The subtle side of science

The winners of a writing competition bring the stories of scientists to life

By | July 13, 2007

On a spring day in March, a group of writers came together to learn about writing from scientists. Not how to write, but what to write: How to tell stories about science and scientists that are both interesting and accurate. It's easy to get one or the other, but often difficult to capture both simultaneously. It was the 2nd "Subtle Science" Short Story Competition, part of the Oxford Literary Festival. During that March day, fiction writers met with researchers in the physical and life sciences, to learn about the technical details of science, and objects and images associated with a particular field. The scientists also shared parts of their lives outside of work, showing the writers the people behind the science. Representing the life sciences were Nick Brown, a plant ecologist, and Autumn Rowan-Hull, a researcher in stem cell and diabetes, both at the University of Oxford. The event was sponsored by The Scientist. Over the next two months, the inboxes of Ann Lackie, organizer of the event and founder of SciTalk, received a trickle of stories from the writers who attended the workshop, all aiming to capture the drama behind scientific research. The judges -- all writers, and two with science backgrounds -- picked one winner, and two runners-up. Today (July 13) and next Friday, we will publish the winning entries. Of the two stories we have placed as joint runners-up, "Equifinality," by N.E.A. Carter, has a bold, ambitious theme: the child's world versus the scientific adult world, and the conflict between family and professional dedication. "Bedrock" by Rachel Crowther is fractured, dark story -- a failed marriage has left a scientist bitter and frightened. She is saved by having a degree in geology which qualifies her for a job and a living. All judges unanimously selected "Tenderness," by Anne Youngson, as the outright winner. In it, we see the scientific world through the eyes of a non-scientist and non-citizen, who falls in love with a state-of-the-art laboratory and the scientists who work there, but cannot understand the science, nor how the outside world perceives it. As part of the project, the writers spent time with the researchers in their environment, to help take in the themes and ideas that are integral to their work. Youngson admitted that she was surprised at how much of the science she understood. "What I found, of course, was that science is about ideas, and the scientists I met made their ideas accessible, interesting and involving," she says. "It was like catching a glimpse of next door's garden over a wall I had not previously been quite tall enough to see over." Judges: Jane Gardam is a novelist and short-story writer; winner of many literary Prizes, including the Whitbread Prize (twice), Winifred Holtby Prize, David Higham Award, and others; and short-listed for the Booker Prize for God on the Rocks Robert Macfarlane, writer, essayist, reviewer, and Fellow in English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, whose book Mountains of the Mind won the Guardian First Book Award. Ann Lingard, novelist and former scientist; aka Ann Lackie, founder of 'SciTalk' Ivan Oransky, Deputy Editor of The Scientist Researchers: Ruth Allington, geomorphologist from GWP Consultants Chris Davis, Space Scientist, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Chilton, UK Nick Brown, University of Oxford South Parks Road, Oxford UK Autumn Rowan-Hall, University of Oxford South Parks Road, Oxford UK The Scientist Staff Click here to read the winner, Tenderness, and the two runners-up, Bedrock and Equifinality. Links within this article: Subtle Science, SciTalk Nick Brown Autumn Rowan-Hull Equifinality ' Ann Lingard Ann Lingard Ruth Allington GWP Consultants Chris Davis Chris Davis, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory Nick Brown Autumn Rowan-Hall

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