Monday, 12 December 2011

Particles, Processes, Species and Self

by Emma-Kate Prout

Emma-Kate Prout is about to - oh… is in her third and final year as an undergraduate in Earth Science and Geography at Durham University. This is all she has time to write at the top of the page.

In an earlier post (Life and Learning, Part 1: Poetry, Pebbles and Poo), I introduced the concept of consciousness of science in everyday life.

We begin now at your desk. It’s raining and you’re cosy indoors with a full plate of biscuits and an empty sheet of paper. Several minutes later, plate and page reach disequilibrium: apparently, biscuit consumption exceeds creative output. You examine the remaining biscuit: sweet child of field and factory. You contemplate how it might look if you magnified it: wheatflour, vegetable oil, sugar and the rest. Millions of McVitie’s molecules (protons, neutrons, electrons, tastiness) of the right types, in the right proportions, in the right arrangement, at the right temperature, are crammed into this crumby, biscuit-shaped block. You contemplate for a while, then dunk Chemistry in your tea.

As you digest your Digestive, the rain drums harder on the window. You’ve bagged box tickets for the wettest show on Earth: the Great Global Tour of life’s liquid in its many guises. Glaciers and geysers, rivers and lakes, oceans and clouds, trickle in droplets down the glass. The see-through slab of processed sand is all that sits between you and some stunning choreo-Geography. You are inches from a molecule that featured in Jurassic Krap. Just as the dance dies away into drizzle, Physics wows the crowds with a fantastic finale: Little Old Lady sprays Loud-Mouthed Lout as she ploughs through puddles in her petrol-powered metal machine.

Show over, you return to your blank page. Someone once watched rain water your paper when it lived and you think you should at least honour its death with some decent words. As you ponder, you tap your fingers to the radio. Your personal patterns of lines, loops and whorls wave to the waves from the box that’s plugged into the wall. In another place at another time, limbs, lungs and minds met friction and air to make music with metal and wood. It vibrates in your room now, as frequencies and amplitudes of life and love. The pulse through the nerve from your ear to your brain makes you smile.

You start writing. At least, you scribble ‘without thinking’- always good for getting the cogs going. Don’t cross out or pause to mentally modify it, you tell yourself. Just jot the first thing that comes into your head. But of course, you’re always thinking even when you think you’re not and there is no such thing as unedited writing. It’s as though you’re writing on the dance floor at a wedding party in your brain. Experiences, emotions and memories are doing the Mental Macarena, swilling with cognitive cocktails. Uncle Consciousness and Auntie Analogy inevitably throw up on your page.

Writing seems quite impressive now that you consider it: up in head office, your brain commands your food-fuelled muscles to work in pairs. From your mind, through your arm, from a small plastic stick spill lines and letters (a language you learned), their patterns returned to your brain through your eyes by light bounced off mashed-up trees. You decide that even if you’re writing drivel, the action alone is a wonder.

So you carry on writing. Science flows behind your words, within, beneath and beyond your page, in every direction, on every scale, in effervescent streams. It soaks through your senses; is almost a sense in itself.

You have uncorked the fizz. And you sparkle with Science, engulfed by and part of its awe.

In a breathing block of elements, a flesh-draped, blood-pumped frame of bones, by a window in a box of bricks, in a web of life, in time and space, as cause and effect on Planet Earth, in a still-expanding Universe; as particles, processes, species and self… you think and feel and write.


  1. Brilliant, Emma-Kate! A joyous post. The writing moment, captured and dissected.

    Biscuit consumption exceeding creative output is a serious and intractable problem for the professional writer, as our spreading bottoms will confirm. I've now managed to eliminate biscuit consumption. Coffee is the final frontier.

    Since "stopping to make some proper coffee" is also an enemy of creativity, I now do a deal with myself. I set a target (eg finish Ch. 10/produce 6 handwritten sheets of draft) and then I don't allow myself near the coffee pot until my target is achieved.

    Well, mostly.

  2. Thanks, Linda.

    I should probably make clear to everyone now that there's some degree of artistic license here: however many biscuits you may think I eat, it's usually one less. And by the time you subtract all the crumbs lost in tea- even given my expert dunking skills- it's really not many molecules at all.

    My latest thing is flapjack-making-and-eating rampages. I realised just now what a lovely balance this has brought to my life. A trinity of flapjack, Digestives and my dissertation, like 'Oats and wheat and barley grow'(although my dissertation also involves manure). Do you or I or anyone know where I get this crap from?