She concludes that literature has affected the way that science is conducted, rather than the other way around:
And so, instead of science affecting culture (neurophysiology becomes the timelessFrankenstein), the culture (the potency of books about animals) affected the science: The scientific community has taken animal welfare to heart and has worked to minimize the number of animals involved in research as well as the animals' levels of suffering.That seems a bit too simple to me. It's not as if scientists (or science fiction writers) are completely isolated from the culture in which they live. That suggests that there is an ongoing dialog between science, literary culture, and popular opinions about science.
So how does Kahn suggest public opinion of the life sciences can be improved? Write stories with scientists as heroes, of course.
But, if the scientific community wants to engage and inform the public, science fiction is an excellent strategy. Stories captivate people, they survive the test of time, and they become part of the popular culture. So, if any scientists with a creative-writing affinity want to captivate the public and inspire the next generation to pursue careers in science and technology, perhaps they should put pen to paper and start writing. The world needs more stories with scientist-heroes, not more scientist-villains.I find it kind of tiresome when this suggestion is trotted out again and again. It's not that I think that positive depictions of science and scientists in science fiction aren't a good thing. It's that heroic portrayals of science and scientists already exist.
Of course when science and scientists are positively portrayed, it often just blends into the background. Take, for example, the Star Trek universe, which is so firmly entrenched in popular culture that even people who don't consider themselves science fiction fans are familiar with it. The future according to Star Trek is a (mostly) happy place to live, in large part because of advanced technology available to the masses: protein resequencers and genetic resequencers help provide food, tissue and organ regenerators are routine medical treatments and the medical lab on the Enterprise can whip up biomolecules on demand.
|Handsome genetically engineered villain|
I do think that immoral or amoral scientific research is often unfairly portrayed as a source of evil in popular culture. But I'm not sure that writing stories with the specific aim of positively portraying science is the answer.
Fiction written with the purpose of advancing a particular point of view often isn't particularly entertaining. I've put down more than one novel or turned the channel when a story seemed to be overly heavy-handed in promoting a particular cause.
So what's my solution? I'd suggest science fiction versions of shows like CSI or House where science is used to fight crime or treat rare medical conditions. And considering that the science portrayed on both House and CSI is speculative enough that that they might already be considered to be dipping their toes in the pool of science fiction, I don't think that it would be too great a leap to create fully science fictional versions, where genetic engineering or cloning saves the day. I'd watch a show like that!
Original article: "The science fiction effect" at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
Download Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for free: Project Gutenberg, Google eBooks, or for theKindle version from Amazon.com.
Download HG Well's The Island of Doctor Moreau for free: Project Gutenberg, Google eBooks, or the Kindle version from Amazon.com
Top image: still from the documentary Experiments in the Revival of Organisms (1940).
Bottom image: Khan Noonian Singh from Star Trek: TOS episode "Space Seed"