‘Writing in the Stars’ lecture at Glasgow Planetarium

I’m giving a lecture at Glasgow Planetarium on Thursday 3rd March, about astronomy in literature. This’ll draw upon work by Brecht, Hardy and many other authors: see here for more info.


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One of the Herald’s Favourite Reads of 2015

My short story collection ‘The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space’ was chosen as one of the Herald’s Favourite Reads of 2015, by the wonderful novelist Alice Thompson.

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‘I Am Because You Are’ in the Indie

I wrote an article about the background science to our anthology ‘I Am Because You Are’ and why I wanted to celebrate the anniversary of general relativity in short stories. You can read it in the Independent.

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‘I Am Because You Are’ on BBC Radio Scotland

Tania Hershman and I were on Janice Forsyth’s show on BBC Radio Scotland, to discuss our anthology ‘I Am Because You Are’. (We’re speaking about 24 minutes into the show!)

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‘Nature’ article about science and fiction

A recent edition of ‘Nature’ has a nice long article about writing science-inspired fiction, based on interviews with authors Alastair Reynolds, Jenny Rohn and me.

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What have apples got to do with it?

I seem to be a bit obsessed with apples, they’ve appeared in my writing in all sorts of different ways.

The first apple was fairly obvious. I was writing a short story about Alan Turing and it’s known that he died as a result of cyanide poisoning. Andrew Hodge’s biography suggests that this was suicide, Turing dipped an apple in cyanide after becoming overwhelmed by his criminal conviction for homosexuality and subsequent treatment with hormones. Other people think this his death wasn’t so clear-cut; he enjoyed experimenting with chemicals at home and it may simply have been a terrible accident. But what about Snow White? It’s well known that Turing adored this story and he could have taken inspiration from the make-believe poisoned apple.

But then I discovered that this was not actually the first apple, there was one several years beforehand. Robert Oppenheimer, before he became a brilliant theoretical physicist and scientific director of the Manhattan project, was a PhD student at Cambridge University in the 1920s. This was the era of quantum physics and European physicists were coming up with new theories and ideas practically every week. But the physics department at Cambridge was more focused on experimental work and Oppenheimer struggled to find his feet. His PhD supervisor was Patrick Blackett, renowned for his work in the laboratory and development of pioneering equipment. Blackett and Oppenheimer were very unalike, and Oppenheimer started to sink fast. He had some sort of breakdown in which he tried to poison Blackett – with an apple.

The final apple is really the archetype – Newton’s famous thought experiment in which he realised that an apple falling from the tree to the ground is obeying the same laws of physics as a planet orbiting the Sun. This apple leaves behind a gap – picture an apple-shaped void hanging off the branch. It took Einstein to realise that the apple and the space around it were actually connected. In his general theory of relativity he showed how an object’s mass curves space-time, and in turn this space-time tells the object how to behave.

For me, this deep connection between apparently unrelated entities is mirrored in our use of words to represent things. Language is a unifying principle, just as Einstein’s equations are. And perhaps I write words because I can’t do maths.

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Gutter magazine

My short story ‘The shortest route on the map is not the quickest’ is in the latest edition of Gutter magazine – this story is also in the anthology ‘I Am Because You Are’ co-edited by me (how could I edit the anthology and not write a story for it too?).

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Double launch of ‘I Am Because You Are’

The new anthology of short stories and essays celebrating 100 years of general relativity, ‘I Am Because You Are’, is now out from Freight Books. Co-edited by myself and Tania Hershman, it has specially commissioned work by Andrew Crumey, Pedro Ferreira, Vanessa Gebbie and many other brilliant writers.

We’re launching the anthology in Edinburgh on 9 November at the Wash Bar, and in Glasgow on 13 November at John Smith Glasgow University Bookshop.

There’ll be readings from some of the contributors, and maybe even suitable cake (black hole brownies and tensor tea cake?)!

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Shoreline of Infinity

Shoreline of Infinity is a new Edinburgh-based SF magazine and monthly event, and I’ve blogged for them recently on the subject of hands

Their next event is on 29 October at Deadhead Comics and I’m reading at it, along with the fab Ken MacLeod, Russ Jones and Edward Ross. There’ll be music! Comics! Fun!

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100 years of General Relativity in stories

On the afternoon of November 25, 1915 Einstein gave a lecture to the Prussian Academy of Science about his new general theory of relativity and as a result our universe changed.

Prior to this, our understanding of how things worked relied on Newton’s laws. He imagined a set of rulers and a clock measuring universal space and constant time – with no real justification for this it, because it was common sense. In this universe everyone agrees what happens, and when and where it takes place. The theory worked, it predicted the existence of Neptune. It was an outstanding achievement.

This universe is impeccably logical in many ways, and yet like the Wizard of Oz, it was all created with smoke and mirrors. As Newton himself admitted, he couldn’t explain what gravity actually was, it was just this mysterious force that acted instantaneously across vast distances.

Newton’s universe exists outside the events it contains. Einstein’s universe is fundamentally different. Space and time are woven together into a four-dimensional fabric that changes its structure as a result of material objects. This universe changes with time, it has a past and a future.

The first test of general relativity was carried out in 1919 by Eddington, a Quaker astrophysicist who narrowly avoided being sent to prison during the First World War. Eddington measured the position of stars behind the Sun during a solar eclipse and showed that they were altered as a result of the light travelling through space-time distorted by the Sun’s mass – the size of effect was predicted by Einstein who became famous overnight. Newspaper headlines at the time picked up on this perception of space shifting around us; ‘Stars not where they were or appeared to be…’

Later in the 1920s Hubble’s observations of galaxies all receding from us showed that the Universe appeared to be expanding. Space-time itself was in motion.

Is it any coincidence that at the same time artists were developing Cubism – a way of depicting objects at different spaces and times? And modernist literature turned its back on the traditional omniscient point of view, just as physicists rejected the idea of the universal observer. From now on, all observers had to consider how their own properties might influence the outcome of any experiment.

The maths describing this new universe is formidably difficult, to the point that Einstein himself struggled with it. What are much easier to get to grips with are the thought equations that he used – short narratives populated by people furnished with clocks, torches, trains and lifts to illustrate the logical outcomes of his thinking. These thought experiments demolish the idea of a universal causality common to all observers.

It was these narratives, together with the realisation that our concept of the universe changed so dramatically in 1915 that led to this new anthology coming into being, when I felt that the 100th anniversary should be celebrated, and in a way that was somewhat outside the scientific orthodoxy (as was Einstein, at least early on in his career). Just what would happen if you let loose a bunch of fiction writers on this subject?

Some of the contributors had a background in the subject, others didn’t. They all tackled it enthusiastically. The STFC research council financed it with equal enthusiasm. They saw, correctly, that writing stories about science is a good way to take that science to new audiences.

The anthology also contains three non-fiction essays about general relativity from astrophysicists at Oxford University. They took part in a day-long workshop on general relativity for our writers at Oxford University in September 2014.

And the title? Because nothing summarises the interdependence of mass and space-time better than the Ubunto philosophy of ‘I Am Because You Are’. As Einstein proved mathematically, none of us exists in splendid isolation.

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