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Science Fiction and You

The BA History of Science outreach group this year sponsored an afternoon of talks and discussion called "Science Fiction and You", structured around science fiction's role in science communication. Massed into a modest lecture theatre with poor acoustics, the speakers gave generally engaging talks, although sometimes only if I listed very carefully. There was a microphone, but it was tricky to use.

Jon Turney, popular science analyst, began with a series of profiles of science fiction novels which do a good job of portraying what it's like being a working scientist. His focus was on the way science fiction can convey realistic impressions of working as a scientist. He was the only speaker to profile (or even mention) a female science fiction author, using Gwyneth Jones' Life (not published in the UK) as one of his excerpted exemplars. He was cautious in his conclusions, not extrapolating to the genre as a whole from his instances.

Stephen Baxter, "Liverpool's most famous living science fiction author"*, continued the academically cautious attitude of approaching the larger subject through specific examples, extensively explore. He started with Wells, continued with Contact, and finished with his own work, focusing on interplanetary travel, and the different ways in which science fiction authors have related to extraplanetary aliens, from mutal incomprehension to mutual understanding. Afterwards, an audience member observed a third approach: the aliens could care less about us.

After a tea break, we reconvened for a series of shorter talks, ten minutes each, given by the discussion panelists. Prof. Steven French, philosopher of science, began; I could tell you more about his talk if my notebook, left in Fulham last week, were not somewhere in the post.

Katie Claydon-Park, who teaches at a science magnet school (that's not what they're called in this country, but gives you the right idea), spoke about teaching science using fictional films. The best way to do so is in excerpts - one to four minutes from a movie which makes a specific point, rather than the whole movie. She asserted that it's pretty much possible to teach all primary school science subjects through a combination of Ice Age, Ice Age 2, and Finding Nemo.

Dr. David Kirby, lecturer at the University of Manchester and with a forthcoming book on the subject, spoke about the relationships between scientists consulting on Hollywood movies and the resulting movies. When the science is wrong in a movie, it's not always because the scientists didn't advice differently, but because movie-making and what works visually on a screen trumps fact. Everyone knows that Mars is the "Red Planet", so it's not going to be shown more accurately as yellowish-brown. Scientists aren't just brought in for fact-checking in movies, but to help explain, among other things, what it's like being a working scientist; to advice how to make scientist characters *look* like they're doing science; and various other interesting roles which are written down in my in-transit notebook and about which you can read in his forthcoming book.

Dr. Irene Lorenzoni, sociologist at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, was part of a group which ran polls on audience members who watched The Day After Tomorrow, and then followed up with further polls a month later. They concluded that apocalyptic movies do not spur people to acting on climate change because the changes portrayed are too cataclysmic, too unaffectable by human beings (except in the US, because the movie was set in the US). Instead, science education through movies is better done on a smaller, more accessible scale.

After a good, and usually audible discussion, those who had RSVP'd in advance went off to the library, to the building housing the Science Fiction Foundation library, for a reception. Andy Sawyer, librarian, had assembled a variety of texts and objects from the collection for us to look at, on the far side of the room from the food and drinks. I finally was able to browse the newspaper which flick had restored for her conversation course project. (I'm going to guess at years due to lack of notebook and will likely be off by a decade or two: it's a Daily Mail from 1942 (1928?), done as if published in the year 2000. It even has an ad based on a completed Chunnel!)

The event combined science fiction authors (Stephen Baxter, Geoff Ryman) with science fiction academics (Andy Sawyer), with historians of science (including the BSHS Strolling Players as attendees). It was a pleasantly accessible examination of a nexus of interests appealing to a variety of interests, including those of the attendees of the BA Festival of Science which hosted the event. It's challenging to arrange such a diversity of talks so that they relate well to each other; but on the whole, this one succeeded in creating dialogue between interests and areas of study, and engaging the audience in doing so.

* To quote Andy Sawyer

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
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crustycurmudgeo
Sep. 16th, 2008 04:32 pm (UTC)
I agree. When I was ten, we studied electricity, magnetism, optics and a little chemistry in class. None of that was covered in the listed movies.
owlfish
Sep. 16th, 2008 04:38 pm (UTC)
I bet you could find reasonable scenes covering static electricity (and possibly lightning?) in one of the Ice Age movies; and between the water and the ice, surely there are constructive points to be made about optics in there.

Chemistry - yeah - not off the top of my head in any of those. And static electricity doesn't get you very far in the overall study of electricity.
gillo
Sep. 16th, 2008 10:04 pm (UTC)
I probably learned at least as much science from SF as from the classroom. (I was able to drop Physics at 14 and Chemistry a year earlier, mind you.) I met a lot of science students through SF at university. (Past President of the Durham University S-F Society here.) I married a chemist as a direct result of SF.

I think we could say it's been influential in my life.
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