Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Popular Science

Ralph Buttigieg
Sydney NSW

I don't know how many times I have heard scientists and others complain about the state of science in popular culture. Apparently it is not properly respected or popular. Some science fiction authors have similar complaints. Gregory Bedford bemoan the growth of fantasy fiction and the apparent stagnation of hard science fiction , he sees this as a rejection of science and reason, a comfortable retreat into the past.

Dr Seth Shostek writes:

And if the scientists in popular media haven’t slipped entirely to the dark side, they’ve at least gone bonkers. They’ve become obsessed with some narrow field of research, and lost sight of the big picture. When a prehistoric monster is shambling through a major metropolis, wreaking havoc and destruction, there’s always some lab-coated PhD who’s interfering with the steely-eyed military types, screaming “we have to save it for science!” And just to make sure that these howling academics won’t become your role model, they’re usually portrayed as short, ugly bald guys with social grace and sex appeal on a par with Ben the rodent.

The good doctor needs to watch more television.

Its true that we used to see scientist usually portrayed in the media as insane. Mad scientists were common, but its very different now. Think of the popular TV dramas such as the CSIs, medical shows such as House and theres Numb3rs – a program that has a nerdy mathematician as the hero! They have the scientists solving crimes , treating strange illnesses or whatever, but the main characters are scientists-heroes. Given the limits of TV they work well and have realistic science. The producers have even developed new techniques, short animations to explain the science.

Far from showing any development of ant-science they show the reverse, the complete acceptance of the role of science in our society.

Thats television, lets look at popular literature. As a former owner of a science fiction and fantasy bookshop I can testify to the predominance of fantasy over tradition science fiction, but how do we define science fiction? Many thrillers are at least borderline SF, the the works of the very popular Michael Crichton come to mind. Also theres the relatively recent genre of the techno-thriller. I'm reading Dale Brown's Tin Man at the moment, the story centers around a commando who fights terrorist wearing a science fictional superman suit. Seems like SF to me. The techno thrillers are immersed in science and technology, the certainly don't reject it.

Frankly, I think Dr Shostek should spend some time talking with TV writers and producers. Perhaps he can come up with a action packed story format featuring a handsome astronomer and a hottie astro-physicist.

A bald ugly guy... Not.