Wednesday, August 16, 2006


I first went along to the science and literature reading group in early 2004, rather unsure what to expect, not at all clear that a quantum physicist would fit in, but willing to give it a try for a session or two. It turned out to be one of the happiest discoveries of my time in Cambridge -- a group of people from diverse backgrounds, genuinely interested in interdisciplinary discussion, sometimes scholarly, sometimes conversational, almost always lively and interesting.

Over the last couple of years the group's discussions have ranged far and wide. We've looked at science in contemporary drama, Victorian popular science, Edgar Allan Poe's decidedly strange cosmological speculations, the splendid Moon Hoax, Charles Babbage's life, works, trials and tribulations, Luria's fascinating account of a Russian mnemonist, some eccentric seventeenth century views of other worlds, and much else besides. We've made a couple of trips to see Aristophanes' "Clouds" and Brecht's "Life of Galileo", and organised a screening of "Fermat's Last Tango", one of the regrettably few musicals to attempt an account of the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture.

What has all this taught me?

First -- and I suspect this is probably true of many scientists -- that although I read quite widely, there are some important senses in which I don't know how to read.

Second, despite that, it is possible to contribute. We all bring our own perspectives and insights to a text, and some of them may be fresh to others; we all miss things that others pick up.

Third, that it's a pretty good way to get yourself thinking about scientific practice, other people's views of science and scientists, and good and bad ways of communicating science to a wider readership.

And fourth, worthy though those reasons are, a more important discovery to me is that sharing thoughts and perspectives on an interesting text can be enormously enjoyable and intellectually stimulating in the right sort of company.

If you can spare an evening every fortnight during Cambridge term, I'm not sure there are many more life-enhancing ways of spending the time.