Science fiction for science communication

31 July 2014 by Paige Brown Jarreau, posted in Science Blogosphere, SciLogs

Editor's Note: This is a guest blog post by Madeleine Stone. Madeleine is an environmental science PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania and an avid science communicator. She blogs regularly at The Lonely Spore and The Science of Fiction. Follow her on Twitter.

Hey there, science communicators! Do you like science fiction?

You might say I had a nerdy childhood. While most girls my age were playing with Barbies and Polly Pockets, my free time was spent watching Star Trek and Aliens, building Star Wars Lego sets, or helping my brother decorate our house like a spaceship (my mom wasn’t a big fan of that last one). I’ve carried that love of science fiction with me into my adult life and career as a scientist.

Wikipedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

I’m not alone. Science fiction has been a source of inspiration for many budding scientists. Physicist and engineer Jordin Kare “went to MIT because the hero of Robert Heinlein’s novel Have Space Suit went to MIT.” Jeanne Cavelos, an astrophysicist-turned-science-fiction-writer, writes “[I] was already fascinated by the idea of space travel, and Star Wars fueled my interest in space exploration and the possibility of alien life.”

As you’re probably aware, science fiction is no longer a nerdy subculture. From summer blockbusters like Pacific Rim and Godzilla to massive online multiplayer games like Starcraft, science fiction is everywhere. Even those with little interest in the genre will recognize commonplace words that were coined in the scifi-verse, including “robotics” (Isaac Asimov, 1941), “computer virus” (Greg Benford, 1970) and “cyberspace” (William Gibson, 1984).

What does our obsession with science fiction mean? To me, it means there are many people out there who share my fascination with science and technology. It means that as a society, we love to imagine the sorts of worlds and human experiences science might produce.

And for me, science fiction’s pervasiveness carries another big implication. Science fiction has become the primary lens through which a large fraction of the public learns who scientists are, what they do, and how science can shape society.

How can science communicators start speaking to the Trekkies, Whovians and Zombiephiles who love science in their own way, but may be reluctant to pick up Scientific American? How, in other words, can we communicate science through fiction?

Understanding the present and the future

To answer that question, it’s first important to understand what exactly science fiction is. Writer Ursula Le Guin calls science fiction “a safe, sterile laboratory.” To Le Guin and many others, science fiction is a space where some of society’s biggest ethical questions and challenges can be explored without restraint. Le Guin uses alien worlds and androgynous societies to challenge traditional gender roles, while writer Octavia Butler weaves race relations into post-apocalyptic survival stories. The original Star Trek series is often interpreted as a commentary on racial issues of the 1960’s and the Cold War.

Science fiction is also a medium for questioning how current and emerging technologies will redefine society in the future. In her popular book and soon-to-be HBO series MaddaddamMargaret Atwood explores how bioengineering, if applied to humans, might alter our fundamental humanity- and whether this would be a good thing. Computer scientist and fiction writer Rudy Rucker imagines bizarre futures in which nanotechnology creates virtual worlds that integrate seamlessly with our own reality.

And lastly, science fiction is a makerspace. Some of society’s most creative minds, scientists and non-scientists alike, use science fiction to mock up brand-new technologies, even new scientific disciplines. HG Wells famously “invented” the atomic bomb in his 1913 novel The World Set Free, decades before the first A-bomb was created. In the 1930’s classic Brave New WorldAldous Huxley predicted mood enhancing drugs and genetic engineering – twenty years before the discovery of DNA and forty years before the first genetic manipulations. Contemporary science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson builds worlds where futuristic ideas like space elevators and terraforming are fleshed out in incredible scientific detail.

Divine Invasion. Reproduced with permission from Mehreen Murtaza.

Divine Invasion. Reproduced with permission from Mehreen Murtaza.

Throughout history, science fiction has become science fact. Are science fiction writers really that good at predicting the future? Or is this where our future is being built? In a recent Smithsonian Magazine article discussing the science-fiction-to-fact trend, Eileen Gunn writes:

“Sometimes it’s the seemingly weird ideas that come true- thanks, in part, to science fiction’s capacity to spark an imaginative fire in readers who have the technical knowledge to help realize its visions.”

Whether science fiction is creating allegory for the present, predicting the future or building it, its role is the same. It forces us to question society’s norms and imagine how our world could be different.  This is a powerful role. And as science communicators, we need to start tapping into that power.

Building a new narrative

I’m an environmental scientist by training. At a time when most of the environmental news we hear is, let’s face it, rather depressing, science fiction is offering creative solutions, from cities made of living, self-repairing building materials to bioluminescent algae that light our homes. These future-visions could not be timelier. Most environmental policy today is focused on limitation, restriction and preservation. All very important, mind you, but we pay far less attention to new technologies or scientific disciplines that may help solve our environmental crises. In an article published last year in the journal Ethics, Policy and the Environment, Dr. Cherly Hall describes the need for a “new narrative” surrounding our relationship with the environment:

“Without a narrative of how human beings have successfully overcome obstacles and can continue to do so, we will be unable to imagine or create a brighter future….People usually are not willing to change their lives and dreams unless they have a clear idea of how doing so will make a significant and beneficial difference. Hence the need for alternative stories. Since the dominant narrative emphasizes the freedom, power, and happiness entailed in a high-carbon, high-consumption lifestyle, environmentalists need to challenge the assumptions of that narrative. That is to say, we need to help people reimagine what it might mean to be free, powerful, and happy.”

How can science fiction help you tell new narratives about the science that matters? I’ll leave that as an open question but encourage science communicators to stretch themselves creatively. Ultimately, science fiction is like any other art form: a raw expression of our humanity. And being a human is at the core of all effective communication.

Below I’ve provided links to resources I’ve found particularly useful in thinking about how science fiction can be a tool for communicating science. I’ve also thrown in some awesome projects that blend science and science fiction.

How America’s leading science fiction authors are shaping your future- by Eileen Gunn, science fiction author

From fantasy to reality: how science fiction has influenced technology- by Adam Rutherford

Science fiction can save environmentalism- by Tate Williams

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction- by Annalee Newitz, editor and chief of io9

The Real Science Behind the X‐Files: Microbes, Meteorites, and Mutants- by Anne Simon

The Science of Star Wars: An Astrophysicist’s Independent Examination of Space Travel, Aliens, Planets, and Robots as Portrayed in the Star Wars Films and Books- by Jeanne Cavelos

MAS 565: Science Fiction to Science Fabrication- I wish I went to MIT just to take this course!

Biopunk: stories from the far side of research- A book of science fiction short stories that represent collaborations between scientists, ethicists and writers, Biopunk explores the near future possibilities for a range of emerging technologies in the biosciences.

Project Hieroglyph- This is COOL. A partnership started by science fiction author Neal Stephenson and the Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI) at Arizona State University, Project Hieroglyph is  “a space for writers, scientists, artists and engineers to collaborate on creative, ambitious visions of our near future.”

Make it So- Interaction design lessons inspired by science fiction, by Nathan Shedroff and Chrisopher Noessel. They also run a great blog, Sci-fi interfaces.

Paleofuture- A Gizmodo blog exploring futures that never existed.

The Science of Fiction- My personal blog, where I discuss the scientific plausibility of science fiction futures.

6 Responses to “Science fiction for science communication”

  1. umbrarchist Reply | Permalink

    Do we need a new name for science fiction? How about STEM Fiction? Lucas admitted that Star Wars was not science fiction in 1977 and Roger Ebert agreed. But today most people think it is.

    The "science" has mostly gone down the tubes. But some works still qualify. We need to separate out those that do.

    Omnilingual (Feb 1957) by H. Beam Piper

  2. Maddie Reply | Permalink

    That's a really good point, umbrarchist. Science fiction as a term is used very loosely. I often hear it applied to books or movies that I'd consider fantasy or horror. A lot of folks are now using the umbrella term 'speculative fiction' to refer to anything sort of fiction that represents a significant departure from our reality. 'Hard science fiction' is sometimes used to refer to scifi that is particularly scientific in its descriptions of futuristic technologies or societies, though it's not always clear where one draws the line.

    I think at the end of the day, whether or not a 'science fiction' story is particularly scientific, it can be used as a teaching tool if the story is captivating enough. Take the recent series of tatooine posts in scilogs- these science writers used a fictional world that many people are familiar with as a way of drawing readers in. We can harness the stories people love, scientific or not, as a way of making science more accessible and interesting.

  3. Joao Reply | Permalink

    Outstanding article, congrats

  4. umbrarchist Reply | Permalink

    How do you have "science" be a significant factor in a story without using "science words"? So what happens if you count and do a statistical analysis of those words? Might as well do it for "fantasy words "also.

    The 7 Harry Potter books are SIX MEGABYTES. Did you know that Rowling used the word 'wand' 1500 times but only used the word 'science' one time in the first book.

    I wrote a computer program that searches .txt and .rtf files for science and fantasy words and counts them.

    Anyone interested in experimenting with science word counting in SF, Windows and Linux versions with GUI interfaces have been uploaded. You must have Python on your computer to use them.

    Linux - sfforensic_L.pyc

    Windows - sfforensic_W.pyc

    The input file is: ACC.AFalloMndust.txt with 439541 characters.

    It uses 79 SF words 450 times for an SF density of 1.024

    The input file is: OSC.EndersGame.txt with 582652 characters.

    It uses 42 SF words 214 times for an SF density of 0.367

    Hard SF tends to get significantly higher SF densities.

    Ender's Game is 33% longer than A Fall of Moondust but uses about half as many science words less than half as often.

  5. Jason Reply | Permalink

    Is there an author to that first picture? I was hoping to possibly use it as cover art for a scifi book I'm coming up with, I know it doesn't seem that important but I was wanting to know if I could use it.

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