Tag Archives: arts and culture

What Scientists Can Learn From Fiction Writers

Scientists don’t often think of themselves as writers. Our employment responsibilities do not include crafting characters or building worlds from words, nor investigating the latest political scandal, nor travelling the globe and composing reflections on our experiences. Yet, we do write: grants, reports, manuscripts. It is how we distribute our knowledge and the science we have done, because graphs and images and data have little impact if not shared. We write and revise as much as any journalist or novelist; still, writer isn’t an identity most scientists would primarily claim.

We are, though. Scientists are writers. Scientists are storytellers. Each graduate student, post-doc, faculty member has a story they are telling through their science. The scale and impact differs, but the fact remains: we must spin a tale convincing enough for our science to be funded, to be published, to matter. We are  writers, and we don’t even realize it.

I was trained to be a writer in the classical sense, specifically fiction writing. There were certain lessons that we learned over and over again, because they were fundamental to crafting even the most basic story. What fascinates me is that I have encountered these components informally in my graduate school training, just in the guise of doing good science.

We use basic story structure in writing articles: our beginnings ask a question, which we then try to answer in the middle, and our ends show how we have changed our little corner of the science world with our answer. There may even be a cliffhanger in there–alluding to a sequel coming soon to a journal near you!–if we’ve created even more questions with our answer. Grant writing uses a similar structure, with more emphasis on the cliffhanger. Leaving your reader on the edge of his seat, wondering what could come next, is something both scientists and fiction writers want (equally for the validation of having intrigued your audience and the satisfaction that such engagement often results in financial investment).

Show, don’t tell. Rather than telling a reader that a character is angry or sad, a writer should describe the character’s balled-up fists or tear-stained cheeks. For scientists, our equivalent of ‘telling’ is ‘data not shown’–and we all know how much we should avoid that. We do our showing in our figures. A scientist knows that the more data you can include, all the better. A scientist also knows that the more visually appealing your data is, the better it represents your conclusions. No one likes to read tables, right? Those data become so much more interesting as a pie chart, a graph, or a schematic. We show as much as we can, and tell as little as possible, because the best case scenario is when the data speaks for itself, instead of the scientist speaking for it.

Stories are much more interesting when they start in media res, or in the middle: no boring leadup, no extensive exposition. It is why publications often start with describing a hit or two they discovered from a screen, instead of the million little steps that led up to and happened during the screen itself. Good papers do that, and so does good fiction. The first Harry Potter book does not walk the reader through Harry’s childhood; it just starts right at the moment his life is about to change. Relevancy and immediacy are key components to telling any story, and scientists know and practice these principles to the best of their ability.

Crafting things out of thin air to make a story is a staple of fiction, but we know that as data fraud in the science world. The ‘characters’ in our scientific writing, the ‘plot’, the ‘setting’, the ‘rising action’, the ‘falling action’, all of those things have to be based on facts and evidence, on carefully planned and painstakingly executed experiments. They are based on reality. We know this; every scientist knows this. What we as scientists may not realize, however, is the extent to which fiction writing is also rooted in reality. Creating characters or worlds out of thin air is in actuality rarely done. The foundation of so many characters–ordinary or fantastical–come from experiences and observations within the writer’s own realm. It is a different way of collecting and representing evidence, a different way of asking or answering a question about the world. This reality-turned-fiction is one of the best ways a novel writer can build a sense of believability even in the most far-fetched fiction. It also builds trust between author and reader, one of the most important–and difficult–parts of fiction writing. Scientists have these components within their works as well, though constructed and strengthened in a different manner. Trust in science is built through executing proper and thorough controls, validating via different experimental methods, and considering (and hopefully, systematically eliminating) alternate theories or explanations. So regardless of the method in which they are built, that believability and that trust are critical components to any story, be it science or fiction.

Fiction writing, creative nonfiction writing, journalistic writing are all still very different beasts than scientific writing. Still, it would benefit scientists to focus less on the differences and more on where our often polarized fields actually do intersect. So much of our work is to provide convincing answers to difficult questions, and that type of evidence-based persuasion can be drastically more powerful if we use the same tools that traditional writers do. Scientists need to learn these tools as undergraduate and graduate students through formalized, structured, specified, and required coursework. That training will carry us, and our work, miles farther in graduate school and in our careers beyond. We need to be trained as writers, maybe as much as we are trained as scientists. Communicating our work in a persuasive and captivating manner is more important the ever, given the disturbing loss of faith in evidence-based arguments. We, as scientists, need to win that trust back, and to do so, we better be able to tell one hell of a story–to our funding institutions, to our public–about our science. For science to progress, we need our stories to be loud, to be spellbinding, to be believed and trusted by the public. We need to be writers, otherwise we might one day read a story about science that starts with once upon a time…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opposites Attract: The Unlikely Marriage of Science & Fiction

Science, as a subject of study, often comes into conflict with other ways of thinking about the world. Religion. Philosophy. Art. The caricature of science as an opponent to these ‘humanitarian’ endeavors obscures the real relationship: symbiotic. In the case of science and literature, science provides fiction with an intriguing playground to muck around in, while fiction gives science a more human voice. This give-and-take between the two is what makes the genre of science fiction so rich, so enduring, and above all, so entertaining.

Science fiction more often than not uses science as a tool to explore other subject areas versus the science itself. It is not the engineering of the 20,000 Leagues submarine or the bioelectricity behind the monster in Frankenstein that makes these books long-standing members of high school reading lists. Readers are not likely spellbound by Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam series mainly because of the intricacies of the genetic engineering catastrophe that ended her version of our world. No one likes Star Wars because of its explanations of the physics behind inter-galaxy travel. Fiction is not a mirror that reflects science to readers so that they can understand its most basic aspects. Instead, fiction is a prism that refracts science, fractioning and expanding it into its ripple effects and societal implications. It bends the bleached starkness of the discipline into a million different shades, spattering dark implications and bright hope for humanity in equal measure.

It is not always a fair coloring. Dystopia walks hand-in-hand with science fiction more times than not. Those stories do speak well of the perseverance of the human condition but often at the cost of vilifying some aspect of science. (Everything becomes a villain if left unchecked long enough, after all.) Still, fiction doesn’t just take from science; it gives as well. Science fiction is always ahead of its time, more audacious in imagining what human hands are capable of creating than what we believe is achievable at the time. With that creative inspiration, our history has shown it is inevitable that science fiction becomes science fact, from endeavours as incredible as space travel to tools as mundane as credit cards. And as such, science fiction has the privilege of not just asking can we, but also should we, and it has the added advantage of most times asking it first.

The audacious pushing of boundaries beyond the confines of the contemporary scientific knowledge within science fiction also creates a unique and rich environment for rebellion. Because in that type of story, in an imagined world that both is and is not this real one, what else could be different? Who else could become something more than what they are, or what society tells them they are?

This type of rebellion is what led to the existence of the genre itself. In 1666, the English duchess Margaret Cavendish published The Blazing World, a prose piece often considered one of the first utopian fictions and the precursor to ‘science fiction’ (a term not officially coined until 1926) as we know it today. Cavendish was an anomaly of her time, publishing plays, essays, and prose that tackled philosophy, rhetoric, and fiction, all under her own name instead of anonymously. She also was the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society of London, despite fierce protest, and did not hold back in commenting on and even criticizing the scientific presentations and practices she observed. Her novel dove into discussions tackled by male authors of the time period–the conflict between imagination and reason or philosophy and fiction–but also was groundbreaking in two ways. First, she explored these topical areas within an alternate universe entirely of her own making but one that still used contemporary science of the era; second, her story strikingly centered on herself as the main character, where she traveled in between the two worlds. In a time where women were not considered capable of studying complex topics such as science, the Duchess of Newcastle used her writing to boldly carve herself a space in which she could defy that notion. In the process, she wrote into existence the first examples of many science fiction tropes still widely used today.

Her actions paved the way for other rebels, such as Mary Shelley, the mother of the first science fiction horror novel, Frankenstein. While a grey, depressing summer and a writing challenge born out of boredom provided an opportunity to craft her terror-filled story, her imagination was ultimately sparked after a firelit evening conversation with the controversial Lord Byron about what life is and how to create it. Despite being supported in her endeavours by her companions and her husband, Shelley ran into criticism upon publishing her work–incidentally most strongly from the specific publishers who knew the author was a woman–because it challenged the entrenched ideology of God being the only conceivable creator, not Man (or, in her case, Woman). In the deeply religious society of Victorian England, this was a revolutionary act.

Cavendish and Shelley may have been the some of the first authors to use sciene in fiction to challenge the social and moral status quo, but it was a tradition that persisted in the genre throughout the twentieth century. Starting in the 1960s, female authors were among the first to interrogate the definitions, implications, and biases associated with gender, class, and race. Ursula Le Guin’s sci-fi novel The Left Hand of Darkness–with its gender-fluid alien race dissecting what exactly gender and sex means outside of its Western civilization confines–led the charge. This breakthrough was followed by Joanna Russ’ 1975 matriarchal parallel-universes utopian novel The Female Man, then by Octavia Butler (who was the only African-American woman publishing in the genre at the time) and her late-1980s space trilogy Xenogenesis which explored race in addition to sexuality.

These revolutionary works also represent a broader theme within the genre: the influence of contemporary events of the era in which they were written. Science fiction is as much a reflection on the scientific knowledge of the day–and what could come of it–as it is on the historical and political backdrop of the time. Many early science fiction novels from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries focus on stories of exploration and the technology that allows journeys into lands unknown. Most notable of these are Gulliver’s Travels (Jonathan Swift, 1726), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne, 1870), and The Time Machine (H.G. Wells, 1895). Historically, these centuries were flooded with exploration expeditions by European countries, and later the United States and Russia. While discovery for political and economic gain was the main purpose of most 18th century explorations, those carried out in the 19th century were more focused on deepening knowledge of the world, often through scientific observation and analysis. So, it is little wonder that the science fiction of the era reflected that desire to know more about the surrounding environments.

In the early 20th century, the domination of exploration themes in science fiction gave way to playing around in other subject matters–such as technology, biology, and medicine–which would later become genre staples. The early half of the century was one of rapid scientific advancement as much as it was political upheaval, and the collision of these two jarring phenomenons is reflected in the science fiction of the day. It was during this era that some of the seminal works of the genre were produced, including the post-Bolshevik revolution novel We (Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1924) and the science fiction classics Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932) and 1984 (George Orwell, 1949). These novels each address how uncurbed scientific advances lead to a dystopian political society, and their thematic commonality clearly demonstrates the lasting impact several world wars and fast-paced science had on the public psyche of the time.

While dystopia strongly persisted within science fiction in the middle of the 20th century, the worlds crafted within genre novels did begin to grow a little less dire. As technological development continued to accelerate and started infiltrating daily life in the Western world–thus ‘normalizing’ it–likewise did the role of technology grow in fiction as androids and robots appeared on the genre scene. Authors of the time such as Isaac Asimov and Philip Dick couldn’t help but ask–and then answer through their writing–questions pertaining to the human condition in relation to the (imagined) creation and existence of non-human life. This philosophical bent echoed the early origins of the genre, going all the way back to Cavendish’s precursor work, demonstrating how far the genre had progressed.

Glancing back and paying homage is all well and good, but science fiction also found new ways to move forward at the end of the 20th century. In 1979, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy added a little laughter and good humor to the genre, breaking ground for many others to follow across even until today. The gloom of the war-torn early decades also seemed to have worn off, with a revitalization of the previously ‘tired’ utopian sci-fi tradition by Kim Stanley’s Mars trilogy in the 1990s. This trend of revitalizing and redefining the genre has persisted into recent years, with the semantic alteration by Margaret Atwood, who calls her novels not ‘science’ fiction, but speculative fiction. In her MaddAddam series, she reaches for what might be just possible in the realm of science and society, instead of the complete impossible. In some ways, this approach brings about an even more imaginative (and frightening, and wonderful) vision of what the human mind can create when challenged in the perfectly right and wrong ways.

Ultimately, the fiction of science is as elusive and ever-changing as the real thing. It circles itself: thought and action, can and should, might and will and have done. Whether we as scientists today use science fiction as inspiration–or as a warning–only time will tell.

Movie Review: The Martian

Who wouldn’t want to be a space pirate? Granted, if you had to be stranded alone on a barren planet for over a year for that chance to happen, it might not be so appealing. Still, space pirate: think of the possibilities.

It is this optimistic, jocular tone that Ridley Scott’s The Martian, based on the book by Andy Weir, takes as it follows astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, through the trials and tribulations of having to remodel rudimentary living conditions after being presumed dead and left behind by his crew during a mission to Mars. Stranded initially without means of communication to Earth, Watney’s life-saving ventures range from making water using hydrogen and oxygen gas (which almost gets him blown up) to growing potatoes in a homemade greenhouse (you don’t want to know where he got the fertilizer for that project, just saying). His life gets a little less difficult when an observant mission control operator notices a moving rover on the satellite surveillance of Mars’ surface late one night, giving those on Earth the first sign that Watney is in fact alive. With some quick thinking and teamwork, they rig up a way to communicate and suddenly Watney isn’t so alone anymore. They continue to help him survive in the harsh conditions of the planet, which he does all to the lively beats of disco hits, as that is apparently all his team’s commander, played by Jessica Chastain, loaded into the system during their stay, much to his chagrin.

The 1970s soundtrack calls back to the post-space race era, using the backdrop of where we have been to throw into sharp relief how far we have come, and also how far we can still go in exploring the stars. Still, The Martian, at its heart, is not a two-hour promotion for NASA and its programs. Though it does get ample on-screen time, political maneuverings and calculated public relations decisions made in board rooms rival the time spent problem solving in mission control or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), giving the organization an almost ominous corporate vibe. Driven by Jeff Davis’ performance as the callous program director, NASA becomes the antagonist when the decision is made to keep the news of Watney’s survival from his crew, who are making their way back to Earth, in an attempt to keep their focus on the mission to return home safely.

It is this theme–balancing the lives of several versus one–that refracts throughout the back half of the film, making the humanity of this survival story begin to outshine the science in a subtle and heartwarming way. Thus it comes as no surprise that the returning Ares III crew chooses to risk their lives in a genius attempt, crafted by an eccentric but endearing JPL engineer, to change course and retrieve Watney even though NASA initially rejects the plan. As every pirate adventure should, mutiny and risky swashbuckling ensue, ending in a daring rescue attempt that requires the brains and particular STEM skills of all six members of the Ares III team. In a breathtakingly beautiful and nerve-wracking sequence, an injured, exhausted, and bearded Watney attempts to launch into Mars’ atmosphere with a jerry-rigged pod to reach his crew’s ship which is orbiting by, all while the whole world watches on.

Whether or not he makes it–well, you’ll have to go see The Martian yourself to find out the answer to that question. Though the AMC Loews Boston Common 19 will no longer screen the sci-fi adventure after this week, Regal Fenway Stadium 13 and AMC Assembly Row 12 have showings scheduled for the next two weeks, so catch it while you can.

Lastly, for those interested in how accurate Watney’s scientific efforts to remodel his surroundings are, NASA [1] and The Guardian [2] both addressed this question, and Neil deGrasse Tyson also weighed in on the matter via Twitter with some very amusing and pointed commentary [3].


 

  1. Fox, Steve. “Nine Real NASA Technologies in ‘The Martian’.” NASA. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 11 Sept 2015. Web. 03 Nov 2015. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/nine-real-nasa-technologies-in-the-martian
  2. Zubrin, Robert. “How Scientifically Accurate Is The Martin?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, Limited. 06 Oct 2015. Web. 03 Nov 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/oct/06/how-scientifically-accurate-is-the-martian
  3. Gettell, Oliver. “Neil deGrasse Tyson Tweets His Thoughts on The Martian.” Entertainment Weekly. Entertainment Weekly, Inc. 2 Oct 2015. Web. 03 Nov 2015. http://www.ew.com/article/2015/10/02/neil-degrasse-tyson-the-martian

 

Enjoy a classic cultural experience in Cambridge!

The Central Square Theater in Cambridge houses two award winning and professional theater companies; The Nora Theatre Company and The Underground Railway Theater. This vibrant hub of theatrical, educational, and social activity, is where artists and audiences can come together to create theater that is both vital and captivating to the community.

Live performances for the month of November include:

Einstein’s Dreams (ending Nov. 14th)

Switzerland, 1905: A modest, newly-married patent clerk struggles to make ends meet while re-conceiving time. What happens when Albert Einstein completes his Theory of Relativity? Absurd, comic, and poetic, Einstein’s Dreams captures the poignancy of the human condition. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, Underground Railway Theater reunites the original 2007 world premiere cast, adapted by director Wesley Savick from the novel by Alan Lightman.

 

Copenhagen (ending Nov. 15th)

Copenhagen, 1941: Two brilliant physicists – fast friends from enemy nations – famously confront each other at the height of WWII. This award-winning psychological mystery unravels what transpired on that fateful night. Werner Heisenberg and his mentor Niels Bohr meet again in the afterlife, goaded by Bohr’s wife, Margrethe. Who will remember the truth that changed the course of history? Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic Bomb, Eric Tucker cracks open Michael Frayn’s contemporary classic play.

 

Arabian Nights (beginning Nov. 27th)

Become enchanted by the power of storytelling one final time! The Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater revive their award-winning production of Dominic Cooke’s Arabian Nights. Based on One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of folk tales from the Middle East and Asia, Arabian Nights is rich with suspense, romance and hilarity—stories irresistible for all ages, and at its heart, the power of the imagination to heal, inspire, and transform.