A doughnut-shaped scientific building in the Oxfordshire countryside provided the unusual inspiration for a new international science fiction prize as the names of the winners are revealed this week by its organisers Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron facility.
The competition Light Reading was launched last September as a way of introducing Diamond to a wider public audience. Over 55 stories, which were inspired by aspects of the science of the institute, were submitted and subsequently judged anonymously. The Sound of Science scooped top prize with a story in which a harassed scientist leading a school tour of a synchrotron is heckled by a slug-like alien and as the tale unfolds we get to the bottom of their mysterious visit to planet earth.
US scientist Corie Ralston (right) used her day job as a beamline scientist at the Advanced Light Source in California for inspiration to beat off the competition with her story. The Sound of Science apparently came out of a recent tour she gave at the synchrotron where she works. As Corie explains: “I started out feeling irritated that the tour was taking valuable time out of my day. But the enthusiasm of the group and their endless questions made me see the synchrotron through their eyes....as a truly extraordinary place where the progress of science is almost tangible. Also I love science fiction, so it seemed natural to put an alien at the heart of the story!”
The judges including former Times science journalist Anjana Ahuja, Dr Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist at UCL and Diamond staff described the winning entry as follows: “This was a humane, witty and spellbinding entry, well deserving of the top spot. The writing is spare and straightforward, which rendered the interaction between a sickly, aged, mucus-coated alien and an overworked Diamond researcher strangely credible. There is an art to conveying just the right amount of information in a science-themed piece of fiction – not so little that the reader is lost, but not so much that the reader feels force-fed and unable to use their imagination. This writer has got the balancing act about right.”
The competition attracted entries by people from a diverse mix of backgrounds and the stories also reflected a range of genres and styles from humour to science fiction, all of which were in some way inspired by Diamond. The runners up included a software developer, a marketing executive and a former journalist.
Diamond’s silver doughnut shaped building houses a machine known as a synchrotron which generates incredibly bright light from infra-red to X-rays and is used by thousands of scientists every year to study all kinds of materials, from artificial hips and samples of the Mary Rose to virus proteins and potential new fuel sources.
Announcing the competition winners Gerd Materlik, Diamond’s Chief Executive, commented “Light Reading has been a fun and innovative way for us to highlight and draw attention to what Diamond is and open our doors to creative writers and readers. Science is an inherently creative process and it’s been interesting to see how authors have taken this forward into extremely high quality entries.”
The winning stories plus the runners-up and highly commended entries can be read in full at www.light-reading.org
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Diamond Light Source is the UK's national synchrotron science facility, located at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire.
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