On Physics, Spiritualism, Fiction, and Non-Fiction

On Monday evening I chatted with Deborah Cloyed, author of the recently released novel “The Summer We Came to Life”, which I finished reading over the weekend. The conversation was recorded for Rare Bird Literature’s Rare Bird Radio site, and so you can listen. (Embed at the end of this post.) We talked about her use of various physics ideas (Copenhagen and Many Worlds quantum mechanics interpretations, parallel worlds) in her skillfully crafted novel about four friends, loss, the afterlife, and friendship.

At this point, some of you are yelling “Run, run for your life, Mr. Scientist!”. But No. No, no, no. I think that’s a mistake. Deborah is, first of all, writing a novel, not trying to push some self-help book that cherry picks a few ideas from science, conflates them with some stuff people want to hear, and trying to make a buck out of it. Second of all, she really loves the science, and seems to have read a lot about the subject, unusually widely. You don’t ignore someone who really cares about the subject and wants to know more, especially when they want to include it in the work they are producing. So when we were introduced a while back, she thought it would be fun and interesting to have a conversation about various things, and I agreed. I got the chance to comment (at her request) about what I thought she was doing with the science, and how the final result worked, I got to ask her what she thought of it, and from there we talked about lots of related topics, including the whole idea of mixing science with writing (fiction and non-fiction), the purpose it serves, what we each think of how science and religion fit together, and so on and so forth. (We mentioned my own project a little bit too, and shared thoughts about difficulties of classification, genre-tagging, and possible publishing difficulties this can produce.)

In short, while I think there are terrible examples of confusion caused by mixing science with the arts and humanities (of whatever form), both innocently and deliberately, and so it is seen as a bit risky for a practicing research scientist to wade into that area, I think that we need to resist the temptation to hide in our ivory towers. We shut those doors and then we don’t have a leg to stand on when we complain (and boy do we complain) that science is not presented properly in the general media, etc. We need to get out there and get involved. We should not try to control what is being said about science, and how the ideas are being used, any more than any other piece of the larger culture. Rather we can make ourselves available for discussion, unpacking of the ideas, guidance if asked for, and so forth. No project is perfect, no endeavour is flawless – that includes the things that we do – but we can be sure that some of ideas that end up in the work will pique interest, and maybe get members of the general public to seek out more, perhaps finding their way to the heart of the science that we want to share with them.

Anyway, have a listen and see what you think. Here and there (especially at the beginning) the sound from my line is not so great (we called in using Skype), but it gets better after a break to call back in.


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2 Responses to On Physics, Spiritualism, Fiction, and Non-Fiction

  1. Steve Avery says:

    I enjoyed the discussion and thought that you make an important point about interacting with the lay public. Every time Deborah Cloyed used the word “consciousness”, I winced (as I imagine most other physicists would) and would have been tempted to make some fairly critical comments; however, I think that ultimately you are right that scientists should not presume to own their ideas. It is probably better to have some exchange of ideas with popular culture even if it is not quite in the way that some might like.

  2. Dilaton says:

    About two years ago, I got really piqued from some good popular books and physics blogs to learn more and more about fundamental physics or HEP (at a not only “equation-free” level) in my spare time; just for the fun and entertainment of it 🙂

    I just love what these physicists are doing (even if it is not “my beer”) and I am happy to learn about new results or developments they explain to a non-expert audience.