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Science in Science Fiction

by Eva Amsen

At the upcoming Science Online ’09 conference, Peggy Kolm and Stephanie Zvan will be hosting a session about the use of science fiction to communicate science. They’re asking science fiction authors and science bloggers to weigh in on the topic online, and they will collect the responses in preparation for their session.

Peggy asked me to answer these questions, because I’ve been involved with the ReGenesis Season 4 fact sheets, in which I explained the facts behind the fiction of the show.

The questions:

What is your relationship to science fiction? Do you read it? Watch it? What/who do you like and why?

I’m not really a big consumer of science fiction, actually, so keep that in mind while reading my answers. I just checked my bookshelves to see if I owned anything that could be classified as such, and only found the Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, and some fantasy books. I do watch it a bit more on TV, but even then not a lot. I used to watch Star Trek years ago, and last year I was introduced to Doctor Who and Torchwood. They all have in common that anything can be explained away with some supernatural “science”. That’s not what I like about them. In all three cases I think I just liked the characters and stories as a few minutes of distraction.

And then I obviously watched ReGenesis, which is different from the classical genre of science fiction because it’s based on real science and set in our regular world. It’s more a drama/mystery series with lots of scientists. Like House or Numb3rs, but with biologists instead of doctors and mathematicians respectively. I do really like those kinds of shows. I like mysteries that are set in a regular world, and that need believable solutions. Using aliens or mysterious powers to explain things is cheating to me.


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?

The term “science fiction” usually suggests a futuristic world showing things that science would supposedly have made possible by a certain year. But there are valid (engineering-based) reasons why we don’t have flying cars now, and there are valid (physics-based) reasons why people from the future haven’t visited us yet. I think that the kind of science fiction that portrays a type of future that is unrealistic doesn’t so much harm science in general, but it does leave people with some unrealistic expectations. Sure, it’s fiction, but by labeling something as 200 years in the future, it suggests that the fictional scenarios are maybe possible some day. There are ways to make it more realistic. For example, cloning a human should not produce a full-grown exact replica of an adult, but a baby. If the plot doesn’t allow the time for the baby to grow up, that’s no excuse to produce a full-grown human copy out of nowhere just to help your story along. That’s just lazy writing. By showing it wrong time after time, the audience gets a vague idea of what they think is possible. If it’s shown right, in this case by showing a clone as a baby and not a carbon copy of an adult, that shouldn’t affect the plot, but it leaves people with more realistic expectations of what science can do.

The solution: science consultants. There are some great ones out there for TV shows. Aled Edwards did a wonderful job with ReGenesis, and Hollywood Math and Science Film Consulting is behind many other realistic science plots on TV and in films.

I don’t think science fiction needs to actively promote science, but just by being more realistic it can undo some misunderstandings.


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?

It is easier to talk (and laugh) about the obvious mistakes, simply because you notice the silly stuff, but you tend not to notice when it’s not wrong. And you can use the unrealistic scenarios to say “This is not possible, because…” But when I was writing the fact sheets for ReGenesis I much preferred the episodes that were based on things that really happened, because at least I could find references for it and explain what was going on. The ones that were really stretching it were so difficult. Is it not possible? Why not? Is it really not possible? I ended up saying a lot of “probably not” and “maybe” because there is a big area of things that we simply don’t know enough about. They might make good grant applications, but they’re confusing as teaching tools.

Things that are clearly impossible are a lot easier to point out, and probably easier to use as a teaching tool than things that are just on the edge of being possible.


Are there any specific science or science fiction blogs you would recommend to interested readers or writers?

Not really a blog, and not “science fiction” in the classical use of the word, but for anyone who likes their fiction with less flying cars and quite a bit more proper science I can only recommend LabLit.

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Jennifer Rohn November 22, 2008 - 11:21 AM

Eva, I loved your answer to question 2. I hadn’t thought about it like that before, from the expectations point of view.
One role about promoting science that you didn’t mention is the tendency of SF to inspire kids to become scientists. That’s not how it happened for me, actually, but I’ve read quite a few accounts of scientists (mind you, they’ve tended to be older scientists who were reading in the ‘golden age’ of SF) who cite that as their primary inspiration.

Eva Amsen November 22, 2008 - 2:13 PM

I considered that, but thought: wouldn’t they prefer engineering?

Kristi Vogel November 23, 2008 - 8:23 PM

Related to the topic, the radio program _To the Best of Our Knowledge_ just aired an episode on science fiction and other types of imaginative fiction, including interviews with George R.R. Martin and Ursula K. LeGuin. I read Martin’s _A Song of Ice and Fire_ last year, and was completely enthralled with the series.
You can download a podcast “here.”:http://www.wpr.org/BOOK/081123a.cfm

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