Science fiction helps us deal with science fact

Research last year showed that the use of the Terminator image was a good way to get people engaged in global policies related to the rise and proliferation of killer robots.
Research last year showed that the use of the Terminator image was a good way to get people engaged in global policies related to the rise and proliferation of killer robots.PHOTO: UIP

Fiction seems a great medium for education and advocacy as it offers humanistic ways to think about new and challenging scientific subjects

Further calls recently for a crackdown on the development of lethal autonomous weapons have led to the usual rush of references to killer robots in science fiction, such as the Terminator film series and RoboCop.

Given that the 1991 movie Terminator 2: Judgment Day was just re-released in 3D last week, it seems likely that the original film's killer robot will not lose its shine as the poster boy for any debate on lethal autonomous weapons.

But is that a bad thing?

Research last year showed that the use of the Terminator image was a good way to get people engaged in global policies related to the rise and proliferation of killer robots. Far from demonising real science, the inclusion of fiction seemed to keep the discussion focused on the real-world issues.

In a recent paper, a colleague and I discovered that researchers are using science fiction to provide a common ground for engaging the public across a wide range of disciplines. This is especially the case in science education, advocacy and research. Fiction appears to be an excellent medium for education and advocacy because it gives us humanistic ways of thinking about new and challenging scientific subjects.

Science fiction can personalise the horror of a wealthy elite cloning children as living, breathing organ donors, as depicted in Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel Never Let Me Go.

The 1982 film Blade Runner - based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? - is used to make us question what it is to be human.

Researchers even argue that our fear of and fascination with intelligent machines originate from discovering a new form of God. Our questions about science can be based on future fact, fiction or even matters of faith.

On a more prosaic level, science fiction is used in educational practice - whether it is taking examples from Isaac Asimov's story collection I, Robot to help emerging scientists to develop better technical writing skills or inspiring a curriculum for design education.

The related genre of fantasy fiction has been used to engage school children with astronomy - through C.S. Lewis' Narnia chronicles, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books and J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. We should not be shy to take advantage of the popularity and accessibility of science fiction and fantasy, using them as tools to support education, engagement and advocacy.

SCIENTISTS IN SCIENCE FICTION Science fiction exploded in popularity towards the end of the 1920s when it became a staple of pulp fiction magazines. From early on, some authors aspired to utopian ideals and a better future for humankind, which is what science is about as well.

Over the years, there have been plenty of scientists who have also engaged in science fiction, including Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Fred Hoyle, Geoffrey Landis and Carl Sagan.

The tradition of writers with science backgrounds is very much alive today. Technical writer Ted Chiang has had fictional stories published in the journal Nature. His work is a series of thought experiments that provide human perspectives on significant scientific questions.

His hard science-based but accessible science fiction successfully made it to the big screen in last year's Arrival, one of the more cerebral science fiction films of recent years and one of the highest rated by critics and viewers alike.

Science fiction is very popular, both in writing and in film, and has gradually shifted from being a literature of young men in the 1950s and 1960s to a more general appeal today. Respondents to my own 2015- 2016 survey of science fiction consumers were 54 per cent female and representative of all age groups.

Consumers of science fiction today share characteristics with the population in general and are very interested in science. This provides researchers with a tremendous opportunity to engage a broader public with their work.

Science fiction has become so familiar as a tool for explaining science that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) is helping fiction writers and film- makers on works such as author William Forstchen's Pillar To The Sky as well as the 2013 films Europa Report and Gravity. Nasa also gave technical advice to makers of 2015's The Martian to make sure many of the film's technologies depicted were real. This demonstrates how Nasa thinks science fiction can inspire people about science, and it has been argued that science fiction can influence the direction in which science takes us.

Perhaps one day science fiction might lose its ability to inspire wonder, but for now the public engagement opportunities it offers researchers are unmatched.

• The writer is a PhD student and lecturer at James Cook University. This article first appeared in theconversation.com, a website of analysis from researchers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 27, 2017, with the headline 'Science fiction helps us deal with science fact'. Print Edition | Subscribe