Scientists and Science Fiction Writers…Talking!

A famous frame from the film

Arizona State University, in collaboration with several science fiction authors including Neal Stephenson and Cory Doctorow, is trying to start active collaborations between scientists and science fiction writers, through a new Center for Science and the Imagination. If you don’t immediately see how cool this is, let me explain.

I don’t think I’m alone in that I have a little bit of trouble getting into science fiction with bad science. Sadly, most science fiction writers are not scientists, and many of them don’t even seem to talk to scientists — or if they do, they misinterpret what they’re told. It’s understandable. Any individual scientist is likely not to be a generalist. We have increasingly detailed and esoteric knowledge in increasingly tiny fields. And the best science fiction isn’t realistic so much as speculative anyway. But wouldn’t it be cool if science fiction writers could learn from scientists to write stories that were just as creative, just as ambitious, but just a little bit more, er, grounded?

A famous frame from the film "Voyage to the Moon", based on Jules Verne's "From the Earth to the Moon"

Jules Verne’s calculations on what it would take to get to the moon, for instance, were surprisingly accurate given the limited data he had. The reason the enormous cannon approach wasn’t feasible? You’d need a prohibitively long barrel in order to limit acceleration to a level humans could survive.

That’s a fairly common idea. What’s a little bit more off-the-wall is that the collaboration really goes both ways. I know from my work that it’s easy to get so bogged down in the specifics that you forget the big picture. And it’s especially easy to look at a string of failed experiments or negative results and decide that an ambitious plan is simply futile. Having a discussion with someone who is imaginative and creative, and passionate about science and technology and the future, even if they don’t necessarily have the background necessary to put their dreams into reality themselves, can allow you to look at a problem in a different way and can be a powerful jolt to your enthusiasm and ambition: basically, it makes for bigger, and better science.

A photo of 'Rocket Man', with a jet pack, at the 2005 Melbourne show, taken by Fir002/Flagstaffotos

Photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos
Hypothesis: no one would think that jet packs were a good idea, if not for science fiction writers. And yet, (1) they are totally cool, and (2) we are making them.

The Center for Science and the Imagination tries to foster this, getting scientists and science fiction writers to talk, about science projects, and about stories, and about culture. They launched yesterday (If I had known, I would have posted then, and Arizona labbers might have been able to go! Sorry guys!). And they’ve started collaborations with groups like Heiroglyph, an online magazine for creative science fiction stories envisioned with help from scientists, and the ASU Center for Games and Impact, which fosters the development of games to solve real world problems.

It seems like a really cool idea to me, and they have a couple talks lined up throughout October. If you have the time and are in the area, check it out!

Some news coverage is here: New York Times

And their website is here: ASU CSI

Elizabeth is a PhD Candidate studying Genetics in the San Francisco Bay Area. She specializes in the epigenetics of mammalian development. In her free time, she is an aerialist, a dancer, a clothing designer, and an author. You can find her on tumblr at madgeneticist.tumblr.com, on twitter at @lysine_rich, and also on facebook or google+.

1 Comment

  1. This is really cool and has some great potential! I remember talking to you back in college about your frustration with science fiction authors who didn’t even seem to TRY to understand the existing science behind the things they were talking about (were you part of a writers’ group at that time?).

    But I also like that you bring up how sci-fi can build popular support for sci-factual ideas.

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