Science on the radio

After all the Christmas excess of stories about reindeers with glowing noses, health warnings about sprouts and other festive nonsense, we’ve reached that quiet time between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve. It’s a time when news is traditionally thin on the ground – who wants to publish their ground-breaking study when half the nation is still comatose with mince pies? – so it was good to hear science taking over Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning, with Sir Paul Nurse as the guest editor for the programme.

As well as a tour of his laboratory (where a young researcher gently explained that she did not expect to find ‘a cure for cancer’ but hoped to contribute to the slow, gradual improvement in treatments for cancers) we heard Sir Paul on the fallacy of ‘balance’ in science, and the damage that can be done when cautious scientists are up against passionate – yet wrong – health campaigners. I was also fascinated by his interview with novelist Ian McEwan, one of the few novelists not afraid to grapple with science in his novels. As someone who combines a day job in medical journalism with novel-writing, their discussion of the similarities between the creative processes of research and writing was eye-opening.

Radio 4 permeates the house during holidays at home, as often a source of irritation as delight. But this Christmas I’ve enjoyed a surprisingly thoughtful discussion about the origins and meaning of religious belief from the sceptics of The Infinite Monkey Cage, and a robust take-down of the figures around gun deaths, post the dreadful US school shooting, from More Or Less. Admittedly, none of them brought quite the same glow as Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College, on Christmas Eve. But then sometimes you just have to give in to that Christmas feeling.


  1. Sarah Lambert · ·

    Er, can we perhaps mention the thousands of novelists in a direct line from Wells through Angela Carter right up to Ian Banks who have effectively combined science and literature?

    Presumably Ian McEwan hasn’t heard of these two British luminaries?

    Sarah Lambert.

    1. Sarah Lambert · ·

      Sorry that should be “three British luminaries”.

  2. Ian McEwan “one of the few scientists not afraid to grapple with science”?

    I have a reference book with Ian McEwan in it. His entry takes up perhaps two column inches; the other 1370 pages are full of writers and novelists unafraid to grapple with science to a greater or lesser extent. It is, of course, an encyclopaedia of science fiction.

    I listened to the interview – more than once, because I was having difficulty quite believing what I was hearing. Nurse and McEwan were discussing science fiction, its central themes and many of the issues it addresses, without actually mentioning it once. It wouldn’t be quite so bad (perhaps) if McEwan had never heard of science fiction; but at least one of his early stories was published in a science fiction magazine. But he seems to be in denial over that.

    Brian Aldiss (noted novelist, associate of Doris Lessing, and award-winning British science fiction writer) has said that “science fiction is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are written for ghosts”. But there are plenty of science fiction writers who are also scientists; some of them are more than capable of stringing together words in a pleasing fashion. Those writers of science fiction who aren’t scientists are, by and large, fully understanding of the need for their work of getting the science right, often having it checked by a scientist as a part of the creative process. And science fiction has done more to popularise science, and to enthuse and inspire people about science, than any number of eminent Nobel Prize winners.

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