Applying science to reading fiction can be likened to golf; it can be a good walk spoiled. Whilst I groaned when the original Bladerunner allowed someone to see something that just wouldn’t have been possible in a mirror, I will quite happily accept a fictional dragon.
I’m reminded of a comment I heard last week – gravity always acts downwards. Somethings in science should not be altered. What you can see in a mirror is governed by the laws of physics – it should always be the same. How a dragon flies is not governed by science. They don’t exist in reality. We don’t have anything with wings and forelimbs because our knowledge of anatomy would not allow it. It can be quite arrogant to say that because we don’t understand it, it can’t exist. It’s certainly not an attitude that is going to take you very far in reading science fiction.
We can use it the other way though.
One of the key ideas with Science Communication is meeting the people where they are. They have an understanding of science fiction – can we use it to engage them in science?
I had my sci fi aha moment when my son was studying higher biology. Well, he was meant to be but he was actually spending most of his time watching the Walking Dead. Over breakfast one morning we started a conversation over which part of the brain would have to be affected to make the zombies lose the ability to speak. It grew from there. An hour later we were still talking about neuroanatomy and what he had studied at school. That summer I appeared at the local Science festival talking about the neuroanatomy of zombies.
Last weekend it went international when I joined the panel at Gen Con to talk about the science of science fiction. Indianapolis science had two panels. One looking at the science behind mythical beasts – is Chewbacca more like a primate or a dog? and the other looking at zombies. I’ve attached the links to the you tube films below. It was great fun joining in with an event like that – even if the time difference meant I had to stay up in to the early hours of the morning!
Science shouldn’t be used to destroy the joy of science fiction but science fiction can be used to enhance science. I’m aware of one medical school that has a session in their anatomy course where students have to design an animal made up of at least three others. It might seem a little strange but just think for a moment. If you are going to combine three animals then you need to understand how all the vital systems within those animals work in order to combine them. If you want to take part in a discussion as to why we don’t have creatures with forelimbs and wings then you need to understand the musculature of forelimbs and wings.
Maybe we can move forward together.
The presence of science in fiction first came to my attention in Tintin. In Destination Moon Tintin goes up into space. In the comic they show the balls that water forms in zero gravity. A great use of science in fiction…it was written in 1950. That is 11 years before the first man went into space. A great example of the fact that the author doesn’t always know what they are writing about and science can’t always be used to explain it.
Links to Gen Con Science of Science fiction panels