Science fiction meets reality
“It’s ALIVE!” Lightning flashes. Thunder rumbles. An ominous moaning is heard from a massive lump on the operating table, a mad scientist lurking over his newly created creature. The beast rises, dastardly yellow eyes aglow, screws protruding from its neck. The scientist’s maniacal laughter rips through the night.
Although reanimating grotesque body parts was never widely popular as in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, it is safe to say science fiction writing has had a substantial influence on scientific practices and progress. Fictional writing has deeply influenced society’s perception of science and provided a framework that supports actual scientific research and discovery. The absurd-at-the-time writings of space travel, cordless phones, and electric vehicles don’t seem so absurd today. Scientific progress has turned fictional fantasies into functional reality. The president of Arizona State University, Dr. Michael M. Crow, seems to think fictional writing was the key propellant for those very scientific discoveries.
His belief in the power of the written word propelled him to build the Center for Science and the Imagination on Arizona State’s campus, a collaborative learning space for writers and scientists to brainstorm new ideas that span either discipline. The center embodies the postulate of science fiction writer Neal Stephenson that American writers have lost the ambition of previous authors that forced science to leap into the future. It is the president’s intention that by providing a space in which fiction and practicality can collide, scientific vision will be fostered.
The center, inaugurated this past Monday, has already begun its first venture with computer chip maker Intel called Tomorrow Project to instigate positive scientific conversation about the future. The center also has joined forces with Stephenson’s “Hieroglyph” online journal to publicize “moon shot” writing. Ambitious proposals are hoped to spur ambitious projects and results. A major goal is creating a community that perceives the scientific future not as Frankenstein but more as Dolly the cloned lamb.
Already in the works is a plan to send 3D printers to the moon to manufacture materials from moon dust. Novelist Corey Doctorow and Kip Hodges, director of space and earth exploration, are teaming up on this project. The center’s director, Ed Finn, says an even more eclectic group is desired. “I’m really interested in making sure that we include artists and designers and other kinds of creative thinkers as well, people who might define themselves as builders and makers,” he said.
This approach to scientific exploration could open up multiple avenues for scientific advancements, utilizing diverse lenses through which to view science. The Center for Science and the Imagination could be a trend setting model for campuses, even UAB. The strong science and research presence on our campus could take great advantage of the thinkers and creators in different disciplines. Exposure to unconventional perspectives like audaciously written fiction has the potential to accelerate science not just to the moon but toward better medical practices and cures.
The Center is sponsoring Emerge, a conference in the spring, to unite engineers, writers, researchers, and artists to explore the future. Encouraging outlandish scientific brainstorming and creative science discussion may be the ticket to the latest breakthrough. The next breaking news of science may not originate from a research lab or even a scientific study, but very well may come from the pages of a novel.