Sunday, 13 February 2011

Moving on

Hi all
I'm moving this blog to a new location on my website, where it can nestle comfortably alongside excerpts from my fiction and other pieces of non-fiction.
Please come and visit it at

Happy reading!

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Storytelling – and the taxi number

I’ve just finished reading ‘An Indian Clerk’ by David Leavitt, which is a fictionalised account of the life of Ramanujan, during the first part of the last century. He was a self-taught mathematician from India who only came to prominence after he sent some of his work to Hardy, the most eminent mathematician in Britain at the time, based at Cambridge. Hardy saw that although the way Ramanujan worked was unorthodox, he had an extraordinary feel for mathematics, and arranged for him to come and work at Cambridge.

Not many people outside the field can understand either Ramanujan’s or Hardy’s contributions to mathematics. What is more widely known is the story of the taxi number.

I first heard this story when I was a child, and my grandfather used to tell it to me;
‘Ramanujan was ill, and being cared for in a nursing home in Putney [incidentally just five minutes walk from my grandparents’ flat] and Hardy came to visit him. It was clear that Ramanujan was dying, but nobody knew why.
‘Hardy didn’t know what to say to him about his illness. Instead, he remarked that the number of the taxi which he had just travelled in was 1729, which he thought was a very boring number.
“Oh no, Hardy,” said Ramanujan. “It’s a very interesting number. It’s the smallest number which can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.”
(1729=13+123=93+103 )

And my grandfather and I would shake our heads and smile in awe at Ramanujan’s ability to analyse numbers and expose their inner workings.

My grandfather liked telling me this story and I liked listening to him. Only after he died did I realise that the story connected us in the same way that the original incident connected Hardy and Ramanujan. My grandfather’s failing memory meant that he found it difficult to take part in our family’s conversations about our daily lives. In telling the story he found a way of relating to my life, and articulating something we shared; a love of mathematics and science. And the retelling of the story over and over again, which could be seen as a symptom of dementia, could also be seen as a way of reinforcing that connection, of trying to make it as strong as possible.

Storytelling in families can be so powerful as a way of defining relationships and identities. Can it have a downside?

Friday, 6 August 2010

Genomics Forum Poetry Competition

Last year, as part of my writer-in-residency activities, I ran a short story competition to encourage writers to be inspired by genetics and genomics. As a result we received some fantastic stories, and so this year I’m repeating the exercise – for poets. The theme of the competition is ‘improving the human’. How does an increased knowledge of genetics change our understanding of humanity and experiences of being human?

We’re running the competition in partnership with the Scottish Poetry Library, who will organise an evening of readings of the best poems later on this year.

See here for more details of the competition.

This was partly triggered by Ken MacLeod’s (other writer in residence at the Forum) Human Genre Project, a site which publishes short stories and poems inspired by genetics.

One of my favourite poets who frequently uses scientific imagery is Jo Shapcott. Here’s an interview with her where she discusses the interaction between poetry and science. But I don’t agree with her view that the interaction between poets and scientists mainly goes one way in that poets learn from scientists. She actually subverts this later in the interview by pointing out that scientists need metaphors and analogy to make descriptions of their discoveries and theories.

Monday, 10 May 2010

An absence, or a vacuum, or perhaps just nothing to say.

Hello, I’m back.

This blog has been frozen in time while I went away and started work at the Government. This occupied my mind to the extent that I found I couldn’t think of anything interesting to write about. I could have written some nice blogs about offshore renewable energy (the subject of my Government job) but other people write about that subject better than me.

I have now created some spare time for writing, a void or a vacuum, for two days a week.
‘A Void’ is a translation of a French book by Georges Perec (‘La disparation’ in the original) which he wrote, and which was translated, without the use of the letter e.
Is there a point to game-playing like this in literature? What’s the point to restricting your palette like this? Writing’s difficult enough, surely…
Perhaps it makes us more aware of what we’re actually working with when we write. We use words to create an image in the reader’s mind, but words exist in their own right, they are not just symbols of a reality, and they are not perfect symbols either. We endlessly make choices about the right words when we write. So when we signal these choices to the reader, it creates a sort of stereoscopic effect in which the reader is both aware of the artificial reality we’re trying to create, as well as the tools we’re using to do it.

And nature abhors vacuums, so when I sit there perfectly still and silent, fingers poised over the keyboard, random words come out of nowhere.
Physicists don’t like vacuums either; what used to be a perfectly empty space between galaxies now seems to be full of dark energy actively expanding the universe. Some types of dark energy are called quintessence, a beautifully pre-scientific term from the ancient Greek for ‘fifth essence’ – after the four classical elements of earth, air, fire and water. Another word for quintessence is ‘aether’. Physicists have tried to find the aether before and failed; that failure led to special relativity. So vacuums can be fruitful.

Friday, 27 November 2009

More (un)certainty, or do I mean something else?

Following on from my last blog, the event on poetry and astronomy at Royal Observatory in Greenwich went very well. Jocelyn Bell Burnell gave a great talk and invited members of the audience to read aloud the poems on astronomy she had selected. These readings were fantastic; and I think helped the discussion with the audience to flow more freely.

At one point during this discussion I said that perhaps scientists aim to be more ‘certain’ in their writings than poets, and aim to get a more definite response in their readers. A lady in the audience rightly reminded me that since 1927 physicists have been wrestling with uncertainty, and in particular the uncertainty principle and its implications for reality.

One of the problems with trying to understand the uncertainty principle is the word ‘uncertainty’. It’s a translation from the original German phrase used by Heisenberg when he formulated the physics. But he actually used several German words. It’s a shame that the English equivalent has invariably been ‘uncertainty’ and perhaps we accord that specific word too much weight.

What Heisenberg actually deduced, and what he summarised in this principle, is that not every physical property of a system exists with infinite precision at every point in time. Furthermore, these physical properties are connected; so that the more precise the position of a particle is, the less precise is its momentum.

You often see this explained as due to the practical problems of measurement; if you measure the position of a particle, you use light photons to do this and they will hit the particle, inevitably leading to a change in its momentum. This way of thinking implies that there is an underlying physical certainty, but that we just can’t measure it. It leads to approximately the right mathematical formulation of the principle, but it’s wrong-headed. It’s a metaphor that’s been stretched too far.

The uncertainty principle is telling us something much more fundamental about reality than that. It’s telling us that reality itself has an inexactness; there is nothing beyond what we can measure. There is no underlying, more precise, reality. This can perhaps be better expressed in some of the other words that Heisenberg used, for example; ‘indeterminability’.

So, some of the misunderstandings about this principle derive from the English word ‘uncertainty’, and the fact that this translation of Heisenberg’s original words has become rather too crystallised, perhaps even too ‘certain’. It’s taken on a shorthand meaning of a general vagueness, and even a general limit to scientists’ ambitions about their work.

An additional layer of uncertainty has been added by the requirement to translate Heisenberg’s words from German, and this influences the way we’re able to discuss the subject in English. (It’s obviously more precise to go to the maths, but there was an analogous ‘translation’ problem in the 1920s, when both Heisenberg and Schrödinger came up with very different mathematical formulations for quantum physics. It took some time before they realised that one formulation could be translated into another.)
Is it easier to talk about this principle in the original German? Answers on a postcard, please.

Finally, there will be more actual (as opposed to online) discussions about poetry and science; we’re having a ‘social sessions’ event on 13 January in Edinburgh at the Scottish Poetry Library. Do come!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Dark matter – clear poetry

The Royal Observatory Greenwich is holding a public event on 10 November to discuss poems about astronomy. The astronomer Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the poet Kelley Swaine, and I will be speaking at it.

There is a lot of poetry written about astronomy, and I find this surprising for a couple of reasons.

First, because there’s hardly any literary fiction (I’m only singling out literary fiction because, with its emphasis on language, it’s the nearest thing in prose to poetry) inspired by astronomy. There are the wonderful books by John Banville, ‘Copernicus’, and ‘Kepler’, which are fictional accounts of these astronomers’ lives. There is ‘The Discovery of Heaven’ by Harry Mulisch. And that’s it. (Is it? Tell me I’m wrong)

Second, poetry likes to restrict itself in terms of space, and numbers of words. It likes to be concise, condensed. Astronomy, by its very nature, attempts to explain the entire universe. How can there be any sort of dialogue between such a constrained art-form and such a sprawling subject? What can poetry meaningfully say about astronomy?

Looking at the anthology of poetry about astronomy, ‘Dark Matter’, what strikes me is how many of the poems use people to investigate the subject. As I’ve said before in previous blogs we can’t seem to escape the human-sized in literature. So is astronomy just being used as a metaphor for human activities and emotions? Or is it being explored as something interesting in its own right?

Rebecca Elson managed to write very concise poems that convey an accurate sense of the science – her poem ‘Explaining Relativity’ describes how, according to the theory of general relativity, space is distorted by matter, and the way matter moves is correspondingly affected by this distortion.
‘What if There Were No Moon?’ describes how the Moon affects the Earth; not only tides and eclipses, but also human constructions such as the calendar.

Perhaps poetry has similarities to mathematics, in that discipline’s desire to explain and describe as concisely as possible. Euler’s identity is much loved by mathematicians, because it links the fundamental arithmetic operations to irrational, transcendental, and imaginary numbers in one very simple equation. e to the i pi plus one equals zero. When you say it out loud it sounds like poetry.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Why we should resist the urge to classify everything

Recently James Kelman has been letting off steam about the fact that genre fiction outsells literary fiction and is far more likely to be reviewed in the so-called literary supplements of the newspapers. But both he and many of the people commentating on his criticisms seem to have a curiously simple-minded approach to the literary vs. genre debate. Literary is deemed to be automatically more virtuous or ‘good’ because the author is not subject to any external demands or limitations in terms of style or content, and genre is the bad guy because it apparently doesn’t question or subvert the readers’ expectations. But how much ‘literary’ fiction does actually subvert, or at least stretch, those expectations? And how much of it seems to be in thrall to style, at the expense of content or plot? Many writers sneer at so-called ‘plot-driven’ genre. But just what is wrong with plot? Why are books with more character development than plot lauded over genre?

Writers don’t just write genre fiction because they want to sell. They write it because they have something to say that can’t be fit into the expectations of literary fiction. Despite what Kelman et al. say, literary fiction regularly excludes from itself books whose quality of writing, or ‘style’, certainly justifies their inclusion. It does so because it’s uncomfortable with the subject matter. For example, Margaret Atwood says her books are not science fiction, because the latter only addresses what has not yet happened. This arbitrary definition gives the lie to literary fiction being less rigid in its expectations than (other) genre.

Caster Semenya’s plight may read like a science fiction novel, but it’s real.
Until her story hit the news, I assumed that females were created by two X chromosomes being present in the foetus, and males by one X and one Y. But this is not so. It seems that a person’s sex is a complex physical phenomenon which arises from an interaction between chromosomes and hormones. In order for the chromosomes to have the expected effect on the development of the organism, they need to be supported by the relevant hormones, in the right quantities at the right times.

For example, a person with XY chromosomes can only develop as a male if their body is receptive to the androgen hormones. If they have a condition known as androgen insensitivity syndrome, they will develop as a female, despite the presence of a Y chromosome in their bodies. So, while most people’s sexes are straightforward to categorise, a minority exist on a continuum in between the two most common ‘extremes’.

It seems to be impossible to decide ‘objectively’ the point on this continuum at which ‘female’ can be differentiated from ‘male’, without asking the person concerned what sex they feel they are. That is why Caster Semenya is undergoing psychological tests, as well as physiological ones.

This sort of psychological test sounds depressingly similar to those foisted on gay people in the past, but at least it may give Caster some input into the decision that the IAAF are going to make about her sex.

Classification of people (and of writing) is all well and good if it gives us genuine insights into the world. But if classifications make our thinking too rigid and become uncoupled from reality, then we should learn to live without them.