Science of SciFi

Science of Scifi in computer-tech letters

Could we bring dinosaurs back to life? Will we ever make contact with aliens? Will robots take over the world?

With these questions in mind, 6 scientists and I-didn’t-really-count-how-many audience members gathered together for the panel The Science of SciFi, at this year’s GeekGirlCon – a celebration of geekiness in all its glory!

The panel consisted of local researchers from Seattle 500 women scientists:

  • Dr. Daniela Huppenkothen, who studies black holes and asteroids using modern statistical tools and machine learning methods;
  • Dr. Kim Bott, who studies alien life scientifically (yes, that’s a real thing and it’s called astrobiology);
  • Dr. Meredith Rawls, who writes software to handle terabytes of nightly data from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which will ultimately become the highest-resolution movie of the night sky ever made;
  • Dr. Jeanna Wheeler, who works with mice and nematode models to understand diseases like Alzheimer’s and ALS; and
  • Dr. Jenn Huff, who as an archaeologist focuses on questions like “what can technology we invented and adopted in the past tell us about how we relate to technology now and in the future?”

Guided by questions from the audience, we explored the links between scientific research and science fiction, looking at what advances are being made in fields portrayed in SciFi media, discussing fictional and real research, and what lessons each can learn from the successes and failures in the other.

Here are some of the take-home messages I’d like to share.*

Science fiction makes scientists

One thing that was immediately clear was how science fiction had influenced the panelists in their life. By seeing positive female role models in their favorite science fiction shows and movies – just think Samantha Carter from SG-1, Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park, Ellie Alloway in Contact, and numerous female characters in the Star Trek franchise, – they had someone to look up to and aspire to be like.

Seeing female characters who were both physically and intellectually adventurous, who were tough and smart, who were well-rounded and passionate, showed the women on the panel, and many female scientists, that they too could be a scientist.

There are several studies showing that having representation matters. If all you ever see is people who are not like you doing a thing, you’ll be less inclined to do that thing. If we can create positive role models, show that STEM professionals come in all stripes, we’ll create a more diverse and exciting research environment.

Response to a Discovery’s very non-diverse promo video showing that – even if it’s not a full representation of everyone in science – #scienceisforeveryone.

… but we can still do better!

Despite there being quite a few inspirational science fiction scientists, the overall depiction of scientists and the science they do in movies, series, and books is often – well – inaccurate.

Scientists are not (always) super smart, geeky people who sit around in a lab coat for no apparent reason and solve the science thing within an hour. Oh, not to mention being a very attractive, mid-twenty-year-old with 4 PhDs. Or a software developer spending 30 seconds to find the bug in their software. Because that sounds totally possible, and I know some software engineers.

Little known fact: when you get a Ph.D., you get a bonus second Ph.D. on calling people on their shit. From: Rampage (2018)

Let’s also not forget the idea that for scientists in fiction, science is often their whole life. Showing that being super passionate about science, and science only, is the only way to be a good scientist is not a message we want to share. Could we have more well-rounded, realistic, scientists in fiction, please? With hobbies and all?

And while we’re at it, let’s get some science straight: mutated does not equal evil; mutation is the substrate of all the beautiful diversity we have everywhere!

Special acknowledgment to shows that do show good representations of scientists. The Martian depicted a scientist pretty well. And not to pull favorites, but The Expanse has a pretty good portrayal of gravity systems affecting how a body develops. Not to mention that long-haired people in space definitely tie up their hair and that there is space in space – and it takes time, fuel, and pulling Gs to travel through it.

Accuracy versus story

This brings up another question: does science fiction need to be scientifically accurate?

Sometimes science fiction is fun because of the story or the characters. Who doesn’t love some good space magic?

The consensus seemed to be that, as long as things are consistent with the story, and that the movie/series/book isn’t claiming to be super scientifically accurate while totally not actually being so, accuracy is not the most important thing.

Two characters in space speaking by touching helmets
“In space, no one can hear you scream.” In The Expanse, the solution is to hold helmets together so the vibrations can pass to the other person. Sometimes scientific accuracy is cool.
From: Paradigm Shift. Season 2, Episode 6 of The Expanse.

Human vs. Tech?

Another point was brought up during the panel: how will future technology shape our future?

It started with a discussion on making designer babies – whether this would be feasible, and what the ethical implications might be. With CRISPR/Cas9 technology making small edits to a genome a lot easier, it does not sound like something too far in the future!

While we are likely to be able to treat serious diseases with a clear genetic cause sometime soon, making genetic super-humans is a whole other deal. We don’t really really know enough about the genetics of intelligence (to name one trait) to make those changes! And if we believe science fiction, making superhumans usually does not end well.

That’s the way it usually seems in SciFi – tech will either be the end of us all or the solution to all our problems!

But if we’re being honest, technology is just heated up rock (quote from Jen). Most of our problems are of social nature, and technology will not be able to solve those.

For example, there are numerous examples of computers in general, and algorithms in particular, increasing inequality. We give computers datasets that are biased, so the automation will also be biased!

Technology is not the solution. It is an agent. We would better ask what humans are going to do with new technology. How will we shape our future?

Honorable quotes (slightly paraphrased):

“Can we ever train humans to be unbiased?” – Jeanna, as a response to the question of whether we can ever make AI/algorithms unbiased.

“I’ve never watched Interstellar, but I’ve read the scientific paper that came out with it.” – Daniela, commenting on how Interstellar felt a little close to her real work.

“If we can’t fix/control our own climate – we’re unlikely to be able to change that of another planet. Also, should we? Do we need another planet?” – Kim and Jeanna commenting on when we’ll be able to terraform another planet. Also, remember that time we *accidentally* left tardigrades to the moon?

“We do have spooky action at a distance” – Kim bot on how quantum entanglement explains how we can transfer information faster than the speed of light. Which is probably as close as we can get to having transporters.

* We talked about a lot more than what I’ve briefly described here. Feel free to reach out to any of the scientists on twitter to find out more or to ask your favorite science-versus-science-fiction questions!

Thank you to 500 women scientists (especially the Seattle pod) & the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA) for their support in setting up this panel. Thank you to GeekGirlCon for hosting us!

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