Science, Scientists and Science Fiction

    I grew up reading science fiction and assumed adulthood would bring a career in science. It didn’t happen that way. In the last week I’ve bumbled across several current websites where people my age did grow up to become scientists and are discussing their formative reading. Jason Pontin, the editor in chief of Technology Review wrote recently On Science Fiction: How it influences the imagination of technologiest, “To this day, my tastes and choices as an editor and journalist are bluntly science fictional: I look for technologies that are in themselves ingenious and that have the potential to change our established ways of doing things. Best of all, I like technologies that expand our sense of what it might mean to be human.” That’s quiet an interesting bias, and I don’t think he’s alone.

    Over in the March, 2007 issue of IEEE Spectrum they have a story, The Books That Make A Difference, that quotes Vinton Cert, Donald Christiansen, David Mindell, James Isaak, Samuel C. Florman, Vernor Vinge, Danny Hillis, Barrett Hazeltine, Nick Tredenick, Steven W. Squyres, Jaron Lanier, Henry Petroski, Jon Rubinstein and Owen K. Garriott discusing the books that influenced them. Most of the books are science fiction, or books that science fiction fans often love. Danny Hillis chose my favorite SF book, Have Space Suit-Will Travel and explained that the hero of the book saves the world, gets the girl and gets admitted to MIT. He claims he decided to go to MIT because of this.  I read this book many times.  I wanted to go to MIT too, but I never had the right academic stuff.

    There is no way to know, but would these men have become scientists without science fiction? Is science itself not inspiring enough? Maybe science fiction is fairy tales that appeal to logical and mathematical minded children who would have always grown up to be scientists. Or do we just live in a dazzling science fictional age – where the influence of science fiction is so widespread as to be mundane.

    If I could have read about my present life of programming computers during the day and writing blogs at night maybe it would have been an exciting story to my thirteen year old self. If I could show my kid self a photo of my desk right now with its hi-rez wide-screen LCD monitor, color printer/copier/scanner all-in-one machine the size of a small breadbox, the CD player and iPod, I think he would have been wowed! I grew up with manual typewriters, LPs and slide-rules. I know my 56″ HDTV would have been something he expected as standard in all households, but would I have imagined that one day I’d be discussing on a world-wide network the value of the books I was reading back then. It’s funny, but when I was a kid reading science fiction I never pictured growing up and being old reading science fiction. I thought I would be living it.

    Wherever I go on the net I always find people who grew up reading science fiction. What’s weird is when I was reading science fiction in the years before Star Trek I found damn few other people that read it.  How’d there get to be so many SF fans now?  Star Trek, and then Star Wars programmed millions of kids into science fiction fans. I used to go to SF conventions and we’d lament the influence of SF media fans.  How come the same boom didn’t create a boom in scientists?

    Over at ScienceBlogs I found “The Biggest Geek and the SF List” where computer scientist Marck C. Chu-Carroll throws in his comments to a group of blogging scientists discussing the top 50 science fiction books of the last fifty years. The funny thing is most of their books are on my Classics of Science Fictionlist, so there is sort of a consensus about classic science fiction. As one writer pointed out, there are few recent books showing up on everyone’s list. I’m wondering if the SF of the 1940-1990 era didn’t affect a whole generation of scientists.  MarkCC has some good comments about how these books have stood the test of time.

    It would be an ultra-cool science study to analyze all the people who read the SF classics and determine if those books did influence the readers in any significant way. I don’t know how they could do such a study but if can get so canny at suggesting what I like from my buying habits, I think an analysis of common traits of the people who fondly remember the same books should come up with some interesting tidbits.

    Then they should find a control group, say kids growing up in India or Tibet, and see how not reading classic Sci-Fi might have affected the group. India has lots of scientists – were they influence by science fiction? Another interesting experiment would be to isolate schools from the rest of our massive pop culture and only teach them about certain types of books. It would be the ultimate test of the old GIGO principle (Garbage In – Garbage Out). I certainly remember a lot of my teachers asking why I read such trashy books.

    Does anyone ever really know why they make the decisions that they do? Countless factors come into play for such decisions so can we consciously know how we were programmed? Or it might be simple – you become a rocket scientist because you discovered Estes Rockets when you were a kid or read a book on Robert H. Goddard or read Rocket Ship Galileo.  Or you become a robotics engineer because Mindstorm Legos or you read Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot

      Or maybe, you read Rocket Ship Galileo then looked up Robert H. Goddard and then discovered Estes Rockets.  Which is what I did.  To be honest though, I followed every launch of the Mercury program before reading Rocket Ship Galileo.  To dig deeper I must ask why I followed the NASA space program so closely in elementary school?  Deep in the primordial recesses of my mind are memories of the 1950s, before NASA, of watching old black and white Sci-Fi movies, The Twilight Zone and numerous cartoons and kid shows dealing with rocket travel.  I can not unearth the first time I encountered the concept of rocket travel.

      Another weird thought that just popped into my mind – maybe I didn’t become a scientist because my favorite Sci-Fi writer was Heinlein and grew up to become an opinionated dirty old man instead.


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