iron staircase barely wide enough for an adult reaches up through the ceiling to the original refracting telescope originally installed for 1903. Posters of the sun and the stars adorn the plain walls, and all gatherings are overseen by a picture of Godlee himself, bearded with a long pipe clamped between his teeth.
In groups of seven, we were admitted into a world as magical as Harry Potter’s, climbing the narrow staircase up to admire the telescope, which still boasts its original wooden box camera. The stairs are ornate, but not for the faint of heart. From the top, the view down into the room below is giddying, while above the telescope itself is held on girders, rather than the wooden floor. A modern computer still collects data for the Manchester Astronomical Society, which boasts at least one member nearly as old as the telescope itself.
Once we had all been given the chance to see the telescope, we were ushered into a teaching room for the readings. Writers Zoe Lambert and Stella Duffy read from stories composed by working directly with scientists and historians of science for the Eureka Commissions. Zoe’s story was a very immediate take on the struggles of Lise Meitner, a member of the team of scientists who discovered nuclear fission, while Stella Duffy created the impression of being a train speeding through the developments in space-time theory from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth, following the life of the mathematician Hermann Minkowski.
Zoe’s story was a clear, conventional narrative, covering Lise Meitner’s life and work in Germany during the 1930s. She handled the complex physics brilliantly, unafraid to use detail in conversations about the deeper mechanics that the physicists would have discussed. There was no attempt to gloss over anything complicated, and would have made a brilliant learning tool for those wanting to discover more about the development of nuclear fission. She interwove the story with the politics of the age. As a woman, Lise had struggled to gain recognition as a nuclear physicist, and just as she found her place alongside Fritz Strassmann and Otto Hahn, she then faced barriers because of her Jewish background. The flow was so seamless it was impossible to tease out the scientist from the woman dealing with the pressures of discrimination for both gender and race.
Stella Duffy’s approach was entirely different. Rather than relating a strict narrative story, she presented a work in a prose poem that travelled like a train through history, pausing at stations where significant events were described in detail. Like Zoe, Stella wove together the personal and the scientific completely seamlessly, making the scientists not gods of their discipline, but humans with their own foibles and struggles with the wider forces of society and relationships.
What both stories brought out was that the idea of a single heroic character suddenly experiencing a flash of inspiration that changes the world is false. From Isaac Newton’s apple tree encounter to Otto Hahn’s revelation about nuclear fission, the stories that we tell about great scientific breakthroughs hide the hard work and dedication of not one, but many individuals who are often lost to history. Both writers had chosen individuals whose work went largely unrecognised; as James Sumner, a historian of science and collaborator on the project, pointed out, many of the people who have contributed to great breakthroughs have been forgotten. In other cases, such as Einstein or Newton, it is because society highly values their findings that they become giants of science.
The evening highlighted the way that story has become just as powerful a part of science as it is of literature. Stella Duffy remarked during the debate that followed the readings that its a natural human thing to boil down events and memory into story, and that this has spilled over into science. James Sumner was keen to emphasise that this is often highly useful, especially when people (and indeed, scientists) are learning about the history of science. If they had to learn every single detail of every breakthrough, they would get lost. Synthesising is essential; the downside is that it means that the work of many scientists remains unseen.
Sumner describes himself as being there for the scientists who are written out of the story. The effect of the project, judging by the subjects chosen by both writers, has been to re-write the great eureka stories from the perspective of those who missed out on awards and recognition the first time around. From both stories and the discussion afterward, it was clear that what drives both writers and scientists is a passion for their work that overrides almost everything else. Yet rather than cutting them off from others, this passion spills over into every aspect of their lives.
The debate itself covered many angles, from the women “computers” who processed calculations for scientists in basement rooms to the difficulties of collaboration between scientists and writers. Zoe described herself as being about as easy to collaborate with as a cat, but Stella “felt my brain expanding” during the process. What has been created is work that presents a new telling of vital moments in science, giving the spotlight at last to the complexity of the scientific process. It will be interesting to see what the final book presents from other writers on the project.
by Joely Black