Whenever I mention to my friends that I’ve just been appointed writer-in-residence at the Science Museum (and I try and mention it as often as I possibly can) they look decidedly bewildered.
‘This man barely knows how to tie his own shoe laces,’ they’re thinking. ‘What the hell is he doing hanging about a place like that?’ It’s a question I’ve been asking myself lately, but somehow, by dint of having written a short series of stories for Radio Four under the collective title of Junior Science I find myself sitting here at my desk on the third floor of the museum, between wandering round the various galleries with my little notebook in hand.
Somewhere in the job description there’ll be something about ‘a new perspective’ on the museum’s collections or similar. New (and frankly skewed) perspectives I can do. Exam-passing, traditional perspectives on science tend to be where I fall down. Through my teens Science became something of a brick wall for me. But it’s a rare man in his prime (51, since you ask) whose pulse doesn’t quicken when asked to spend his time amongst VII rockets, Apollo lunar modules and very big (and very old) telescopes.
I just had a meeting with a man called Tim Boon who knows a great deal about The Common Cold Research Unit and public information films from the 1950s. He oversaw the Science Museum’s recent exhibition on Daphne Oram, the pioneering electronics composer and inventor. Next week I’m visiting the museum’s store in Earl’s Court (their really big store is an airfield in Wiltshire) before meeting Charlotte Cotton who’s current job is setting up a new photography gallery in the museum by 2013. What’s not to like?
In fact, for a while back then, way before my teens, I had a real passion for something experimental and perhaps even a little science-y. I used to hole myself up in the garden shed and melt wax, make copper sulphate crystals and leave different things out overnight to see if and how they froze. Perhaps that elemental curiosity (or simple fascination with transformation) is present in all eight-year-olds. What I wonder now is why it rather fizzled out a year or two later. Because here I am, forty years on, and for all sorts of reasons – not least a son of my own who’s just beginning to explore the world about him – science is a potentially wonderful thing again.
One of the things that’s changed is that I now find a way in via the narratives – Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who essentially discovered the first pulsar but had to watch her boss receive the Nobel Prize (I’m paraphrasing here), or the European x-ray telescope which was meant to orbit the earth but never left the ground. Somehow, over the years, the arcane and the eccentric have become my ‘bag’. Other people used to say it. Now I say it myself. Well there’s no shortage of either category here in South Kensington. Like most writers, I know when an idea is worth pursuing but often can’t articulate what sets it apart until I’ve finished working on it. I’m still only just getting my feet under the table and already have a list as long as my arm of things I’d like to explore. At some point I guess I’m going to have to stop wandering around and having meetings and actually do some work.
Published to tie in with Mick Jackson’s appointment as the first writer-in-residence at the Science Museum, Junior Science comprises three stories – ‘Zero Gravity’, ‘The Answering Machine’, and ‘Back to School’. Commissioned by BBC Radio 4, they will be broadcast at 3.45pm on Friday 11, 18 and 25 November respectively.
Full of wonder, pathos and mystery, the stories are marked by Jackson’s unique sensibility, as they explore the way children start to become aware of the world around them.
Mick Jackson (‘a genuine English eccentric’ – Sunday Times) is the Booker Prize-shortlisted author of The Underground Man. His other books include Ten Sorry Tales and, most recently, The Widow’s Tale.