Scientists, Science Fiction, and the people who love them both

Nov 24 2008 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

I first got this question from the lovely Stephanie, and then again from the Borg: How does Science Fiction relate to you as a scientist?
I am a Sci-Fi lover. Well, Sci-Fi and fantasy. I am mostly a book person, but I also do DVDs (I do not own a working TV and haven't for about two years now, it interferes with my internet time). Favorite Sci-Fi includes Firefly and Star Trek Next Gen, though I can also wax poetic on the subject of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (I suppose it doesn't count as "real", but it's so great! Someday I'm going to edit Wikipedia to include the words "Don't Panic" on the heading of every page). Dan Simmons is my personal hero for the deep stuff (I actually recommend "Ilium" over "Hyperion" for various reasons, which I can get in to if anyone really cares).
So when I saw the list of the questions, I knew I HAD to blog this.

What is your relationship to science fiction? Do you read it? Watch it? What/who do you like and why?
I've been a Sci-Fi geek since my youthful days, watching Star Trek with my mom. Now I read, watch, whatever. I've always been a Next Gen fan, mostly because Patrick Stewart is SO brilliant. I actually admire him even more for his stage work, and it is my goal to one day meet him, fangirl all over him, and tell him how much I loved his "Othello".
Reading-wise, I'm a big fan of Dan Simmons, the famous writer of the "Hyperion" cantos. I really admire the way he combines the old (referencing things like Proust, Shakespeare, the Iliad, etc) with the futuristic, adding extra layers to the plot and characters that leave you interpreting actions for days.
I also love Firefly, though since it's a "Space-Western", I'm not entirely sure it counts. Excellent character development and fantastically funny writing.
I think what people love about Sci-fi isn't just the "wow" factor, it's the idea of possibility. I love thinking about aliens: what if they weren't cabon-based? Would they be anything we would even recognize? What other self-replicating systems could there be beyond DNA? These are ideas that bench scientists often consider a waste of time, and it's great to know that there are writers out there thinking of it and making us all think deeper than we might ever go on our own.
We spend a lot of time confronted by the dull face of reality. I love that writers in general, and Sci-fi and fantasy writers in particular, look beyond that, and give us the funny little questions that make us stop, and make us think. If there were androids, would they dream of electric sheep?
I also feel that Sci-fi (and fantasy) provides another lens for looking at issues of society and morality. It is easier to look from the outside when you're looking a society of aliens. Personality traits can be thrown into sharp relief and actions can be emphasized to raise moral and psychological questions. My favorite example of this is all the difference "races" on Star Trek or Babylon 5. In Star Trek, each race had a significantly different characteristic: analytical thinking, empathy, violence, honor. Each personality trait was thrown into sharp relief and could be analyzed without fear of invoking problems of race, or even gender (though they didn't escape gender very well). How do you work with something that seems to alien to your own sets of values and your own culture? In turn, the "aliens" threw the humans and their idiosyncrasies into relief. Perhaps our values are not always the best ones.
Can science fiction do more than make people excited about science? Can it harm the cause of science?
One of the things I think is most important about Sci-fi is that it makes people excited about science. It gives you the "wow" factor that you may never get in science class, and it encourages people to imagine beyond the limits of human possibility. One of my favorite Firefly episodes involves a futuristic MRI/PET/brain scanner thingy, where the image can be rotated and all parts of the brain can be seen. It's not so beyond the limits of what we can do, and I get a huge "wow" factor, thinking that someday, we might be able to make one of those. I want to get scanned so bad!
Of course, Sci-fi (and medical shows and things) can harm people's perceptions of scientists and doctors. I often wonder how many people go in to the doctor now, expecting a miracle cure from "House". A colleague of mine who works in genetics was once asked if he could sequence the DNA off fingerprints for a neighbor who'd had their stuff stolen. The neighbor was shocked and upset to find out that it would take months and a LOT of money. She wanted it the next day!
I think some of these problems arise from issues such as simplifying what we DO know, and how that comes across in books and on-screen. Most people who watch or read sci-fi don't actually know that much about science, and the simplification can get them confused. We do know a LOT, but a lot of what we know is so intricately detailed that it doesn't come across. And what does come across is often over-simplified and results in people thinking that scientists are gods, and then being horribly disillusioned when they realize they aren't.
But luckily, I also know of one colleague of mine who advises Sci-fi writers (which would be SO cool. Email me, Sciffys! I'll advise for an acknowledgement and a free copy of your book!). They email him or call him, asking if certain things are possible, or how someone would explain something. I think that's an excellent attitude, and people might even be more impressed when they realize that something they are reading really IS possible. At the same time, I hope that they don't allow reality to set limits on their imagination in their writing. Without imagination and ideas, where will the next great developments come from? Sure, we build on the findings of others, we stand on the shoulders of giants, but each of us has to come up with the next step to take, and we can always use some new ideas.
Have you used science fiction as a starting point to talk about science? Is it easier to talk about people doing it right or getting it wrong?
I've found in general it's easier to start with what people are getting wrong. Shows like "Bones" are always good starting points. I've also found that, if I use what people are getting wrong as a starting point, I disillusion a lot of people. I know people out there who really do believe in things like telepathy, and sometimes it really upsets them when I try to tell them that TV isn't reality, even though I try to do it gently. Sometimes I stop trying, I get tired of losing friends, even though it is in the interest of truth and education.
When I am teaching, I'd like to make people excited about real science, not just Sci-fi. I want them to realize that that same "wow" factor is in real life as well as in fiction. This is part of why I write, trying to express real science in an interesting and exciting way to hold people's interest. And some real science IS just as 'out there' as Sci-fi. Think of string theory. Heck, think of neural networks and things like memory formation! I hope that for many people, Sci-fi provides the "wow" that gets them started looking at our earth-bound science, and making their own science-nonfiction.
And hey, Sci-fi keeps me dreaming. Someday I will TOTALLY have that jet-pack.

9 responses so far

  • JLK says:

    Anyone remember Seaquest DSV? That show was my life when I was a kid.
    I mean, a talking dolphin?? I was hooked.

  • chris says:

    Here's a website for those who don't believe in telepathy... you decide!

  • Scicurious says:

    *Begin telepathic message* The author of this blog would like to point out that had there been real telepathy involved in the posting of the previous comment, 'chris' would have realized that Scicurious thinks telepathy is a concept for idiots that merely serves to heighten their stupidity in the eyes of the sensible world. *message ends*

  • Dr. John says:

    Now SciC, don't taunt the humanities majors...

  • Stephanie Z says:

    And all the questions too. 🙂
    Okay, Scicurious, you win. Just tell me where you want the holiday care package to go.

  • Scicurious says:

    Really, I was kidding about the care package, though it's lovely to feel appreciated! 🙂 And do not worry, tomorrow I return to the family bosom, where they will stuff me full of tasty, tasty food (mine is a family of both amateur and professional chefs). A much chubbier Sci will return replete.
    And Dr. John, my Bachelors of Arts in Philosophy is insulted. 🙂

  • Dr. John says:

    Yeah, I haven't mocked you for that in a while. Remind me next time I'm in town, will ya? 😉

  • T. Kosmaka says:

    It may amuse you to know that while you're a scientist who reads science fiction, there are science fiction writers who read your blog.
    I'm a huge fan of this blog of yours. Keep at it!

  • I love what you guys tend to be up too. This kind of clever
    work and reporting! Keep up the great works guys I've added you guys to
    my own blogroll.