Promoting science in fiction

Q&A with Ann Lackie, novelist and former scientist

By | July 7, 2006

Ann Lackie is a former parasitologist and zoologist who resides in Cumbria, UK, where she is now a science broadcaster, consultant, and novelist (under the pen name Ann Lingard). Jennifer Rohn interviewed her in person and by Email. Q: You often use science or scientists in your novels. What's your philosophy? A: Science should not be overt. You don't want the reader to think, 'Oh, that's where she did her research.' My strategy is to use scientists as major or minor characters -- science just happens to be their job -- and to take them wherever it suits me as author to send them. Scientists are very adaptable as characters. My novels are not 'about' science. For example, one of the characters in The Fiddler's Leg is a postgraduate finishing off his Ph.D. in biochemistry. We can learn a little about what his lab looks like and what he does, because he has to work long hours tidying up his results for publication. And meanwhile he's neglecting his girlfriend. In Seaside Pleasures, on the other hand, the science is slightly more overt, deliberately, because I wanted to show readers something that they could find and see for themselves, and I wanted them to have some challenging ideas to think about, too. Q: Can you tell us anything about the novel you're working on at the moment? A: It's called The Embalmer's Book of Recipes, the story of the interaction between three women -- a taxidermist, a research mathematician, and a Cumbrian hill-farmer. It's also interspersed with essays, written by the taxidermist, about the family and work of the Dutch anatomist Ruysch, and other related topics -- the reasons for which slowly become clear to the reader. Q: Tell us why you set up SciTalk, an organization to put writers in touch with UK scientists. A: I've always been almost evangelical about getting writers and artists to meet with scientists, so they can all find new sources of inspiration. I feel very strongly that fiction writers should get away from the tired old themes of urban lives and loves and discover the goldmine of ideas that modern science offers. The question was how to help them do this, when we're all snowed under with written information. The most informative and entertaining way to find out about something is to meet and talk to an enthusiastic and friendly expert, preferably in their lab, to see how and where people do research. And scientists and writers are discovering that they learn about each other, too. It's very good for overturning stereotypes -- in both directions! So my collaborator, physicist and information scientist Peter Normington, and I set up SciTalk last year with a grant from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. Q: How many scientists are in your database currently? A: About 140 -- all self-selected enthusiasts, from Fellows of the Royal Society to lab technicians, academics and health service researchers to private consultants, covering diverse disciplines from mathematics to molecular genetics. Each new application is a thrill -- the range of subjects and the people that work on them is fascinating. Q: What sort of response have you had from writers and have any collaborations taken place? A: So far there have been nearly 200 queries from playwrights, poets, screenwriters, novelists, exhibition designers, and even a choreographer! Of these, many writers have visited labs or are involved in ongoing conversations. Established writers like David Harsent, Toby Litt, Clare George and Clare Dudman have enlisted SciTalk's help, and a series of poems and a children's novel have already been published. But of course writing and publishing is a slow process, so we know the project requires a long timespan. Good, exciting science and scientists as believable characters won't appear in fiction overnight. Q: Any other efforts to promote science in fiction? A: SciTalk recently held the Subtle Science Short Story Competition, during which a group of writers and SciTalk-registered scientists met one another. I was really delighted by the enthusiasm. Now the writers are all busy finishing off a short story inspired by this encounter, and the winners will be published in the GuardianUnlimited later this year. I've also had a busy schedule of talks, workshops and events to run for writers, including the Romantic Novelists' Association, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and the Society of Authors. Q: What are your long-term plans for SciTalk? A: SciTalk is clearly going from strength to strength as word spreads. It's giving scientists the chance to showcase and enthuse about their work and to show what being a scientist means - and that they have a life outside the lab as well. And writers are obviously amazed at the ideas and imagery that they are discovering, and with the generosity and enthusiasm of their contacts. We are currently seeking more funding, but in the meantime I feel so passionately about its usefulness that I shall continue running it for free. Jennifer Rohn Links within this article Ann Lingard SciTalk R. Lewis, "From science fiction to science fact," The Scientist, September 27, 2004. "Science fusion," GuardianUnlimited, July 18, 2005.,9828,1530955,00.html

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