Wednesday, 28 September 2011


The idea was that I would respond to Prof. Tom McLeish’s blog What makes a good scientist? with a companion post, What makes a good writer? I thought it would be interesting to compare the similarities and differences, but to my astonishment, I find Tom has already written my post for me. Substitute the word “novelist” for “scientist” and his blog could stand for what makes a good writer.

LG's 3rd novel (paperback and Kindle e-book)
Tom sets out his stall with “the cornerstone of all good science [is] observation. Real, deep, questing, searching looking at and into things.” Substitute writing for science and the sentence can stand. Looking at and into things and thinking about them is the basis of all good writing, whether it’s drama or journalism. The business of looking and seeing is so central to writing (and central to my writing) that I decided to write a novel about seeing/not seeing and for STAR GAZING, I created a congenitally blind, first-person narrator who would be well placed to challenge the other characters’ assumptions, not to mention the reader’s. The scientist hero says of her, “It’s not you with the limited perception, Marianne. Folk who can see just don’t seem to look.” (And Tom’s Nobel-prizewinning lecturer complained, “People are losing the ability to see – they don't look down their microscopes any more ...”)

Tom talks about a scientist needing to have an open mind, curiosity, many interests, an ability to reject assumptions. All these form part of the job description for a good writer. He also mentions the need to make connections. This too is essential for a writer of fiction and drama. You can’t plot without it, nor can you motivate characters convincingly. In a good story, actions have causes and consequences.

It’s perhaps not all that surprising that Tom’s list of basic characteristics of good scientists are also required by writers. Arguably other arts practitioners (eg actors, painters, designers) also need these qualities, not to mention historians, geographers & philosophers. But I found myself reading with a dropped jaw when Tom began to get into the detail of being a good scientist, because it seems even when you get down to that level, a good scientist still has much in common with a good writer.

Tom wrote, “A good scientist needs to take the blinkers off, not to be afraid of initially crazy-sounding ideas, and certainly should not be too hasty in judging an idea until it is developed.” This in essence is what I say to student writers when I teach. It’s also what I say to myself when contemplating the creative abyss that stands between me and beginning work on a new novel. If I knew how I was going to solve the problems thrown up by my plot, if I knew how my story would end, I doubt I’d bother to write it. If I already knew the outcome of the experiment, why bother to investigate? No, I write to find out what happens. (Perhaps a low boredom threshold is also a characteristic of a good writer? If you bore easily, there’s less chance you’ll bore your reader.)

So I like to know just enough about my story to be able to begin to write and for me, any story begins with questions. Why? When? What? Who? How? The answers can come much later in the creative process, which is both exciting and nerve-wracking but I've learned to trust the process. Over the years I’ve found that even the craziest-sounding plot has resolved itself in my subconscious and conscious minds because I’ve been “thinking about it constantly” (as Newton said of his theory of gravity.) 

Tom refers to that “strange interplay of the conscious and unconscious mind in the creative scientific imagination”. I refer to this process as “disappearing into the world of the book”. When writing a novel, we enter this world for short periods to begin with, but as the book progresses, a novelist spends longer and more intense periods in this alternative world until, towards the end of the book, s/he scarcely emerges from it and almost finds it difficult to distinguish between the real and fictional worlds. 

The author may be gone for some time.
Ask the family of any novelist about the final stages of completing a book and chances are, they’ll describe someone with a listless and distracted air who doesn’t really listen to conversation or participate in it; someone who’ll consume meals without noticing what s/he eats; who stares into the middle distance, apparently grappling with a three-pipe problem. That writer has descended into the underworld of the book and might be gone for some time…

Tom described another of my writing processes, also common to other writers: “The momentum of thought built up by conscious wrestling with a problem can be gloriously released days or weeks later by a mysterious process of background thinking.” Or, as I call it, “the psyche-up”. Over the years, some serious things have happened to my characters. They’ve been variously buried in an avalanche, blown up by a bomb, burned alive, raped, maimed in a car accident and trapped down a well. They’ve attempted suicide, slept with a sibling and accidentally killed a child. I like drama. It’s challenging to write and it keeps readers turning the pages. But to write a challenging scene, I find I have to prepare, mentally and emotionally, almost like an athlete in training for a big event. Then when I finally feel ready, I dive in to my alternative world and I don’t come up for air until the dreadful deed is done.

It is indeed, as Tom says, “a mysterious process” and apparently not dissimilar to the “exercise in vertigo” that a good scientist performs: “One can only make progress by diving right down into the fine details of a problem or phenomenon, but it is just as important to pull up and climb to an intellectual height where the context of your problem comes into view.” From that intellectual height an author edits and re-writes. That meticulous and repetitive slog is just as important as the creative inspiration that brings a story to life.

The author at play. (Or planning a novel?...)
Writing is hard work and can be draining, but it isn’t all doom and gloom. (Writing fiction is so badly paid, if writing weren’t its own reward, few would do it. We write because it is hugely enjoyable.) Tom says, “a good scientist has not lost the delight of play”. Nor has a good writer. My son once referred to my fiction writing as playing with my imaginary friends and I don’t think I’ve come across a better definition of what I do for a living. My characters are my friends. They are imaginary. And I am playing.

But do not disturb. This is also a writer working.

 Linda Gillard’s latest novel, UNTYING THE KNOT is not your average love story. The heroine's divorced. From the hero. There’s a rom-com subplot, some explosions, several war zones, flashbacks (in all senses), two weddings, and the restoration of a ruinous Scottish castle. 

Or to put it another way, TWO WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL meets THE HURT LOCKER.
Available as a Kindle e-book on Amazon.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

What makes a good scientist? by Tom McLeish

It seems that the "Celebrating Science" team want to explore the "what makes a good...." theme in the context of science, writing, art and more. Perhaps distilling quality in this way is a good route to teasing out what are the commonalities and differences between art and science. So let's have a go...

Although I am myself a theoretician, I can't resist setting down what for me has to be the cornerstone of all good science: observation. Real, deep, questing, searching looking at and into things. I'm amazed at how little it is possible actually to see of the world around us when most of what we think we see amounts to the projections of our own assumptions. But I am equally delighted by how much we can see if we do direct our gaze and look. Perhaps my teenage years peering for hours at a time at Jupiter or Mars through my home-built telescope, waiting for the moment when the turbulent atmosphere would momentarily clear to reveal a dazzling treasure of detail, began to teach me the patience of the observer. Much later, a Nobel-prizewinning scientist made a great impression on me during a lecture when he stopped, put down his notes, and turned to the students in the lecture hall. "I have to plead with you something", he began. "People are loosing the ability to see - they don't look down their microscopes any more ... you should all, please, spend hours just looking down your microscopes! Then you will learn to see things. Then you will be able to discover".

Perhaps this sort of contemplative "seeing without presumption" is as important for the theoretician as for the experimentalist after all. A good scientist needs to take the blinkers off, not to be afraid of initially crazy-sounding ideas, and certainly should not be too hasty in judging an idea until it is developed. Paul Dirac's tenacious belief that there was meaning to the negative-energy solutions of his equation for the electron, in the face of almost universal dismissal, has always impressed me. His intuition was of course the first glimpse of anti-matter.

The scientists who most impress me are often to be found where you would not expect them; in the "wrong" seminars, visiting people who work in different fields, or outside science altogether, reading papers about things they have never worked on. Reading poetry for that matter. They seem to know that new ideas often emerge at the boundaries, or even in the collision of different projects. I think that this sort of activity somehow gives our minds those little knocks that can make unorthodox connections between unsolved problems and distant solutions. It also helps broaden the imagination and scope of a scientific mind. Doing science is an exercise in vertigo: one can only make progress by diving right down into the fine details of a problem or phenomenon, but it is just as important to pull up and climb to an intellectual height where the context of your problem comes into view.

Observing, a predilection for the quirky, a dual passion for detail and big pictures, ... if this all sounds a bit playful then I think that's right. For the next thing I want to say is that a good scientist has not lost the delight of play. Or perhaps the best scientists are the three-year olds in the sandpit! Great ideas do not arise from the pressured, tight moments of the schedules typical of the days we orchestrate for ourselves. Newton famously answered an enquiry on how he arrived at his theory of gravity, "By thinking about it constantly". Those who have been playing this game for a while know the strange interplay of the conscious and unconscious mind in the creative scientific imagination. The momentum of thought built up by conscious wrestling with a problem can be gloriously released days or weeks later by a mysterious process of background thinking. This can even happen simultaneously - I recall the moment when a colleague and I just looked at each other and knew that the other had just realised the answer to the strange experimental results....

So what makes a good writer then?

A CAREER IN GAME DESIGN? by Charles Czerkawski

Perhaps because video games have come a long way in a relatively short space of time, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the numerous roles available within this expanding industry. There is also a corresponding – and worrying - lack of communication on the part of those already working in the industry, with those aspiring to a career in games. One role about which there are many misapprehensions is that of game designer.

Charles Czerkawski
The video game designer is the ‘vision holder’ for a project; he or she makes decisions regarding the many aspects of a game such as core gameplay, additional gameplay features, scoring system, characters, story, difficulty,  risk/reward, etc. The job varies depending on the development company in question, but writing is always a key skill, (the ability to communicate is essential) as well as the use of certain proprietory software tools, which will almost certainly be learned on the job, rather than via any academic course. But I’d like to attempt to dispel a persistent myth regarding game design: that to be a game designer, you must also be a talented programmer.
When high school students with ambitions to work in the games industry are searching for university courses, they may consult careers advisors who seem determined to send them in the direction of computer science courses or – more commonly now -  dedicated computer games technology courses. In both of these, a core focus will be on computer programming. But a rarely discussed aspect of programming (perhaps because it is an uncomfortable truth!) is that it seems to be heavily aptitude based. A Middlesex University study by Saeed Dehnadi and Richard Bornat acknowledges that, despite many and varied approaches from dedicated academics, there is clearly more to programming than good old-fashioned hard work alone. Anecdotal evidence suggests that computer science courses have a high drop-out rate and aptitude, or lack thereof, may be the key. At worst, this can result in a woeful state of affairs where, as the study concludes, many find that they cannot learn what they want to know, however hard they try. They struggle on to the end of the course, for reasons of personal pride, family pressure or because of a lack of pastoral support and a dearth of escape routes, disillusioned and with a growing sense of personal failure.’ (The Camel has Two Humps, 2006)

None of which is to denigrate programming without which no game could be made! Quite the reverse. All companies need good programmers – but in my experience, the best programmers are not too interested in overall game design; rather they enjoy being presented with the many complex problems which innovative game designs present, and their highly skilled job is to make a game mechanic work, technically, not to maintain a project’s vision. Of course, a knowledge of programming is helpful to a designer, but it is not essential to be a genius coder. The same can be said of subjects such mathematics and physics; university level knowledge is desirable but above all, the aspiring designer within this evolving industry needs a portfolio of skills. This should not, however, translate into the naive notion that design is easy, and involves simply telling talented people what to do, any more than - for example - an artistic director’s job (which it can resemble) is the soft option in theatre. 

With hindsight, I’m inclined to think that a broad focus, early in a University career, is worthwhile. This will partly be dictated by the University itself, but the first year should give the aspiring designer the opportunity to experience a number of different subjects, and the student should be conscious of not specialising too narrowly, too soon. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was fortunate that my first university (Glasgow) gave me the opportunity to keep my options open for a couple of years. I began with the conventional aim of completing a computer science degree, but a number of other subjects were compulsory during my first year. I kept mathematics and computer science on the go until my honours years began, then decided to continue solely with mathematics, favouring pure maths. If I had gone along with my original intention to study computer games technology alone, I doubt if I would have completed my degree at all.

The truth is that game design does not have any well defined route to entry. The best thing you can do is to get a good first degree, slanted towards the sciences, but keeping a broad field of interests. You should also look to work in Quality Assurance, otherwise known as game testing, for a while. This is an entry level role and you can even land work before you have graduated, during vacations. I’ve heard students on CGT courses declaring that they are ‘too highly qualified’ for QA work, but in reality, this often provides a great springboard to design.

As the industry continues to move forward, it seems as though Masters level education is becoming desirable for the whole games industry. The Professional Masters in Game Development at Abertay University in Dundee is one such example, which allows each student to specialise in his/her area of interest, creating games in teams, and working in situations designed to mimic the actual games industry. Obviously, other excellent courses are available, and the number is growing each year, but I strongly recommend any course where teamwork is a key aspect. Video game design involves achieving a balance between scientific creativity and artistic inspiration, all underpinned by the ability to communicate with people and facilitate them working productively together. The whole field is evolving and it will be interesting to see which direction this fascinating new medium takes in the future.

Biographical Note: 
Charles Czerkawski is a game designer and one of four partners in a Dundee based independent video game developer, Guerilla Tea . He is a qualified mathematician who has worked in video game testing on titles including Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City and Dirt 2. He holds a shodan black belt in Shotokai Karate, is a keen sportsman and loves to travel. His eBook guide for school students and undergraduates, Breaking into Video Game Design – a Beginner’s Guide  is scheduled for publication in October 2011

Monday, 12 September 2011

Citizen science - engaging the public with scientific research

Helen Weddle is the OPAL Education Officer at Newcastle University, based at Moorbank Botanic Garden in Newcastle. Not that many people know we have a Botanic Garden in Newcastle City Centre – She can be contacted at:

Engaging members of the public with science has always been a great interest of mine, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work in this field for some time. When the opportunity to work for Newcastle University under the OPAL project came along, it fitted very well into this interest. The Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) network is a national 5 year Big Lottery Fund project, running from 2007 to 2012 and is part of a resurgence of unconnected projects designed to engage members of the public with scientific research. These ‘citizen scientists’ are engaged with projects in a number of ways; collecting data, analysing information and digitising historical records for example. 200 years ago, almost all scientists were citizen scientists, and made their living from another profession – Benjamin Franklin was a printer, diplomat and a politician and Charles Darwin was an unpaid companion on board HMS Beagle. Being a paid scientist is a relatively new phenomenon, proving the shift in the opinion that science was a valuable subject to society, and thus, scientists should be paid accordingly so they can focus on their work.

Projects like OPAL are part of this resurgence, and the core part of our project relies on the engagement of members of the public to gather data on our behalf. It’s main priorities are twofold though; whilst the data itself is extremely valuable, and will be used in the State of the Environment report at the conclusion of the project, we also aim to engage people with science and have them explore and learn about their local natural environment. Both are equally important. Most members of the public have been engaged by completing one or more of our six environmental surveys; Soil & Earthworm, Air, Water, Biodiversity in Hedgerows, Climate and Bugs Count. These have been released every six months throughout the project, and have been designed to allow members of the public, with little science knowledge, and no specialised equipment, to carry out an environmental survey at their choice of location. Participants have joined in either via events that have been organised by OPAL partners, or by receiving one our free survey packs and completing the survey themselves. These can be sent out to people, or they are free to download from our website: Our most recent survey, Bugs Count, has involved participants completing 15 minute bug count races to find as many invertebrates in a habitat as possible. You are encouraged to complete the survey in three different habitats, but we are aware that people may not have access to all three. Included in the pack are a workbook with full instructions and to record species found, an easy guide to identifying invertebrates, a pencil and a magnifying glass. Since its launch in June 2011, people taking part in this survey have recorded nearly 500 000 invertebrates! We are still looking for people to take part in all of the OPAL surveys as it offers us the chance to see how the environment changes throughout the year.

Being part of the OPAL project is very satisfying. On many occasions, we have worked with groups of adults who haven’t given much thought to their local environment before and I have found it very enjoyable to see how engaged they become with surveying hedges, looking for invertebrates and working on their identification skills. Similarly, working with children in school or community groups clearly shows how much young people love being outside and learning about nature, whilst also being engaged with ‘real science’. One of my favourite examples of this was when we worked with Tanfield School’s Science Club, and my colleague Chloe Booth shot this video found here.

As a result of the work put in by the OPAL partners across England, we have been nominated for a National Lottery Award for the Best Environment Project. We were very pleased to be nominated for this award, and even more thrilled to learn that the public voted our project through to the finals. We’re now back to public voting, and would very much like to win this award. You can vote online here. It will take you less than 20 seconds, and you don’t need to register. Or you can call on 0844 836 9694. Calls will cost 5p from a BT landline. Voting closes at midday on the 26th September, so please vote before then. We appreciate every vote!

The resurgence of citizen science projects is beneficial to all parties; for the scientists, it’s a way for them to collect more data than they could on their own, whilst also engaging the public with their science. So many science funding bodies impose the requirement of public engagement on grant holders as a form of public accountability, that actually using members of the public to carry out the research is the highest form of engagement. It allows the participants to fully understand the science that the tax they pay contributes to, whilst allowing them to gain new skills in species identification, data collection or another area of science.

There are many opportunities to engage with a citizen science project and many require no previous knowledge – which will you choose to engage with?

Saturday, 10 September 2011

WORMWOOD by Catherine Czerkawska (Part Two)

The splitting of the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.’ Albert Einstein

A scene from  WORMWOOD
When I set out to write a play about Chernobyl, I knew that people would assume that it would be virulently anti-nuclear. It isn’t. But the parts of my play that people still remember – and write to me about – are all to do with individuals. The after effects of the disaster are described by fireman, Stefan, and his wife, schoolteacher, Tanya. She goes downstairs on the morning after the explosion and senses ‘a strange heavy feeling in the air. At first I thought there had been a frost in the night, but it was too warm for frost. The new glossy leaves had this fine white powder on them. Like ash. I touched it. And then I felt my face beginning to tingle. There was no smell but my eyes began to water. And the taste... I could taste metal on my tongue.’

She experiences all this, unaware that her husband, Stefan, is fighting a fire that is ‘no ordinary fire at all. A monster, a dragon. As if this was exactly what it should be doing. And we shouldn’t be there. We didn’t belong any more. We had absolutely no resources to deal with this. We were like little kids, playing with matches...’
The play was produced at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, in 1997, received glowing reviews and  is still in print in an anthology called Scotland Plays, still on the Scottish Higher Drama syllabus.  
To say that the audience was disturbed by it, would be an understatement. I sat among them on a number of nights and saw many of them, including hardened critics, weeping uncontrollably. The other thing they did, from time to time, was to faint, an unexpected side effect of a powerful production, movingly acted in a claustrophobic setting.  Since then, it has had a handful of student productions, but has never had another professional production. A talented young actor /director demanded, only recently, (and quite unprompted by me!) why the National Theatre of Scotland hadn’t mounted a production to mark the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl. But I sometimes wonder if it might not be too uncomfortable a play for commercial success. 
One thing that interested me deeply about the rehearsals was the ignorance of the cast about the nuclear processes involved. It didn’t surprise me, because I had been equally ignorant and I had a scientist in the family. Which means that I half knew – but didn’t know. Not really. Not properly. And I think scientists have to be aware of this, that people may have certain facts at their disposal, but aren’t really aware of the implications of them. So the actors kept asking about what triggered a nuclear reaction. And it was clear that they were thinking about – for example – their oil boilers at home. They didn’t realise (and I noticed exactly the same knowledge gap in those reporting on Fukushima) that the natural state of this stuff is unstable. It does what it does unless you stop it. Well, I know it’s more complicated than that, of course – let’s face it, it’s nuclear physics - but all the same, it’s such a fundamental thing and there was hardly a single journalist who seemed to have sufficient knowledge to query the too-swift reassurances, or – for that matter – to counter the wild speculation that followed Fukishima, magnified on Twitter, as it never was after Chernobyl.

When published, my play was dedicated to my dad, Julian Wladyslaw Czerkawski, who died in 1995 and who never saw the production. I subtitled the dedication to ‘a scientist who knew how to imagine’ which was what my father was – talented, creative, a brilliant scientist but also one who loved exploration of all kinds, and inspired interest in others, not least his grandson, who was born late in 1986. The worlds of science and of fiction are often deemed to be very far apart, but I don’t think that is necessarily the case. I think in so many ways, we can and should inspire and assist each other. And one thing we certainly have in common is an insatiable and endless curiosity about the world, how it works and what our place in it might be. 

Biographical Note: Catherine Czerkawska is an award winning author of historical novels, short stories, many plays for the stage and more than 100 hours of drama for BBC Radio 4. When not writing, she also finds time to collect and deal in antique and vintage textiles, especially those with a Scottish or Irish provenance and often finds herself writing about them. She blogs about her work at WordArts
Her latest literary venture is to publish her out-of-print novel The Curiosity Cabinet as an eBook, on Amazon’s Kindle, along with a trio of short stories called A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture . There are a couple of new novels waiting in the wings, The Amber Heart and The Summer Visitor, with a new book called The Physic Garden almost completed. 

Friday, 9 September 2011

WORMWOOD by Catherine Czerkawska (Part One)

Catherine Czerkawska
When the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred in April 1986, I was three months pregnant, with my son, Charles. The feeling of helplessness as the radioactive cloud drifted towards Scotland has remained with me over the years, as it has with friends who were in a similar situation. I’m not sure whether this was compounded or relieved by the fact that my much loved father, a distinguished research scientist, was working at (but just about to retire from) a facility where the radiological protection officer was running environmental tests in this part of Scotland. He reported that, even here, so far away from the accident, there were minor hotspots. That – for instance – places where rainwater collected, dried a little, collected again, would contain concentrations of radioactivity. Friends with sheep farms also reported that contamination seemed to be patchy and not terribly predictable. I, meanwhile, was confined to the house with flu. It was no picnic being pregnant and having flu, but – as it turned out – it was a blessing of sorts. 

As a playwright, I knew that I wanted to write about Chernobyl, but it was many years before reliable accounts would come out of the Ukraine. The rise of the internet helped. My father helped. And I always knew that, whatever it was going to be, it wouldn’t be a simple anti-nuclear polemic. My father had worked for the International Atomic Energy Commission in Vienna, and was by no means anti-nuclear himself. But he was still sceptical about, for example, costs of decommissioning and was fond of going to promotions held by the nuclear industry and asking awkward questions from a position of knowledge. 

The play was called Wormwood, and not just after the now notorious biblical quotation – ‘And the third angel sounded, And there fell a great star from heaven, Burning as it were a lamp, And it fell upon a third part of the rivers, And upon the fountains of water. And the name of the star is called Wormwood. And the third part of the waters became Wormwood And many men died of the waters, Because they were made bitter.’ But it’s still chilling, even now, to think that Chernobyl means wormwood, so named because the bitter plant grows in profusion in that area. 

It was inevitably going to be an ‘issue based’ play, but that didn’t mean that it was only going to be a play about issues. Drama of this sort can be deadly dull, tub thumping of the worst sort. For a long time I wasn’t sure what form the writing would take. But I began to read extensively about the subject and the more I read, the more troubled I became.

A scene from WORMWOOD
The play – or my writing of it – began in the mid 1990s, with a hesitant  voice trying to describe the events of that warm April night in the Ukraine – a nice spring night when people would have had their windows open. The voice was speaking in terms that would not only be comprehensible to the lay person, myself included, but which would convey some of the horror, and the sense of inevitability which seemed to lie at the heart of it. With that voice came a clear vision of an abandoned place, a place where time and normality had stood still, a place where human lives had been destroyed and many potential futures ruined. (Later, when I saw the pictures, I was amazed by how accurate my visions had been.) As I found out more about those real human lives, the idea of the play began to take shape. I didn’t want it to be a play about some remote disaster that ‘couldn’t happen here.’ Because the more I explored and read, the more convinced I became that, given a particular set of demands upon human fallibility and complacency, anything can happen anywhere. 

Somewhere along the way, I discovered a quote from Albert Einstein, who wrote ‘The splitting of the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.’ Wormwood, the play, is about the effects of one such catastrophe on a small group of people most closely involved: two scientists working at the reactor, a fireman, his schoolteacher wife and their young son. There is also a mysterious character who interrogates the others, who interrogates the situation itself, in an effort to make some sense of it. 

The play explores all kinds of things, but especially the fact that a safety experiment triggered the disaster. Chernobyl has always, I think, been played down in the West with the belief that because we have better technology it ‘could never happen here.’ And there’s a good deal of truth in that supposition – but all the same, when human beings are dealing with dangerous technologies ‘you decide that some things are so very unlikely to happen, that they can safely be ignored. First you persuade yourself of this unlikeliness. Then you set about persuading other people. You have covered all eventualities, the unthinkable can’t possibly happen and so you realise that it would be a waste of time and resources to plan for it happening. But if it should happen, not only will you not know what to do. You will not even know what to think. And if it should even begin to happen, neither you nor your colleagues will notice until it is much too late to do anything about it.

Earlier this year, as I watched, transfixed by those successively exploding reactor buildings in Japan, accompanied by the voice of a scientist reassuring us that this was actually meant to happen, that all would be well, that no, there was no possibility of any kind of melt down, I remembered those lines from my own play, with a certain wry amusement. But it wasn’t amusing at all. And neither is our media’s reluctance to engage with Fukushima and what happened there, beyond those first alarming weeks. Reuters reports today (25th August) that ‘nearly six months after the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years at the Fukushima nuclear plant, Japan faces the task of cleaning up a sprawling area of radioactivity that could cost tens of billions of dollars, and thousands may not be able to return home for years, if ever.’ But you have to hunt online to find the report. The BBC doesn’t seem to consider it worth a mention. 

[Part Two of this guest blog will be posted tomorrow.] 

Biographical Note: Catherine Czerkawska is an award winning author of historical novels, short stories, many plays for the stage and more than 100 hours of drama for BBC Radio 4. When not writing, she also finds time to collect and deal in antique and vintage textiles, especially those with a Scottish or Irish provenance and often finds herself writing about them. She blogs about her work at WordArts

Her latest literary venture is to publish her out-of-print novel The Curiosity Cabinet as an eBook, on Amazon’s Kindle, along with a trio of short stories called A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture). There are a couple of new novels waiting in the wings, The Amber Heart and The Summer Visitor, with a new book called The Physic Garden almost completed. 

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Life and Learning Part 2: Outside Box Town

by Emma-Kate Prout

Emma-Kate Prout will soon begin her final year as an undergraduate in Earth Science and Geography at Durham University. She is delighted to be back to blog during a hectic yet happy summer spent making music, studying the science of seaweed and cereal, and appreciating the art of annoying alliteration.

In my previous post (Part 1: Poetry, Pebbles and Poo), I began with biscuits and ended with an epiphany. Clearly they were good biscuits. I admit that the Why was never quite extinct on Planet Prout, but the science species was critically endangered for a while….

Imagine trying to drive a car as a child. Forget the legal and safety aspects; it’s an analogy (just don’t try telling that to the police). At first you push buttons and pull levers, wanting to know everything about how everything works and why, why it works and how and so on. Then after a few years you become a bit blasé about the whole car thing and just tootle along to work, humming to yourself. You concentrate on the road ahead, keeping an eye on other drivers and admiring the landscape. You start to take for granted the vehicle and its workings, and the millions of complex things happening in the world outside. Then, eventually, you turn a corner and pull in for a quick stop. You open the dashboard compartment where you stash snacks and old ideas. As you grab some biscuits, you spot a Rubix cube you haven’t worked on in ages, and pick that up too. You climb out of the car and suddenly start to think more critically again. You contemplate how the engine works, and what fuels it; someone else has been filling it up for you for all these years and it could be run off Digestives for all you know. You wonder how efficient it is, what the emissions are. Then you remember, after all the summers you spent sweltering in your seat with no air con, that the windows open; they’d just jammed shut with the frost a few winters ago. You hop back in, noticing that you’ve absent-mindedly solved the Rubix cube as you ate your biscuits, and making a mental note to cut down on the metaphors. The weather’s glorious on the next leg of your journey. As you make your way to your new home outside Box Town, your brain breathes a breath of fresh air.

Rather than solidifying the magic and mystery of one’s surroundings and self into a slab of logic, science seeps through even the most seemingly mundane of objects and actions, imbuing them with small, sparkling drops of awe, and leaving the world dripping with the stuff. I am guilty, as are many fellow students, of occasionally forgetting the awe as it’s bottled up and crammed into the corner of a room full of deadlines. But before too long, the fizz blasts the cork from the bottle and I go through a sort of science re-epiphany.

On the desk in my new flat sits a small tray filled with sea-smoothed gems of nostalgia: a selection of the finest pebbles and shells, unearthed from the debris of a decade or so in the back of a wardrobe. I sit at my desk, engrossed in writing for work and leisure alike, with the windows open.

In the coming autumn - what feels like the blink of an eye since I picked up my first pebble - I will begin my third and final year as an undergraduate. Somewhere along the way, I seem to have become a ‘scientist’.