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Today's guest editor: Paul Nurse

Paul Nurse

Sir Paul Nurse is a geneticist and cell biologist and one of the winners of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, as one of a group of three scientists honoured for their discoveries of protein molecules responsible for controlling cell division.

Born in Norwich in 1949, his father was a mechanic and his mother worked as a part-time cleaner. He read Biology at Birmingham University before taking a doctorate at the University of East Anglia. He has worked for Cancer Research UK and has chaired the Department of Microbiology at the University of Oxford. Sir Paul believes strongly that scientists have a duty to speak out about science in public life and challenge pseudoscience.

Sir Paul is currently President of the Royal Society. Sir Paul will talk to novelist Ian McEwan about how fiction tackles scientific fact and take John Humphrys on a tour of his laboratory in an attempt to explain why good science deserves good journalism.


Sir Paul writes: Talking to novelist Ian McEwan started me thinking about the similarities and differences between scientific research and creative writing. For me the most interesting aspect is the act of creativity itself, how a novel piece of writing emerges or a new insight into science takes place. Arthur Koestler argued that the creative act involved juxtaposing ideas that were not normally associated with each other, and that is where I would seek for similarities between writing and science.

The way forward in a scientific investigation is often not very clear. Creative thinking about new paths to take can emerge from putting together unusual combinations of ideas, observations, and experimental results, not usually considered together.

Thinking about these at the same time can give rise to unexpected departures and syntheses that lead to new insights, sometimes at the interface between the different areas under consideration, sometimes encompassing the different areas. I wonder if creative writing might involve similar processes?

Related to this is the importance of ambiguity. Interesting writing seems to me often to thrive on ambiguities. By this I mean the simultaneous encouragement of parallel strands of thought even when they are incompatible with each other.

Perhaps surprisingly, I have found something similar is useful when starting a new scientific research project. Maintaining quite different, even inconsistent, strands going at the same time, keeps the mind open and prevents it settling too soon on one path or another.

Such openness gives space for something creative to take place. Not sure about all of this, maybe another conversation with Ian would help.




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