Science and the Imagination
Posted by Richard Conniff on January 31, 2011
The New Yorker picked up my NYT column for a piece about science and the imagination. Here’s an excerpt:
“Our job is not to predict the future. Rather, it’s to suggest all the possible futures—so that society can make informed decisions about where we want to go.” That’s Robert J. Sawyer writing in Slate last week, in an essay called “The Purpose of Science Fiction.” Sci-fi, Sawyer argues, isn’t purely “fi.” Sci-fi writers open public discourse on real-world scientific developments, advise governmental organizations like NASA and the Department of Homeland Security, and ask philosophical questions that lab-bound scientists are rarely able to.
Of course, it isn’t as dry as all that. The writer of science-fiction is an artist who happens to be interested in science, unless he is a scientist who happens to be interested in art. The line between the two wasn’t always drawn as thickly as it is today. Alchemists obviously blended the two, but there are more recent examples, too. A blog post that ran yesterday on the Times Web site, taken from a new book by Richard Conniff called “The Species Seekers,” covers certain nineteenth-century naturalists who used whimsical language to describe their discoveries (e.g. Charles Darwin), and nineteenth-century whimsicalists who used scientific language in their stories (e.g. Lewis Carroll). “What’s the explanation for this intimate connection between science and nonsense?,” Conniff wonders:
Scientists are of course somewhat human. So perhaps it should be unsurprising that they can sometimes have fun with — or make fun of — their own work. But in the 19th century that work — describing species no one had ever imagined — was also often fantastical. It is hard for us now to appreciate just how strange and wondrous the world seemed. It was as if someone you know had joined an expedition to Alpha Centauri and come back years later with first-hand accounts of Wookiees, Ewoks and Kowakian monkey-lizards. But in the great age of biological discovery, the returning travelers actually brought back specimens. Their weird creatures were real.
Perhaps because we no longer get quite the same shock from specimens found in nature, we have become adept at conjuring up weird specimens of our possible futures and calling them real.