Four Scientists in Search of an Author

 * In a mind-boggling but fascinating exploration of particle physics through to developmental biology, four scientists dazzled the audience with slides, film footage and glowing objects as they talked through their individual specialisms and took questions from enquiring writers. SciTalk founder Ann Lingard briefly explained how the organisation worked and introduced the evening’s panel, ready to intrigue, educate and impress.

First up was Dr Kate Lewis, a developmental biologist at Cambridge University. Using slides and film footage Dr Lewis talked the audience through her studies of nerve cells and live embryos and explained the stresses and strains of being a research scientist. There were rewards however, which included extensive travel and the gratification of new discoveries. 

Our next speaker was geologist Dr Michael Welland who, amongst other things, researched the relationship between wine and geology. After showing a slide of bearded geologists rambling through wine groves, Dr Welland talked about the ingenuity of wine makers who create their product from nature and aligned this with writers creating a novel. Dr Welland discussed his appreciation of the fertility of the unknown and the challenge for geologists of deciphering the language of nature.

 * Next up was Dr Tara Shears, a particle physicist at Liverpool University, who explained how her research dealt with the study of the building blocks of nature and the forces that bind the universe together. After talking about the predictive essence of particle physics and the uncertainty of the Quantum universe, with the aid of suitably perplexing diagrams, Dr Shears revealed how life as a particle physicist could lead to far-flung locations and demand long shifts.

Last but not least was Dr Mark Miodownik, a material scientist at Kings College London, who took the audience by surprise by dimming all the lights and whipping out a buzzing geiger-counter to demonstrate the high uranium content of his aunt’s fruit bowl! Dr Miodownik explained how such discoveries were of cultural as well as scientific interest and how the fruit bowl revealed a web of facts about how society had treated uranium through the decades; just one example of how materials and objects could reveal their history through scientific investigation.

As the audience pondered on all they had heard the talk was opened up to questions. The scientists were asked how they felt about science being used in fictional books and films such as Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons or Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Dr Shears saw this as positive way of arousing the public’s interest in science while other members of the panel felt it was irresponsible to invent inaccurate and potentially provocative scientific possibilities in fiction. The discussion was rounded up and after further questions both the audience and panel seemed to be in agreement with Dr Miodownik’s conclusion: “Science can gain from the arts just as much, if not more, as the arts from science.”

Many thanks to our speakers for venturing out of their laboratories and to Adam Street Club for having us.

Report by Alice O’Hanlon

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