Last week I attended Science for Fiction Writers, an event organised by Dave Clements (or that should be Dr David Clements), a senior lecturer in astrophysics at Imperial College, London and also a writer of science fiction. Science for Fiction Writers has become an annual event at Imperial. It’s an intensive one-and-a-half days of lectures from scientists who are top in their field. Dave, who blogs here at Disturbing the Universe is well connected in the science world, and each year tempts unsuspecting scientists and academics to come and talk to a bunch of writers at a level that we can (hopefully) understand.
I knew a lot of the participants. many of them are writers who’ve attended Milford, so it was particularly great to see (amongst several others) Liz Williams, Sue Oke and Kari Sperring, with whom I’ve spent many Milford weeks. I’d travelled down with writer-friend John Moran and his wife, Sara. Altogether we were a bunch of diverse people with diverse interests and qualifications. There were several people with physics degrees and, indeed, PhDs, so they were well ahead of me to start off with, but their specialities weren’t necessarily directly lining up with the subject matter for the lectures.
Apologies in advance if I’ve got any of the lecturer’s names wrong. I had a printed programme sheet but handed it back in with my feedback comments, so I’m relying on reading my own scribbled notes.
We travelled down by train from Wakefield in the morning because Tuesday was a half day, convening at 2.00. This year we kicked off with Toby Wiseman talking about General Relativity and Beyond. Amazingly I could follow most of it. Newton to Einstein; general relativity; special relativity; the bending of spacetime; time dilation—all concepts I’m familiar with but put into terms I could grasp. Snippets about black holes, event horizons, singularities and at the centre, there’s a place of infinite curvature and zero size.
Sadly the second lecture on Observing Gravitational Waves by Peter Wass was pitched over my head. He went straight into equations and kept uttering the fateful words: ‘I guess everyone’s familiar with…’ [some concept or other]. Gravitational wave something worple worple something. I did pick out some things, so I wasn’t totally lost.
Then came Nikolina Nakic’s talk on Epigenetics. I’ve never studied genetics, but there was enough here to carry me along with it and it was fascinating. There wasn’t much audience interaction to begin with. I think everyone was stunned into silence. It picked up again, however, when we got a few intelligent questions that led on to nature versus nurture and how environmental factors (such as famine) can effect genetic changes in offspring.
After that we all adjourned to the pub at the student union and thence to an Indian restaurant. A few of us overnighted in Imperial’s Southside hall of residence: very convenient and not terribly expensive (for London), but the beds are like bricks. Luckily I learned from last year’s experience and took a lightweight camping air bed with me.
Wednesday was an intensive full-day of lectures. The timetable we had was switched round so we kicked off with New Physics at the Large Hadron Collider with Dave Colling. Here, I have to say, was my least favourite of all the lectures. It was pitched so far above my head I couldn’t have reached it standing on a space elevator. I understood all the words, individually, it’s just that I mostly didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. Even the difficult lectures the day before yielded some notes and interesting facts, but at the end of an hour my notes consisted of: protons, electrons, gluons, partons, leptons, hardons (sorry hadrons), Klingons, muons, fermions, bosons – DUH! The universe is left-handed. And I finished with ‘There’s a poem in this.’ But I like the idea of a left handed universe. Would an unenlightened supreme-being spend any time rapping it on its left handed knuckles to try and get it to become right-handed? Sometimes ideas for stories come out of the strangest places.
The next session was much more up my street: Networks: from Ebay to Ancient Greece, by Tim Evans. There was some fascinating stuff in here. He began with the basics and pitched it just right – networks being a series of nodes connected by edges. He went on to talk about network models and emphasise the multi-disciplinary nature of network science: maths, physics, biology, geography, archaeology and social sciences. Physical trading networks of the Minoans are reflected in modern transport systems such as an airline map. We talked about the analysis of data sets and social networks with ‘six degrees of separation’. None of it was totally unfamiliar but it pulled a lot of ideas together.
Next we had a lecture on the Solar System with particular reference to the Atmospheres of Planets, by Ingo Mueller-Wodarg. This was riveting stuff with regard to the search for life, the identification of liquid water (surface or sub-surface). On earth methane is produced by life. There is methane (in patches) in the atmosphere of Mars. Methane can be created biologically (bacteria) or by the action of liquid water and hot rock. Methane in the atmosphere doesn’t last for more than a couple of hundred years, so something is replenishing it. Future Mars missions would be looking at methane on Mars to discover the cause. However by international treaty we can’t pollute Mars and since microbes can survive re-entry we can’t send missions to the areas where there might be life because we mustn’t pollute the area with earth bacteria. Bummer! Catch 22. Some of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter have the possibility of possible internal oceans. Enceladus, Saturn’s small, icy moon, has plumes of material escaping into the atmosphere which might be water vapour. Europa, Jupiter’s large moon, possibly has either an internal liquid ocean or a convecting ice ocean. Jupiter’s Ganymede is also likely to have an internal ocean beneath a 40 kilometre layer of ice. There has to be an internal heat source, but if all that holds true it’s possible that extremophiles could live there. Ingo’s speciality, however is the atmosphere of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Titan has a nitrogen/methane atmosphere much deeper than earth’s, and there are methane lakes on the surface and sub surface oceans, possibly water. We were treated to enhanced video from the Cassini/Huygens landing on Titan – absolutely breathtaking stuff.
And finally Marek Sergot talked about Artificial Intelligence, or rather he didn’t, because he doesn’t actually believe that such a thing can ever exist – though his reasons are interesting.
Sessions over, Sara, John and I departed for Kings Cross and the train back to Yorkshire.
You may wonder why someone with a non-scientific background attends an event like this. Well, it’s precisely because I am a science dunce that I want to sample the best of the best and have my horizons broadened. I’m still mulling over Dr Fay Dowker’s statement that ‘There’s no such thing as time,’ from the 2015 Science for Fiction Writers event, or recalling the lecture from one of the team who put the Philae lander on the comet. I come away from Science for Fiction Writers with interest awakened and possible avenues to follow up. I’m already looking forward to the 2017 event.