For the last eighty or so years, science fiction writers have been the doormen to a strange and exciting universe replete with extra dimensions, elementary particles, time-travel, intergalactic wars, speculative evolutionary biology, and more. Sometimes this universe bears a charming resemblance to our own (hard sci-fi); other times it violates known laws of physics (soft sci-fi). In both cases, however, our minds are massaged and stretched in a consciousness expanding way upon entering. A few months ago Applied Sentience editor Paul Chiariello wrote a fascinating piece on the import of literature on empathy development (among other things). I’d like to follow suit and talk about how science fiction can fuel the development of science, and visa-versa.
For me, part of the fun in learning science—which I forget every time finals roll around—is that it provides tools to think about the things I want to think about. If I want to understand how options in a stock market behave, my eyes only need to adjust to the variables of Brownian Motion having different letters assigned to them. If I want to imagine what organisms on a far-away planet might be like, I can read about convergent evolution, theoretical biophysics, population genetics, and the like.
All my speculations could of course still be dead wrong, but at least I know I’m not violating any laws of nature, and that my guesses have logic behind them. But how can a person with no scientific training think about these things realistically? The difficult truth is that they can’t: no one is born knowing about neutron stars orbiting black holes or particular solutions to the Schrodinger Equation. When your elementary school teacher told you that there are no limits to your imagination, she wasn’t talking about science. If your idea about extra-terrestrial ecosystems, for example, contradicts one of the laws of thermodynamics, it’s doomed—plain and simple. In other words, there’s no chance it could ever happen in this universe.
If your aim was the fantastical, rather than the possible, then there’s no problem at all. If at this point you’re despairing—don’t. There’s a way to partially circumvent lack of scientific training, and that’s by hopping on the backs of science-fiction writers who are scientifically literate.
Before schools strip away our natural lust for science, most of us wonder incessantly about the world we live in. Why is the ground below our feet and not above it? Why does the sun shine? Why is the sky blue? Why don’t we have more eyes? Unfortunately, unless your child is a prodigy, the “true” answers to the above questions are simply too abstract to relay in words: you would need some pretty heavy mathematics/logic. And since most Americans never make it past pre-calculus, the probability of an adult being able to even sort of explain nuclear fusion to a five-year old is vanishingly small. Textbooks are likewise a no-go, for obvious logistical reasons.
The only way out is to give the kid a few good science fiction novels, and hope she absorbs some intuition for the facets of Natures that aren’t readily apparent to humans (i.e forces, atoms, conservation laws, etc) Now you see where the importance of “good” hard-sci comes in. If the plotline of a book that purports to be hard sci-fi rests on the main character inventing a perpetual motion machine, that kid will have some pretty wonky ideas about thermodynamics.
Let me say what I know many of you are thinking right now: “Who gives a %$@&? At least the kid is thinking about science!” Answer: not me! I agree, if the kid is thinking about perpetual motion and energy conservation laws at age ten, that’s better than most adults do in their 80 years of life. What I’m more concerned about are demonstrably incorrect explanations for physical phenomena.
To pick an easy example, legendary sci-fi writer Jules Verne once wrote in a story that weightlessness on a lunar mission only happens at the point in space where Earth’s gravitational pull cancels out with the moon’s gravitational pull. I don’t need to tell you that this is wrong, and had he consulted a scientist or read an elementary physics book he wouldn’t have made this mistake. Another more modern example would be from Star Trek, where Vulcan’s can happily breed with humans. Given what we know about molecular biology, some scientists have remarked that the cross between a terrestrial and an extra-terrestrial is about as likely as the successful mating of a man and a petunia. Its avoidable errors like this that good hard sci-fi leaves out.
Sometimes learning about science can be boring. Sometimes I don’t care what the first 10 energy states of an electron in a 1-D infinite potential look like. Sometimes I don’t care what the probability of an alpha particle tunneling through a nuclear potential is. Sometimes I want to go back in time and punch Erwin Schrödinger in the face. (Also, can you guess which one of my upcoming midterms I’m most stressed about?)
A surefire way to make learning science fun for a person who can’t be bothered to slog through mountains of textbooks is to masquerade it as fiction. Like I mentioned earlier, if you want to get some crude idea about the wonderful and multifarious extremes our universe allows, or even the reasons for the different things we see around us, you need only to pick up a time-tested hard sci-fi book. Here’s a short list to get you started:
- The Last Question– Issac Asimov (best short story ever written)
- The Foundation Trilogy-Issac Asimov
- Cat’s Cradle-Kurt Vonnegut
- The Songs of Distant Earth-Arthur C. Clarke
Ender’s Game-Orson Card Scott
The God’s Themselves-Issac Asimov
Rendezvous with Rama–Arthur C Clarke
Starship Troopers–Robert Heinlein
- Stranger in A Strange Land– Robert A. Heinlein
- Disclaimer: this last book contains Martians that “twist” 3-D objects into the “fourth dimension” and thus out of existence.
Leo Kozachkov (Staff Writer, Rutgers University) Leo Kozachkov is an undergraduate at Rutgers University, studying physics and mathematics. He is currently working as an Aresty Research Assistant under Professor Thomas V. Papathomas. He enjoys writing, drawing, creating/playing music, going on long walks with his beloved dog, and reading/hoarding books. His grandest hopes are to discover a new physical law, have a mathematical theorem feature his last name, and to write many books.