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Stories from Science

May 12, 2008

Reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything reminded me of how many great stories can be told from science. As new areas of knowledge come to light, so do new opportunities to tell stories appear.

Dava Sobel’s novel Longitude covers how one intractable problem, how to measure longitude, was eventually solved. This seems a trivial problem to us today, but only a few centuries ago this was considered a problem that could never be solved. There’s a reason ocean sailing was so often dangerous, as with no way to calculate longitude sailing north to south out of sight of land meant risking becoming hopelessly lost. Many sailors died after their ships ran aground on islands or treacherous shores they had no idea they were close to. In the end it was a clockmaker who designed clocks that would operate in hard oceanic conditions who solved the problem.

A more speculative example is Stephen Baxter’s novel Evolution. Beginning a mere 65 million years ago the story starts with a small squirrel-like creature on the run after plundering one too many dinosaur eggs. She is saved from being eaten by a strange atmospheric disturbance that slays almost every dinosaur and weakens the rest. She has no idea what is happening but continues on through the new ashen landscape, managing to raise an offspring in the meantime. Eventually, too weak to continue, her own daughter leaves her to die. The ashes cover her. 65 million years later a 21st century archaeologist discovers a fragment of a fossil -the squirrel-like creature- and recognises it for what it is -an early human ancestor. The book then goes back to cover the intervening years, and then returns to carry the story of evolution through to its terrifying finale.

That’s two stories. There are thousands more.

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