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Glasgow Science Festival Event: ‘Café Sci: Looking for Light’

“What do fiction and science have in common? An evening of musing by Pippa Goldschmidt and Professor Martin Hendry.”

At Mono on Wednesday evening, Café Scientifique hosted Pippa Goldschmidt, acclaimed author and ex-astronomer, and Professor Martin Hendry, head of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Glasgow, in a lively discussion of science in contemporary literary fiction.

The first half of the evening followed a loose structure of Pippa Goldschmidt reading excerpts from various books before discussing them with Prof. Hendry. The theme of the extracts was the experience of being a scientist. Beginning with a fictional piece by John Banville imagining Johannes Kepler’s (1571-1630) thought process as an amusing though frantic bout of pattern recognition, Pippa Goldschmidt moved on to some of her own work with an excerpt from The Falling Sky (2013) about Jeanette, a modern young astronomer, working at an observatory in the mountains of Chile while under the pressure of a university establishment. Prof. Hendry pointed out that these excerpts show the change in the way science is done, from Kepler’s solitary musings to Jeanette’s concerns about continued funding. However, most scientists in fiction still conform to the solitary genius archetype, rather than the more modern truth of committee-led science.

In the second part of the evening, the discussion moved through a range of topics, though it focused on how science and fiction influence each other. Prof. Hendry spoke about how scientific discoveries spark science fiction writers to imagine the consequences of this new knowledge, and in doing so often lead scientists down new avenues of thought. Pippa Goldschmidt mentioned her work in hosting workshops for writers to meet scientists, talk about science and see what stories spring forth.

Inevitably the question of “What influenced you to do science?” was asked, though the response was non-fiction from both of the hosts. For them, good science writing stretched and grew the imagination as much as good fiction. Or, as Prof. Hendry put it, “The Universe is stranger than Star Wars”.

Edited by Debbie Nicol

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