Monday, July 02, 2007

More Discussion about Biology vs Physics in Science Fiction

There's been more discussion around the blogosphere about getting the biology (and physics) right in science fiction. Not surprisingly, physics and computer science are also mangled when used as fictional plot elements.

Cicada at Bioephemera talks about the hierarchy of different sciences
- and how biology seems to rank as "easier" than physics in popular perception. She points out that this isn't just a problem with scientific verisimilitude in fiction; it's an issue with making real-life decisions.
But it’s not just about people disrespecting my field, or inventing biologically implausible alien races, or the regrettable case of Scully from The X-Files doing a Southern blot in an impossibly short time with an unamplified sample to prove she had alien DNA, or the aliens had human DNA, or whatever that storyline was. Unfortunately, the idea that biology isn’t an especially rigorous science reinforces all sorts of problems - from school boards that give equal weight to intelligent design and evolution, to uninformed decisions about health care (trust me, college students know laughably little about conception and contraception), to policies about scientific research (on stem cells, for example) made on unscientific, partisan grounds.


Rob Knop at Galactic interactions writes about the misuse of Newton's laws in science fiction TV and movies, and takes an in depth look at the motion of star fighters - how it's depicted and how it should be.

Chad Orzel points out that "you gripe about what you know," and that the physics in science fiction movies is also bad. In the comments, Coin notes that "computer scientists have it worse. At least biological messes in movies still vaguely look like living things." Commenter Kate Nepveu points to a site that has medical reviews of House.

Razib at Gene Expression agrees that physics in science fiction is also bad. However, he points out that many science fiction authors had (and have) backgrounds in physics and engineering, including Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson, Gregory Benford and David Brin. He also notes that much science fiction takes place on an "astronomical scale" and that biology is not as "common sensical" as physics.
Fourth, finally complexity and contingency of biology poses a problem in both the appearance of verisimilitude and maintenance of fidelity to reality. By appearance, I mean for example the "common sense" understanding that if a planet is large and massive it will have a higher gravity than a smaller and less dense planet. The obvious idiocy by the author will be clear to most readers with a basic education because the physical principles are elegant and deterministic. In contrast, biology is a messier science filled with exceptions, variation and local contingencies. Expectation in biology is charactered by a large proportion of variance (this is obviously true in many areas of physics, but not the ones that the lay person is most familiar with).
I believe that biosciences get less respect than the physical sciences, in the sense that movie makers and TV produces mostly realize that they don't understand the physics - they just don't care.

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