Biggar Science Festival 2019
Biggar Science Festival Creative Writing Competition
In the early stages of creation of both art and science, everything in the mind is a story.
The judges of the Write Science creative writing competition have made their decisions. We can now announce the winners!
Best Poem: Chemistry Class by Gillian Mellor
Best Poem, Runner-up: Extraction by Gillian Mellor
Best Short Story: Polonium by Cara Green
Best Short Story, Runner-up: Tracks on the Moon by Helen Aitken
Congratulations to Gillian, Cara and Helen for their winning entries inspired by the theme of Elements.
Thank you to everyone who entered a poem or short story into the competition. We will be collating all the entries into an anthology which will be published in due course.
Thanks are due to the Biggar Community Council Incentive Fund for contributing the prize money, and also to our judges for judging the entries. Thank you!
The winning entries can be seen below:
Week 3 is alkali metals via a poor quality video.
Lithium powers the connections of our future,
when too much sodium has ruined our kidneys.
Potassium charges through the ion channels
of our hearts regardless of Who we are feeling.
Rubidium is Pete Townsend to caesium's Keith Moon.
Keith won't wait to react, leaves vapour trails
before he hits the water: over way too soon.
We play Won't Get Fooled Again
in your room, placing the needle into its groove.
Over summer, you lose interest.
Iron Maiden pulls you like a magnet.
Attraction means you rest on her skin.
She anticipates my reaction:
a controlled explosion across every single synapse.
I cram the syllabus.
Remember: plenty more ions in solution.
None so attractive.
Rare earths reside in our costume technology.
Ostentatious as jewellery, our lives filtered
via screens with cerium sheens.
We fall through our own looking glass.
as these precious metals fuel an influx
migrants chasing a capitalist's tail
which wags with the fluctuating price
per kilogram of neodymium.
They say some rare earths are as abundant as copper,
but extraction is difficult and devastating.
The echoes of process cloud air
with invasive oxides free at the point of inhalation,
while run-off pools into hollows
so poisoned not even algae can grow.
Dystopia dawns like the present.
Yet humans are still on the take.
“Mum, if you had to marry one of the elements in the periodic table, which one would you choose?”
Even by Izzy’s standards, this is a difficult question. And she drops it just as Mariusz misses the exit for the M62.
I shriek at Mariusz, he asks me if I’m sure, I shriek some more, he reaches for his phone, I grab it off him and check the map. Definitely missed the exit for Hull. Next junction… quite a bit further on. I check the time and wince.
“Mum! Which element?”
“Not now, Izzy!”
Mariusz puts his foot on the gas. “Relax, we got plenty time.”
“You can have carbon, or helium…”
I think fondly of my packet of paracetamol which is safely stowed in my washbag. In the boot of the car.
“OK, I’ll marry carbon. Put your headphones on now.”
I can hear Izzy smirking behind me. “You can’t choose something that I suggested.”
I wish I could put on my own headphones. And then Artur pipes up:
“Mummy… I need a wee.”
Artur has been scared of the ferry ever since we told him we were going on one (“Will there be pirates? Are we going to sink?”), but once he’s seen the tiny cabin we’ll be sleeping in, he begins to jump about in excitement. I usher them to the restaurant as my need for wine is now approaching critical. At the table, Izzy gets back on the case.
“You’ve just got to choose one element. And don’t choose something really random just to show off. Marriage is for life.”
My friends’ daughters pester them for Netflix subscriptions, trips to Pizza Express and pink hair dye. I take a large mouthful of wine and try to remember what the periodic table looks like. All I can remember is a load of boxes. Mercury. That’s one of them, isn’t it? Poor choice of marriage partner though. Cadmium? Wasn’t he a monk?
“I’d marry gold,” I say, triumphantly. “Because then I’d be rich and I could fly us all to Mexico for a holiday instead of having to - ”
As soon as I see the expression on Mariusz’s face, I stop myself. But it’s too late. Izzy looks at me, then at him.
“Don’t you want to go to Poland?”
“Of course I want to go to Poland,” I say. “Now eat your chips.”
“Aeroplanes are bad for the environment,” Artur informs us solemnly. I down my wine.
Later, when everyone is finally in their bunks and silent, I lie in the dark and feel the ferry moving through the sea beneath me.
Are we going to sink? Will there be pirates?
On the other side of the cabin, Mariusz stirs. I hear him get up and come over to my bunk.
“You OK?” I ask into the darkness. I feel the warmth of his hands on my face, his lips on mine.
“I love you,” he whispers. “Love you to the end of the earth.”
Then he pads back to his own bunk, falls asleep, and begins to snore. I lie awake for a long time. Out of a forgotten recess of my mind, the old Tom Lehrer song begins to play. The tune is crystal clear but the actual names of the elements escape me. Come on, brain…
Hydrogen… helium and … pepper … and ruconium…
Day 2. My turn to drive. Nine hours of the E30, here we come. Tom Lehrer still playing in my head. Mariusz turns back to the kids, grinning a delighted grin.
“You know what at the end of this road, kids?”
“A toll bridge,” says Izzy.
“Legoland?” tries Artur.
“Poland!” cries his dad. “And who waiting for us in Poland?”
The kids love their babcia. And she’s just what you would want your kids’ gran to be. Doting, funny, makes a mean apple pie. I drive, and the others play I-Spy at Artur’s insistence. They start off in English but as we head away from Rotterdam and into Germany, their language becomes more and more Polish. By the time we arrive at our B & B somewhere around Magdeburg, I have no idea what any of them are saying.
Whilst the others go inside to check out the room, I get out of the car, stretch, and enjoy the cool evening breeze. I find it incredible that if we keep going along this road, we’ll get to Warsaw eventually, and if we drove the other way, we’d get to Paris. For some reason, Marie Curie pops into my head. I suppose she must have made this journey at least once, but by train, not car. From one home to another. I wonder if she ever went home to see her parents. Or her babcia.
That night, whilst Mariusz is reading to Artur and I’m trying to convince Izzy to get into bed, it comes to me.
Izzy frowns. “What?”
“I would marry polonium.”
I see a vaguely impressed look cross her face for the first time in several weeks.
I look at Mariusz, unshaven, crumpled, Artur snuggled up against his chest.
“Because of your dad.”
“Polonium’s big and hairy and a bit grumpy?”
“Exactly. It’s just what I look for in an element. And Marie Curie discovered it, so I’m also providing you with some strong female scientist role models. Now. Time to sleep.”
“Artur’s not asleep.”
Artur is very soon tucked up, and the light goes out. Just as Mariusz and I are about to make it out of the room, Izzy’s voice rings out:
“Polonium is radioactive. You might have a few good years together but then you’d die a slow horrible death.”
“Good night, Izzy!”
“I’m just saying. I’m going to have to wear a radiation suit for the rest of my life.”
“I’ll order you one tomorrow. Dobra noc.”
“Dobra noc,” she says, and finally shuts up, my beautiful, razor-sharp, half-British, half-Polish daughter.
Tracks on the Moon
Nitrogen. Carbon. Oxygen. Nitrogen is easy, because it cycles round and round unchanged. Collins had already taken the same breath a thousand times on the way here. Carbon dioxide is a killer, unless you keep the levels low. She had now got into the habit of checking the gauge every eight steps; Nit-ro-gen-car-bon-ox-y-gen. Carbon dioxide levels stable. She was surrounded by oxygen, in the form of ilmenite. But Moon rocks are useless for breathing, and it was more than an hour since she had run too low on oxygen to make it back to base.
When the first reports had come through it had been easy to dismiss them as a natural phenomenon. Then the pictures arrived, and they became harder to ignore. They were too regular and distinctive to have been made by accident. Nasa’s best guess then became that they were made by some kind of unmanned probe. Perhaps one that lost contact with Earth upon landing and was never publicised. They were found hundreds of miles from any of the Apollo landing sites. What nation on Earth could possibly send someone to walk on the Moon without telling the world about it?
Collins had been assigned to investigate. She was supposed to be there as a mechanic and a technician, but so far things were progressing smoothly. She was judged to be the least essential of the five-person team. Besides, with only three precious days left on the surface before they were to be recalled to Earth, Collins leapt at the chance to explore. She had tried to sign out the Lunar Buggy, but was told that her investigation was low priority. NASA hadn’t made the discovery public for fear that it would turn out to be an elaborate hoax. If Collins wanted to follow the footprints, she’d have to carry supplies on her back and hike out miles from the base. If the footprints led directly away, as they appeared to, then she wouldn’t be able to follow them very far before she had to turn back.
Collins had passed the point of no return, and carried on without noticing, because there was something hypnotic about following footprints across a landscape supposedly never seen before by human eyes. Whoever had made them had even tinier feet than she did. Early in her journey she had stopped to examine one of the prints in minute detail. The boot appeared to be made of a solid piece of metal, riveted in place. It was nothing like any of the NASA spacesuit models, past or present.
It had occurred to her that the prints might belong to a robot, but she changed her mind when she reached a ridge and saw that the tracks deviated from the straight line they had been following. Collins couldn’t see anything particularly remarkable about the view of the landscape. Then she looked at her computer, and saw that this was a perfect vantage point to watch the Earthrise. Someone had stood here to appreciate the beauty. If she stayed here for a few hours she could do the same. And that was when she checked her oxygen levels, and realised it was too late to stop for Earthrise, and too late to turn back.
She was out of communication range with the base, and both the Lunar Communication Satellite and Mission Control on Earth were still behind hundreds of tonnes of Moon rock. They would come back into range, in time; pick up her distress call, and the flat life readings from her suit. They would say she should never have been allowed to leave the base alone, and blame would be apportioned. It wouldn’t stop her dying here, surrounded by oxygen trapped in the rocks.
Nit-ro-gen-car-bon-ox-y-gen. The footprints must be leading somewhere. Someone had walked the same route as Collins, and must also have started somewhere far away from the base, and carried on walking, and breathing. She tried to remember everything she knew about this part of the Moon, but the truth was that she knew nothing. She had ordered maps from NASA’s archives of every part of the lunar surface that was potentially reachable from the base, as soon as the mission was announced. This area was a blank, not considered interesting or significant enough to survey. That was what she had been told when she queried the omission.
Nit-ro-gen-car-bon-ox-y-gen. She counted her steps and told herself she was only imagining that it was becoming harder to breathe. Panic could only make things worse. There was something on the horizon, glinting in the weak light from the Sun. It broke up the grey landscape. Collins was sure now that the footprints were heading towards it, convinced too that it was not a natural feature. So far, she had managed to walk beside the footprints. Now she was stumbling, crossing over them, obliterating them entirely in some places.
By the time she reached the place she had spotted on the horizon her vision was growing dark. She couldn’t see exactly what it was until she tripped and fell right on top of it. The footprints continued, crossing the railway tracks and continuing into the distance. She laughed, even though laughter was a waste of oxygen. She knew she ought to consider the possibility that she was hallucinating. But she could feel the sleepers through her gloves, and her knees were digging into the rails. When she was young and stupid, she and her friends had sometimes played on the railway tracks. They had told themselves that they were safe as long as they didn’t hear the rails whistle and vibrate, signalling an approaching train.
There was no atmosphere to allow her to hear, but she could feel, through her body against the ground. Something was coming, and she used the last strength she had to roll to one side, and believed that she would live to see it, and breathe freely once more. Nitrogen. Carbon. Oxygen...