26 November 2008

Science fiction and science

Many scientists are (or were) science fiction readers, and I'm no exception. Some questions are currently making rounds for the ScienceOnline '09 meeting, from http://almostdiamonds.blogspot.com/2008/11/science-and-fiction-open-call.html
and I'll take a shot at them myself:
  1. What is your relationship to science fiction? Do you read it? Watch it? What/who do you like and why?
  2. What do you see as science fiction's role in promoting science, if any? Can it do more than make people excited about science? Can it harm the cause of science?
  3. Have you used science fiction as a starting point to talk about science? Is it easier to talk about people doing it right or getting it wrong?
  4. Are there any specific science or science fiction blogs you would recommend to interested readers or writers?
1) I used to read a ton of it, and now merely moderate amounts. I watch some, but it's mostly movies rather than television since we ditched our cable. In term's of what I like, I'm minded of the comment that "The Golden Age of science fiction is 13" -- whatever you were reading at 13, that's what you like best. I happened to be reading even older SF than what was contemporary to my age 13, so I'm biased towards 40s to mid 60s SF. Among more recent authors, which says something about my reading curve as well, I like Cherryh, Bujold, Brin, and several others who aren't leaping to mind as 'recent'.

2) Almost all SF is actually engineering, rather than science, -oriented. Some technology is developed which has some effects on society or people and then we wonder what they're going to be. Or some part of the universe (aliens, black holes, ...) drops in on our characters and we wonder how they're going to stay alive .... And so on. I don't see this in a conflict with science, and, in fact, supports well what I think are some very important attitudes for doing science or living in a society where science is important:
  • The universe is a very interesting place (so study it)
  • Understanding more about the universe can keep you alive
  • Science translated to technology can affect how you live (so think about the social effects sooner rather than later)
  • Problems are (generally) solvable, the universe is (often) understandable
Bad SF, I suppose, can fuel some bad ideas about science (_all_ problems can be solved, typically in 30-120 minutes of viewing; science is really just another word for magic), but that sort of thinking is fueled much more by the non-SF parts of society than the SF, even bad SF.

3) I don't use SF specifically; perhaps I'd do so more if I were teaching more. But I do take advantage of a somewhat SFnal view of the universe in doing my research. That is, I'm trying to understand, say, the earth's climate. That's only one place with one particular set of conditions. What (the SF-fan in me asks) would it be like if the earth rotated much faster, more slowly, if the sun produced less UV (hence less ozone on earth, hence less greenhouse effect in the stratosphere, hence ...?), if the earth were farther away/closer in, and so on. I can't say that it's resulted in any journal articles that I wouldn't have written anyhow, but it does make it easier for me to, say, read paleoclimate papers (the earth did rotate faster in the past, sea level has been much higher and lower than present, ...)

4) As to recommendations ... I suppose the main one would be something that SF (that I saw) didn't predict we'd be taking advantage of: Read a bunch of them, and written from different viewpoints including those which disagree strongly with your own.


Hank Roberts said...

Yay for the topic.

Pierrehumbert RT 2005: Science Fiction Atmospheres. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 86, 696-698....

DuWayne Brayton said...

I rather gravitated to this post, as I have very little time at the moment and am a pretty hardcore scifi geek.

I am more of a Niven, Pournell, Asimov, Piers Anthony preference, though by no means so limited. But my absolute favorite author - of scifi and fiction in general (though he runs neck and neck with Aldous Huxely) is Frank Herbert.

And my love of scifi definitely translated into my love for science....

Robert Grumbine said...

Thanks Hank. I'd forgotten about Ray's article. A fun bit, and surprising for the fact that most of the stories were ones I hadn't read. Readers who haven't read the article yet, I encourage to do so.

DuWayne: I run mostly to older authors, Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, then Niven (minus Pournelle), Zelazny, Ellison. Anthony I prefer for his fantasy to his science fiction. Herbert I like, but mostly for non-Dune. (Well, skip the follow ons. The first book is good.) John Brunner. ...

Some SF, in addition to what Pierrehumbert mentioned, of some weather/climate relevance:
Mission of Gravity, and Iceworld, by Hal Clement
The Sheep Look Up, John Brunner
early morning and titles aren't coming to mind quickly.

A fact commonly gotten wrong even by 'hard' SF writers: Tides are an inverse cube force, not an inverse square.