Science Fiction Benefits Science

Wednesday , June 27, 2018 - 12:00 AM

Guest Columnist

Each year, Weber State University’s College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology helps sponsor FyreCon, a convention dedicated to the creative side of fantasy and science fiction.

Why would an engineering college sponsor a conference focused on everything from

“What is Science?” to “How to Stuff Your Dragon?” The answer lies in the juxtaposition of those two topics. Science fiction or Sci-fi plays an important role in engineering and science.

Sci-fi inspires invention: For example, the flip phone first appeared in the show “Star Trek.” Neal Stephenson first described the idea of Google Earth in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash.”

Sci-fi also provides stories, analogies and inspiration for scientists and engineers who use characters and events from fiction to discuss contemporary issues. In addition, scientists and engineers in fiction discover nature and solve problems even in the face of danger. Astronauts in the movie “Sunshine” act reasonably in their attempt to save the earth, even as one of the crew goes insane. The scientists of “Europa Report” risk their lives to understand an anomaly.

Sci-fi creates a parallel space for examining contemporary problems. Different alien races and their relations, for example, represent diversity in skin color and nationality.

Finally, sci-fi asks, “What if?” Although sci-fi varies widely in its adherence to universal scientific principles and known facts, numerous sci-fi stories called “hard science fiction” adhere to known laws quite closely. The show, “The Expanse” probably fits this “hard” category. The movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” also studiously observes known physical laws. The book (and a little less so the movie) “The Martian” focuses on solving problems using known principles. In contrast, the “Star Wars” movies are science fantasy and dispense with many known laws for the sake of spectacle and story. For example, spaceships fly through space making various cool noises — not realistic.

All four shows, however, exhibit a sense of wonder with the universe and ask, “What if?” What if we found an alien artifact? What would that mean to international relations and our relationship with technology? What if an astronaut became marooned on Mars? How would he survive? What if we had a personal power called “the force”? What kind of role would it play in the type of society we live? Asking these questions requires a screenwriter to “worldbuild.”

Weber State historian Eric Swedin defines science as, “A method of making observations of the natural world, or conducting experiments within the natural world, with the goal of articulating models or theories that can successfully predict future observations or successfully predict the results of future experiments.”

Worldbuilding in writing science fiction follows a similar process in using (non-experimental) observations to create a model of an imagined universe. Observations run from human behavior to laws of physics. To create a believable world (or at least one where the reader suspends disbelief) the writer needs to create a world with consistent rules. By worldbuilding and asking, “What if?” the writer arrives at an image of the future (or parallel universe), which is different and often either dystopian or utopian.

Dystopian worlds tend to have more readily available literary conflicts, which make good stories. It also reflects contemporary fears. Utopian worlds, and technologically optimistic worlds, were more often created in the sci-fi of the 1930s and ’40s. These “engineer stories” tended to see humans (or at least scientists and engineers) as ultimately rational and able to fix the problems inevitably generated by technological development.

Dystopian fiction plays an important role in reminding us of those inevitable problems. What if we keep polluting the earth and not curbing population growth (“Soylent Green”)? What if we create our own overlords through robotics and artificial intelligence (“The Matrix”)? The likelihood of these futures becomes less critical than the reminder that we control our destiny and should find the solutions before things get out of control.

Ultimately, humans love stories. They filter their lives through them. Children interested in science, technology, engineering and math are no different. Dr. Swedin notes “Scientists and engineers often find inspiration and excitement as children in science fiction, which shows them how the world can be improved by science and technology.” Dana Dellinger, director of WSU’s College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology outreach center, also notes: “The questions at FyreCon are an opportunity for students to explore STEM in ways that are fun, insightful and interesting. We believe the workshops spark and encourage creative thinking, which is highly valuable in any field our students choose to pursue.”

David Ferro, Ph.D., is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Follow him on Twitter @DavidFerro9

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