Imperial College has been running an annual event, Science for Fiction, for the last few years and many members of Milford have not only attended, but have found this to be an invaluable resource in terms of inspiration and information for their fiction. Run by Professor David Clements, himself a Milford regular, the event runs over 2 days and consists of a series of lectures and discussions on cutting-edge science. In the past, attendees have learned about epigenetics, ethical issues in AI, and tried out a VR device simulating the Mars rover.
Imperial is one of the top scientific institutions on this planet, a world-leader in physics, astrophysics and AI. It’s fundamentally an engineering college, but some researchers (for instance, Marek Sergot in the AI department) are involved in exploring ethical issues within their fields. Robotics is a major focus and Imperial is involved with the European Space Agency; an Imperial professor, David Southwood, was appointed to the role of Chair of the Steering Committee of the UK Space Agency in 2016. The college also houses the Data Science Institute which acts as a focal point for coordinating data science research at Imperial College. Its research focuses on cross-cutting foundations of data science, including statistics, big data, machine learning, modelling, simulation, visualisation and cloud computing.
This year there was an emphasis on space exploration, with a history of space programmes and how they are conceived and funded by Dave Clements, plus an account of the development of spacecraft by Leah-Nani Alconcel, who is working on the JUICE mission for payload instruments for spacecraft, and a lecture on the search for dark matter and dark energy by Dr Pat Scott. This was followed by a visit to the Imperial students’ union bar and a rather outstanding Indian meal on Gloucester Road.
Thursday saw us sitting down to an intense lecture on mathematics and prime numbers by Jim Anderson of Southampton University (also a Milford regular). “People sometimes say to me,” said Jim, “’so do you just sit in your office multiplying bigger and bigger numbers?’ Sometimes, I reply, ‘Yes.’”
This was followed by a talk from Subu Mohanty of Imperial on the habitability of planets which orbit red dwarf stars – crucial for any SF writer wanting to get some cosmological accuracy into their hard science fiction. In the afternoon, we had a talk by Sanjeev Gupta on the history of Curiosity, the Mars rover: its ‘sister’ Opportunity is currently AWOL in a massive Martian sandstorm (who needs fiction when this sort of thing is unfolding in the physical world?). We learned about how the rover was driven, and about problems with its performance in this challenging environment, and we marveled over shots of the Martian landscape: over ancient river valleys and impact craters. The event ended with James Murray lecturing on synthetic biology.
So within the course of a day, we had learned about prime numbers and why they are so important in cryptography, life in the infra-red range of the spectrum, why the composition of a vehicle’s wheels can make or break an interplanetary mission, and where the creation of synthetic life is likely to lead.
I brought a friend along, Canadian-based SF writer Ceallaigh MacCath Moran, who commented that as writers, it’s the people behind the science who are as interesting to us as the science itself, and I would agree with this remark, having appreciated
the enthusiasm with which every speaker approached their subject. We were all amused by Sanjeev’s account of his daughter, at the eye-rolling stage of development, complaining about how boring his job was and how she couldn’t understand why her classmates all thought it was really cool.
Writers will always find something to talk about, so as well as scientific matters, several of us exchanged notes over research into magical practice – the Fantasy side of the genre spectrum. And there was a lot of discussion about ideas, concepts, dreams of the future, and concerns about the present.
I think all of us who attended would like to thank Dave Clements and Imperial for making this possible. If you are interested, the event is planned for 2019, and costs around £30 for 2 days.
Liz Williams is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in Glastonbury, England, where she is co-director of a witchcraft supply business. She has been published by Bantam Spectra (US) and Tor Macmillan (UK), also Night Shade Press and appears regularly in Asimov’s and other magazines. She has been involved with the Milford SF Writers’ Workshop for 20 years, and also teaches creative writing at a local college for Further Education.
Novels are: THE GHOST SISTER (Bantam Spectra), EMPIRE OF BONES, THE POISON MASTER, NINE LAYERS OF SKY, BANNER OF SOULS (Bantam Spectra – US, Tor Macmillan – UK), DARKLAND, BLOODMIND (Tor Macmillan UK), SNAKE AGENT, THE DEMON AND THE CITY, PRECIOUS DRAGON, THE SHADOW PAVILION (Night Shade Press) WINTERSTRIKE (Tor Macmillan) and THE IRON KHAN (Morrigan Press) and WORLDSOUL (Prime). The Chen series is currently being published by Open Road.
Her first short story collection THE BANQUET OF THE LORDS OF NIGHT was also published by Night Shade Press, and her second and third, A GLASS OF SHADOW and THE LIGHT WARDEN, are published by New Con Press as is her recent novella, PHOSPHORUS.
The Witchcraft Shop Diaries (1 and 2) are published by New Con Press.
Her novel BANNER OF SOULS has been nominated for the Philip K Dick Memorial Award, along with 3 previous novels, and the Arthur C Clarke Award.