Science, science-fiction and the power of imagination

Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman. Illustration by Tim McDonagh, image from New Statesman.

“In her mind’s eye, she saw forsaken civilizations, the bygone times when gods mixed with heroes and monsters interbred with beasts. Her childhood heroes were all brave, noble and just. And none of them, Danielle realized, would have made a successful professor of physics, nor even a candidate for a tenured position.
She smiled at the thought. Leaving fairy tales and mythical heroes behind was a natural process of growing. Like many others, she had turned to science fiction, where she had discovered alien worlds, hyperspace and time-traveling. Her fascination with space was a prelude for studying physics, a profession that transcended societies and explored the uncharted waters of nature.”
From Initial Conditions

Danielle’s path from science-fiction to science was neither unique nor rarely trodden. The high-correlation between reading science-fiction and becoming a scientist or engineer had even prompted the Chinese government to sponsor a science-fiction convention in China. Here is an excerpt from Neil Gaiman’s recollections (cited from here):

“They brought in some people from the west and I was one of them, and I was talking to a number of the older science-fiction writers in China, who told me about how science fiction was not just looked down on, but seen as suspicious and counter-revolutionary, because you could write a story set in a giant ant colony in the future, when people were becoming ants, but nobody was quite sure: was this really a commentary on the state? As such, it was very, very dodgy.
I took aside one of the Party organizers, and said, “OK. Why are you now in 2007 endorsing a science-fiction convention?” And his reply was that the Party had been concerned that while China historically has been a culture of magical and radical invention, right now, they weren’t inventing things. They were making things incredibly well but they weren’t inventing. And they’d gone to America and interviewed the people at Google and Apple and Microsoft, and talked to the inventors, and discovered that in each case, when young, they’d read science fiction.”

So, while there is agreement that reading science-fiction develops one’s inquisitiveness, I have recently encountered an opinion that modern science does not have such a positive influence on science-fiction.

In a piece titled “Is science killing science fiction?”, Zompist argues that:

“to put it bluntly, science puts rigid clanking limits on the kinds of things that can be and that can happen…
Things were easier for the sf writer a hundred years ago. If the scientists weren’t discovering a new force they were isolating a new element; and on their off days they overhauled a backwater science or two. X-rays, radium, radio, the atom, relativity, evolution– science has never seemed so dynamic and exciting. It’s no wonder sf was crystalizing at the same time, and no wonder writers projected into futurity the cataract of technological wonders they saw all around them…
But now the scientific rationale for all this has evaporated. The elements are all known up to atomic weights in the hundreds, and beyond that they’re uselessly unstable…Whatever bright idea you’ve got – slow glass, inhabited electrons, gridfire – is almost certainly a violation of physical law.”

‘So what?’ I thought when I first read this piece. I have many reservations about the Star Wars saga (the prequels and the seventh episode), but none of them concerns the use of the hyperdrive to make shortcuts through space. Most of “grown-ups” know that it is “a violation of physical law,” but did that knowledge stop one person from watching Star Wars?
Apparently the situation is not so straightforward when hard science-fiction is concerned. Back to Zompist:

“All this casts a bit of a pall on the scrupulous sf writer. To liven things up even a “hard” writer like Niven invests heavily in imaginations unsanctioned by science: stasis fields, scrith, FTL travel, impermeable hulls, teleportation, ESP, reactionless drives. The technological pizzazz is necessary because science as we know it today narrows rather than widens the power of imagination. The next star over may harbor some neat aliens or cool toys, but unless we ignore what science already knows, it’s likely to hold little that sparks the sense of wonder.”

Both as a reader of science-fiction and as someone who studied physics, I disagree. Scientific discoveries such as dark energy are mind-boggling. An entity that permeates the visible universe may sound less exiting than some sort of magical evil force, but this does not decrease from the “real” dark energy’s awesomeness. And what about quantum mechanics, dark matter, universes with more than four-dimensions, and … you probably got the gist. If even theoretical physics is mind-boggling, what about modern biology, psychiatry, and Artificial Intelligence? These fields are more complex and more closely related to people’s experience. I’m not familiar with them as I am with physics, but I have no doubt that they have not run out of fascinating ideas. And this is actually my point – not to argue whether something is “technological pizzazz” or not, but to suggest that science-fiction, like actual science, opens a door to worlds and technologies we do not encounter in everyday life. It is more about ideas than gadgets. In fact, many “scrupulous sf writers” had started as scientists.

The “father of space opera”, E.E. Doc Smith had a PhD in chemical engineering years before he wrote Galactic Patrol in 1937. By then Einstein’s special theory of relativity (1905) was widely accepted. According to the theory, matter, energy, or information cannot travel faster than the speed of light in vacuum. Nevertheless, “the ship of Galactic Patrol was hurling herself through space at a pace in comparison with which any speed that the mind can grasp would be the merest crawl: a pace to make light itself seem stationary.”

Isaac Asimov was a university professor and prolific science-writer before he published The Gods Themselves in 1972. No one who read Asimov autobiographies can doubt that he was a paragon of “scrupulous writer” when it was about science. And yet, The Gods Themselves is about “aliens who inhabit a parallel universe (the para-Universe) with different physical laws from this one.” According to Frequently Asked Questions about Isaac Asimov, it was his favorite novel.

I can bring many examples of scientists who wrote imaginative hard science-fiction as a proof that training in hard sciences does not narrow one’s power of imagination (actually, I believe that it is the other way around, but I have no way to prove it). Since I already mentioned Star Wars, my last example will be Timothy Zahn. According to Wikipedia, his “Thrawn trilogy marked a revival in the fortunes of the Star Wars franchise, bringing it widespread attention for the first time in years; all three Thrawn-trilogy novels made the New York Times best-seller lists, and set the stage and tone for most of the franchise’s Expanded-Universe content.” And before he became a science-fiction writer? Timothy Zahn studied physics at Michigan State University.

Comic Flying Cars by xkcd (Randall Munroe)

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