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Love and particles

Rupert Baker checks out some novels by Royal Society Fellows, featuring an explosion in the heart of the Milky Way, telepathic connection with aliens, and 'a romp with subatomic particles at CERN'.

The books are by some of the giants of twentieth-century thought, including Bertrand Russell, Fred Hoyle and J B S Haldane.

What do the following have in common: the nightmares of Stalin and the Queen of Sheba; a global disaster caused by an explosion in the heart of the Milky Way; a man who finds himself telepathically connected to an alien from the planet Ulro; a revolt by future scientists against their enslavement by religious masters; and 'a sizzling romance and a romp with subatomic particles at CERN'?

Five novels by Fellows of the Royal Society

The answer? Well, they’re the subjects of some of the books in our Dewey collection, shelfmark 823.91/92 (English Literature – Fiction – 20th/21st centuries), and – moving away from obscure librarianly matters – they all come from the pens of our Royal Society Fellows, taking a break from their scientific endeavours and letting their literary imaginations run free.

The first three scenarios are taken from books by some of the giants of 20th century thought: respectively, Nightmares by Bertrand Russell (1954), the great philosopher’s second work of fiction following a ‘career change’ at the age of 80; The Inferno (1973) by astronomer Fred Hoyle and his son Geoffrey; and The Man with Two Memories (1976), a posthumously-published science fiction work by the geneticist and Marxist J B S Haldane. Russell, Hoyle and Haldane were all involved in the communication of science to the public, and some of you may have seen the front covers of their books on display in our recent Broadcasting Science exhibition.

Moving on to a more recent example of Fellows writing fiction, Slaves and Saviours, donated to the Library by Robin Holliday FRS on its publication in 2000, explores 'the future of biological science … and its consequences for human society' through the story of a husband and wife working on molecular neurobiology and artificial human hearts.

The latest addition to this small but fascinating collection is Catalysed Fusion, a new gift to the Library from Francis Farley FRS. While the back cover blurb promises 'Love, discovery and adventure in the city where nations meet and beams collide', and the book also features several chapters involving Professor Farley’s passions, skiing and gliding, there’s a more serious purpose behind the fast-moving plot. As Professor Farley told me, in an email reply to my thank-you note for his kind donation:

'I am attempting to present particle physics in palatable form for the public, show that it MIGHT be useful (discoveries are unpredictable) and argue that there could be better ways to finance science.  But these messages are low key, buried in the adventures.'

– laudable aims, and a fine gripping read to boot. The book was reviewed in the Daily Telegraph on publication, and our copy is on display in the Library, so do pop in for a browse. The earlier volumes in the Dewey fiction collection are shelved in one of our downstairs storerooms, but we can fetch them up to the Reading Room speedily if you’d like to take a look and expand your knowledge of our modern Fellows’ literary efforts.

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