Alice and Jacqueline face the impossible

York Festival of Ideas is just drawing to a close for another year, but this week I joined Alice Courvoisier there for the third time to deliver an evening of thought-provoking entertainment (such has always been our aim, anyway).

We were supposed to be joined by Carolyn Dougherty this time (sadly she had to pull out at the last minute) so it was much more of a straightforward lecture format than our 2016 offering on the theme of time (which mixed myths, my fiction, history of science, and some proper physics) and a complete departure from our 2015 blend of myths and stories. Alice’s hair seems to get a bit shorter each time, but I can’t present the evidence because everyone was too engrossed to take photos this year (by which I mean, OneMonkey couldn’t make it and no-one else thinks of these things), which also means you don’t get to see the flabbergasting size of our audience. We were in a bigger venue this year, with stewards on hand to bring us coffee and supervise the Q&A (thank you to the students who gave up their time to do this) and I had a mild panic when I heard 88 tickets had been booked. They didn’t all turn up, but we still had a bigger audience than I was anticipating.

This year we were Facing the Impossible in Physics, according to the title of our talk, and (to paraphrase from my notes) we tried to get the audience thinking about science in a way they might not have thought about it before, by looking at how the notion of ‘impossible’ can change depending on when and where we are, and how the prevailing scientific view can change radically.


Kepler’s Platonic Solid model of the solar system

Between us we did an accelerated history of celestial mechanics, with me tackling the part from the dawn of time (metaphorically speaking) to Kepler in 1609, and Alice presenting Newton to Poincaré at the turn of the 20th century, which gave her an excuse to play a clip of this video illustrating the concept of the sun moving as well (because we usually see it as static, with planets whizzing round it), with some suitably grandiose music.

I talked about experimental validation and bias, thought experiments, and provisional truths, while Alice pointed out that we have to trust something, and rattled through a history of Western views on the nature of matter. As a brief overview that might sound a bit dry but the audience seemed engaged and enthusiastic, and we had to curtail the Q&A after about half an hour because we’d over-run our slot and the next guy needed to start setting his presentation up! In fact Alice and I, as well as Mark the artist (who was there to provide moral support but also to critique us in his capacity as a philosopher of science) chatted to interested members of the audience for at least a quarter of an hour outside the lecture room afterwards as well, which made me feel like we’d achieved our goal of getting people thinking. A special mention must go to the physics student who boosted my ego by asking if there was an accompanying book available downstairs at the Waterstones stand… (maybe next time).

If you were there, thank you. If not, I’ll leave you with one of my thoughts from the evening:

In this age of the distrust of experts I don’t want to imply that scientists – even long-dead astronomers – don’t know what they’re doing. But I do want to emphasize that they’re not infallible, they’re not pure objective calculating machines, and the history of science isn’t a single-track road that’s sitting there just waiting for the brambles to be hacked away so the carefree physicists can skip along it arm in arm past all the handy signposts saying ‘Truth this way’.

Come to York for stories and songs


Artwork courtesy of Jess Wallace

Tickets are now on sale via eventbrite for the storytelling evening I told you about back in November. It’s on March 8th and it’s part of the York International Women’s Festival – you can look at the full festival programme here, it’s got health and fitness events, open mic poetry, music, activism, history walks, all sorts of eclectic stuff.

Alice Courvoisier and I (the usual storytelling duo you’re used to hearing about round here) will be joined by Alice’s friends Cath and Julie, with appropriate songs from the marvellously named Barberellas in between.

The eagle-eyed will notice that this is the first time we’ve charged for entry to this kind of thing. I mentioned before that there are hidden costs like time off paid work to rehearse, and travel costs. For the York Festival of Ideas we were given a venue by the university, whereas for this festival we’ve had to hire our own, and of course once you start collecting money you need to cover eventbrite fees as well. It’s a wonder anyone ever bothers putting this kind of event on.

Of course it’s good fun, which is what tips the balance. Hopefully some of you devoted readers (maybe not the ones overseas) will come along and enjoy the evening too. See you there.

An enjoyable performance in York

Last night Alice Courvoisier and I presented an evening of stories and lectures on the theme of time, as part of York Festival of Ideas. We did something similar about this time last year, but whereas that was a pure storytelling session, this year we mixed it up a bit by including short lectures on relativity and Newton’s concept of absolute time, among other things.


Alice gets quantum

Despite the hard science, the audience generally seemed to enjoy themselves and applauded loudly at times, laughing at appropriate junctures (the room was much more populated than the photo suggests – the front row is never first choice), and Alice had them spellbound as she told myths and fairytales she’d memorised for the occasion. One soon-to-be-graduate told Alice it was the best lecture she’d attended in her entire time at university (we were at York University for the evening), and while that was undoubtedly excited hyperbole, it was nice to think someone got so much out of it.

I’d written a story specially for the evening, called Lancelot Names the Day. It’s set just before the calendar change in 1752 and is about a sneaky but stupid merchant called Lancelot Busby (who was a real man in 18th century Tynemouth as I recall, whose marvellous name I spotted in a parish register. I wish to cast no aspersions on the real Mr Busby who I’m sure was an upstanding pillar of the community).


Calendars and time zones can be fun, just bear with me

I also wrote an essay on standardised time as opposed to solar time, and the introduction of international time zones, which was fascinating to research and by the reaction in the room, some people learnt some stuff from it (and it generated a bit of discussion afterwards).

If you were one of our live audience, thanks once again for missing a warm sunny evening to sit in a seminar room with us. Should you wish to relive at least part of the evening, here are recordings of me reading first the lecture, then Lancelot Names the Day.



Poetry on the wrong day

Today’s National Poetry Day, so I’m told, so it seems wholly inappropriate of me to decide against going to a poetry reading tonight. Nevertheless, I have: it’s been a busy week and it’s shaping up to be a busy weekend so I’m taking a break to get things done. Like writing a delayed blog post.

I did go see Benjamin Zephaniah on Sunday, however, at the Ilkley Literature Festival, and it was like no poetry reading I’ve been to before. More like a gig, in fact. And he didn’t read anything, he spoke it, often with his eyes closed (or so it seemed from my seat near the back of the hall). Anger, passion, love, humour and politics all bound up in driving rhythm. If all poetry was like that, I could see myself getting back into it.

Planning a litfest outing?

Trying to remember when the Harrogate Crime Writing festival was on , I found this handy webpage that gives UK literary festival details so you need never miss another. Of course, if you’re anything like me, you’ll spend hours browsing the programme, weighing up pros and cons of events, then not go to a single thing. I’ve now lived within walking distance of three literary festivals and only ever been to two events that weren’t free.