Science fiction scientists have been responsible for numerous fictional disasters. They've reanimated corpses that have come back to kill them. They've cloned dinosaurs only to utterly lose control of them. They've shrunk their kids and turned themselves into flies. But one researcher is calling for more fictional scientific triumphs to balance out these disasters.
Image: The mad but heroic scientist Agatha Heterodyne from Girl Genius by Phil and Kaja Foglio.
Laura H. Kahn, a physician and biodefense researcher, points out that, while science has influenced science fiction, so too has science fiction affected science. Science fiction has changed the way people think about scientific progress, and cultural shifts can have huge impacts on how scientific research is carried out. Kahn acknowledges that these cultural shifts can be good, leading to more humane research policies. But they can also lead to public misunderstandings about certain areas of science. She notes that stories like Jurassic Park, Frankenstein, and The Island of Doctor Moreau can leave the public timid about the idea of "tampering" with nature, even as they have little understanding about what actually goes on in current genetic research.
Kahn would like to see the public better educated about the positive possibilities of current research through science fiction stories centered on heroic scientists:
Scientists in the life sciences generally do a poor job of communicating with the public about what they do. Few of them write for the lay public, and even fewer write novels about their science. Busy scientists generally don't have the time to write fiction after writing grant proposals, doing research, and teaching. Not to mention the fact that writing engrossing stories is very, very hard. But, if the scientific community wants to engage and inform the public, science fiction is an excellent strategy. Stories captivate people, they survive the test of time, and they become part of the popular culture. So, if any scientists with a creative-writing affinity want to captivate the public and inspire the next generation to pursue careers in science and technology, perhaps they should put pen to paper and start writing. The world needs more stories with scientist-heroes, not more scientist-villains.
Do you agree with Kahn? Are we overloaded with villainous scientists? What stories out there shine a more positive light on scientific advances?