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Litmus: Short Stories from Modern Science

  • Date: 27 October 2011
  • Area: North
Close up of the book cover with a pine cone on top

Litmus publication. Credit: Craig Pay

This autumn, Manchester’s short story specialists, Comma Press launched their latest science-literature collaboration. Writers were commissioned to recreate and semi-fictionalise eureka moments from the history of science, and paired up with scientists who acted as consultants throughout the project. Each scientist wrote an ‘afterword’ that described the impact of the discovery.

At the outset, Comma were keen to let the scientists take the lead, so began by inviting over 30 scientists to nominate three key turning points in their particular fields – discoveries that mean the most to them as scientists, and that changed their particular discipline forever. Along with short explanations of the science involved, the sixty nominations were presented as a series of long lists to the authors who’d agreed to take part in the project. From these lists, the authors then chose the one eureka moment they’d most like to write about.

The next stage was for the writers to visit the scientists attached to their story, and spend a day in their place of research, getting to know the science behind the turning point as best they could. The authors continued to correspond with their consultant scientist via email, they also read additional historical and biographical texts that the scientists had recommended. The scientists checked the stories for scientific inaccuracies, and then wrote the afterwords that accompanied the finished pieces in the anthology. Seventeen stories were created, five of which involved pioneering scientists who are still alive; in three cases the pioneers themselves were brought in to the consultation process, and two of these – Professors Denis Noble and Giacomo Rizzolatti, wrote the afterwords to their own stories.

In its first few weeks the book has already made an impact. Litmus: Short Stories from Modern Science was featured in an interview with the editor and contributor, Sarah Hall, on Radio Four’s Front Row programme, and The Independent’s ‘book of the week’ slot described it as ‘ingenious’ and ‘unfailingly interesting’ noting that the pairings of writer and scientist ‘work brilliantly, giving stereoscopic vision.’ Additionally, Alison MacLeod’s contribution The Heart of Denis Noble was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2011 and was read on Radio Four in mid September - a reading that was repeated on Radio Four’s Pick of the Week programme the following Sunday.

In 2011 Comma hosted preview events at Hay Festival, the Small Wonder short story festival, Ilkley Literature Festival, Liverpool’s Chapter and Verse and the Manchester Literature Festival. Dr Martyn Amos leads the Novel Computation Group at Manchester Metropolitan University, and for the commission he was paired with Jane Rogers, Professor of Writing on the MA course at Sheffield Hallam University. A specially reduced version of the short story about Alan Turing’s discovery of Morphogenisis (1952) was read to a packed audience at MadLab’s base in the Northern Quarter of Manchester on the last weekend of the Literature Festival. Questions from the floor were wide-ranging and challenging, but responses from the duo of scientist Martyn Amos and writer Jane Rogers were focused as well as humorous.

Alison Boyle, Relationship Manager, Literature, Arts Council England, said: ‘Many of the audience at the Turing event hot-footed it to the International Anthony Burgess Centre to see Zhu Wen, a Chinese writer and film-maker whose short story was specially translated into English from the Chinese by Comma Press. This new National Portfolio organisation, funded by Arts Council England from 2012-15, is leading a consortium of digital specialists Madlab and independent publishing network Literature Northwest, and through these two events it demonstrated both quality and versatility.’

More information about Litmus: Short Stories from Modern Science is available on the Comma Press website