Science Fiction Writing: A Way to Learn about Real Science?

Last fall I posted an essay about the potential importance of reading science fiction as an educational tool  (Quixotic Quest: Science Fiction as Discovery Fiction by Russ Colson),  Since then, I have done a small research study and written an article on the potential importance of writing science fiction as a learning tool.  I have posted this article on my teaching blog because of its potential interest to teachers as a way to present science in a way that engages students in the process of making the ideas their own.  However, it may be of interest to science fiction writers as well.  Check it out!

Effect of writing science fiction on understanding of geological concepts—preliminary results of a study in progress.


Dr. C

(Russ Colson)

Share Button

Quixotic Quest: Science Fiction as Discovery Fiction

For some time I have been on a quest to get more science into science fiction.  I was reminded recently of how quixotic my quest truly is when I came across a publisher’s website that said they publish only fantasy and science fiction and so every story “must have some element of either magic or cool technology.”  Since when did technology become a stand-in for science?  Science is about the process of exploring how things work through observation and reasoning, not just the technologies—or culminating theories—that arise from that exploration. Technology can create a fine avenue to explore social science issues, but why don’t we have more physical science discovery and exploration in modern science fiction?

I have always thought that ‘my kind of story’ must be hard science fiction since I have such a passion for science in my stories, but I’ve begun to realize that hard science fiction is even more focused than other science fiction on cool technologies and fantastical theories rather than the process of discovery that exemplifies real science.  Even my favorite authors who have a great deal of expertise in science, like Alistair Reynolds, tend to drop science in as interesting facts about space, speculative theories, and amazing technologies to which humans must adapt.  Given that adventure stories are about exploration and discovery, and that science is about exploration and discovery, it seems that there should be a lot more synergy between the two in modern science fiction.

After growing weary of the ‘hard’ in science fiction, I recently decided to read some fantasy.  I chose The Stormlight Archive series by Brandon Sanderson.  Imagine my surprise to find more real science in those stories than I’d found in the hard science fiction!  Although the fantasy world is not quite consistent with the science world that we know of in ‘real life,’ there is a distinct effort to make things ‘make sense’ and to find reasons for why things behave as they do—key elements of science.  For example, in book 2, Words of Radiance, one passage involves the protagonist figuring out that a block of stone-like crem has been recently broken.  The crem accumulates during storms in a series of thin layers and the protagonist could see the layers in cross-sectional view, meaning it had to have been broken, and if it had been broken for very long those layers would be covered up by new layers of crem.  The protagonist solved the puzzle of when it was broken by considering cross-cutting relationships, a key investigative method in my own discipline of geology.

Wow!  Not only science, but geology!

Why can’t we get more of that investigative observation and reasoning into science fiction?

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the science in science fiction trends toward amazing theories and technologies rather than the process of discovery.  Despite the urging from national science standards (in the USA), most science classrooms—and assessment tools—still emphasize facts that students know and theories that they explain more than the practice of science.

If you are a science fiction writer, you can play a part in making science education better!  Consider writing stories that focus less on technologies, theories and facts of science, and more on the exciting adventure of science discovery, the process of observing and reasoning to make sense of the universe!

I hope that my own science fiction novel, The Arasmith Certainty Principle, offers ingredients of real science as the protagonists discover what is going on through the use of observation and reasoning, although there are also elements of the fantastical with the unlikely theory of the Certainty Principle.  Science fiction doesn’t have to be all science, or even all realistic, but a bit more exploration and discovery through observation and reasoning would be good!

Dr. C

(Russ Colson)


You can read more of my essays on real science in science fiction or the classroom at

Putting Science back in Science Fiction

Assigning Blame for Public Science Skepticism

Is it Science Fiction? Or Fantasy?

At What Point Does Science Fiction Turn Into Fantasy?


Teaching Science and the Lost Adventure Story

Practicing Science: What does it mean and how can we do it in the classroom?

Science Teacher: Conveyer of Information or Practitioner and Mentor?


You can also check out our science fiction for the science classroom at


Share Button

Assigning Blame for Public Science Skepticism

I’ve been thinking a lot about public skepticism for science, perhaps a result of the present tense political climate. The depth of public skepticism is reflected in observations ranging from US presidential doubts about climate change to celebrity doubts that the Earth is in fact a sphere (NBA star Kyrie Irving’s claim back in February 2017). I am left to wonder, how can anyone think that the world is flat or that climate isn’t changing? Who’s to blame for such a failure of the public education system?

Teachers of course.

I coauthored an article in the Spring 2017 newsletter of the Minnesota Science Teachers’ Association accepting a type of blame on us teachers. The blame, though, rests not so much with failure to expose students to ‘true’ science as with failure to teach science in a way that compels trust in the results. We tend to teach our students to know and explain the theories rather than to understand the observational and investigative underpinnings of them, a problem that my coauthor and I examine in our recently published book, Learning to Read the Earth and Sky. If we teachers give our students the theories, but don’t engage them in the practices of science that allow them to test those theories, why shouldn’t we expect public skepticism?

If skepticism originates in the divorcement of science theory from observation and reason, then it occurs to me that science fiction writers can take part of the blame as well. Modern science fiction has very little science in it, that is, it contains a lot of ‘magical’ technology, weird jargon, and mystical properties of the universe rather than investigation based on observation and reasoning. Of course, science fiction is fiction after all. What should we expect? But when there is little effort to connect the ‘in theory’ statements in science fiction to observation and reasoning within the story, it leaves the subtle impression that science is just a different form of magic to be accepted on faith. Or not.

Something to think about.

Dr C.

Share Button

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.

Share Button

Reviving my blog: Adventure in Science Fiction

Sorry for not blogging for so long—I’ve been writing a non-fiction book called Learning to Read the Earth and Sky, a book for teachers, or anyone else, who thinks about the nature of science and what teaching science is all about. Writing a book is a serious endeavor, and it takes serious commitment to complete it. For me, ‘serious commitment’ meant not maintaining my blog for two and a half years! Given my day job, which with research and teaching is rather consuming, and my other side projects, like gardening and writing science fiction novels, I didn’t have time to blog.

However, my coauthor and I sent our proofs back to the publisher this past week—it felt like sending my baby off to college—and so I can turn my mind to blogging. I’ve written a cross-over blog that picks up on the thread of adventure in fiction which I introduced in my last blog entry two years ago—”The Mars One Initiative–Is it Real?” Does our declining interest in adventure have an impact on our understanding of how to teach science? Check it out at “The Teachers Corner” — Teaching Science and the Lost Adventure Story.

Dr. C.

Share Button

Geological History in World-Building

World-building is an important part of science fiction writing.  You can’t make a world without geographical setting, political environment, socio-historical backdrop, and so on.  What about the geological history of a planet or region?  Back in the 1800s, the discovery of a past that included Ice Ages, Dinosaurs, and pre-life epochs and eons captured world imagination.  But do such discoveries impact modern day stories or events?

 Write a few words on how some component of geological history might be a significant element of a science fiction story. 

This is intended as a discussion area for the college course “Earth Science Essentials for the Science Fiction Writer”, beginning in Spring 2016, but, please, post some thoughts for the students to consider!


Share Button

Is it Science Fiction? Or Fantasy?

If any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then how in the world can we readers distinguish between science fiction and fantasy?

Everyone has their own definition of science fiction.  For some, classification as science fiction depends on the prominence of science or technology in the story (over, say character or plot).  Other folks focus on the need to “keep it real”–if events are not consistent with current understanding of science, then it’s a no-no (goodbye FTL and time travel).  Of course a favorite definition is that science fiction begins with a “what if” question.  What if we discovered a black  hole in the center of the sun that was growing faster than seemed scientifically possible and that will destroy the sun in a mere 100 years?  What would we do?  How would we react?

I’ve always disliked the reference to “hard” science fiction (ouch, I think I just stepped on a nail).  It makes science sound so, well, hard.  Science doesn’t need to be hard.  What’s more, when I read many hard science fiction stories I often find that they’re not about science at all, but rather technology.  Technological “what if” questions are easier to come by it seems.

For me, science fiction is not technology fiction.  Nor is it drama with lots of technobabble (even if the technobabble is real jargon used in science).  To the scientist (and at least this science professor), science is not about things that we know, or technologies we develop.  Science is the process, and the set of logical tools, we use to figure out how the world around us works.  Facts are like the rule book in a game of basketball, good to know, but good play requires practice, not just knowing the rulebook.  Scientists are the ball players, and science is the art of the play.  So, to be science fiction, a story must be about doing science, not knowing facts or using technology.

This bring us to my definition for science fiction and where it parts ways with fantasy.  The characters in a science fiction story will ask questions about how things work and why they are as they are.  They will seek to answer those questions, find explanations and reasons.  If there are no explanations, or if the explanations are simply not of significance or interest in the story, then that is magic, not science.

So says Dr. C.  Feel free to post your own definitions!  How many can we accumulate in the next three or four months?—Dr. C.

Share Button

About Writer’s Corner

Writer’s Corner is a place to consider Earth and Space Science topics of particular interest to writers, like what real Earth Science looks like in a story, what’s in the news, how movies and books get it wrong (that’s always fun),or what distinguishes science fiction from fantasy (always a favorite debate).  Feel free to participate in the discussion!

Your friendly Chief Blogger is Russ Colson (Dr. C).  Russ has taught college geology, planetary science and meteorology for over 20 years.  He has been a science fiction fan since his introduction to Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, and Edgar Rice Burroughs as a teenager, and even dables in writing some of his own stories.  He’s author of over nineteen published science fiction stories and articles including an article in Clarkesworld Magazine that addresses the tragic misuse of Earth Science in science fiction.

Guest Blogger is Mary Colson.  Mary has taught 8th grade Earth Science for over twenty years in Tennessee, Texas, and Minnesota.  Mary reads a lot of non-fiction science for middle schoolers and also plenty of science fiction, mystery, and thrillers.  She was a member of the writing team for the current Next Generation Science Standards.

The artwork at the top of the blog is by artist Steven Stalboerger–a portion of his work “Expedition on Enceladus.”

This blog is hosted on http//, a resource for writers and teachers interested in discussing Earth Science issues.



Share Button