Saturday, 21 May 2011

Science and Fiction

I'm indebted to Jules Verne.

My interest in science certainly owes nothing to my extensive but lopsided education. In 1970 I emerged from a girls’ grammar school, well qualified for university, but with only one science O level to my name. (Biology, Grade C.) I’d been allowed to drop all other science subjects, plus Geography. I knew the Latin word for that thing slaves used to scrape the grime off their sweaty masters, but my understanding of physics was nil and my knowledge of chemistry was confined to what happened when you baked a cake. As for biology, I could spell vegetative propagation, but had no clear idea what it was. (Hence the Grade C.)

When I was a teenager, you had to choose between arts and sciences. To be fair, this was not a difficult choice for me, owing to my utter incompetence in all science subjects, an incompetence I now suspect was related to my low boredom threshold – something doubtless shared by the formidable female teachers whose job it was to teach me the basics. Once progressive, clever women, their souls had been destroyed by years spent teaching adolescent girls more interested in discussing periods than the Periodic Table.

We would have liked to discuss sex in biology lessons (and given the fate of one of my peers who had to leave school for reasons undisclosed, we probably should have) but in those pre-COSMOPOLITAN days, sex education was delivered by our spinster biology teacher in a single lesson devoted to reproduction in rabbits. The purpose of this lesson was a mystery to me. It was the permissive 1960s, but I’m sure I speak for all of my friends when I say we’d never considered having sex with a rabbit.

Elgol, Isle of Skye
However an interest in science must have lain dormant, because it surfaced many years later on holidays with my young children in the Yorkshire Dales and Scotland, particularly Skye and the Outer Hebrides, where I discovered the fascination of rocks and the beauty of landforms, then felt moved to learn something about them. 

As a result, I made a huge and life-changing discovery. Science wasn't boring. In fact, it was really rather exciting.

Until I was invited to become Durham University’s Celebrate Science author in residence, I’d assumed my interest in geology had come out of the blue, that I’d picked up a piece of Lewisian gneiss and it had been love at first sight. But pondering anew my adolescent aversion to science, I recalled an earlier age and an enquiring young mind, thrilled by the stories of Jules Verne and the films that were made from them: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Island and – my particular favourite – Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Pre-puberty, I’d loved science. (And speaking as an ex-primary teacher, I don’t remember teaching a child who didn’t love science.)

So what went wrong?

Well, for a start I was compelled to choose: arts or sciences? There was no middle ground at my secondary school. When my friend Marion decided she wanted to be an architect and found she’d need both arts and science A levels to train, the school had to re-write the timetable so she could do them.

With hindsight I can see that another thing that went wrong for me was that after primary school, science learning became abstract, highly mathematical and divorced from people. (Some of us left school knowing exactly how a rabbit got pregnant, but not how a human got pregnant.) 

The science teaching I endured was divorced from story-telling. The current enthusiasm for so-called "popular science" surely owes much to the communication skills of scientists such as David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Brian Cox, Richard Feynman, Oliver Sacks, Rupert Sheldrake, Russell Stannard et al. These scientists re-connected with story-telling and therefore people.

Richard Feynman explaining
Dipping in just now to The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, I came across Richard Feynman’s perfectly clear explanation of the conservation of energy, in which he uses the analogy of trying to dry yourself with a wet towel. He uses many words to describe this dispiriting experience (in just the concrete way I advocate when teaching a creative writing workshop). I don’t think I'll ever forget that explanation. From now on, if ever someone mentions “conservation of energy”, I shall think of Feynman on the beach, caught in a sudden downpour, trying to dry himself with a wet towel.

I'll remember the story and, thanks to that story, I will remember the science.


  1. This blog is taking me an inordinately long time to read. You might like me to say at this point that it's no reflection on the quality of your writing, but actually it is. Because I keep stopping to chuckle, or mutter in agreement. Or to read passages out to my long-suffering OH. Who then chuckles. Or mutters in agreement.

  2. Thank you for the backhanded compliment. :-) Apologies to the OH who I'm sure must have better things to do. On the other hand, reading aloud to one's loved ones is a dying art, surely ripe for revival?