Friday, 27 March 2015

Atomic Radio: Where Art Meets Science

ATOMIC radio was a six-part radio series, exploring the relationship between the arts and the science of X-ray crystallography, featuring conversations with artists, designers and scientists, new writing and original sound artworks.

I was intrigued by this approach, since many of my own interests stem from the convergence of science and fiction, albeit from the starting point of SF. Rather than looking for the science content in fictional works, episode 2 in the series considers the fictional elements in the invisible sub-microscopic world of crystallography. The founding of the science of X-ray crystallography by father and son team William and Lawrence Bragg, in 1913, led to the development of new techniques for studying molecular structures, which also involved the construction of large scale models. In the years after World War II, proteins, viruses and other molecules were being studied and modelled in greater detail and numerous different variations of the same structures were produced. This was prior to the 1953 determination of DNA by Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin. The Hidden Structures Exhibition at the Science Museum (7 March 2013 to 1 January 2014) drew from its large collection of molecular models to celebrate the the history of these structures.

In the episode, an interview with the exhibition's curator, Boris Jardin, revealed that there are different ways of approaching the task of modelling thousands of atoms, and that it is a design problem as much as a science problem. Metal rods and plasticine were among some of the more unusual materials used. It was also interesting to hear about just how different models of the same molecules could turn out to be, as in the images featured here. Commenting on the task of representing atomic structures, Jardin paraphrased the famous biological illustrator, Irving Geiss, who said that fiction must be added in order to convey truth. In other words, a degree of invention is what can lead to scientific breakthroughs like the discovery of the structure of DNA.

The series was part of the Resonance 104.4 FM Science Museum residency and the 2014 International Year of Crystallography. The themes are based on Emily Candela's AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award research between the Royal College of Art and the Science Museum.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Book Review: Perfect World by A.J. Kirby

A. J. Kirby’s novel Perfect World envisages what such a world might consist of – and examines the reasons it always falls short of perfection. Through the eyes of journalist Toby Howitt, at once world-weary and out of his depth, the plot develops via meetings with God, the disillusioned creator of Perfect World, and excursions into His artificial version of reality. Set in the Cornish gardens of Eden and Elegant, the Biblical allusions extend to characters named Addam and Eva and touches on the Fall of Man, with a modern twist. Kirby tackles themes of lost world(s), and alternate realities through a series of fast-paced adventures. The book’s central premise is the merging of Real and Virtual worlds, seen through the prism of a ‘second life’ lived through an avatar – the Perfect World of the title – and how that impacts on human relationships.

Using the near-future setting, Kirby hints at the inevitability of ecological disaster and critiques social inequality (in both worlds) – “capitalism’s last stand” – in the rich tradition of ‘dystopian’ science fiction. The action is continuous, the narrative entertaining, and the tone urgent throughout, and whenever the atmosphere threatens to become too oppressive, serious matters are often treated with humour. As a naive narrator, Howitt is both a strength, allowing the reader to see events as they unfold through his eyes, and at times a weakness, preventing a fuller exploration of the philosophical implications of the perfect world. The ignorance of the narrator drives the plot forward, but in this respect is also its limitation; it arguably restricts Kirby in actively pursuing the many ideas and issues raised.

The fundamental issue of communication – how people relate to one another when every laptop, mobile phone or tablet offers instant access to a safe, self-enclosed world (such as Second Life or virtual reality games) – is at the heart of this story. As Howitt initially explains, the primary advantage of this artificial environment is that it “... enabled me to live in a world in which I do not have to be myself”, with a wife he has never ‘met’, but he comes to realise that this apparent freedom brings its own restrictions. What seems the ultimate form of escape gradually unravels, and he eventually finds sanctuary in the ‘real’, the tranquil gardens and quiet countryside.

Recommended for fans of adventurous science fiction and anyone interested in new novels with contemporary themes.

This review originally appeared on the Leeds Big Bookend site.