Edinburgh Book Festival: Cutting edge of science sketched out

Cartoonist Darryl Cunningham's new book celebrates scientists who are less well known than they deserve to be. Picture: Contributed
Cartoonist Darryl Cunningham's new book celebrates scientists who are less well known than they deserve to be. Picture: Contributed
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Stories from the margins of the history of science kicked off Tuesday at the Book Festival with cartoonist Darryl Cunningham (he has been described as a graphic journalist after the publication of books on mental health and the financial crash, but prefers not to be “gentrified”).

His latest book is Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery, which celebrates the lives and achievements of scientists who are “less well known than they deserve”.

From pioneer of electricity Nikola Tesla to astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell – arguably denied a Nobel Prize because her breakthroughs were made as an undergraduate – these are the stories of people who, perhaps for reasons of background, race or gender, were denied true credit for their work. Others made breakthroughs that ultimately failed but which broke important new ground, enabling the discoveries of others.

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Nineteeth-century mathematician Ada Lovelace was, for a long time, an overlooked genius, though recent scholarship has brought her name to prominence – so much so that she was voted the fourth most influential woman in a recent survey by BBC History magazine.

Ursula Martin, Professor of Computer Science at Oxford, is one of the authors of a new book, Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist. She described her delight at discovering “a box of Maths” in the extensive archive held by Oxford’s Bodleian Library, and in it discovering Lovelace’s diagrams and formulas relating to Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, a kind of prototype computer.

Although the engine – three times the length of a steam engine, with ten times as many moving parts – was never built, Lovelace described the basis of its working in a paper written in 1843, arguably the first piece of computer science theory.

Another writer who has made an exploration of a world which is little known is leading American novelist Rachel Kushner, whose new novel is set within the US prison system. The Mars Room centres on Romy Hall – a 29-year-old single mother beginning two consecutive life sentences at a women’s correctional facility in Northern California – and Gordon Hauser, a prison teacher with an interest in Thoreau and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

Kushner shuns the word “research”, but says she restructured her life “in order to form relationships with people who are serving life sentences”. She went on to volunteer with a charity, Justice Now, which is run by lifers, visiting correctional facilities to document human rights abuses, some of which she had to tone down for the book to make them more believable.

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She emphasised that her novel is not, primarily, a piece of polemic, nor does she oppose the idea of prison altogether, but she is full of questions about a system which “places people in a cage as a catch-all solution to social problems”. She described how prison inmates are almost exclusively poor, and are often held in facilities many miles from their homes and families, thereby losing the connections to the outside world that are essenital for being granted parole.

Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, making a welcome visit to the Book Festival, decided to use her event as an opportunity to showcase the work of two up-and-coming poets who have published pamphlets in her Laureate’s Choice series. She did, however, treat us to some of her own work, including poems from her new book, Sincerity, to be published in September.

Mark Pajak began with a poem about a battery chicken farm, and ended with one about drink-spiking, though the work in between was lighter in tone. Keith Hutson, a writer for Coronation Street before he moved into verse, conjured up another little-known world, that of music hall and variety performers. His poems lift the lid on a tragi-comic realm where a talent such as being able to kick yourself on the backside, or impersonate trains, could be enough to sustain a career.