Science Fiction or Fictional Science?

How science fiction has influenced the lives and work of many STEM professionals.

By Emilie Haertsch | July 21, 2017

An illustration of the city of the future from Hugo Gernsback's “10,000 Years Hence” in Science and Invention magazine, published in 1922. 

Wikimedia Commons

When you work at a science history organization like CHF, you are surrounded by proud nerds Monday through Friday, and with nerds comes science fiction. The Vulcan salute is given freely in the hallway here. Many TARDIS models are found amid office décor. And when The Martian was in theaters, extensive conversations about the movie, the book, and the science behind them took place over the lunch table. From this office experience I assumed that many people involved in STEM fields were also fans of science fiction. This idea was supported by Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Mars trilogy and spouse of a working scientist, in a 2012 oral-history interview published in the journal Configurations:

My impression is that scientists can read science fiction in two useful ways. First, when they are young, science fiction puts ideas into their heads and gives them the feeling that a life in science would be exciting and worthwhile. Second, when they are older . . . they read it both in search of stories as interesting as the ones they are running into in their work, and also in hope of some expansion or commentary on those kinds of interesting new stories. They enjoy science fiction that seems to them scientifically literate or conceptually interesting—hopefully both.

Robinson’s theory is that science fiction can influence young people to enter scientific fields and engage professionals in thinking about their work in new ways. To put that theory to the test I interviewed several STEM professionals about their relationships with science fiction and how it affected their lives and work. The results were not quite what I expected. While some interviewees were science-fiction enthusiasts, as many of us are at CHF, others were more skeptical.

Amanda Mahoney, a nurse and science historian, wanted to be like the women scientists she saw on TV.

AM: As a kid I read anything and everything by Madeleine L’Engle and Douglas Adams. I also loved books about time travel—a blend of science fiction, fantasy, and history. When I got older, I watched Star Wars, the Alien series, and The X-Files. Really, any show or film that explored the infrastructure of the future, explored how the unexplainable worked, and featured smart, tough women doing their jobs was right up my alley! Like many, many women of my generation I wanted to be Dana Scully, so science fiction actually influenced my decision to become a scientist. I would not have ended up in chemistry, nursing, or the history of technology were it not for my early days asking questions like, “How does the Alliance feed everyone on Hoth?”

Marion Leary, a resuscitation scientist, uses science fiction to imagine the future of real technology.

ML: Although I was always interested in science, science fiction influenced my decision to pursue it as a career. My interest in Star Trek and Star Wars helped formulate what I wanted to do when I got older. I always thought about the technology they were using on those shows and how we could develop that in the real world. As a resuscitation scientist, the work I do now with virtual-reality rooms is getting closer and closer to the Star Trek holodeck. Science fiction is a really great way for us in STEM fields to think outside the box. Maybe we don’t know how to do the things in these shows when they come out, but eventually the science catches up and the technology catches up and we can translate them into real life.

Bob Kenworthy, our in-house chemist at CHF, has a low tolerance for science fiction that is lacking in science or credibility.

BK: I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, and science fiction then was about space travel and atomic radiation. One movie that sticks out in my memory was Them, about ants mutated into giants by radiation. It was really bad—a true B-movie, with lots of horrifying action scenes. On the other end of the spectrum was the television show The Twilight Zone, which was very well done. It was somewhat believable but beyond reality. For me science portrayed in books or movies must be plausible. In a lot of current science fiction, like the zombie genre, it’s not. But in some cases, like The Andromeda Strain, it is. As a chemist I could believe that the infection presented in that story was real.

Adrian Dingle, a chemistry teacher, prefers to read nonfiction on scientific topics.

AD: There is too much actual chemistry to learn for me to be reading science fiction. It has to be stuff that really does exist, not just part of someone’s imagination. I was never interested in space travel or monsters, even as a kid. People had too many pointy ears and weird-looking eyes, and I was just terribly based in reality.

Eric Scerri, a chemist, an author, and a professor, had a similar opinion.

ES: I lost patience with a lot of science fiction. I read a lot of factual material on science and the history of science. However, I have great admiration for people like Isaac Asimov, who can write both science fiction and popular science books well. Science is important and exciting, and should be made more accessible. If reputable science fiction can act in broader ways to make science more accessible, I support that.

On August 12, 2017, the Science History Insitute conducted its own exploration of fiction and science at the free seminar “History Lab: Fiction and the Future.” Participants explored examples of literary tropes that have influenced scientists, reflected on their favorite works, and experimented with creative-writing techniques. The event featured vulcan salutes and sci-fi opinions of all kinds.