Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Ideas from Science Fiction are a Career Killer?

The December issue of Esquire Tom Junod profiled biologist Mark Roth, whose lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center studies suspended animation. Long term human hibernation is a staple of science fiction, particularly as a method for transporting people for the very long journeys necessary to traverse our galaxy at sub-light speeds.

The style of the Esquire article is pretty breezy, particularly if you are used to reading profiles of scientists in Science (or even the New York Times), so can be a bit hard to tell what bits are based on facts, and what Junod included because he liked the sound of it. That's why I'm not quite sure what to make of this:
Now, Mark Roth is a scientist. He's not a philosopher or a crank. He proves things, experimentally, according to the scientific method. In 2007, he got a MacArthur, so he's a genius, certified. [snip long description of Roth's appearance] He sometimes gives you a goofy double thumbs-up when he thinks he's proved his point, when he's proved that what he's talking about -- be it ball lightning or the philosopher's stone -- is not a crazy idea but rather a gamer. Still, he's got a lot of ideas, for a scientist, and some of them come from unusual sources, like tabloidy news reports and science fiction.

It's a weird thing about scientists -- you would think that they would love science fiction. But they don't. To admit that you get your ideas from science fiction, if you're a scientist, that's, like, career-threatening, man, just like it might be professionally risky to say you work in Mark Roth's lab, no matter how outlandish and game-changing its accomplishments. And so, yes, Mark Roth is a scientist. But he's a scientist in the way that you used to want to be a scientist when you were a kid, with weird substances -- dangerous substances, toxic substances, indeed the most toxic substances known to man! -- bubbling away in his lab, rather than a scientist in the way that most scientists are scientists, with NIH funding, a stack of grant applications to catch up on, and a commitment to pursue the one or two ideas that got them that precious federal funding to the death.
Now from where I sit, this reads like a tiny kernel of truth surrounded whole lot of stupid. Junod doesn't seen to have ever met a scientist or seen a lab, and he doesn't appear have a clue that even unusual scientific ideas owe credit to the research that has gone on before.

Take, for example, his description of Roth as having a lot of ideas "for a scientist". Most scientists I've met have lots of ideas. I suspect that Junod actually meant to write "Roth has lots of ideas I find really cool". And that's pretty much the theme of the whole article: Roth doesn't just punch the clock doing boring research like all those unimaginitive scientists with NIH grants. He's a maverick doing weird science who found creative ways to fund his work. He's like totally rad!

The jab about most scientists not loving science fiction falls along those lines. Some scientists love science fiction and some don't. Just like some scientists are of differening opionions on the entertainment value of murder mysteries and Tom Clancy novels. But the implication seems to be that scientists dislike SF because they can't use the ideas in their grant proposals, which is just stupid.

Which brings me to his next point:
"To admit that you get your ideas from science fiction, if you're a scientist, that's, like, career-threatening, man...".
Well yes, if all your scientific ideas are only based on science fiction and not on, you know, actual science, that would be a problem. Most science fiction is fiction first and science second. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but not really that useful for basing your research on.

I suspect that Roth's scientific ideas about inducing suspended animation actually are based on previous research and not just The Forever War, even though he did apparently have a lot of trouble getting them funded (but, like, NIH funds only boring unoriginal stuff, so, like, dude, it's better that he didn't get any grants). You'd never know that reading this article, though.

And I don't want to give the impression that I don't think Roth's research is interesting. It is. I'm just not keen on the way it's been framed as better than what other scientist have been doing because it's so science fictional.

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2 comments:

megapolisomancy said...

Here is another blog entry on the Esquire piece and its claims:

The purple prose of suspended animation

Ford said...

Scientists may be intolerant of certain kinds of nonsense in science fiction (aliens in refrigerated suits making their surroundings cold, evolution towards some distant goal), but that's different than "not liking science fiction."