Past futures and technoscientific innovation: The mutual shaping of science fiction and science fact

Authors


Abstract

This study explores the relationship between science fiction and science and engineering. Building on the concept of the mutual construction of technoscience and society from the field of science and technology studies and the concept of the book in the life of the reader from the field of library and information science, the study traces the potential influence of science fiction on the career choices and research trajectories of scientists and engineers. This paper reports preliminary findings from interviews with twelve scientists and engineers at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Salient themes emerging from the interviews include science fiction as a a first exposure to science, as an escape from the mundane aspects of everyday life, and as a tool that helps scientists to frame their work. Overall, it appears that, while scientists and engineers reject the notion that science fiction has a completely deterministic impact on their career choices and research trajectories, there definitely appears to be some kind of relationship between an inclination toward the practice of science and the appeal of science fiction. Future research directions may include a broad-scale survey and educational efforts specifically focused on information science and technology.

Introduction

Studying how past futures, or futures envisioned in the past through the visionary eyes of science fiction writers, have shaped the present can help us to improve the future. The goal of this study is to explore the influence of science fiction in shaping the intellectual development of scientists and engineers, especially during their formative years. To date, most scholarly work in this area focuses on one half of the relationship between science fiction and technoscientific innovation: namely, the impact of technoscientific innovation on science fiction. Yet, the other side of this relationship, the impact of science fiction on technoscientific innovation, is significantly understudied. By examining this often ignored side of the relationship between science fiction and technoscience, this study will explore whether there is a mutually constitutive relationship between science fiction and technoscientific innovation. As a result, the expected outcome is an improved understanding of how societal factors in general, and mass media, including science fiction, in particular, influence technoscientific innovation.

This project emerges at the intersection of the fields of science and technology studies (STS) and library and information science (LIS), and seeks to explore how exposure to science fiction influences the career choices and research trajectories of scientists and engineers. In so doing, it merges the theoretical strand of the social shaping of technoscience from the STS literature with work on mass media in the life of the reader/listener/viewer/visitor/player from the field of LIS.

Recently, there has been increasing emphasis on the impact of science fiction on the evolution of science and engineering and on the recruitment of scientists and engineers within the popular press, including books and television shows about the societal impact of science fiction series such as Star Wars and Star Trek (e.g., Shatner & Walter, 2002). This anecdotal finding may be a compelling and highly relevant example of the LIS concept of the book in the life of the reader, the idea that what one reads (or watches, views, visits, or plays) as a child may have a significant impact on decisions in later life. This in-progress study is attempting to apply a systematic approach to understand the role of science fiction in the career choices and research trajectories of scientists and engineers, including information scientists and technologists, at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Background

Science and technology were once understood as completely impervious to social factors. The idea that technoscience is socially constructed began with study of the internal social factors affecting technoscientific innovation (Fleck 1979; Kuhn 1970). The sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) and social construction of technology (SCOT) broadened this understanding of technoscience as socially constructed to also encompass external social factors (Bloor 1976; Collins 1985; Mendelsohn 1977; Pinch and Bijker 1987. Actor-network theory views technoscience and society as intertwined and perhaps inseparable entities involved in a process of mutual shaping (Callon and Law 1982, 2003; Latour 1987, 1999, 2004). Feminist STS theorists take these ideas even further, developing concepts such as the “view from below” and “strong objectivity” (Haraway 1991, 1996, 2004; Harding 1991, 1998, 2006; Martin 1987, 1994; Traweek 1988, 2000). Finally, Martin (1998) develops the idea “to propose possible societies and then look at the technologies they would develop” (1998: 335). While Martin's article hypothetically examines how different societies might have developed different technologies, this study examines how different past futures imagined by science fiction authors and encountered by future scientists and engineers during their formative years might have affected their role in technoscientific innovation throughout their careers.

One important LIS concept that is useful for exploring the relationship between science fiction and technoscience is that of the book in the life of the reader. For example, in an interesting parallel to the STS concept of a mutually constitutive relationship between technoscience and society, Andringa and Schreier (2004) identify a mutually constitutive relationship between literature and life. They argue that it is important to examine not only how life influences literature (e.g., Polhemus & Henkle, 1994) but also how literature impacts life. Pawley calls for a need to “uncover the specific reading practices of actual readers” (2002: 143) in order to better understand how texts shape individuals and communities. Kaestle explains that historians are now focusing increasingly on the impact of reading on the lives of deceased individuals, as documented by “detailed records of what they read and what it meant to them” (1991: 47). Wiegand refers to print culture history, the impact of literature on life, as an “understudied yet promisingly rich new area of scholarship” (1998: 11), calling for additional research on the impact of texts on individuals and communities. Yet, the theoretical framework of the book in the life of the reader has implications beyond just printed text. Andringa and Shreier (2004) argue that this concept can be applied to other media, including audio, video, and digital media. It is important to consider not only how books, magazines, and newspapers might influence their readers, but also the impacts of radio, television, movies, and the Internet. Consequently, this study examines the impact of childhood exposure to diverse media on scientists and engineers.

Mosco (2004) argues that science fiction, as modern-day myths, significantly impacts how people think about and view the world. Scholars of science fiction argue that science fiction is an influential element of contemporary American society (Disch 1998; Malmgren 1991; Stableford 1987). Specifically, one interesting facet of this issue is the role of science fiction in influencing public understanding of and attitudes toward science (Chaloner 1998; Claessens 2004). Indeed, one additional significant societal implication of science fiction is the impact it can have in structuring and changing individuals' lives (Bacon-Smith 2000; Jenkins 1992). Science and literature studies examine the relationship between technoscience and science fiction on a conceptual level and thus serve as an important inspiration for this study (Dery 1994, 1996, 1999; Doyle 1997, 2003; Haraway 1991, 1996, 2004; Hayles 1999, 2005; Thacker 2004, 2005), but have not undertaken empirical research to examine the impact of science fiction on the lives of scientists and engineers. Colin Milburn (2004) builds on Baudrillard's (1981, 1988) theory of the convergence of simulation and reality to argue that, at least in the case of nanotechnology, there is no difference between technoscience and science fiction. Other authors use historical and biographical evidence to support the argument that science fiction shapes technoscientific innovation (Bainbridge 1986; Steinmuller 2003). One of the few empirical studies to uncover a mutually constitutive relationship between science fiction and technoscience is Stefan Helmreich's (1998) ethnographic study of artificial life researchers at the Santa Fe Institute. Yet, Helmreich's data is limited to one specific site and primarily to researchers in one narrow specialty, and science fiction was only a minor topic in his book and presumably in his interviews. Therefore, further, systematic research is needed on the broader impacts of science fiction on technoscience. Murphy, Mogus, and Crotty (1998) conducted a broad survey questioning chemists and physicists about their interest in science fiction and how they have applied it to their teaching. However, while this study provides interesting insights into the educational applications of science fiction, Murphy and colleagues do not address whether or not science fiction affects the research conducted by chemists and physicists. This study seeks to determine if and how science fiction might affect technoscientific research.

Research Design

Data collection completed to date includes twelve semi-structured, open-ended interviews conducted with scientists and engineers at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, with additional interviews planned for the spring and summer of 2008. Data analysis is based upon grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1998) such that research findings are continuously integrated to further refine the research design, leading to the construction of a theory that can provide a preliminary explanation of if and how science fiction influences scientists and engineers. The oral history literature (Ritchie 2003; Sommer and Quinlan 2002; Thompson 2000; Yow 2005) has played an especially important role in developing this research design. Janice Radway (1991) and Martyn Lyons and Lucy Taksa (1982) demonstrate that oral history can be fruitfully applied to studying the book in the life of the reader, while Peter Baumgartner and Sabine Payr (1995) have used oral history techniques to interview scientists. The interview instrument begins with some straightforward background questions that provide insights into the childhood experiences of the interviewees and allow a comfort level to be built up between the interviewer and the interviewee. Then, a set of questions asks about the interviewee's research. Next, the interviewee is asked about influences on her or his research, moving from rather vague questions to increasing levels of specificity (the ordering of the interview questions is intentional and strategic to try to avoid having the specific questions influence the interviewees' answers to the general questions. Finally, the interview concludes with a sequence of questions about the relationship between science fiction and science practice as well as some wrap-up questions. As such, all interviewees have been asked all of the following interview questions:

  • Where were you born?

  • As you were growing up, what were you interested in?

  • How did you start to become interested in science and engineering?

  • Could you give me a brief synopsis of your career, including degrees and positions?

  • How did you choose to become a scientist or engineer?

  • Could you tell me very briefly about your current research?

  • How did you get into this current line of research?

  • Is there any connection between your experiences growing up and your current career and research?

  • Do you think that what you read, watched, and listened to as you were growing up has influenced your career or research in any way?

  • Did what you read, watched, and listened to as a student influence your research in any way?

  • Does what you have read, watched, and listened to as a professional influence your research in any way?

  • Specifically, do you think that any science fiction that you may have read, watched, and listened to as you were growing up has influenced your career or research in any way?

  • Did any science fiction that you read, watched, and listened to as a student influence your research in any way?

  • Does the science fiction that you have read, watched, and listened to as a professional influence your research in any way?

  • What role do you think science fiction plays in science and engineering practice?

  • What role do you think science fiction plays in your specific discipline?

  • What role do you think science fiction plays in recruiting scientists and engineers?

  • Do you think that science and engineering affect science fiction?

  • Do you think that science fiction affects science and engineering?

  • Do you think that science and engineering affect popular culture?

  • Do you think that popular culture affects science and engineering?

  • Do you think that science and engineering affect society?

  • Do you think that society influences science and engineering?

  • Is there anything else that you could tell us that might help us with this project?

  • Do you know anyone else at Goddard who might be interested in participating in this study?

Results

Interviews to date document that scientists and engineers indicate and demonstrate an indirect influence of science fiction on their career and life trajectories. Scientists who self-identify as reading science fiction tend to do so most intensively in childhood and youth, validating the literature of the science fiction community (Hartwell, 1984).

One major salient theme emerging from the interviews is science fiction as a first exposure to science. One scientist comments that the “the real, useful, in retrospect, aspect of the science fiction that I read as a teenager was its invocations of a sense of awe and possibilities and a limitless future.” For another scientist, who “read a lot of science fiction and watched all the sort of geeky TV shows, Star Trek and Star Wars”, this “kept me interested in science and astronomy.” Another scientist explains that “I think that it's more than…an inspiration for a lot of people and to me, to some extent it's an introduction even. It may be a lot of people's first experience with real science, hard science.” Another scientist comments, “But the thing is, if the question is, because you read science fiction you became a scientist, or is it, you are innately a scientist and therefore you became a scientist for a career and you like science fiction. I can't say that if I wasn't exposed to the books I wouldn't become a scientist but is there, certainly a feedback loop.” Another scientist recounts, “Yes definitely because when I got interested in science and in astronomy when looking at the sky I certainly then also started reading about it, television picked up pretty early on, there were science fiction shows on television about people traveling through space and learning about the universe and I always found those interesting, I read a lot of science fiction and so, you know, all the things that you get exposed to that involve science and astrophysics were the things that were around, even in the 50's.” This scientist continues, “Oh I'm sure that science fiction continues to spark peoples imagination and scientists have to have imagination, so the same sorts of things that I found attractive in science fiction when I was growing up, I'm sure continue to attract people today.” All of these examples demonstrate the complex and multiple ways that science fiction influences the career decisions of scientists and engineers.

Another salient theme that emerges from the interviews is the escape from the normal and mundane constraints of everyday life. For example, one scientist stated that science fiction “really took your mind elsewhere, and I will not be, I'm sure, the last person to tell you that either.” As this subject predicted, this theme was a recurrent one. For example, another subject explained what science fiction did for him as a young person by saying, “it was expansive and shows…other worlds, other ways things could be, a positive vision of the…I grew up during the Cold War [with] Reagan joking about bombing Russia…things looked pretty bleak at that time…so having seen science fiction type universes where we got past all this and the future looked better was very appealing.” Thus, science fiction can serve as an escape, away from troubling or even terrifying aspects of the present with a view toward a more promising future.

Yet another salient theme is that science fiction helps scientists to frame their work. One scientist describes “a back and forth trade where the people who dream may well be competent scientists and engineers, Carl Sagan for one, his gift was in telling stories and communicating. He was a good scientist but his best gift was inspiring people, I can imagine a lot of things but

my best gift is not writing or communicating those ideas to people, my best gift is making something work in the lab…so we feed off of each other.” More than one respondent alluded to science fiction as a vehicle for promoting ideas alternative to the mainstream scientific publishing apparatus, and several examples of enduring technical innovation have been cited as first appearing in works of science fiction, such as the communicator from Star Trek serving as the inspiration for the cellular telephone. One engineer comments, “But maybe science fiction is a way of, you call it science fiction because you are such a forward thinker that if you write about it like that it gets accepted because it seems impossible but if you came and suggested that that is possible, in the realm of possibility then people would say oh my gosh, institutionalize that guy. So when you look at the engineers and then try to get stuff to work, all of this is coming out of their head, and it's not different, it's a creation, it can be science fiction for one, it can be engineering for another and it could be a new science thought and how you implement it. So basically it's how you've got your mind working, that's sort of how I see it.” Another engineer comments, “what keeps me here is sort of the, you might say the connection between science and science fiction, that we are on the cutting edge and we get to dream up wild and crazy, in order for the mission that I am working on to go anywhere, I have to invent something new, the technology simply doesn't exist, you can't buy anything that will make this work, so. I'm not sure there is much of a connection but some science fiction may keep you inspired.” Science fiction is thus seen as indirectly useful: as a means of gaining imaginative perspective on the whole of scientific activity, as an instrument for reflecting on the human and societal dimensions of scientific practice, or as a refreshing trip to the wellspring of critical imagination. Scientists speak of the value of science fiction for thinking through the human dimensions of science and technology and for promoting their imaginative capacities.

Thus, scientists and engineers interviewed for this study are persistent in pointing to science fiction as an inspiration for science and engineering. Whether as a recruiting tool to encourage students to pursue careers in science and engineering, as possible goals for the next generation of scientists and engineers, or as a theoretical experiment in the future meanings, modes, and mechanisms of human existence, science fiction is regarded as important, in some sense, by all of the scientists and engineers participating in this study to date.

Conclusions

While this project is still underway and it is too early to draw final conclusions, it does appear that, while scientists and engineers reject the notion that science fiction has a completely deterministic impact on their career choices and research trajectories, there definitely appears to be some kind of relationship between an inclination toward the practice of science and the appeal of science fiction. As one scientist puts it, “almost everyone I know who's interested in science, you know really into science, scientists here at Goddard and people in graduate school and stuff, so many of them, and my sons friends now, the ones I know that are interested in science, they read science fiction you know. And I think it's not a coincidence I think that, it's a synergy, it's not simply oh, you fell upon some science fiction and started reading it and all the sudden you think that science is so cool, although for some people that may be the case. But, like with me I was always kind of interested in science so I read science fiction and the more I read science fiction, the more I was interested in science, so you know so it definitely goes back and forth.” Further, this data supports the notion that there is a mutual shaping relationship between science fiction and technoscience, such that science fiction shapes technoscience by helping to draw scientists and engineers to technoscience, frame long term agendas, and keep practitioners inspired, while science shapes science fiction by inspiring new topics for stories.

Future Research Directions

A number of interesting variables have already emerged that seem to warrant further investigation: age, gender, professional specialty, different childhood experiences, and degree of early exposure of science fiction. In particular, the intergenerational flow in science and science fiction is an interesting topic for further study. As has been pointed out elsewhere, science fiction has changed dramatically between the “Golden Age” and the present age (Berman, 2001), as have public attitudes towards science (Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis, 2004) and the two may be more intertwined than they appear at first blush (McCurdy, 1999).

The next step for this project, after the interview data collection and analysis has been completed, will be to conduct a broad-scale survey to test hypotheses developed as a result of the interviews. The planned survey will focus on scientists and engineers in academia, industry, and government, and thus will include scientists and engineers at NASA as well as many other organizations. Further, the planned survey will focus not only on scientists and engineers in aerospace and related fields of science and engineering but also in a wide range of other domains. The scale and scope of this survey will allow the hypotheses developed as a result of this study to be rigorously tested and evaluated.

Finally, another possible direction to follow up on this study is to reinforce existing educational efforts that try to use science fiction as a motivator to interest students to pursue careers in science and engineering (e.g., Berne & Schummer, 2005; Raham, 2004) as well as to possibly develop novel approaches for using science fiction as a recruitment tool, especially within the field of information science and technology. As much science fiction currently focuses on issues of direct interest and relevance to information science and technology, it may be beneficial to use such literature to expose students to this domain and to the diverse and expansive possibilities that it contains.

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