Wednesday, October 06, 2010

On Why Scientists Should Read Science Fiction

I quite like this post by molecular biologist Hanna Waters on why she thinks scientists should read science fiction.  She points out that science fiction captures both the combination of excitement at new scientific discoveries with anxiety about the larger implications of new technologies
We are slowly inching closer to developing lab-produced organs, which would be incredibly beneficial for a lot of obvious reasons.  Just this month there have been developments toward mass-produced red blood cells, as well as bioartificial lungs.  Eerily, I read about these discoveries as I was tearing my way through Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a speculative fiction novel about a bio-engineered future, including “pigoons” (pig/balloon) that have grown to massive sizes in order to grow 6 kidneys at a time for organ harvest, and “ChickieNobs,” a fast food product made from transgenic chickens that have no brains or beaks and grow 8 chicken breasts at once.  While reading, I simultaneously was in wonderment about how we could be reaching the ability to actually engineer these creatures, but obviously nervous about the implications described in the novel. 
And because science fiction is part of the popular culture, it reflects the public's concerns about new technology, which is information scientists can use to help better address those concerns.   I would also argue that science fiction - particularly on TV and in the movies - can influence the public's perception of science. But the result is the same: scientists should be aware of how their research is perceived by non-scientists, and science fiction can provide a window to those attitudes.

But science fiction isn't just about the possible dangers of technology. It also captures the wonder of science:
Science is about that excitement.  About that drive to discovery, about idealism and hope.  It’s easy to forget that, working away at my lab bench, pipetting DNA into tubes.  Now we know a little more about science – enough that we no longer dream of mutated superheroes.  But we still dream about the day when we’ll make our big discovery, solve our own scientific problem.
Yes this!  The day-to-day practice of science can be pretty mundane. And sometimes the progress of science seems to take baby steps, rather than giant leaps.

Even when the science in science fiction isn't very plausible, it can provide that sense of wonder (or "sensawunda") that not only is there is much to be yet discovered in the universe, but that given the resources we can and will make those discoveries. 

The point is that science fiction can capture both sides of scientific progress: the excitement and progress of new discoveries along with the potential dangers those discoveries might lead to.  I think that's why many scientists do indeed enjoy reading (and watching) SF.

Read "Why Scientists Should Read Science Fiction" at Culturing Science.


Arvind Mishra said...

A thought provoking write up ,thanks for sharing !

healy said...

yeah I agree. . .very useful=)

nick said...

I am a scientist and I do read/watch sci-fi. But I try not to be a downer: "Hey, that could never happen!" But then I remember it is science FICTION.

Unknown said...

Totally agree.. the media does shape how the public deals with science, for example look at how the Simpsons made a new generation of kids hate nuclear technology without them even experiencing any of its problems.

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