Professional Development & Resources

Science Fiction is not an Oxymoron

astrobites.com
photo credit – astrobites.com

No, ‘science fiction’ is not an oxymoron. In fact, it’s the shortest label for cross-curricular integration you may find anywhere in this blog. And the phrase ‘science fiction’ epitomizes how seemingly different elements can harmonize for wonderful results.  Think milk & cookies, sun & sand, and inspiration & perspiration.

Science & fiction blend equally well.

Why do science and fiction go so well together?

Larry Bock, organizer of the USA Science & Engineering Festival (USASEF) contends that fiction inspires science.  In his March 2013 USASEF blog Bock explained:

It’s strange but true: some of the most prodigious innovations in technology are often not born in the corridors of rational thought and reality, but on the wings of fantasy.

I was reminded of this recently while reading the various tributes to legendary science fiction writer Ray Bradbury who died last year at age 91. Bradbury, whose best-known works include The Martian Chronicles, and Fahrenheit 451, was a master at using his imagination to bring us face-to-face with our growing love affair, fascination – and, at times, wariness – of technology & the price of being plugged-in.

Revered by legions of readers, his unforgettable, futuristic stories of sci-fi intrigue and fantasy are said to have helped inspire such contemporary high-tech advances as Bluetooth headsets and earbuds, flat-screen television, self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, e-books, and Facebook’s “digital wall.”

This is heady stuff when you consider Bradbury never went to college, but through the magic of fantasy and his fertile imagination has influenced future scientists, engineers and innovators in numerous ways through his work. In his typical direct manner, he once said: “I have fun with ideas; I play with them.”

Can science be similarly beneficial to fiction?

Absolutely. In I Am Half-Sick of Shadows: A Flavia de Luce Novel, Alan Bradley develops plots infused with and characters enchanted by science.  For example, main character Flavia de Luce, an 11-year-old chemistry protege, joyously conveys her deep love of chemistry:

Like all matter, water can exist in three states:  At normal temperatures it’s a liquid. Heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, it becomes a gas; cooled below 32 degrees, it crystallizes and becomes ice.

Of the three, ice was my favorite state: Water, when frozen, was classified as a mineral – a mineral whose crystalline form, in an iceberg, for instance, was capable of mimicking a diamond as big as the Queen Elizabeth.

But add a bit of heat and poof!-you’re a liquid again, able to run easily, with only the assistance of gravity, into the most secret of places. Just thinking of some of the subterranean spots in which water has been makes my stomach tickle!

Then, raise the temperature enough, and Ali-kazam! you’re a gas-and suddenly you can fly.

If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is!

And if that’s not writing that can inspire at least a twinge of interest for chemistry in the average YA fiction reader, I don’t know what is!

But is the science & fiction combo universally entertaining?

The sitcom Big Bang Theory created by Chuck Lorre & Bill Prady has a team of writers that deftly combine humor, physics, neuroscience, & social savvy to show that ‘genius’ comes in many forms.

In a video clip from the episode “The Extract Obliteration” nerdy physicist Sheldon interacts with Stephen Hawking over ‘Words with Friends’.  This sparks interactions of a different sort with his pseudo-girlfriend, Amy (played by real-life neuroscientist & actress Mayim Bialik). As if the idea that advanced science and silly wordplay can combine for success in prime time television isn’t enough, the one-liners in this one-minute clip hint at the plethora of cross-curricular connections this show and these writers merge so well. It’s so funny you don’t notice you’re being schooled by nerds.

Are there limits to integrating science and fiction?

Not if a book’s plot can twist on quirky eureka moments from curriculum-integration polymaths like Wilson Wu in Numbers Don’t Lie by Terry Bisson.  As described on Goodreads:

…this inventive and quirky novel combines [three short] stories, featuring the inspired adventures of Wilson Wu, a jack-of-all-trades who uses his eclectic background to solve a variety of wacky futuristic dilemmas. An Ivy League graduate, Wu is a rock musician, a Volvo mechanic, a trial lawyer, a camel driver, an aeronautics engineer, an entomological meteorologist, and, most importantly, a math wizard with a formula for every occasion. A godsend for his friends and the universe, Wu uses his eclectic skill set to prevent the imminent collapse of the universe, guarantee good weather for an Alabama wedding, and tow an abandoned lunar rover from the surface of the moon to a junkyard in Brooklyn.

My book review also at Goodreads adds:

I adored how critical plot points and character traits were revealed or determined by math, physics, and other truly fun facts. I was half-tempted to go get my PhD before reading stories 2 and 3 so that I could better appreciate the humor of the equations, but Bisson did such a good job of translating the key aspects of the math with trippy, light-hearted prose that I did not have to do a dissertation after all. However, I would like some ‘out takes’ on the reality of some of the math principles Bisson uses.

In fact, some might say, ‘It’s elementary, my dear…’,

science fiction is the bread & butter of cross-curricular integration.

For a science & fiction mash-up suitable for young students check out ‘Dogged Determination – Story & Activities to Introduce the Scientific Method’ at my online store.

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