Book review: ‘Collision: Stories from the Science of CERN’
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This fiction collection yields mixed results, but makes for a worthy experiment in sci-art.
CERN is a centre of exciting intellectual activity, so – as the introduction to ‘Collision’ asks – why should that stop with the sciences? Why shouldn’t its discoveries also inspire work in the non-scientific disciplines? The answer is, of course, that it shouldn’t.
‘Collision: Stories from the Science of CERN’ (Comma Press, £9.99, ISBN 9781912697687) was produced by pairing up esteemed authors with esteemed CERN scientists to explore ideas being investigated at the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest experiment. The authors were provided with a list of themes suggested by the scientists, took their pick, and each wrote a story inspired by their chosen theme. After the story was completed, the corresponding scientist wrote an afterword expanding on the scientific background. The collection was edited by Rob Appleby and Connie Potter.
The resulting 13 stories cover a range of tones: some thrillers, some character-focused stories, and an abundance of sci-fi in every flavour. Common themes are supersymmetry and dark matter: ideas about which we are certain of little, in practical terms.
The standout story is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the first in the collection, which was written by the collection’s biggest name: former 'Doctor Who' showrunner and writer Steven Moffat. ‘Going Dark’ is a thriller about the universe hiding itself, such that when scientists get too close to discovering dark matter, they start to vanish from the world. They are: “Rewritten. Unwritten. Unpicked from the fabric of reality.” This is inspired, Dr Peter Dong explains, by a series of papers written by Nielson and Ninomiya in the mid-2000s which argued that, in essence, the Higgs Boson did not want to be discovered.
Another excellent story, ‘Marble Run’, looks at a woman’s conflicting identities as a physicist and a mother – what might have been a heavy-handed or derivative story is handled adeptly and is surprisingly laugh-out-loud funny. ‘The Grand Unification’ follows an adopted girl seeking her birth mother – a particularly original direction to take the theme of divergence of the fundamental forces in the early universe. Other stories are not so successful. There is a significant number of forgettable sci-fi shorts in the back half of the book which, one suspects, might not have made the final cut if the anthology was not constructed through this unique process of pairing authors with scientists.
The scientists’ afterwords are a valuable addition to the collection. They are all accessible, fascinating and well-written – sometimes even more so than their accompanying stories.
The editors say of the book in its introduction: “It’s an experiment, so we can’t always be certain of the results.” The results may be mixed, but ‘Collision’ stands up as a thoughtful and relatively successful experiment in bringing together science and art – a pairing which usually fails to do justice to the science or the art.
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