Monday, January 15, 2007

Imaginary Things and Science

A few weeks ago the physicist Sean Carroll* made an interesting post about using fiction (and video games) to teach science. He points to the books with the formula "The [field of academic inquiry] of [product of human imagination]" - think The Biology of Star Trek, The Physics of the Buffyverse, and their kin.
And as long as it’s been in circulation, the idea of subjecting TV shows or fantasy genres to scientific investigation has been the target of scoffing from curmudgeonly old folks who are taking a temporary break from chasing kids out of their yards. After all, they will tell you, how can you learn anything about science by studying fiction? Science is all about the real world! It has nothing to say about fake worlds that someone just made up.

Balderdash, of course. Neither physics, nor any other science, is some list of facts and theories to be committed to memory. There are a bunch of established pieces of knowledge that are worth remembering, no doubt about that, but much more important is the process by which that knowledge is acquired. And that process is just as applicable to imaginary worlds as it is to the real one. Any respectable universe, whether we find it out there or make it up ourselves, will be subject to certain internal rules of behavior. (When it comes to fiction, those rules are occasionally sacrificed for the sake of the plot, whereas in the real world they’re a bit more immutable.) Learning how to discover those rules, from the standpoint of an observer rather than one of the creators, is nothing more or less than learning how science is done.
I get the sense that a lot of people feel that science really is just the memorization of a bunch of boring facts. That attitude isn't too surprising, since many introductory science classes are taught in just that way. I'm hoping that more instructors will incorporate "fun science" (looking at science in fiction, playing video games that teach scientific principles, hands-on experiments, et cetera) into their curricula.

* Not to be confused with the biologist Sean Carroll.

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