Friday, April 6, 2012

What Science Means to Me

I am a science fiction writer. I write in other genres, but science fiction is my first love. I love the possibilities, I love, as I said in a recent interview, asking and answering the "what ifs?" But this is the fiction part. Let's examine the science part for a moment.

It is an ironic fact that science makes science fiction more difficult. The pulp science fiction stories of the '30s did not have to adhere to the truths of the universe because those truths were not known. Rocketry was in its infancy, there was still very serious speculation about life--nay, civilizations--on Mars and Venus and the relationship between time and space that Einstein had proposed was not fully--or even partially--understood outside of the offices and laboratories of physicists.

So we had rockets taking off then landing vertically on Mars or Venus and encountering bizarre alien creatures. We had ships travelling to distant stars via standard propulsion and returning a mere months or years later.

But as science progressed, as we learned that Mars was a cold and barren landscape with little liquid water, as we learned that the atmosphere of Venus was poisonous and oppressive, as aeronautics advanced and the vast distances between the stars became insurmountable with any technology the mind of man could then dream of, those stories came to seem... ridiculous. Especially reading from our 21st century perspective, those stories are not just implausible but laughably so.

But those stories laid the groundwork for something wonderful. Future thinkers read them and let their imaginations run rampant. Some of them went on to become the physicists who showed the implausibilty of those stories. I think that for many, science fiction opened up the world of science. I recall a television program that interviewed several scientists and engineers who were directly inspired by Star Trek. Science fiction, even in its infancy, was mind-expanding stuff!

And so it was--it is--for me. But here I must make a confession: while I am endlessly fascinated by science, while I would say I know more than the average American about the evolution of the universe, much of it I find completely baffling. I simply cannot comprehend how a human mind was able to come up with relativity or string theory just by observing the universe and conducting thought experiments. I cannot do it. I am not a genius. I received my degree in anthropology, a safe, secure discipline. There are many questions still to be answered, of course, but it is much easier to get a grasp on human civilization and culture than it is the formation of the cosmos.

And here's another confession: the science in my science fiction is not "hard" by any means. I rely on tried and true tropes such as hyperspace travel. However, I think I did come up with an interesting way to explain how hyperspace travel works and if you've read Sullivan's War: Book II you can let me know what you think of it.

But despite this, despite my vast lack of understanding and my reluctance to use science rigorously in my fiction, science still means a great deal to me. It means that as a species we are beginning to get a grasp on the true origins of the universe. The physical laws that we observe are a part of the creation and if one believes in a creator, as I do, then those laws can be seen as a kind of guidepost toward the truth. Those laws have repeatedly struck down the fears and superstitions of less-enlightened ages. Science, and the knowledge that we receive through it, is a gift.

For example, an intellectually honest person cannot rigorously study biology, geology, astronomy, anthropology, archaeology, primatology, paleontology, linguistics, physics, history, mythology, genetics, medicine or theology and still believe in creationism, that the Earth, and by extension the universe, simply came into being fully-formed, or very near it. One may still believe in a creator, that there was some impetus for the creation of matter, but all of the ancient creation myths--and the modern ones--must be cast aside through the use of the greatest gift given to humanity, be that gift from a creator or otherwise. They must be cast aside by the gift of knowledge.

Through science, the truth is illuminated. Through science, ignorance can be left in the past if we so choose. Through science, we can make the world a better place for our descendants and leave a legacy of striving to understand the marvelous universe that surrounds us.

What does science mean to you? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.


  1. Science has always been of interest as it was my major in University. But it gained a a new degree of wonder when quantum physics began offering us another worldview, something that science had not done to that point. When you you change the basics, you change everything. A blog of mine that I'd love to share with you, if you haven't already read it is: The Day the World Changed based on the 1927 conference added by the great ones.

    1. Thanks for the link, I just read it. Like I said, I can't even begin to comprehend the genius of each of those minds at the 1927 conference. I fancy myself a pretty smart guy but the complexity of my mind is like hydrogen (well, maybe helium) to their uranium.

  2. If you can believe it Star Trek inspired me to pursue a science based career. I scratched out a living as an engineer from 79 through 92. I've since changed careers and now consult for the publishing industry but a common thread through both careers has been an interest in science which I incorporate in my SciFi writing. So I guess you can say that science has and continues to inspire my imagination.