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.