Sometimes an idea will coalesce in a single, brilliant, flash of insight, ready to be unleashed into the world. Usually however, the process of understanding and discovery is a slow one, with new understanding built upon old, continually re-assessed, refined and extended, before being tentatively nudged forward into public light.
Robyn Arianrhod understands well the slowness that often facilitates new ideas and breakthroughs: “I’m very slow myself. I’m a slow writer … To be able to get to a fundamental understanding of things is, I think, important.”
She’s no stranger to those brilliant insights, however. Her latest book, Seduced By Logic follows two women who were at the forefront of the Newtonian physics movement. A perfect example of sudden brilliance pushing understanding, Newton’s description of the movements of the planets enabled Einstein to, 250 years later, come up with the why behind the planetary movements, again rocketing forward our understanding of reality.
Time is an intimate aspect of writing, as Venero Armanno knows well. In researching his latest novel Black Mountain, Armanno encountered one of the biggest problems with historical writing, the lack of first-hand stories.
“Writers sometimes take too much time approaching these things,” Armanno explains, telling how he was only able to hear secondhand accounts of the Sicilian sulphur mines, as there were no longer any original survivors.
Opening with a commentary on the nature of time in scientific research, and shamelessly promoting his new book Sentinel Chickens at every mention of birds, Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty immediately has the crowd captivated.
“Grant writing is somewhere where you combine the scientific writing with fiction,” he says, explaining how researchers have to create a timeline for their research when applying for grants.
Doherty goes on to expound upon how slow the formation of understanding can be in research.
“Sometimes it isn’t until you actually sit down to write that you truly understand what you’ve found,” he says. “The process of writing and using language brings a focus.”
Soon the conversation turns to the subject of eugenics, a topic in which Armanno is interested, following his research for Black Mountain. Most often associated with Hitler and the Aryan race, Armanno explains how it emerged as a major field in the US around the turn of the 20th century, with a number of states possessing eugenics-based laws.
“It’s about inferiority,” comments Doherty, explaining how there must be a view of the inferior race to enable the idea of a superior one.
“It was like that with women as well,” say Arianrhod, coming in on the discussion. “The idea of women being the inferior gender.”
Now in bio-medical science though there are the ethics revues and ethics boards, says Doherty, with Armanno putting forth the idea that it’s now about looking at what people will do on their own, outside of the ethics framework.
Returning to the topic of nurturing ideas and ideas about time in science, Doherty talks about the nature of luck that exists in discovery.
“Because there’s a chaotic element to it, serendipity is very important.”
Thomas Weir is a Southern Cross University media student.