Putting Science back in Science Fiction

I was talking to my son this past weekend. My son teaches physics at Santa Fe College in Gainesville Florida, and our conversation turned to science education.   It’s such a delight to get to know my son as a professional colleague and to hear him expound on ideas—and expand on ideas—that I have grappled with for a lifetime.

At this point in the term, his class has left behind the ideas of force-acceleration-momentum and forged into less familiar concepts. He told about tutoring a student who was frustrated at not being able to find the right equation for a particular problem in the book. My son explained to him that the goal is not to memorize a basket of equations—or look them up in the book—but rather to understand basic principles from which the equations can be inferred and constructed.

I asked my son if the student believed that.   “Well, yes, I think he believed me, but I’m not sure he understood.”

Learning is a complex endeavor. My son and I agreed that each student has to figure things out on their own—they can’t just memorize the equations or accept the theories and models from the teacher. We agreed that there are many different ways to figure things out, many ways to put the pieces together in your own mind, but all the different ways of constructing understanding share one thing in common; when you finally figure it out, all the confusing mess of equations, laws, and strange observations come together in a coherent whole that makes perfect sense.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had science portrayed that way in fiction—as a way to make sense of observations, as a way to figure things out—rather than as a basket of cool facts or weird events that happen like magic, defended by the story’s ‘science experts’ who claim that impossible events might happen ‘in theory?’

The problem is, our society, including science fiction readers and writers, appear to have lost interest in explanations and reasoning, limiting science to cool facts, wild technologies, and ‘theories’ that amount to little more than speculation. It’s not surprising that the general public adopts this view of what science—and science education—is all about.

A few years back in one of my earth science classes, I had students engaged in a debate about the age of the Earth. Students were free to use any type of evidence or line of reasoning to argue for either a ‘young’ Earth or an ‘old’ Earth.

One student made a particularly enlightening argument: “The problem with you scientists is that you try to explain things.”

I had no response. Explaining is, indeed, at the core of science. Trying to explain and understand what all the myriad observations of the world are telling us, to explain what they mean, is something I’ve given much of my life to doing. Although the student and I shared a deeply spiritual outlook, it had never occurred to me that some spiritual people might consider explaining things to be a net negative and in conflict with their worldview.

I realized that the ‘explaining things’ part of science sometimes comes into conflict with a part of our psyche that likes magical thinking. It’s no accident that fantasy fiction has gained precedence over science fiction in recent years.

Take Star Wars for example. Most people would view this as more fantasy than science fiction I think. However, when George Lucas tried to introduce a truly scientific element into the story—explaining the origin of the seemingly magical ‘force’—everyone hated it. The Midichlorians are no one’s favorite. Yet, the Midichlorians were an explicit effort to bring the story out of the realm of magic and into the realm of science fiction. The Midichlorians provided an observable and measurable correlation that offered an explanation for the power of the force. Correlation is a key element of science that allows us to make connections between observation and theory.

Given this negative reaction, it’s probably not surprising that there is little effort in science fiction to take observations and, like a mystery story, try to figure out what they mean. There is little effort to include the real process of science—asking questions, making observations, and constructing a mental model of what the observations tell us.

I would like to see more real science in science fiction. I’m not sure what that might look like in my field of earth science. Perhaps using cross-cutting relationships and stratigraphic principles to reconstruct past sequences of events critical to the plot of the story? Perhaps using experiment and reasoning to figure out the meaning of a series of strange events that are actually plausible? Perhaps showing characters engaged in real scientific research that leads unexpectedly into adventure, like the discoveries in the 1977 book Inherit the Stars (which came out the year I graduated from high school and may have set my expectations too high for science explanation in science fiction)?

More real science in science fiction; I don’t know for sure how to do it and still keep readers engaged. But I’d definitely like to see more of it.

Dr. C.

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