Exploring writing through science

‘The problem with science fiction is that it attracts the wrong kind of people to science. It attracts woolly thinkers who would be better off in English Literature.’

These are not my views. These are remarks made by a science fiction writer I recently shared a public panel with on the topic of science and writing. I can’t emphasise how much I disagree. 

First of all, I know very few English Literature graduates who are remotely woolly. Secondly, I disagree because science is inspiring, not just to scientists, but also to writers. And readers, of course, but that is the subject of another blog. This one is about inspiring people to write.

I recently ran a writing competition for Glasgow University. We invited narrative non-fiction entries on any research carried out at the University, past or present, from the sciences to the humanities. Alongside this competition we also ran writing workshops with exercises such as asking participants to guess or invent the use of scientific objects inspired by short pieces of writing. The competition was moderately successful, but the workshops were amazing. We had interest from both scientists and writers and both communities were inspired and deeply impressed by the other.

Science is a much underused asset in teaching literacy and encouraging individuals, young and old, to start writing. Science can be extremely emotive; it is most definitely inspirational, and also aspirational.

Superheroes, alien creatures, rocket ships, dragons, the search for a cure to an incurable disease: all of these have been central to many great stories. Why? Simply because they spark our imaginations. They create wonder. They seem magical. What has this got to do with science? Well, to wilfully misquote Arthur C. Clarke, ‘Yesterday’s magic is today’s science.’

The beauty of apparently cold scientific fact is that it can explain wonderful things and then lead to more questions. For example, the Higgs Boson is the particular glue that holds that us together as a single entity. From this scientific principle we could easily set out to explore the philosophy of self. Or we could write a story about a world without weight…

But… isn’t science hard to understand for non-specialists?

No, not really. Not if you are looking in the right places for inspiration. Sure, a non-specialist is likely to glaze over when reading the first paragraph of a scientific paper, but science is becoming very, very accessible. Here is an explanation of the Higgs Boson. With a little concentration, it isn’t hard to grasp. And here is a comic book about the malaria parasite, and the variety of research being done to fight the disease, from cell biology to computer science.

There are pages and pages of online resources available to explain scientific concepts to children. Some links are listed below, but for more adventurous writers, it doesn’t stop there. Nearly all university departments and research institutes these days have ‘public engagement’ or ‘public outreach’ internet pages. These explain the very latest science being done there.

There are also the university archives, full of incredibly detailed historical records on people, research and industry. And finally, nearly all institutes these days make all their published research available free of charge. For example, Enlighten at Glasgow University. This is obviously for those who want to make a really in-depth study of their topic, but it is an incredible resource nonetheless.

That ‘eureka’ moment when we realise we understand something we thought was too hard to grasp is both addictive and inspirational. Like Archimedes we want to jump out of the bath and share that understanding. That flash of emotion is how we can use science to inspire children and adults to write. Explain a little science clearly and then invite them re-tell the story or use their imaginations to take it beyond our own reality.

Websites worth a look





Mhairi Stewart

As a molecular biologist Mhairi spends much of her time investigating the sex life of the malaria parasite, and has a passion for using literature and storytelling as a gateway to scientific understanding. She has a strong belief that art and science are both creative disciplines, and has co-created science comics and narrative non-fiction on various scientific topics. She also helps design innovative and engaging workshops for all ages, which her husband, Gary Erskine, delivers as Perfect Spiral.