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Physics First, Fiction Later
by Erika Stith
WRIT 1133: Writing Culture(s)
Professor Amber Engelson
The stars opened up before me. I was staring infinity in the face, and it was beautiful. I’d just walked onto the observation deck. The silence was enveloping, like the blackness of space. The rest of the crew sat in silent awe as we looked out of the panoramic window. Beyond the glass was nothing less than deadly vacuum, but I felt safe inside my tin can. Earth was behind us. All of its problems were insignificant because now we were free of its pull. We all had friends and family back there, but at this moment it didn’t matter because of the vast ocean expanding before us; clearly there were great things in store for this ragtag team of explorers. Not everyone is cut out for the life of colonizing other worlds, but we were the few who’d looked to the stars as children and never looked back. I could walk to the other side of the observation deck and see Earth in its entirety. From this distance, it looked serene: mushy clouds swirling across its glittering oceans. But we left for a reason. War, famine, plague: those of us now leaving Earth knew that she was not being cared for. Overpopulation and ecological destruction were burdening our species’ humble mother, potentially to her death.
We were escaping. Maybe we couldn’t save Earth, but the Moon, Mars, Europa, Ganymede—these places we could shape with loving hands and turn into new cradles of civilization, now that we were burning the first. We had the whole solar system as our playground, the whole galaxy, the whole universe, even. Though we were leaving Earth behind, we were hopeful. The stars were ours.
* * *
My mom walked into my room and turned off the light. “Time for bed,” she said. I sighed and put down the book. As soon as she left, I pulled from the bedside table the flashlight I stole from the basement and buried myself in the blankets, resuming my space exploration.
I read constantly as a child. My favorite stories were about mishaps with particle accelerators, sentient computers, and aliens that live inside stars. I was deeply in love with science fiction (SF) and, as I would later discover, with science itself. In fact, reading SF got me more excited about science than any of my grade school science classes ever did. SF is inspiring because it tends to focus on the cutting edge, while learning the basics of science, though necessary, can be boring. Both SF and real science rely on the same values, however, such as logic, problem solving, and innovation. And both are considered “nerdy,” especially by teens and preteens, as I quickly learned when my constant reading—and outburst about subatomic particles during class—earned me the label “nerd” in middle school. Though SF may have caused my social isolation, it also helped me connect with some of the most inspiring writers, thinkers, and scientists of our time. SF is a genre unique for its ability to bring together lonely preteens, accomplished scientists, and pretty much anyone else with a love of science, technology, and the future.
Joining this community at a young age can have its drawbacks. Being a geeky little girl was lonely at times. Among all of my acquaintances in my Kentucky middle school, I was the only SF reader. According to Cathy Evans and Donna Eder, the causes for social isolation in middle school are negative judgment from others in at least one of three areas: “appearance, gender behavior, and mental maturity” (148). I’ve been ridiculed for things in all three of these categories. I was a bit chubby, with braces and glasses, and I refused to adhere to middle school fashion standards (appearance). My few friends were mostly male and my interests tended to be more “masculine” than those of the other girls (gender behavior). I also had the unfortunate combination of being smarter than most of my peers but less socially adept, probably due to being the only child of bookish introverts (mental maturity).
Unsurprisingly, I was picked on often. An example: as one of two kids taking algebra in sixth grade, I had to go to a different part of the building for that class than for the rest of my normal classes. The eighth grade section of the building was far enough away that I was frequently late to my next class. Though I was excused, other students took note. They said (behind my back, but within earshot):
I bet she’s lying so she doesn’t have to come to class. Girls aren’t even good at math.
You know, I heard that she has to wear such thick glasses because she hurt her eyes reading all the time.
I think she talks to her calculator more than she talks to real people.
To their credit, that last one might actually be true. And that is part of why SF appealed to me—the heroes are frequently outcasts for reasons similar to my own.
I started reading SF for the shiny new technology and fun adventure. At some point, though, it became an escape from reality for me. Of course I wanted to inhabit a future where people weren’t berated for being smart and awkward. Some say, however, that escapism is SF’s only use. According to Gerald Jonas of The New York Times, “Literal-minded critics have sometimes derided science fiction as sub-literary ‘escapism,’ because it does not deal…with the here-and-now” (para. 1). It’s true that plenty of SF consists of pulpy paperbacks that have little literary or scientific value. In many cases, these novels don’t even portray the concepts upon which they are based with any detail or accuracy. Karlheinz Steinmüller accuses SF of “sometimes willingly or unwillingly depict[ing] science as a new magic, which in due time will solve all problems and which works without any negative side effects” (176). That is certainly a major failure, but it only applies to the lower echelon of SF books. In my experience, the better novels actually focus on the unintended consequences of new technology and deeper issues behind social problems. As Isaac Asimov says, “Our ‘escape’ consisted of worrying about the problems and conditions of 1970 ever since 1930” (296). However, by using science fiction as an escape, I was further condemning myself to nerdom.
Holly Bennett, author of an article in Today’s Parent, observes how widespread the ridicule of science geeks is. Bennett claims that part of the problem causing American students’ deficiencies in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) is that our academic culture has become geared to ostracize those who are interested in science. In my experience, such alienation is fueled by students and adults alike. In seventh grade, my school guidance counselor asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. My response: “I’m going to be an astrophysicist and write sci-fi when I retire.” A look of surprise crossed her face. Rather than congratulating me on having my life all figured out by the age of twelve, she said, “Are you sure you want to do that? You’ll have to stay in school for a long time and do lots of math. Most girls I talk to don’t like science much.” It crossed my mind to sarcastically respond, “Gee, now that you say that, I think I actually want to marry a rich guy and be a stay-at-home mom in the suburbs.” Instead I bit my tongue until she let me leave.
Sadly, this counselor’s attitude may not be uncommon, given that a peer-reviewed study found that “by a two-to-one margin (60 to 28 percent), American parents say that ‘if forced to choose, they would prefer their sons or daughters to make C grades and be active in extracurricular activities rather than make A grades and not be active’” (Bishop et al. 141). This finding implies that many adults value social acceptance and involvement over academic achievement. Yet for those like me who actually like the academic side of school, such emphasis on social acceptance can cause even more isolation. Kids who make it through such pressure, according to Bennett, tend to be very independent and stubborn, or socially oblivious, because that’s what is necessary to avoid the wrath of the “popular kid[s]” in middle school (para. 14). I used a combination of independence and obliviousness to escape their derision.
Although I was ostracized in school, my parents (and other family members) supported my interests. Neither of my parents work in STEM fields, but it was my mom who first introduced me to SF. When I latched on to it, my mom did what she could to encourage me. According to Bennett, this is what parents of geeks should do. Bennett quotes science teacher Wayne Campbell, saying, “Parents can help by finding resources, programs and people who share, value and validate the child’s interests” (para. 12). My mom did that in many ways by signing me up for camps, taking me to museums, and finding good books for me to read.
She also tracked down my favorite living SF author, Gregory Benford (who also happens to be an astrophysicist), and got him to sign one of his books for me. When she gave it to me for Christmas, I blissfully opened it to reveal the words inside. Benford only wrote four words in addition to signing his name, but those words were immediately etched into my soul:
“Physics first, fiction later.”
With that simple phrase, he captured the essence of my life plans. These words strengthened my resolve to eventually become a physicist and author, and this desire has hardly wavered since. As Benford suggests, good SF has a strong focus on being scientifically accurate; science and SF are fundamentally intertwined.
Not every scientist chose the field as a child. However, a large portion of those who did were drawn to it, as I was, by SF. This fact suggests that scientific advancement might be partially fueled by SF. Asimov points out that “[s]cience fiction reading is perhaps two hundred times as common among scientists as among the general public. It is unavoidable, then, that a number of those scientists may have been encouraged to enter the field through their reading” (300). Though this claim is based on his back-of-the-napkin calculations, Asimov maintains that many scientists were inspired to enter the field by SF. But others claim that children who choose science as their passion because of SF risk having unreasonable expectations of excitement and drama from real scientific research. For example, Steinmüller explains, “For the ordinary reader, tedious lab work, nightly calculations, boring committee meetings, the frustrating fight[s] for funding…are of little interest” (177). At best, even the most scientifically accurate SF skims over the tedious moments that make up much of a scientist’s life. This logic suggests that anyone who chooses to study science because he or she loves SF will inevitably be disappointed and possibly give up his or her career aspirations.
I would argue, however, that a love of SF can be precisely what motivates one to persevere through the tedious parts of scientific work. The romanticism of SF certainly has an impact; I remember wanting to be a theoretical physicist because, in several books I read, theoreticians got to go to space to prove their theories right. It took me a couple of years to realize that being a theoretical physicist actually means you spend most of the day doing calculations and running computer simulations (when not teaching or writing grants, that is). Sometimes at the end of an organic chemistry lab, after slaving over a hot plate all afternoon to get only a seven percent yield, I ask myself: “Do I want this to be my life for the next seven years or more?” After considering it more, the answer is always “Yes,” because the feeling of satisfaction and understanding when things work out is greater than the feeling of disappointment when they don’t.
I owe it to SF that I can see past the minor setbacks to the overall goal. In books, the plot isn’t interesting unless the character faces some kind of struggle on the way to reaching a goal or has some kind of problem to figure out. As an avid reader, I would try to solve the problem before the characters in the book did. It turns out this skill is directly applicable to real scientific research, and SF novels got me practicing it early.
When my mom first handed me a copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, I didn’t expect it to change my life. Being a reader of SF and a lover of science is an integral part of my identity. SF allows you to experience the wonder and beauty of science, no matter where you are, how old you are, or how much you already know. It ties together many different kinds of people who need to have nothing in common except curiosity about the future. Because of its imaginative and unifying nature, SF contributes to the progress of science and society as a whole.
A note from the author
Mention anything science related, and you will see my face light up. New technology makes me jitter with excitement. I’ve spoken the sentence “Math is fun” with sincerity. I’ll rant about the wonders of physics to anyone willing to listen. But I wasn’t always this way. Until I was about 10, I didn’t really care about science. I wanted to be a Broadway singer when I grew up. Everything changed, however, when my mom introduced me to science fiction (SF). It was love at first sight; after just a few weeks of reading SF, I told my parents that I was going to become a physicist.
So, when the assignment in my WRIT 1133 class was to write an autoethnography about a subculture that has influenced my identity, it was easy for me to choose SF readers as that subculture. Since science and SF comprise an integral part of my identity, I thought it would be easy to whip up a paper about the community.
However, when I sat down to write this paper, it turned out to be more difficult than just explaining all the reasons why SF is awesome. SF changed my life, but why does it matter to society as a whole? How does it impact the lives of fans and non-fans alike? How does it influence real science? I finished this paper with the intent of answering these questions and maybe asking a few more.
About the author
Erika describes her hometown as “nondescript Midwestern suburbs.” She is a sophomore at the University of Denver majoring in physics with a concentration in biophysics. She is also minoring in math, biology, mechanical engineering, and music. Erika is a competitive figure skater and Co-President of DU’s newest a cappella group, Drastic Measures. She has numerous other hobbies including skiing, hiking, playing instruments, drawing, and writing. Understandably, she wishes there were more hours in the day.
Asimov, Isaac. Today and Tomorrow and… New York: Dell, 1972. Print.
Bennett, Holly. “The ‘Nerd’ [9 to 12-year-olds]”. Today’s Parent 15.2 (March 1998): 82. ProQuest. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.
Bishop, John H., Matthew Bishop, Lara Gelbwasser, Shanna Green, and Andrew Zuckerman. “Nerds and Freaks: A Theory of Student Culture and Norms.” Brookings Papers on Education Policy 6 (2003): 141–213. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.
Clarke, Arthur C. 2001: A Space Odyssey. New York: New American Library, 1968. Print.
Evans, Cathy, and Donna Eder. “‘No Exit’: Processes of Social Isolation in Middle School.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 22.2 (1993): 139–70. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.
Jonas, Gerald. “Science Fiction.” The New York Times (13 Sept. 1992): A.28. ProQuest. Web. 18. Nov. 2014.
Steinmüller, Karlheinz. “The Uses and Abuses of Science Fiction.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 28.3 (2003): 175–78. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.