‘Slow glass’ or metallic glass? ‘Teleportation’ or morphing claytronics atoms? ‘Real’ science can be more startling than fictional science. But do we want it to be? Do we always want to startle, to show the general public the zany, the hot topics, and the bizarre?

As in life, so also in science, ‘he who shouts the loudest’ tends to be the one that is heard. In competing for funding, we adopt an increasingly anthropomorphic viewpoint, pointing out – using increasingly tenuous evidence – that the results of our research will benefit humans, or natural or artificial constructs, in certain ways. Or we look for the unusual angle that allows us to ‘pitch’ the project in different ways: to the broadcasting media, to artists, and to the burgeoning sci-art community. We network busily, and some of us spin around the concatenated circles of the science publicizing circuit. Some even become ‘media tarts’, as one well-known geneticist refers to himself.

And then it all goes horribly wrong! With much sighing and wringing of hands, the scientific ‘community’ bemoans the public misunderstanding of science, the distrust of scientists, and the disbelief in what they say – think of the combined measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine or ‘mad cow’ disease. Now, some scientists don't even believe in the Big Bang. And they all look weird, anyway. Initiatives for improving the public understanding of science become passé, and BBC radio's recent Reith lectures in the UK, pointing out that human civilization is now entirely dependent, everywhere, on the results of scientific and technological research, are countered with the weary response, ‘And look where that has got us!’ Big business – agribusiness, energy suppliers, (re)construction companies, and ‘Big Pharma’ – is perceived to have influenced global initiatives and markets, and thus the direction that scientific and technological research must take.

So, let us pause and take stock. Let us look at who scientists really are, and what they do. Let us remind ourselves, and point out to the ‘public’, that science – the hard work of research, the slog, the basic running of a laboratory and everyone and everything in it – is carried out by armies of foot soldiers. The elite are few, science celebrities are even fewer, but scientists are numerous, and everywhere.

More novels are being written and read than ever before, and fiction – especially full-length fiction that is written rather than performed – removes the ‘sound-bites’ and the gimmicky repetitions that sometimes dominate televisual drama and documentaries about science. Reading slows us down, too; written fiction allows time and space to develop characters so that readers can appreciate, reflect on, and understand what they do and why.

It is also worth noting that, if what scientists do, and the images, language, and ideas associated with science, are put into the context of fiction, new ways of reflecting on the experiences of ‘being a scientist’– of being human and living in the world – are made available to us, not only as readers but as scientists too.

The project SciTalk (www.scitalk.org.uk) has been set up specifically for the purpose of connecting fiction writers (novelists, playwrights, and poets) with scientists. Scientists who might enjoy meeting with writers and showing them their labs, and talking to them about their own and related work – or even about life, the universe, and all that – can join the SciTalk database, and set up a page with their own photos and images, plus a short description of their research and, most importantly, why their research could be of interest to a writer. Writers can contact scientists through the website, and meetings are set up at the discretion of the scientist.

Experience shows that these meetings can be fun as well as informative. It is good to be able to exchange views and ideas, to get past the stereotypes, and to learn from each other. The long-term aim is that writers will have the confidence and inspiration to include science and scientists as characters in their works of fiction. This does not mean that they must write science fiction, or that the novel should be ‘about’ science; a little science in fiction is not a dangerous thing.

As scientists, we should be prepared to wonder what it is like to see people and events from an entirely different perspective. Are scientists so very different from novelists? Both are driven by curiosity and the ability to observe and question; both need to think logically. As Sir John Sulston says, SciTalk will not only “allow writers to get to know scientists as real human beings, and so portray scientific work in a fresh and vivid way…it will also give scientists an insight into both the curiosity and the concerns of nonscientists about work in the laboratory”. If, in the even longer term, these two-way insights into reality feed down to all those people who buy and read novels, or go to the theatre to watch plays, then we as scientists must surely benefit.

[1] Ann Lackie (the novelist Ann Lingard, www.annlingard.com) is SciTalk's Administrator. SciTalk is supported by NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts, www.nesta.org.uk).

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(05)71131-7