Thursday, 13 September 2012

Neal Stephenson Is Making All My Dreams Come True and Blowing My Mind

Everyone who knows me know that I am quite the little nerd - and proud to be. My hero is Dr Ben Goldacre and there is a video somewhere of a tipsy me describing how I would abuse my patient privileges if he was my doctor. I blog about planets and bacon and the Higgs boson particle, for fun. I love New Scientist magazine and have been grappling with the desire to buy a subscription for a few years. I volunteer at the Science Museum in London and my face nearly exploded with joy when I got offered the job. My Twitter feed is flooded with tweets from groups like The Science Plaza and PhysOrg Science News. I love libraries, book shops and Forbidden Planet. I once cheered aloud when I stumbled across a repeat of Professor Brian Cox's Wonders of the Universe and again when I found Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time for £2 in a charity shop. I kind of have a thing for Iron Man (not Robert Downey Jr.; his kid is nearly my age, so that would be weird - I like Iron Man ... but it doesn't hurt that he has Robert Downey Jr.'s face, body and personality). I am addicted to TED talks. I have cried on three separate occasions when I did not get tickets to see the recording of Infinite Monkey Cage from the BBC (damn them). I have a favourite moon, and it's not even one of ours. I wept in a room full of strangers at the beauty of Adam Rutherford's video about all the history of NASA, with all its achievements and failures, simply because science is beautiful.

But I study Creative Writing and English Literature, which is one of those arty-farty degrees at which real scientists probably sniff. I am an amateur nerd, really, and this is unlikely to change any time soon. I am very much a nerd groupie, but that is hardly the same thing. A friend of mine told me that this is silly of me and that I should be studying particle physics or something, but I would just get too excited being surrounded by all those huge sexy nerd brains all day. I simply could not do it.

Some lovely, lovely nerds, including Ben Goldacre, who is all kinds of lovely,
and Tim Minchin and Adam Rutherford,
who have both made me cry by being wonderful

I do try to combine the two. I once wrote a poem about how the colour magenta exists only in the mind. It referenced The Matrix. I could have written the same one about the colour cyan, because human brains and eyes are strange and wonderful things. I did it because it is true and because it blows my mind a little bit.

But it was not a huge contribution to the mating of science and the creative arts. It was hardly Storm (which licks tits). It was not really significant at all, in fact. But it was an effort, a start, an attempt to combine what these two things that excite my brain cells.

A real achievement in this area, though, has to be the Centre (or Center, as it is in America, but my British computer does not like that) of Science and Imagination. I first came across this in an edition of New Scientist magazine that I had purchased to entertain myself while locked out of my flat (no, really). A couple of days later, it was all over my geek-heavy Twitter feed.

It looked fucking ace.

Yes, I did need to swear. It is just that exciting a development in the world. And my life.

It is not a surprise that science fiction fuels real science. Creative nerds come up with cool technology that they wish existed and scientist who agree that it is awesome try to come up with a way it could work in the real world. Take, for instance, the once imaginary flying machine, or the still semi-imaginary hover car. Just because it is still a work in progress does not mean it is not happening. Also included in this long list is Neal Stephenson's stratosphere-reaching tower, designed to study weather patterns, dock planes and launch rockets; it is currently being studied by Keith Hjelmstad at the Arizona State University to try to conceive of a way in which it could be made in real life.

This is all supremely cool; it always has been.

Author Neal Stephenson, as well coming up with the concept of the 20km-high tower, is taking it one step further, and blowing my mind in the process.

His work has largely been speculative fiction which explores mathematics, philosophy and science. The fact that he also looks quite like a wizard only makes him more my kind of nerd.

He is currently collaborating with the Arizona State University to attempt a project that will bring together writers, artists, scientists and engineers: The Centre for Science and Imagination. Its aim is to further science with radical thinking, to get scientists to go beyond the current parameters of technology and innovation to push the limits of knowledge to achieve the kind of advances that led scientists to the industrial revolution. It maintains that science should remain ambitious and that discoveries made now can be as incredible and life-changing as those made in the past few centuries. The belief is that creative thinking leads more effectively to tackling challenges still faced by mankind, that by not acknowledging the limits we set on technology we can find new ways to create that have not been previously considered.

Its progress - as well as forums encouraging discussions that could fuel these great innovations - can be followed on Hieroglyph, and anyone can join and participate. It is truly an amazing project that could well change the way that technology evolves in the coming century.

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