The Intricate Relationship Between Science Fiction and STEM

This article was originally published in the SFWA 2014 Nebula Awards Bulletin under the title Sci-Fi and Science and then republished on the 100YSS site under the title Chasing Tomorrow... Inspiring Scientists and Engineers (7 July 2014).

Since I was a little girl, I have been an avid reader of science fiction. I loved witnessing science fiction predict technologies. I first saw flat screen monitors, flip phones, and e-readers on the different incarnations of Star Trek, decades before they became reality. I first read of virtual reality in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. To me, Google Glass is just a slicker version of Luke’s targeting viewer he stowed away before destroying the Death Star. I cannot say which came first — a love of science or a love of science fiction. Regardless, they fueled one another and propelled me into a career in engineering.

As an engineer, I began to realize that a good portion of science fiction would better be called “engineering fiction,” or “technology fiction.” Someone once described the distinction between scientists and engineers as follows: “scientists look for questions; engineers look for answers.” I’d always found that explanation a little abstract and came up with my own: science is about discovery; engineering is about invention. Science seeks to describe observable phenomena while engineering seeks ways to apply those phenomena. Science (physics) described and therefore predicted that the stimulated emission of radiation would produce the laser; engineers invented the cashier scanners, the laser pointers, and the CD/DVD/Blueray players that employ lasers. Once invented, these become part of our technology.

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door describes the fictional farandolae as sentient creatures within mitochondria responsible for the energy production within our cells — this is fictional science. Crichton’s Andromeda Strain and Petersen’s Outbreak are also about fictional medical science. Yet there are a large number of science fiction books and films that do not actually delve into fictional science, but describe fictional technology. Starships are technology, warp drive engines are technology — warp drive theory, on the other hand, that is fictional science.

In matter of fact, there are scientists who are investigating a type of warp drive known as Alcubierre warp drives. But there are many more engineers that are inventing and designing technology that some science fiction book or film inspired them to realize. Perhaps I am biased because I myself am an engineer, but I do not see science fiction as influencing science as much as it influences engineering. As a child, I thought that science fiction predicted technology. I did not realize it inspired technology. Martin Cooper, the inventor of the mobile phone credits Captain Kirk for being his inspiration. Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle inspired NASA researcher Jack Cover to invent the Taser (T.A.S.E.R., an acronym for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle”). And the worldwide web? Its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, credits Arthur C. Clark’s world of sentient networked computers in Dial F For Frankenstein as his inspiration.

If the perspective is that science discovers and describes existing phenomena, then science fiction can have very little impact on science — either a farandola exists or it doesn’t. If the perspective is that science fiction influences the direction of scientific inquiry, that is harder to answer — are we looking for microbial life on Mars because War of the Worlds planted the seed of thought, or is that the direction that astrobiology would have gone anyway? If the perspective is that science fiction influences engineering and technology, well—that is a provable fact. And as a science-fiction-loving engineer, I couldn’t be prouder.