Thought Experiments: Physics through Fiction

Project aims:

This project aimed to celebrate the creativity and ingenuity of physics when it tests and critiques theories by using purely hypothetical scenarios (not unlike the way fiction offers useful insights into our own real-life dilemmas, despite being fictional!). It also aimed to test how well thought experiments could be integrated, as material, into literary (non-SF) fiction.


The objectives were:

1. To raise awareness of the physics involved behind the chosen ‘thought experiments’.

2. To improve the appreciation of scientific inquiry as a ‘creative’ endeavour.

3. To provide scientists with an opportunity to talk about fundamental physics questions to a general audience.

4. To reach literary audiences who would not normally be interested in physics.

Summary of activity:

The three physics consultants we ended up working with were: physicists Dr Robert Appleby (University of Manchester) and Professor Tara Shears (University of Liverpool), and the philosopher of physics, Dr Roman Frigg (London School of Economics). One of the authors, Sara Maitland, took the original brief in a slightly different direction, not once but twice (writing firstly about anti-matter and Dirac, then, about the four fundamental forces. The other three stories were written by aspiring writers Claire Dean, Sarah Schofield and Marie Louise Cookson, and covered, respectively, Gallileo’s Boat, Laplace’s Demon and Maxwell’s Demon. Because of the common ‘demon’ theme shared by the latter two stories, Comma decided to stage a special event, titled ‘Night of the (Physics) Demons’ on the eve of National Short Story Day (20 Dec 2013), borrowing its title from the film of an MR James short story (Night of the Demon), as MR James is so often associated with story readings and adaptations around Christmas time. The two Sara Maitland stories were published in Moss Witch, and Sara and Professor Tara Shears discussed their story collaboration on Radio 4’s ‘Open Book’. The other three stories were published online with accompanying video recordings of their readings.

Evaluation approach:

Internally and with the participating authors and scientists, we evaluated it informally. With regard to the event audience, this was done via survey monkey having collected people's email addresses on the day.

What went well:

1. The Commission brief - this got writers thinking and produced great stories.

2. The collaboration format - writers and authors got on very well.

3. The choice of consultants/physicists - all of them were really enthusiastic and great communicators. Rob Appleby was particularly good at his two live events; a natural public speaker.

What was learned:

1. Coordinating people's time, especially for public events proved tricky; we ended up putting on two events, and the latter was very late in the year (too close to Christmas perhaps). Consequently the audience turn out for that second event wasn't as high as it could be. In future, we wouldn't hold events in December.

2. Some of the physics covered was quite high level material, and the Q&A session at the second event went into some very specialist areas that lost some of the audience (the Casimir effect in particular). In future, we'd put aside more time for the Q&A session to allow such questions to be made more accessible for the audience.

Top tips and advice for others

1. Don't be afraid to bring together practitioners from very different disciplines! It's a challenge: good artists/writers and good science communicators will always embrace a challenge!

2. Always give yourself enough time, and build in extra time for authors especially.

3. Always build in as much choice for the artist/writer as possible. We gathered a list of 14 possible thought experiments in total (and the list would have been longer!), when only five were needed - this gave the writers a sense of freedom when choosing what they were to write about, rather than forcing a subject on them they hadn't chosen. The result from it being more their choice was they took ownership of the idea more.

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About the contributor

Ra Page
Comma Press

Comma is a publishing house based in Manchester that specialises in short fiction, and celebrates the short story's in-built ability to 'trespass' across cultural and disciplinary boundaries. Comma ha…

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