Why Scientists Should Read Science Fiction

Every so often, one of my (older) colleagues will find me reading a science fiction novel. “Ah, science fiction,” they will say. “I used to read quite a bit of that. Of course, I can’t really get in to it anymore, because it just doesn’t seem realistic.”

The idea of course, is that their advanced knowledge of genuine science undermines the verisimilitude of the work, preventing them from adequately suspending their disbelief. I very much hope that this never happens to me. Surely a book or movie can be enjoyed upon its own merits, rather than fatally undermined by some minor factual error. I mean, people still manage to enjoy reading War of the Worlds in spite of the fact that it has long been common knowledge that the planet Mars is absolutely nothing like the way that HG Wells described, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is still a wonderful read with memorable characters, even if the idea of powering a massive submarine with electrical reactions from seawater now seems laughably unrealistic.

What’s more though, I think this argument overlooks a very important detail. Namely, that one of the great things about SF (particularly in writing, but also in reading) is that it gives you a great creative outlet for intelligent (but unscientific) speculation based upon scientific theories. Who, afterall, does not have their imagination stirred at least a little bit when hearing a new theory of how the universe works? And if you are a scientist, if this stir of the imagination happens to be in the form of a well-defined question which can be answered through mathematical extrapolation or experiment, than wonderful: you’ve got a paper out of it. But what if, on the other hand, this stir of your imagination is too outlandish to be proposed in a scientific fashion? What are you to do then?

For a few researchers, the answer appears to be: write terrible papers about it. I, however, would rather indulge such impulses through fiction.

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About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
This entry was posted in Fiction, Physics, Science and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Why Scientists Should Read Science Fiction

  1. Paulina Czarnecki says:

    The great thing about fiction is that you can make up your own theories and write about them 🙂

  2. E A M Harris says:

    I suspect a lot of scientists had their interest initiated by reading science fiction.

  3. memescience says:

    For me the interesting thing about SF is, that the author can show how scientific progress might affect the society. So, if researchers read more SF they maybe get aware of the significance of their work.

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