Category Archives: Science Fiction

Loncon 3

From about lunchtime on Wednesday 13 to about the same time the following Tuesday, I’m going to be at Loncon 3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, which is taking place at the ExCeL exhibition centre in London Docklands. It’s looking like it might end up as the largest ever such occasion, and certainly the largest outside the USA: at the time of writing, there are 9904 registered members from all around the world (including one from the Holy See), of whom just over seven thousand are listed as attending.

The programme comprises nearly 1200 items (talks, panel discussions, interviews, presentations, concerts, plays, award ceremonies, book signings, etc) of which 121 are about something scientific. The exhibits hall is packed full of a wide range of displays, as well as the art show, the dealers’ tables, and a number of special displays relating to the guests of honour (including a wasp factory and a bone chair in honour of the late Iain (M) Banks).

I’m helping organise an academic poster session showcasing current research in fields ranging from astrophysics to palaeogenetics. Dr Moira Harrison has kindly donated money for a prize for the best poster, in memory of her father, the renowned science fiction author Harry Harrison.

Some people from Wikimedia UK will be running an editathon on Thursday in the Library area of the Capital Hall, and I’m intending to go to as much of that as I can manage: I’ve been to a few editathons over the past few years and they’re splendid occasions.

I’m on three programme items:

  • Friday 15 August, 4:30pm (Capital Suite 7+12): Interview with Ian Stewart: I’ll be interviewing Prof Ian Stewart about his career in mathematics and science communication.
  • Friday 15 August, 6:00pm (Capital Suite 15): What’s New in Maths: At the same time as Loncon 3, the 2014 International Congress of Mathematicians will be taking place in Seoul. On Wednesday, up to four new Fields Medals will be awarded, to recognise stellar achievement by mathematicians aged 40 or under. I’ll be moderating and participating in a panel discussion with Ian Stewart, Hannu Rajaniemi and Alice Hedenlund, looking at the work of the new Fields Medallists in particular, and some of the latest developments in mathematics in general.
  • Monday 18 August, 10:00am (London Suite 2): Knots in Non-Euclidean Space: The space around some (actually, in some sense, almost all) knots has a well-defined hyperbolic 3-dimensional structure. I’ll try to explain what this means, and how we can use it to find out some useful geometric information about the knot itself.

The rest of the programme includes a wide range of talks and panel discussions, plays (including The Cancelling and Re-Imagining of Captain Tartan by David Wake, a sequel to a play he wrote and directed for Reconvene in 1999, the first convention I attended; and a dramatisation of Tim Powers’ novel The Anubis Gates) the 2014 Hugo and 1939 Retro-Hugo Award Ceremonies, an orchestral concert by the Worldcon Philharmonic Orchestra, and talks by a large number of interesting people, including the cosmonaut Anatolii Artsebarski and the Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees.

London Calling for Posters

The 72nd World Science Fiction Convention (called Loncon 3) will take place from 14-18 August 2014, at the ExCeL conference centre in London.  We’re expecting a good few thousand people to be there, from all around the world: the current membership list includes people from the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, Europe, and even one member from the Vatican.

A lot of science fiction fans are interested in science, many have first or higher degrees in a scientific subject, and some are active researchers in academia or industry.  So, many of the main conventions (certainly Worldcons and Eastercons) have a strong science programming stream, with talks and panel discussions on subjects as diverse as new developments in genetics and the latest news in the search for exoplanets.

The exhibition hall in the ExCeL is quite big, and one of the things we want to put in it is a multidisciplinary academic poster session, where researchers in sciences and social sciences can come and tell us all what they’re working on at the moment, and what the latest developments in their chosen fields are.  Something similar was run, on a smaller scale, a few years ago and proved very popular, so we’d like to try it again.

This is an opportunity for active researchers to explain their current and recent work to an interested and educated lay (and in some cases not so lay) audience. There are more details on the Loncon 3 site, but if you have any questions please contact me ( and I’ll try to answer them.


Up in the hills above Bradford, outside the napalm factory

Last weekend I caught the train up to Bradford for EightSquaredCon, the 64th Eastercon (the main UK national SF convention, which has taken place almost every Whitsun or Easter bank holiday weekend since 1948).  The guests of honour this year were the writers Walter Jon Williams, Freda Warrington, the artist Anne Sudworth and the historian and SF critic Edward James.  I started going in 1999, having been instructed to do so by a friend of a friend who was on the organising committee that year (she said “Hello Nick, pleased to meet you. You’re going to Eastercon” and then I found myself handing over a cheque for the membership fee).  It was tremendous fun and I’ve been back every year since; I also go to a couple of other conventions most years as well, usually Picocon and Novacon, and am very much looking forward to Loncon 3, next year’s World SF Convention.

Many science fiction fans, in addition to their fondness for SF and fantasy books, television and films, are also interested in science (or, in fact, anything else that people are willing to tell them about) and so there’s usually a strong programme of science talks and panel discussions on offer over the four days of the convention.  In fact, many SF fans also have first or higher degrees (including PhDs) in science or other subjects, and are a wonderfully engaged and intelligent audience. This year I went to a fascinating panel discussion about recent developments in microbiology and genetics, another in memory of the late astronomer and broadcaster Sir Patrick Moore, as well as the annual George Hay Lecture, which this year was given by the palaeontologist and Tolkien scholar Henry Gee, who spoke entertainingly about his day job as a senior editor at Nature.

For the last few years I’ve also given a talk on something mathematical, and have been delighted by the positive feedback I’ve received.  (At last year’s talk, on unsolvable problems like squaring the circle, the room was full, with people standing at the back, and I was astonished to find out later that this was despite the fact that I’d been scheduled opposite an item where George R R Martin had been talking about the Game of Thrones television series and some of the cast had been doing sword-fighting demonstrations. If I’d known at the time, I think even I might have gone to that instead.)

This year, I talked about Pure and Applied Mathematics, and argued that the distinction between them is not very well-defined (if indeed it really means anything at all). I gave three main examples: applications of knot theory (which started out as a failed 19th century Theory of Everything) to genetics, the use of symmetry groups in molecular chemistry, and the importance of the representation theory of Lie groups and Lie algebras in particle physics.  I only finished writing the slides the day before, and the whole thing felt a bit ramshackle and disorganised to me, but a lot of people said they found it interesting.

The other programme item I participated in was a panel discussion on the Clay Mathematics Institute‘s seven Millennium Prize Problems in Mathematics.  This was moderated by Michael Abbott, a mathematics graduate who now works in software engineering (and who also did a heroic job organising the programme for the entire convention) and also included Susan Stepney, a former astrophysicist who is now professor of computer science at the University of York.  We got through the seven problems in an hour, although some of them proved easier to talk about than others: the Riemann Hypothesis is relatively straightforward to state (although obviously none of the seven are in any sense easy to solve) and Susan did a very good job of explaining P vs NP, but explaining the Hodge Conjecture or the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer Conjecture to a nonspecialist audience (especially when I don’t really understand the details myself) isn’t very easy.  But I think we at least managed to communicate that all of these problems are very difficult and involve some extremely advanced and technical bits of mathematics.

All in all, a jolly enjoyable convention.  Next year’s Eastercon is in Glasgow and I’m quite looking forward to it already.

(The title of this post, by the way, is a line from this song, by the British band The Mekons. In addition to the Bradford and space travel references, it turns out that Jon Langford, one of the band’s founding members, is the younger brother of the Hugo-award-winning writer and SF critic David Langford.)