Science in fiction

I write futuristic novels that I describe as “science in fiction”. This is partly to make it easier for me to write the story, partly because it is easier for me to construct more intricate plots, but it is also to try to show what science is about. I think this is important, because I believe that in the future society will have to make a number of decisions that will greatly affect how society progresses, and if many of these decisions involve something related to science, would it not be preferable that such decisions were made in a reasoned fashion, rather than through sheer ignorance?

 Arguably, this might be a difficult goal, as shown by the following quote from Carl Sagan: “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology”  – a somewhat depressing quote. What I find more depressing is that on the whole, most people do not care that they know next to nothing about it. Does it matter if nobody understands anything about science? While as a scientist I am biased, I still think it does. So, what can we do about it? The approach I am following is to try and introduce the concepts through my books. But what is science?

There are many TV programs about science, but many of those are of the “gosh” nature: they show a number of extraordinary things, and they are extremely attractive to watch, but I am unsure what lasting impact they make. There are a number of so-called “hard” SF books, and again they entertain, but only a few of them show what science is. Science is NOT about the collection of facts, although observations of facts are necessary for science to proceed, and most scientists spend most of their time collecting and archiving such facts. Science is also not about making great new gadgets; that is invention. Nevertheless, while scientists might spend most of their time doing that, that is not what science is about. Science is really a way of thinking, and that, more than anything else, is what society needs.

The scientific method proceeds through conditional propositions. Thus a scientist might say, “If theory A is correct, and if I do B, then I shall see X.”  He then does the experiment, and if he sees X he is happy. If he does not, then there is a problem. He might check to see if there are any other theories that might predict what he sees, but more likely is that he will check his apparatus, because the usual reason for failure to see what theory predicts is there has been a mistake. The relevance to current society is that we will have to say, “If we wish to get to X, we shall have to do B, as defined by A.” If we do not choose a desirable destination, we can be reasonably sure we shall not get to it because it is an unfortunate fact of life that achieving desirable goals tends to take more effort than drifting into undesirable ones. There is a small subgenre called lablit that portrays science in action, by involving the lab in the plot, but again, that is usually about scientists, and not so much science.

Of course you cannot write fiction like propositional logic, but you can show that sort of thing. Rather than the hero prevails through sheer dumb luck, or total incompetence on the part of others, what I try to do is to have the protagonist work out the answer through a logical approach, by thinking out a solution. That procedure involves the protagonist making observation throughout the book, then drawing conclusions from them, then acting on them.


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