What does science fiction have to teach about real science?

Illustration for article titled What does science fiction have to teach about real science?

We hear all the time that science fiction inspires scientific work, from satellite technology to genetic engineering. But can science fiction actually teach science to the uninitiated? Authors like Neal Stephenson and Nancy Kress have used their novels to explain astrophysics and biology respectively; Ursula Le Guin's novels feature participant observer anthropologists, while Greg Egan's characters are notorious for delivering science lectures. It may be fun, but are we actually learning anything?


Tomorrow I'll be talking about this on a panel at the Science Online conference with writer Jennifer Ouellette (Physics of the Buffyverse). Specifically we're discussing how to explain scientific topics using examples from science fiction. I tried to do this recently, in my article "The Evolutionary Biology of Star Trek," and Oullette wrote about science lessons from SF in an article called "When Science Meets Fiction," on her blog, Cocktail Party Physics.

What are some examples of science fiction that's taught you about science? What about science books and documentaries that have used science fiction well?


Dr Emilio Lizardo

It's not so much that they teach science, they teach creative and critical thinking. Showing how you can come at problems from different angles, seeing different possible explanations or viewpoints, extrapolating, visualizing. These are all vital skills. It's not about learning facts, it's about learning how to learn. How to encounter a situation you have never seen before and still manage to resolve it by using skills other than rote memory. That is the most important skill anybody can have and SF helps people to develop that by expanding their worlds even beyond the boundaries of the world that we live in.