What If? — Science and Science Fiction

By Guest Author 24/01/2011 3

By Michael Edmonds

When I was an honours student, I was interested to discover that a large number of my classmates also enjoyed reading science fiction. Since then, I have noticed again and again, many of those involved in science also enjoy science fiction. I have often pondered why this is, and think I have the answer — both ask ’what if?’

Science fiction typically explores ’what if’ in a big way. What if aliens exist? What if time travel is possible? What if I could read your mind? And good science fiction, in my opinion, carefully explores the likely consequences of such ideas as well as tying them into existing science (and with no more technobabble than is necessary).

’What If’ is a key question which drives science. A chemist may ask ’what if I change a molecule’s structure this way?’, an astronomer might ask ’what if life exists on other planets?, a biologist might ask ’what if altruism has a biological basis?’.

But one can also argue that many pseudosciences also ask the question ’What If?’ What if aliens regularly abduct human beings? What if HIV isn’t the cause of AIDS? What if homeopathy works? And this is a reasonable comment. What makes the difference is that scientists follow their ’what if’ contemplations with two additional questions:

’What does ALL of the existing evidence tell me?’


’What experiment or observations can I do to try and answer this question?’

Pseudoscientists seldom move past the ’what if’ question. Occasionally, when pressed, they will cherry pick evidence which, at first glance, appears to support their ideas. But, more often than not, they create a flimsy belief system by piling one ’what if’ on top of another.

Science fiction also serves to inspire and challenge science by asking ’what if’ questions. ’What if hand held communicators were possible?’, ’what if robotic limbs were possible?’, ’what if we could fly to the moon’ have already been answered.

But the really cool thing is, that for every ’what if’ question that is answered, a multiple of new ’what if’ questions arise.

I’d be interested in knowing how many of the bloggers and readers here also enjoy reading science fiction and if there are any books, movies or tv series which particularly inspired them in science?

3 Responses to “What If? — Science and Science Fiction”

  • Yep, though I’ve probably read more fantasy than hard SF. Speaking of which I can really recommend Alastair Reynolds.

    I don’t recall if science fiction inspired my interest in science but I did watch Star trek as a kid. Also remember watching Quincy, M.E. Repeats I’m sure, I’m not really that old.

  • Actually, many of my classmates read both sci fi and fantasy, as do I. Good fantasy, like good sci fi, is writing that makes you think “what if”. That’s my opinion, anyway. Often they offer a different perspective on the human condition, which can really make you think. Historically, both genres have been used, to challenge thinking on topical subjects such as inter-racial relationships (think early Star Trek), sexuality (more recent Star Trek), capitalism, globalisation etc.
    Probably my favourite TV sci fi was Babylon 5 – as I enjoyed some of the philosophy (and they used “the we are made of star stuff” idea from Sagan) and the humour. And their space craft followed the laws of physics when maneuvering! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p04J5N_SEjA

    In terms of writing, Asimov (I spent several days trying to work out if psychohistory would ever work), Julian May, David Brin spring to mind. Fantasy – Mercedes Lackey’s writing can be quite dark and gritty, but still has an optimism about it, and I think she understands people very well.

    Right, have identified myself as a real sci fi/fantasy geek, I shall stop writing 🙂