Evolution of Science Writing – Bridge to the people who don’t like science

Sunday teatime Humber Mouth hosted the Royal Society event The Evolution of Science Writing. Two  authors, mathematician Eugenia Cheng and environmental journalist Gaia Vince – aided by  Dr. Steve Cross science communicator – spoke at length about the art of science writing past, present and future.

Eugenia Cheng: English mathematician and pianist, an honorary fellow of pure mathematics at the University of Sheffield and a scientist and residence in liberal arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Gaia Vince: British Environmental Journalist broadcaster and columnist, first ever solo female winner of the prestigious Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize , which puts her name amongst an impressive roll-call including Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould, Jared Diamond, James Gleick and Bill Bryson in 2015.

Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments

As one of the ‘Maths was never my strong point’ brigade, when attempting to do anything number related, counting change, budgeting, audience figures… I enjoyed the presentation of mathematics as a benevolent force by Eugenia Cheng.

Beyond Infinity: An Expedition to the Outer Limits of the Mathematical Universe, explores inside the weird and wonderful world of infinity, from endless hotels to bottomless cookie-jars

As one of the thousands who repeat the mantra ‘Maths was never my strong point’  – when attempting to do anything number related, counting change, budgeting, audience figures… I was pleasantly surprised by the presentation of maths as a benevolent force by Eugenia Cheng. The mathematician spoke eloquently about how her passion for science began. ‘If you have a lot of something like good knowledge you can help people by sharing it.’

Eugenia continues explaining that she wanted to write a multi platform maths book with DVDs, she had been an early adopter and contributed to the advent of maths on youtube, as far back as 2007. ‘People only see the most boring parts of maths,’ she says to an audience of science experts and initiates, ‘I want to reach people directly, to show them how mathematical applications can help just about everything, in the world.’

Eugenia writes about mathematics like a story, a sort of ‘whodunnit’ on what is infinity. ‘Maths is a journey not a destination’ she reminds us. After a diet of David Attenborough and Tomorrow’s World Eugenia discovered Iain Stewart’s book ‘ Does God Play Dice’. She talks about these early science titles as being akin to be let in on a secret, as having an Ahah moment as you come across something that makes you look at things in a different way.

‘I’ve never read a popular maths book and understood it.’  Eugenia Cheng

Eugenia describes a strange burden placed on science writing as being required to be useful, a burden not, she readily points out, applied to prose, poetry or indeed football. Her passion appears to be borne out of a desire to show, how mathematical thinking sheds light on our own thinking.

Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments

Rather than taking a theoretical journey Gaia Vinces’ book Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet, was researched over two years of intense travelling the world, she visited slums in Colombia, silver mines in Bolivia and a man who’d built an new island from rubbish in the Caribbean.

Gaia loves stories and books, she began science writing in science journalism, combining stories of human endeavour and scientific discovery to try to understand the world. She was Editor of the Journal Nature which has presented reports on climate change and global warming, bio-diversity changes to landscapes; changes to life itself. She decided to leave her desk in order to discover who, where and how the world was being affected and how that overlapped with the bigger global picture.

The environmental journalist talks about the way we are living in ‘epoch making times’ describing our human fingerprint as being all over the globe and that the evidence will be found such as synthetic chemical traces, extinction of animals – the same way dinosaur fossils are found by archaeologists today –  by the scientists of the future. Introducing the subject of her book ‘the Anthropocene, she describes exactly how what we are doing to the planet, is on a par with the destructive power of asteroids. ‘We decide how the planet works; the species who provide a food source for us; control the direction of watercourses; the depletion of marine life; the pollution of coral reefs, the melting of glaciers.

‘When I write I imagine I am talking to people at a party.’ Eugenia recommends parties as being the best place to talk about theoretical mathematics. ‘There is a time for T.S. Elliot and a time for Quantum Mechanics’ she says. I don’t want readers to feel they are being taught something rather that they are skipping across the page with the excitement of science. Often when reading a science book, there is time for refection afterwards, as the mind considers the profound ideas within.

Over the last ten years that adage ‘ Oh I can’t do maths’ has shifted partly due to the financial crisis and more openness with science in general. ‘Today people might say,’I wish I knew more about that.’

Gaia talks about the scientific community becoming tribal, with certain disciplines being like factions. ’The subjects are interlinked, it is essential that they speak to each other.’ she adds, ‘By covering social injustice, environmental issues, this could be seen as a political book.’

During a diversionary moment the two women discuss the inaccuracy of the hexagon pattern, seen on football signs on stadiums across the country.

Asked about the direction of science writing in the future, both women appear to have positive outlooks to share.

‘It’s generally getting better, people are more curious – we will still have books – radio has always been very good in this regard, with information readily available. Casting a prediction Eugenia suggests that more science will appear in books targeting the Young Adult market.

Gaia is equally optimistic and speaks of the ready wealth of information online, how technology is disrupting old educational systems. She points out that the scientific community do not value education and educators, as much as they do researchers. She talks about the importance of science continuing to exist outside of the research community and the university, ‘To provide a bridge across to the people who don’t like science.’

During the Q and A our own Jon Venn doesn’t fare to favourably, nor does the famous Venn Diagram. Despite Eugenia suggesting that it is a poor way of thinking about maths, the Venn trope is used – usefully or not – to illustrate further questions from the audience, about media representation of science and the use of science in genetic stories. ‘As soon as I see one of these stories I look up the actual research paper to find that it bares no resemblance, to the story being reported,’ Gaia exclaims.

With a final revolutionary flourish Eugenia, proposes a move to stop talking about gender, to get rid of the words masculine and feminine and replace them with ingressive and congressive, which only describe personality characteristics.