This week I had the pleasure of meeting up with the Bristol University science writer in residence Tania Hershman (pictured). I came up with this article for Epigram and enjoyed writing it so much I thought I would post it here too.
Armed with a canvas bag brimming with vintage chemistry glassware, Tania Hershman looked like someone off to set up some insane experiment when I met up with her in Cotham last week. Despite being a writer and no longer a scientist, it turned out that is almost precisely what she’s up to.
Tania has now been writer-in-residence at the Bristol Faculty of Science for nine months. She was awarded an Arts Council England grant to work on a short story collection inspired by spending a year installed in a laboratory here in Bristol. The laboratory where she is embedded is run by Professor Paul Martin, who studies the biochemistry of wound healing. She’s also drawing inspiration from a 1917 textbook; ‘On Growth and Form,’ which is allegedly ‘beautifully written’. (I originally called it ‘obscure’, but then realised it’s actually extremely well-known and respected.. oh well. There’s only so much you can know!)
Hershman is one of the few people writing what she calls ‘fiction inspired by science’. Indeed, she has written that when you do a Google search for that phrase what you mostly find is science fiction or even science inspired by fiction! Despite this, she claims that science is a seriously juicy area to hunt for stories in. Working in the lab is often much like any other workplace – with its highs and lows – but surrounded by curious machines and unknown techniques that clearly spark her imagination.
‘I have become just fascinated by the pipettes’ Tania tells me. ‘The dexterity with which the guys can use them is amazing; they do everything with one hand! It really is like a different world.’
I had imagined that Tania is hoping to persuade people to get more into science through her writing, and get them to realise how vital it is. She certainly has a huge passion for the subject. Having completed a degree in Maths and Physics she went on to work as a science journalist for 13 years. She also recognises that many people are a bit scared of science; ‘I think people can often see it as some kind of monolith out to hoodwink them.’ But she says ‘I don’t think fiction should educate’ and insists her work does not set out to teach people what to think. It is fiction pure and simple. An experiment in literature, which unlike a science experiment, does not have a well-defined or perhaps even expected outcome.
So how does it work and what does the fiction look like? Tania began seven years ago by taking inspiration from articles in New Scientist, many of which are published in her first short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008).
The title story, The White Road, was based on an article detailing an American project to build a road to the South Pole. This led Tania to imagine something akin to a roadside cafe in Antarctica, complete with the kind of interesting characters you might expect to inhabit such a place.
Tania has also begun to probe not just science but what it’s like to be a scientist; someone that dreams of discovering new concepts and works in an environment totally alien to a high percentage of the population. She was recently commissioned to write a short story based on the work of the discoverer of the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), Osamu Shimomura and inspired by the events that led to his breakthrough.
The result was the story We are all made of protein but some of us glow more than others which explores how the green fluorescent protein was isolated from many thousands of jellyfish. It explores themes like how the young Shimomura disagreed with his supervisor about research and there’s even a hint of boy likes girl romance in amongst the prose.
To a scientist like me it seems like a very literary piece; it uses artistic devices like repetition of sentences to enforce ideas. And it’s not clear what, if any, message the author wants us to take from it. But that is of course the point. Tania is not trying to tell us what to think about science. Her fiction is engagement with science, not education in it. The story will be published in an anthology from independent publishers Comma Press of stories inspired by “eureka” moments in science.
While science is perhaps not something many writers are interested in, writing is a talent that scientists must all have if they want to get anywhere; communicating the results of science is pretty vital. It’s not much good discovering a new drug if you don’t write and tell people about it.
So the writer-in-residence scheme is definitely a two-way thing: Tania offers advice to the researchers in her lab on how to write good, snappy introductions to their work. ‘I have been surprised by how often the word story is mentioned in the labs,’ she tells me. While the day to day work of doing science might be awfully time consuming and sometimes even boring, Tania says this is just the ‘plot’. The ‘story’, she says, is the why and the what for, and that’s where science becomes really interesting. Helping the researchers get good at writing the story of their work is an important part of what Tania has to offer.
It turns out the bag of glassware is in fact destined to be used in a continuation of her work as an art installation at the Grant Bradley Gallery in Bedminster as part of the University’s “Changing Perspectives” Arts/Science month of activities in March/April. She appears to have little idea exactly what form this will take, but by now this no longer surprises me. It is all an experiment.
It’s also worth checking out the Bristol University science faculty blog. There’s lots more of Tania’s short fiction to enjoy there.