Putting the Science in Science Fiction

by Tedd Roberts

Thirty-five years ago I entered college with a plan: I would major in pre-med, go to medical school, study neurosurgery and specialize in bionics.

It was 1976 and The Six Million Dollar Man had been on TV for two years. I was a big Science Fiction fan, helped along by a high school librarian that allowed me to read all of the new acquisitions before they hit the general circulation. I discovered Martin Caidin's Cyborg novels almost at the same time as the TV show it inspired. I was especially taken with the fourth novel Cyborg IV in which the astronaut/test pilot/cyborg Steve Austin directly connects his bionics to the controls of an experimental space shuttle in one of the earliest science fictional descriptions of brain-machine interfacing I'd encountered.

I knew that this was the field for me. I loved SF, I loved computers. Throughout my high school years I was a science and math nerd, participating in interscholastic math and science competitions (the "Nerd Olympics" as my colleagues would later call them). I was programming computers in the 9th grade (1972) even before there were computers available for most students to even see, let alone available for them to use. I knew that I would be one of those people pushing back the frontiers of science into the realm of science fiction.

Boy, did I have a lot to learn.

I didn't go to med school, though; I went to graduate school, and I thought I picked a good one, a college known for engineering, and a professor working on prosthetics. Only it wasn't bionics. It was mundane stuff like ensuring that the artificial joint didn't freeze up. Where was the neural interface? The super strength? The telescopic eyes? The incredibly sensitive hearing?

The problem is that in 1979, none of that stuff existed yet. It was still science fiction. Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man was published in 1972 James P. Hogan utilized brain-machine interfaces in his novels – most notably in The Genesis Machine (1978). Star Trek's Borg were still ten years in the future; The Matrix was twenty years off Yet in 1982, we learned that scientists at Wright State had succeeded in allowing a paralyzed student to walk again. It was a far cry from bionics, though. It involved stimulating the leg muscles, not replacing them, and still required a roomful of computers. Still, it was a start. The first artificial cochlea was approved in 1984. I, and others, could see that a science of bionics was possible, but it wasn't here yet.

Over the course of twenty-nine years, something incredible happened: science fiction became science.

Fifteen years ago my colleagues and I started to discover the means by which brain cells "encode" information about the outside world. Oh, we knew how they did it, but we started learning the actual codes and how to read them. Ten years ago we were working on ways to connect those codes to computers and outside devices. Five years ago, scientists led by a team at Johns Hopkins University and funded by the Defense Advanced research Projects Agency (DARPA) were given four years to develop the first arm prosthetic that could truly be called "bionic." They delivered the first prototype within two years. Within the past year we have seen the first patients with retinal prosthetics that allow the patient to read (slowly, one letter at a time); an artificial arm and hand connected directly to the brain, capable of more than 17 distinct joint movements and rotations; a model of a "memory" prosthetic that can bypass stroke or injury-damaged brain areas. We don't call it bionics, though. A version of that name was actually trademarked to describe a particular device for stimulating paralyzed muscle. The field is now commonly called "neural prosthetics" to describe the link between brain control (via the basic brain cells termed "neurons") and the artificial "prosthetic" limbs and devices they control. The name is not important, though. To me, the important part is that I was a very small part of a field that turned science fiction into science.

Science and Science Fiction

As a scientist, I find that I am inspired, intrigued, and at times a bit dismayed at the portrayal of science in science fiction. When I talk with other scientists who enjoy SF, we often start to quote our least favorite scientific "pronouncements" in popular TV, movies and books (I'll get to mine a bit later). Still, SF can be inspiring to scientists while at the same time we have a lot to contribute. Scientific publications are not written for, and do not reach a general audience; yet SF is one means of packaging realistic science for public consumption.

In this essay, I will explore many interactions of science and science fiction: How SF ideas and concepts inspire and influence science, how science influences and alters SF, as well as scientists as writers, contributors, and SF characters. Science itself can also be the central "character" and focus of the story, as in sagas of exploration and discovery. From there, I will delve into some of the problems that we encounter in both good and bad SF: How science can be misused or abused, whether science has gotten too complicated or specialized for SF writers, or whether we have discovered all that there is to know in science. Back on the optimistic side I will explore how to train and inspire the next generations of scientists and SF writers alike as well as how we – as writers and scientists – can ensure that SF does include "good science."

Many parts of this essay are written from my own status as a fan of SF who just happens to be a scientist. On the other hand, I too, am a writer, whether it's peer-reviewed science, short fiction or blogs that explain science to the public. Thus I will try to look at both science and science fiction from within as well as outside of each field. If I have missed your favorite author, story, scientist or study, I apologize. I have researched scientist-authors, but I am sure I have missed many. Likewise the many fields of science are way too diverse to incorporate in a single essay. While I am at heart a biologist with keen interest in chemistry, physics, psychology, electronics, computer science and other scientific fields, I have little experimental knowledge of still other fields that also contribute to SF I hope, though to convince you that there is a vital role for science and SF to proceed together, and that the scientific and the fictional realms need not be all that different.

Inspiring Science

One would think that it is obvious how science inspires science fiction, particularly in movie theater products. The Apollo missions inspired the Arthur C. Clarke/Stanley Kubrick collaboration 2001: A Space Odyssey. The rise of home computers inspired The Matrix. Psychology inspired Brainwave and Inception. To just briefly sample the vast range of written SF, a few of my favorites: environmental science and the space stations inspired Niven, Pournelle and Flynn's Fallen Angels; computers, virtual reality and social networking inspired Charles Stross's Halting State and Rule 34; genetics and cloning (as well as a healthy dose of archaeology) inspired Crichton's Jurassic Park.

What should be starting to take root, though, is the notion of how SF inspires science. The example above – Caidin and other writers' exploration of interfaces between the human body and prosthetic limbs and organs, computers and spaceships has inspired a generation of scientists that work to make that dream come true. Back when I started my graduate study, it was fairly common for scientists to admit that they read SF. I and my fellow students would get together to watch SF TV shows and movies. We'd pass around favorite books and haunt the used bookstores for cheap entertainment that we all knew was science-related. Few of us were embarrassed to admit to being Star Trek fans (if not necessarily Trekkies).

It is no longer necessarily the case, unfortunately. Perhaps it is because I am now one of those supposedly "older, wiser" professors who should think professional science all the time and not discuss SF with my students. But perhaps it is because SF itself has changed. Most of my fellow students and early colleagues grew up reading the SF of the '40s, '50s and '60s. During the '70s and '80s SF became much more nihilistic, dark, "meaningful" and eventually "politically correct." In other words, it became post-modern. Seems like a strange thing to say about a genre that looks to the future, but it is true, too much SF became about dystopias, post-apocalyptic worlds in which there was no real hope for mankind, too many ecodisasters in which “science” was the villain. SF stopped being written by scientists, dreamers and those who loved science, but by those who distrusted and even hated science and its constant companion: technology.

Don't get me wrong – I like some of the "new age" SF of the past 30-40 years, but it tends not to inspire me the way "Golden Age" SF did. Likewise military SF. I know, it's dangerous saying so to this audience – especially since I do love MilSF, but it does not necessarily inspire Science the way hard-science or "exploration" SF does. Perhaps it is more of a subtle influence though – MilSF does inspire technology, but science is just as likely to be the villain in MilSF as in post-modern SF.

So what does inspire science? And what are some of the major SF influences that can be seen in twenty-first century science? In the next several sections I will explore various influences such as scientists as writers, scientists as protagonists and Exploration SF. From there we will also take a look at how SF gets science right (and horribly wrong) and what scientists can do to improve the quality of SF.

SF Influences on Science

I have listed a number of the SF influences on science above, but let's look at a few specific areas: communications, physics, medicine and computers. In many of these cases, SF inspires not only the research and development, but can also voice our fears of the risks of science and technology run amok.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke is frequently credited with first description of the geosynchronous telecommunications satellite in "Extra-Terrestrial Relays — Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?" in 1945. There is some debate as to the "originality" of the concept, given that there is evidence of similar ideas in the 1920s, and the scientist/engineers such as John R. Pierce of Bell Labs working on Telstar and Echo satellites in the '50s were unaware of Clarke's writings at the time. In 1984 (Profiles of the Future), Clarke wrote:

"Flattered though I am, honesty compels me to point out that the concept of such an [geosynchronous telecommunications satellite] orbit predates my 1945 paper 'Extra Terrestrial Relays' by at least twenty years. I didn't invent it, but only annexed it."

And annex it he did. Like any good SF writer, Clarke "filed off the serial numbers" on the idea and made it uniquely his own. It is a tribute to the SF writer's skill and legacy that we even discuss Clarke's name in conjunction with a uniquely science and engineering concept. However, there are at least three other SF contributions to long-distance telecommunications that deserve mention: The cellular "flip phone," the videophone and the Smartphone. Commonly called the "clamshell" or "flip form factor," the folding cellular phone that first appeared as the StarTAC phone by Motorola in 1996 is generally agreed to have been influenced by the Star Trek TV series. Likewise the 3 1/2-inch floppy disk would appear to come directly from Star Trek, but less obviously USB “thumb drives” modern tablets/pads appear suspiciously similar to Star Trek “isolinear chips” and electronic clipboards. The videophone was a particular favorite of Clarke's, appearing in the 2001 and early models utilized by Clarke for convention and interview appearances. What is a little less obvious is Clarke's foreshadowing of the modern tablet/pad/Smartphone device. In Fountains of Paradise, the engineer protagonist had a device that could be worn on his belt, which allowed computation, communications, and access to remote computing resources. Compare this to a modern Smartphone which is essentially a voice/text terminal onto the Internet – and you have yet another example of SF predicting what would become a commonly accepted technology.

Often when writers in SF develop a story in the "hard science" subgenre, they must walk the boundary between existing (or predictable) science, and concepts that are technically fantasy based on our current knowledge of the field. To a certain extent, readers are willing to "suspend disbelief" for logical or at least well-developed extrapolations of physics, or even less likely, but well-accepted conventions; the most notable being faster-than-light travel. Almost as soon as Einstein postulated General and Special Relativity, SF writers were trying to find a way around the light speed limitation. Neutrinos, tachyons, hyperspace, underspace, warp bubbles and wormholes – these theories certainly predated Star Trek, but there is no doubt that the TV show (and movies) made the concept of "warp speed" part of the popular lexicon to the point that some form of faster-than-light transportation is so accepted in SF that readers have no trouble accepting the concept.

Other "standard" SF concepts include antigravity and superconductivity that are even now being studied in the high energy physics laboratories around the world. The recent report of (possible) fast-than-light neutrinos detected at the Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN) piqued the public's interest, and is still being debated even as the investigators have reported that the supposedly superluminal speed of the neutrinos was an artifact of timing adjustments that failed to incorporate special relativity (and even as I wrote and edited this essay, a new analysis suggests that the neutrinos may indeed have been “superluminal”). Readers are also encouraged to enter the search term "quantum locking" into the internet search engine of their choice (more on that later) to see examples of superconductivity and antigravity. Another example of the mutual inspiration of physics and SF is Dr. Robert A. Forward's Timemaster which featured a novel adaptation of Morris-Thorne wormholes. Physicist Kip Thorne has captured the SF sense of wonder in his physics, while simultaneously providing material which allowed the SF concept of black holes and wormholes to leave the realm of fantasy and become scientifically plausible once we discover the appropriate means. Students inspired by the near-SF of Thorne and actual SF of Forward (as well as his physics) are the very ones pushing the boundaries of theoretical physics today.

I started off in the Introduction with an example of influences on medicine with the SF example of "bionics" compared to current work in prosthetics; yet there are many other examples of SF influences on medicine to include cloning, genetic engineering and bacterial/viral research. Starting with the latter, Crichton's The Andromeda Strain featured some of the very means used by the Centers for Disease Control to prevent bacterial and viral contamination (albeit with the lasers and nuclear failsafe). While genetic engineering of humans has many ethical hurdles to clear, researchers are working on actual cures (rather than symptomatic treatments) for diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes simply by injecting fully functioning cells which can replace the diseased/damaged ones. A.E. van Vogt's The World of Null-A (1945) introduced the idea of cloning humans, and was further illustrated in novels such as Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (1974) and Ira Levin's The Boys from Brazil (1976) as well as movies such as the 1978 adaptation of Levin's novel, all the way to Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones (2002). We are far from the ability to clone whole humans despite having fully sequenced the human genome (see The Human Genome Project, completed in 2003). In fact, just having the sequences does not mean we understand the code, nor are the ethics of cloning fully realized, as show by the furor over the cloned sheep "Dolly" (Wilmut et al. Nature 385:810-813, 1997). In yet another example of medical science imitating SF, Michael Crichton wrote in The Terminal Man (1972) of a character who had stimulating electrodes implanted into his brain to counter violent thoughts and actions. "Deep Brain Stimulation" is now a routine treatment for movement disorders and some psychological conditions such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and depression. Forthcoming advances in prosthetics, cellular engineering and regeneration may very well bring about the possibility of replacing damaged bodies and providing life extension far beyond that postulated by Larry Niven in Flatlander (1995).

Perhaps no field has seen a greater influence of SF than computer science. "Golden Age" SF is replete with examples of computers containing the sum total of all human knowledge, somewhat reminiscent of a modern Google, Yahoo or Bing search. When I first started working with computers in 1972, having recently been treated to examples of the Library Computer in Star Trek (1966-1969) I was greatly disappointed by the fact that I could only get out of the computer that information which I had entered. Where was the vast library of information just waiting for the appropriate question? Where was Dennis Jones' Colossus (1966) with its "one terabyte of memory storage"?

Yet even with SF predicting computer to computer communication (Thomas J. Ryan's The Adolescence of P-1, 1977), the rise of an all-encompassing web (David Brin's Earth, 1990), and virtual environments (way too numerous to list, but the works of Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, James Hogan and Charles Stross come immediately to mind), the reality of modern computer science has far outstripped SF, excepting possibly the field of artificial intelligence. Early SF depicted even the most advanced computers as large installations requiring considerable personnel infrastructure. Yet despite a few examples, such as in Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise few have predicted a technological revolution that has placed the equivalent computational power of 1980s supercomputers in our pockets. Indeed I would argue that it is the push to stay ahead of SF that has driven the technology to where it is today. We do, in fact, have computers that understand spoken commands without extensive training (we interact with them every day on the telephone), that can search the sum total of all human knowledge, deliver books and movies without wires, and are inexpensive and ubiquitous enough to support a thriving recreation and games industry. Can those direct neural interfaces (James P. Hogan’s The Genesis Machine, 1978) or artificially intelligent machines (Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, 1951) be far behind?

Science Influences on SF: Scientists (and Engineers) as SF Writers

I am always thrilled to learn that a scientist is a science fiction writer. The Golden Age of SF included many writers from the science and engineering fields. The "Big Three" shared this background: Robert A. Heinlein studied engineering and mathematics; Dr. Isaac Asimov obtained a Ph.D. in biochemistry and held a faculty position at Boston University; Sir Arthur C. Clarke studied mathematics and physics. Their contemporaries included L. Sprague de Camp, with a masters in engineering (aeronautical), and Hal Clement (Harry Clement Stubbs) with a bachelors in astronomy and a masters in chemistry.

Speculative fiction and SF have long attracted professionals who bring the expertise of their field to writing. Of the current crop of SF writers, there are many holding doctorates in scientific and related fields: Probably the most notable of this group are Dr. Jerry Pournelle (psychology and political science), Dr. Gregory Benford (physics), and Dr. David Brin (applied physics/space science), but are joined by Dr. Catherine Asaro (chemical physics), Dr. Geoffrey Landis (physics), Dr. Yoji Kondo (astrophysics, pen name Eric Kotani), Dr. Stanley Schmidt (physics), Dr. Vernor Vinge (mathematics), Dr. John G. Cramer (physics). Perhaps the most scientifically educated of the bunch is Dr. Travis Taylor, with Ph.D.s in optical science and engineering, and master's degrees in physics, aerospace engineering, and astronomy. It is encouraging to see real rocket scientists such as former astronaut candidate and shuttle controller Stephanie Osborn writing SF; it is somewhat distressing not to see any neuroscientists, and very few biologists in the group; perhaps it is due to a perception that so many of the science fictional goals of biology and medicine have been achieved, and the fact that medicine lends itself so well to the "thriller" and mystery genre as exemplified by M.D. authors Michael Crichton and Robin Cook.

Specifically, how does a scientist bring his/her expertise to science fiction? I jokingly asked Christiana Ellis, chemical engineer and fantasy writer, how her background in science helped her write fantasy and received a surprising answer:

Fantasy, like science fiction, needs a logical world. Magic needs rules, limits and methods. If it doesn’t make sense, the reader will have a hard time accepting it. A scientist understands how to build a world that works!

That is the core of it. In science fiction and fantasy, the writer asks the reader to believe a created world. It may have only one change from the world in which you and I live (space colonies, a magic talent) but that change must be believable, and it must be consistently applied. When the setting of a story involves a fundamental technological advancement, a scientist author brings not just knowledge of the basis of the technology, but also the expertise to integrate it with multiple aspects in a believable world.

Does that mean that all scientists would make good SF writers? Oh, by all means, no!

If you have ever read the package insert on a prescription, you should have gotten a small taste of how scientists write. Baen Author John D. Ringo once told me about a biology lab report that began:

"Bright was the day and High Our Hearts when we went aViking to determine the specific gene sequences that define ..."

The teaching assistants were highly amused, but could not bring themselves to award a passing grade because it just was not written scientifically. On the other hand, would a reader truly be motivated to continue reading past the following:

"G'e'rax (ĝuh-eye'-rəks) looked around at flora consistent with third (3rd) generation new-growth forest, approximating a 3:1 ratio of deciduous to coniferous varieties. The ground cover was lichenous with a proliferation of saprophytic species. Air temperature was 27 degrees Celsius with 51% humidity, suggesting evaporative aquatic source nearby. Auditory stimuli in the 50 to 100 Hertz range (62 decibels) indicated amphibious species located at 12 meters distance at 32 degrees north (magnetic north corrected)."

It is an unfortunate fact of scientific publication that most articles consist of stilted, passive voice and technical jargon. Part of this is due to the necessity to write strict facts in a matter designed to convey sufficient detail to allow an experiment to be replicated and confirmed. The other part is simply inertia on the part of the genre – scientists write that way because their advisors wrote that way. Scientists that can write for the public, like Carl Sagan – let alone write SF – are a rare breed, and I salute them.

Scientists as Protagonists

The life of a scientist is hardly the stuff of adventure — that would belong to the engineers! Seriously, many of the conventions of science fiction and fantasy depict scientists as either eccentric geniuses working in a lab-OR-a-TOR-y (spoken with obligatory Transylvanian accent), or an evil psychopath performing experiments that really should not be performed. The truth is that a typical senior scientist spends his time in an office filing reports and attending committee meetings. Drs. John Cramer, Gregory Benford and Travis Taylor, to name a few, have successfully incorporated scientists as protagonists in some of their stories. However, these characters are quite often scientists who long to break free of the laboratory confines and seek adventure – or have it thrust upon them. Some of the better depictions of scientists as protagonists have been by James P. Hogan.

However, it should also be stated that in many of these cases (particularly stories by Hogan) that the characterizations of scientists owe more to engineering than that of the "research" sciences. Even when Benford and Taylor have depicted scientists performing experiments and writing scientific manuscripts for publication, they tend to short-cut the process in the interest of readability. In fact, I have never sat down and written a scientific paper in 12-24 hours (Travis Taylor's "Doc" Clemons in Warp Speed; Gregory Benford's Alice Butterworth in Cosm). No, it usually takes me at least 48 hours, but then I am not a theoretical physicist! In actuality, it takes about one to two weeks to write, refine and edit many of the scientific papers with which I have been associated, so I guess my own life would make poor material for an SF story.

To me, it seems as if the best “scientist-protagonist” stories have the actual science as background. After all, scientists also love, laugh, hate, grieve and participate in activities away from office and lab. At the same time, without the perspective of what matters would concern a scientist – security of research funding, the expense and unavailability of state-of-the-art equipment, ability (and acceptance) of publication, support of the department chair – the role of “scientist” becomes akin to a convenient label with no real substance to mold the fictional persona into a sympathetic and believable character. This is one of the most important roles that a scientist-as-writer can play (apart from the risk of creating a Mary-Sue wish-fulfillment version of themselves) — to write believable scientist characters, whether protagonist, antagonist or supporting characters. For a non-SF example of successful scientific characters, pharmacologist, Dr. Duncan Haynes, writes murder mysteries under the pen name of “Dirk Wyle.” In Pharmacology is Murder and its four sequels, the main character, Ben Candidi, goes from bright-but-untrained coroner’s assistant to Ph.D. pharmacologist, and faces many situations that are comfortably familiar to a similarly trained scientist. At the same time, the plot focuses on traditional elements that would be understood by any fan of “cozy” murder mysteries. Thus, the scientist is the protagonist, with a recognizable scientist’s life, yet the stories are able to unfold without (much) “infodump” of scientific background, or requiring the reader to maintain a reference library at their fingertips while reading.

Exploration SF

Science fiction, as any fictional genre, has its “tropes,” consisting of recognizable situations and directions that a plot can take. The most common is “The Hero’s Journey” in which the protagonist starts from a humble state and discovers his own capability for achievement, leadership or strength. The Hero’s Journey is common in both fantasy and SF, since it allows the reader to self-identify with a protagonist while encouraging wish-fulfillment in a fantastic or futuristic setting. When The Hero’s Journey is cast in young adult fiction, it is often termed a “Boat Book” in homage to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Again, Boat Books are common in SF, and most notably, Heinlein’s juveniles are perfect examples of the trope.

Not exclusive to SF, but certainly a prime example of “Golden Age” SF is the “Exploration Book.” In an Exploration Book, the settings and discoveries take center stage, often eclipsing the characters. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama is just such a novel of exploration. I would be hard-pressed to recall the names of the characters, but I still have a vivid mental picture of the interior of the Rama spacecraft as the lights came on: Entering at the forward “pole,” the circular lake around the middle, and the giant horns at the aft end. While the characters of Niven’s Ringworld are much better remembered (hence my own choice of online handle), the Ringworld is such a fantastic destination that it becomes the main character, and the fact that I remember the protagonists can be attributed to familiarity and the writer’s skill. Note that for both Rama and Ringworld, the adjective “fantastic” is particularly appropriate. Both are destinations that while scientifically sound, are “…sufficiently advanced technology [that is] indistinguishable from [fantasy],” to paraphrase Clarke’s Third Law.

In contrast, consider Robert Forward’s Rocheworld. Here is an Exploration Book, written by a scientist, who himself inspired and advised other authors (to the extent of being the villain in Niven’s “The Borderlands of Sol”). The science is first rate and believable, woven into an integral part of the excellent story He brings his own expertise in physics and planetology to SF without requiring "infodumps" to explain himself before moving on to the next element of the story. I enjoyed the "technical report" appendix that does provide the infodump, but it is not necessary to refer to the appendix to enjoy the whole work, it's more of a reward for faithful readers who want to know more. Most importantly, the story does not require extreme departures from current scientific capabilities, making the unique double planet of the Rocheworld all the more appealing and believable in this setting.

Exploration is the province of experimental science. The role of the experimental scientist is to ask “what” and “how”, and in the course of experimentation, to understand “why.” Thus Exploration Books can and should rely on a sound scientific basis. This is the main realm in which scientists can contribute to SF – whether as writers or as consultants to writers. If we can capture the sense of wonder that drove many of us into our respective research fields, then perhaps we can recruit the next generation of scientists. Each year I spend some time reviewing applications to graduate and medical school, as well as grant applications for graduate school and post-doctoral funding. Of particular interest is the personal essay, in which the applicant discusses his/her motivation. Contrary to the applicant’s belief, the most compelling essays are not, “I want to find a cure for my Granny’s disease,” but, “I just find this all fascinating and want to figure out how it works.” This is the purpose of the Exploration Book, to instill in the reader a sense of wonder. Likewise, it is the particular trope that can gain the most benefit from accurate science.

"Science" Fiction gone wrong

How, then does SF get science wrong, and why? Well, as in any genre, “bad science” comes from either misunderstanding, or a lack of appropriate research. An egregious example is the recent movie Avatar in which the essential element which justifies first contact with (and destruction of) an alien species is the mining of “unobtanium.” The term has been used as satire (as in the movie The Core) and as a convenient shortcut in SF discussions, but to use it in a serious context in Avatar smacks of laziness on the part of the screenwriters. Was the term “unobtanium” supposed to be replaced at a later date? Did the writers think they had come up with something new? Or did they just not know better (or care)? In any case, this is SF gone wrong – in fact, gone horribly bad.

For all of the beneficial scientific inspiration of Star Trek, it could also be horribly bad. From the episode “Spock’s Brain” and its (to me) unforgettable quote:

Brain and Brain, what is Brain?

to Dr. Crusher bemoaning

“…the engram has wrapped itself around the cerebral cortex and it won’t let go!

Why are these bad?  Well, in Dr. Crusher's quote, an "engram" is not a physical thing, but rather a controversial term that some neuroscientists use to describe a pattern of information.  Even if it were physical, it couldn't wrap itself around the cortex (the surface of the brain) because there is simply no room.  In the "Spock's  Brain" episode, we learned that any surgeon can transplant a brain just so long as he hooks up the vocal cords first, so that the brain can talk him through the rest!

I have a laundry list of unscientific plots and dialogue that I use when I advise students not to allow public media and “common knowledge” to color their acquisition of scientific knowledge. In many cases, the writers just did not have time to research appropriate terminology for the science; on the other hand, the shows were popular enough that they didn’t have to. The role of a scientific advisor is critical, yet I also understand that the story comes first. Many of my author friends will discuss the science with me, but they write the story, and in the end, if the science doesn’t make a good story, it will have to be changed. Likewise, the point-of view is also important.

John Ringo, former paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, understands firearms and ballistics; however, if that ballistics involves space or orbital mechanics, he confers with scientific and technical advisors. However, when the story is written, the science has to be filtered through the eyes of the point-of-view character. If the reader is “in the head” of a soldier, the science needs to be told as the soldier understands it. This is where non-scientist writers (with good scientific advisors) have an advantage over scientist-authors — the risk of “dumbing-down” the science is less for a layman who can write what they understand, than for the scientist who must decide what they have to cut out to provide the appropriate point-of-view.

Aside from misusing science, is having the science pass-by the written work necessarily bad? Much of the “Golden Age” SF of Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Clement, de Camp, and others predicted that by the start of the twenty-first century, there would be colonies on the Moon, on Mars, and that we’d be well on our way to the stars. Does the reality of a Moon program that has been dead for 40 years mean that their stories are “bad science” or do they just reflect a failure of the imagination? I rather feel that it is the current age which has had the failure to imagine the possibilities, to paraphrase astronaut Frank Borman’s explanation of the Apollo 1 tragedy When Heinlein wrote “The Roads Must Roll (1940), rocket fuels sufficient to lift a payload into space were unknown, and he accurately incorporated the search for “monopropellant” fuels into the story. The next five years would demonstrate the effectiveness of binary liquid propellants, and in less than 20 years, the search for monopropellants would essentially be a dead issue (for more information, I highly recommend John D. Clark’s Ignition: An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants, 1972; it’s out of print, get it on interlibrary loan). Does obsolescence make for bad science? I would argue that it is only bad if the science is already commonly known to be obsolete at the time of writing. Scientists, and society, are quite often willing to accept scientific predictions that turn out not to be true, but knowingly including inaccuracies or outdated information is… bad science.

The final example of what I would term bad science is the caricature of Mad Scientist. Whether sequestered in a medieval castle in Transylvania, or in the secret underground labs of The Umbrella Corporation, stories about mad scientists and bad science are over-used. The dangers of bad science of this sort come in promoting fear and misunderstanding in the public. The scientific and medical community is still trying to combat fear of vaccines (albeit the fraud was begun by the real-life incarnation of an “evil” scientist) because of not just the publicity, but the inclusion of “uncontrollable viruses released from secret government labs,” “contaminated vaccines” and “arrogant scientists with no concern for the consequences of their actions” in TV, movies and books. The popular Matrix movies blamed the bleak future on uncontrolled science and technology. As much as I adored the movie The Rats of NIMH, the story essentially pits the kindly super-smart escaped lab rats against the cruel and unthinking humans – particularly the scientists who created them.

So science fiction, based on science to date, can be inspired by and inspire scientific investigation, can benefit from “good” scientific input, and suffer from the lack or misuse of accurate science. It is not the science (or lack thereof) that makes the SF good or bad, but how it is handled in the story. If it is essential to the plot, as in an Exploration Book, or with a scientist protagonist, the science should be accurate yet readable. If the science is incidental, making a believable futuristic or technological background, then it needs to be accurately filtered through the point-of-view of the character telling (or viewing) the story. It is possible to combine bad science in the form of notably laughable or fantastic elements, with accurate science, as in Jeffrey A. Carver’s Einstein’s Bridge. His story melds a fantasy (horror) writer’s viewpoint with that of a physicist working on the Superconducting Supercollider project. The bad science is pointedly written in such a way that the reader recognizes it as such, yet the plot twists in the book reveal how uncannily accurately the fantastic elements could come true. Thus the final message is that even bad science can be good. The difference is all in the story.

Is Science too Specialized for SF Writers?

One of the difficulties in incorporating current, accurate science into SF (and fantasy) is the simultaneous rapid progress and increasing specialization of the science. While it is still possible to do some “basement science” – simple chemistry and biology experiments – the majority of the experimental sciences require specialized equipment and even more specialized knowledge. Science “generalists” such as the television science hosts “Mr. Wizard” and “Bill Nye the Science Guy” are (were) not experimental scientists. Bill Nye trained as a mechanical engineer, while Don Herbert (Mr. Wizard) was primarily an actor with a bachelor’s degree in English and general science. In fact, it could even be argued, and supported by these men, that most of what we think of as the science in SF is really engineering. The jokes that engineering is really "math and science with loud noises" is not entirely without merit, and in many cases, the engineer’s grasp of general science is better than that of many research scientists.

For example, in my own field, neuroscience, one can study neurons as isolated cells in culture, in the whole animal – vertebrate (with a spinal cord: birds, fish, lizards, amphibians, mammals) or invertebrate (without a spinal cord: worms, insects, spiders, shellfish). Once a scientist is trained in just one form or species, there is a 75 percent chance they will stay within that specialization for their entire career. Within the above specialties, it is possible to further refine the study to genetics, molecular (the study of the proteins and molecules which form the neurons and connections between neurons), systems (again, whole animals), development (growth), aging; and yet further refinement into anatomy (the structures and components of a system), physiology (how the system works), pharmacology (the role of chemicals in altering the system), or behavior and psychology. The laboratory equipment to perform the experiments is expensive and complicated; we typically spend 6-12 months just training a technician to use the equipment, and years to get them to understand how it works. A professional scientist can spend decades on the study of why it works.

At the same time, we become terribly divorced from what we are studying. A molecular biologist or geneticist grinds up cells and tissue, uses a series of instruments to extract single molecules, then other instruments to identify the chemical and atomic structure. In neurophysiology, we have techniques for “electrophysiology” which record the electrical activity of single brain cells – neurons. The neurons are about ten-to-twenty micrometers (microns) in size. That’s one-millionth of a meter, or one-thousandth or a millimeter. Very small. We usually take a piece of tissue and slice it very thin. The process is delicate, so we let a machine do it with a very fine, vibrating blade. Using tweezers and a single hair from a paintbrush, we transfer the slice to a thin piece of glass and put it on a microscope. The microscope operates in the infra-red band that our eyes cannot see, so we look at the images on a TV screen. To work with the neurons, we take very thin glass tubes (again, not much larger than a hair), heat them, and pull them to create even finer tubing – about 1-2 microns in diameter. The glass tubes are then mounted in a holder so that we can position them next to neurons – but the human hand does not have enough control, so our experimental “pilots” sit watching a TV, using joysticks and computer controllers to position the instruments and cells. Once that is complete, the experiments, including delivering and recording electrical activity, are done by computer – the experimenters never touch with their hands, nor see the neurons with their eyes. Labs hire students, technicians and faculty with many years’ experience to run the experiments, and the scientists may never perform any other type of experiments in their careers.

Yet the question of this section is whether current-day science is too specialized for general scientists and for SF writers to know as much as possible about science to write accurately. The answer is yes, but with some qualifications. As mentioned above, much of what is commonly considered science in SF is actually engineering. Just as importantly, the saying is true that scientists may eventually discover “warp drive,” but it will be up to engineers to build it.

Likewise I would argue that Science is in fact too specialized even for scientists. The point of the example of the electrophysiology experiment above is that once a person becomes proficient in this technique, they in essence become technicians and mechanics, performing the same actions over and over again. Understanding the science – asking the questions, designing the experiments and interpreting the results – does not require quite as much specialization. In this, I would argue that the scientist that overspecializes does himself or herself a great disservice. I know that my own interests in biochemistry, physics, mathematics, astronomy, etc. are somewhat unusual among my peers, but I feel they make for better informed science. I may not have detailed specialty knowledge memorized, yet it is available in my library, in articles published by others, and in textbooks.

There is also still room for general scientists, as personified by Don Herbert, Bill Nye, Carl Sagan, and others who write for the public. Effective teaching of science to students and to the public requires a general knowledge of science that can be enhanced for specific issues by reading and library work. If an experiment, essay or story requires specialty knowledge, the generalist can consult a specialist. The same is true for SF authors. Ballistics? Orbital motion? How the eye works? Amnesia? Why rotten eggs smell bad? Lifecycle of the horseshoe crab? Ask a scientist. The field(s) may be too big for any one person, but not too big if you know someone who specializes in the information you need.

On the other hand, specialization and the increasing education and detail required in many scientific fields is used as a reason why “hard” SF seems not to be as common as it was in the “Golden Age” of SF. I am not convinced that this is necessarily true; in the first place, there is definitely more “volume” of SF being published. Rather, I think that the reason for less noticeable hard SF is due to public and societal shifts. As society looks outward to frontiers on Earth and in space, the tone of SF also looks outward, and requires the engineering and science to support it. But when we look inward, to a future of “limited choices” to societal problems, or even to the “inner space” realms of psychology, human-computer interfaces and virtual reality, SF likewise looks inward and concentrates on psychology, sociology and forms of technology that we don’t immediately label as “hard science.” Again I would also include my earlier point that much of what is commonly considered hard “science” in SF is actually hard “engineering.” This is not to say that engineering is not science, but that engineering reflects the output of science transformed into working products. Still, we could also say that hard SF needs more engineers, and many of the same points expressed in this essay would apply.

Is Science Finished?

In other words, “Have we discovered all that is worth discovering?” The fact that science has become increasingly specialized argues on the one hand that no, we have not discovered all there is to know in the many fields of science. On the other hand, the fact that scientists must specialize, suggests that all of the “big” discoveries have been made, leaving only minutiae and fine details (hence the specialization). On the gripping hand (hat tip to Niven and Pournelle) we really don’t know what scientific fields are yet to develop from new discoveries (as quantum mechanics developed after Einstein’s theories of Relativity). When Einstein formulated general and special relativity, there were physicists who assumed that the atom was the smallest unit, a unified theory was within reach, and all that needed to be discovered about physics was known. The entire field was revolutionized by quantum mechanics, subatomic theory and the string and membrane theories of cosmology.

Edwin Abbott wrote Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions in 1884. It tells the story of a two-dimensional creature introduced to the concepts of one and three-dimensional worlds. To a 2-D polygon, the 3-D sphere appears as a circle, for the polygon cannot conceive of additional dimensions from his 2-D perspective. Once he visits the 3-D universe, a whole new possibility of multidimensional space occurs to the polygon, even though he is unable to convince the sphere of the possibility of more than three dimensions. In the case of turn-of-the-twenty-first century science, we may be two-dimensional polygons, unable to conceive, let alone see, the possible dimensions of science that exist. Will we be able to explore the myriad possibilities locked in our genetic code? The possibility of fully deciphering genes may allow customization of biological life forms into any configuration, such as John Varley’s eponymous Titan or John Ringo and Travis Taylor’s “Dreen” living machines. Will a revolution of chemical, biological and geological science allow terraforming of other planets, or even free humans of requiring planetary surfaces at all (Niven’s “Smoke Ring” society)? Does quantum connectivity hold the key to telepathy, teleportation or faster-than-light information transfer?

Perhaps it will require that SF staple of first contact with another civilization to shake up our scientific conventions. It can be assured that there will be much to be discovered once humanity gets into space and tries to work outside the physical, chemical and biological cocoon that is Earth. There are still many questions that remain to be answered, questions that are currently known, and uncounted others that we have yet to ask (or know that we can ask). Assuredly, as long as there are questions, science is not finished.

Breeding the Next Generation

In an age of specialization and introspection, how do we breed the next generation of scientists and science fiction writers? In essence, how do we make the SF future into reality?

As a scientist, I feel it is my responsibility (and really, my enjoyment) to talk about science whenever I can. As a writer, I blog and post articles that explain science where possible. Showing the public a simple experiment such as dropping hard-candy mints into diet cola and watching the resultant geyser can lead to discussions about dissolved gases, pressure, the fine structure and molecules on the candy shell, the chemicals in the soda. From there, one could easily move to microscopy and discuss molecule shapes, to medicine and discuss air mixtures for divers, or “the bends,” or even switch to chemistry and discuss rocket fuels.

Science fiction readers come to the books for adventure and entertainment, but if done right, they leave with a wee bit of knowledge of science. After a while, that knowledge can build, and we find that SF readers as a whole have a better understanding of science and engineering in part because they read SF, and in part as a consequence of that knowledge, they seek out more SF writers do their part by using their own scientific knowledge to start the process, then consult experts to fill in more detail as needed.

Getting the Science Right

How then to incorporate accurate science into what is first and foremost a story? After all, I have just spent many words saying that there are few scientist writers, that science may be too specialized for any one person to know, and that the most educated scientists are probably the least able to communicate it (entertainingly). I know that my preference is in continuing to write and read science fiction.

In support of that role, I advise and “beta read” for several authors, and have noticed quite a few trends in how the science information I supply is used by other authors Fans and author forums as well as bulletin boards are frequently filled with despairing comments from readers that see early versions of a manuscript and say: "Didn't the author even show this turkey to beta readers? It's full of typos and inaccuracies!" While many authors don’t necessarily want copyediting by their first readers, the role of a science adviser is to pick up on the inconsistencies. Examples: (a) "Light years" as a measure of time; (b) space drives that produce 400 gravities of thrust in one chapter, and 4000 gravities in another; (c) males as "carriers" for an X-chromosome-linked disease that affects only their male-offspring (hint, male offspring get their X chromosomes from their mother); (d) viruses treated with antibiotics (antibiotics treat "biotic" infections – i.e. bacteria – viruses are not "biotic").

The science adviser is supposed to catch inconsistencies. What the science adviser is not expected to do is to change anything that would alter the essential plot or characters. Early in my tenure as an adviser to SF authors I had an exchange with an author that went something like this:

Me: "Hey - scientifically that's an epithelial colonization with pustules."

Author: "Speaker - my characters are grunts. To them it’s a bad rash with pus blisters. Now, if I need dialogue between the scientists who are creating the disease, I'll write it differently."

In many ways, the story is more important than the science. That is not to say that accuracy is not important, since we are talking about how the hallmark of good SF is a good foundation in science, but more importantly, good SF include speculation beyond current capabilities, and above all, requires a good story.

Which brings me to the next step in getting the science right: Make it understandable. I stated above that I know plenty of scientists who are excellent at what they do. They publish papers, get research grants, give seminars – but they can't explain what they do to someone without the same level of education that they received. A science adviser must first explain the concept to the author, then help guide the process of getting the idea into the story. I cannot (would not, and would be unwelcome if I did) write for the author, so I try to help by saying, "No, this is not consistent," "this doesn't read well," "this doesn't make sense." If I say, "this is not accurate," it is my job to provide the appropriate information. It's not easy, and I suspect that the best science advisers read a lot of SF and try to explain their own work in SF terms. Again, I feel this is an area in which engineers have the edge over scientists. Engineers are much more used to dealing with the “end products” of science than the pure academics and researchers.

SF authors want the reader to feel that the science is accurate enough to allow "willing suspension of disbelief." This is important to any form of SF, fantasy, speculative or adventure fiction. Readers are often willing to accept one (or two) unbelievable things if the rest of the science is accurate. For examples, I would draw your attention to Jack Campbell's "The Lost Fleet" series. There are two major "gotchas" in his Space Opera — first is the existence of a faster-than-light drive, second is ships maneuvering at significant fractions of light speed. Yet the rest of his space battles entail the slow ballistic trajectories of missiles and bombs dropped onto fixed outposts such as moons and planet-bound cities. Likewise, David Drake postulates a "sailing culture" for his RCN Lieutenant Leary books, yet he includes many realistic issues such as not having elevators on a spaceship due to various stresses which would jam the elevator shafts It is this very mix of the unbelievable, with science and engineering which is quite believable (or plausible) and understandable that aids the author in setting up the plot.

The writer is telling a story, and must decide what works for the plot, characters and setting. “Hard” SF needs scientific and engineering detail, while space opera can get away with science that seems plausible, but may lack the detailed accuracy of, say, an Exploration Book. What, then, does the author want or need for his/her story? Technical jargon ("handwavium") to give the impression of science to a particular scene? A 500-word infodump delivered by the scientist/engineer to which the grunt characters can respond, "Huh?" (Think Samantha Carter vs. Jack O’Neil in Stargate: SG-1.) Does the author need a science advisor to simply read a passage and comment on whether it "feels right?" For this role, it is very important for the scientists not only to have read other SF, but also that author's own works to get a feel for style and composition. The science advisers also have to keep in mind that even if the author actually says, "I need gobbledygook," they don't really mean nonsense such as the aforementioned "unobtanium" or "full-sprocket framistan with punctate lobes." No, what they usually want is science in terms that their readers will recognize as being realistic, without requiring a PhD to read it. 

Unfortunately for a scientific adviser, more so than the author, when other readers are saying, "Why didn't somebody catch this mistake?" it becomes personal. It really is the adviser’s role to look for the big issues, the ones that leap out of the page and hit the reader between the eyes (with respect to science, but also with respect to the story as a whole). Perhaps the author will decide they don't matter, at which time it is best to leave it alone. On the other hand, when an author has a reputation for hard SF, it generally means that they (a) listened, (b) understood, and (c) made good use of their scientific advisers. When the goal is communicating the wonder of science, getting the science right is pretty rewarding.

Closing Thoughts: Inspiring SF

Arguably, SF is the one fiction genre with the potential to educate and inform in the course of entertaining. Sure, historical fiction informs incidentally, but science fiction builds on wonder, exploration and human nature. Inasmuch as SF is set in future society, it also builds on hope: hope that there is a future in which to set continuing stories. Certainly dystopian influences creep into SF, well exemplified by the gritty futures defined by Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” and “The Minority Report,” which became the films Blade Runner and Minority Report, respectively. Yet even a postmodernist “science is the problem” future… is a future, and from that we can take hope. We live in a world of problems, and science fiction and fantasy are escapist literature, but the science in science fiction is the solution, not the problem. Science will discover, and engineering will produce, the tools which will bring about the future that we choose. Along the way, new scientific discoveries will influence the “speculative fiction” that lies in our future. It can be hoped that SF will likewise inspire those future scientists to greatness.

From the science of sleep, we now know that dreams consist of experiences and memories that are put together in novel combinations to produce an unusual story. At the same time, by triggering and replaying memories, dreams assist in the strengthening and long-term durability of memory. In some cases, dreams can assist in combining two separate memories into a unique and significant insight. Those insights, those “eureka” moments are every bit as necessary to the advancement of science as the long experiments and complicated technical reports.

Science fiction is the dream of science.

We put science in, and gain the future.

Copyright © 2012 by Tedd Roberts