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Science Fiction as Science Studies on the History of Science

July 17, 2014

What you see in this post are some reactions and thoughts that came to mind in this very intense week as I think about my own larger intellectual interests, my recently completed dissertation, my organization of my ECR research projects and publications, and the class that I have been teaching this week.

If you have seen my previous post and also the tweetchat, most of you reading this probably already know that I have been teaching a week-long intensive class on science communication that tries to bring in a bit of history of science (and some history of technology). What I did not quite emphasize was also the role of fiction in science communication and in communicating the history of science.

On Wednesday this week, I brought in not only some science news magazines, but also two issues of Analog: Science Fiction and Fact. This came in the heel after I assigned them their first homework, which was to analyze between historically scholarly scientific writing with more recent publications, as a way for them to understand that style is not static; neither does academic scientific communication has to be inscrutably unreadable to a non-specialist. That established the historical aspect of the craft, though, had there been more time, we might have gone a little bit more into how that craft develops differently by the content being produced. Even then, I gave them, in the first lecture, the different forms of overlapping science communication, across different platforms, that share similar raison d’etre even if at first glance, they appear different in their purposes.

So, when I ended up bringing those magazines, including the hard SF journals, to demonstrate the humanistic relevance of scientific thinking in the past, despite the divergent direction that the sciences have taken today, I was able to show them videos produced by scientists/science communicators that connect current day science with historical science, and that fiction is the key to tracing that genealogy of science, from a perspective that is irremediably historically contingent. From there, I could also begin to explain that connection to other humanistic studies. I find such a strategy to be more attention grabbing to the students than if I were to spend too much time pontificating about how literature tries to study science or why philosophy and science have strong historical connections. In fact, I am interested in thinking about how I could one day produce a course that is all about learning history of science through works of hard science fiction, or even just fictions that are interested in interpreting science contemporary to the period in which the fictional universe is set in.

As part of understanding the role of fiction not only in scientific pedagogy, but also in humanistic interaction with science, I was amazed at the number of the students readily adopted such forms of thought experiments (even if rather unconsciously on their part), a fictive-factive motif, in their class presentations, after having only had three days of 90 minutes of class, with my having barely scratched the surface of that! One of the joys of teaching science communication is demonstrating not only the multiple ways of conveying what science is about, which is what I have been trying very hard to convince scientists and humanists alike of, but also of other ways of thinking about the production of scientific knowledge, why we choose to produce scientific knowledge only in particular ways, or inhibit the parameters of acceptability and legibility of scientific theories and facts.

A student astutely pointed out that there is nothing new about scientific communication or even the production of science, which seems to follow the same narrative path for decades on end. Fiction allows one to historicize the moments in science that never went down into the history books of science because they remain ‘crazy’ conjectures and a series of what-ifs – through fiction, one is able to bring all of these speculations to light; speculations that are important in the production of the science which made it as the ‘science’ that remain in the fringe or is largely not visible. What I want is not for the students to become creative writers of fiction, though there is nothing barring them from that, but to understand how fiction can be a way of studying facts directly, and that such a method can be deployed even for the production of non-fictional works to allow critical discussions of the science to happen.

Such an experience, in connecting between my own research and an experimental andragogy (I wonder how such an experiment would work when one teaches an interdisciplinary course of science and the humanities to both middle school and high school students), really got me thinking again about whether fiction, through much modifications at a logical, philosophical, and other methodological levels, could become that medium where we can have not only a rich conversation about science-to-science intra/trans/interdisciplinary relations ie bio-physics or medicine and the environment, but what it means to do science studies within the humanities. It means the reconsideration of a landscape that has dictated how the sciences have been discussed by humanists, and the suspicion in which scientists have often viewed humanistic interpretations of their very epistemically hierarchical fields.


P.S. Some of the more opinionated students in the class did not find the Carl Sagan Cosmos to be very compelling (too ponderous and what they thought were not very compelling use of history), at least the pilot episode, so they do not want to watch more. Be interesting to hear more tomorrow,  at the tail end of the class!


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