Monday, November 17, 2008

Geology and science fiction: what do I think?

I'm finally mostly caught up on work, so I can answer Peggy's questions about science and science fiction.

Questions for Science Bloggers

* What is your relationship to science fiction? Do you read it? Watch it? What/who do you like and why?

Yes, I read and watch science fiction. I've enjoyed it since I was a kid, probably because I found other worlds interesting. (Especially in comparison to the sort of petty interpersonal politics that dominated grade school, junior high, and high school.) I was fascinated by big and different.

As an adult, I like stories that imagine societies different from ours. Science fiction (and also fantasy) seem like great ways to explore human-ness by imagining what happens if things were a little different. Maybe the difference is some kind of technology. Maybe the difference is a cultural attitude. In a way, it's like experiments in science.

* What do you see as science fiction's role in promoting science, if any? Can it do more than make people excited about science? Can it harm the cause of science?

I don't think science fiction is particularly good at promoting science. (One word: Frankenstein.) An awful lot of science fiction seems to reveal a fear of the unknown, a fear of tampering with nature or with going too far in trying to understand something. It's not true of all science fiction (or fantasy), but I've seen it in places as different as Tolkien and the new Dr. Who.

Whether it harms the cause of science... well, honestly, I don't think that science should be a cause, really. Science is a sort of organized curiosity about the natural world, and it's sad to live amongst people who are uncurious and afraid of learning new things. But the introspection can be a good thing, as long as it doesn't become some kind of trite repetition of the story of the Tree of Knowledge.

* Have you used science fiction as a starting point to talk about science? Is it easier to talk about people doing it right or getting it wrong?

Geology is rarely explicitly part of science fiction. (Any time a different world is imagined, geology could be used to build a world that makes sense. I've rarely seen an imaginary world that makes geologic sense, unfortunately.) Off the top of my head, I can think of only one set of books that does geology well (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson), and I have yet to run across a student who is familiar with them.

As for movies: I guess The Core could count as a science fiction movie (as well as a bad disaster movie). I've encouraged students to watch it and criticize the geology, but it's so goofy that it's difficult to get much science from it. I haven't seen the new Journey to the Center of the Earth, but I've watched the old version with geology students. Again, it was fun to laugh at it, but it was so wrong that it was hard to know where to start with a critique. And I mention The Day After Tomorrow in class to try to explain why the textbook talks about deep ocean currents in the context of climate, but mostly we end up laughing about Jake Gyllenhaal running away from wolves in New York rather than critiquing the science in detail.

* Are there any specific science or science fiction blogs you would recommend to interested readers or writers?

Anyone who wants to read more about geology should just subscribe to Chris Rowan's geoblogosphere feed, and choose their favorite blogs for themselves.


Anonymous said...

I LOVE the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson; I read it in high school.

Harold Asmis said...

How does knowing Science ruin your movie-watching experience?

Almost every movie I watch violates basic physics, simply because they want to rise above our mundane world. I cringe.

Unknown said...

I read "Red Mars" in a college class taught jointly by a humanities professor and - you guessed it - the head of the geology department (he's a bit of a Mars buff). For a bit of REAL science, try "The Case for Mars," by Zubrin, Wagner, and Clarke. Methanation reactions, anyone?!

Daniel said...

Theres a lot of geology in almost all of Stephen Baxters scifinovels. Some like "Moonseed" and "Titan" is almost ALL geology-related in the story.

Schadwen said...

I'm so glad you put a link up to the questions. I think it's a good topic for discussion.

kurt said...

Jack DuBrul writes a series of action/adventure books starring a character named Mercer. Mercer is a geologist who saves the world from various nefarious, secret organizations.
He's sort of a geologist version of James Bond.
Technically it's not science fiction, but certainly a geologist as the protagonist. If you like quick, escapist fiction, they're fun books.

Peggy K said...

The Mars trilogy has been on my "to read" list for a long time. When I do finally read them, I'll keep an eye out for the geology.

Thanks for joining in the discussion!

Neat Rox said...

I watched Journey to the Center of the Earth last weekend with my boys and had to laugh at everything that was geologically (or scientifically in general) WRONG with it. Another movie that was completely goofy was Armageddon and it wasn't even based on a book. Wasn't there also a movie (t.v.?) that was called Volcano or something like that where there was a fault opening up in Los Angeles? Science fiction is always fun to watch as long as I don't expect a whole lot. As for science fiction books, I always enjoyed Michael Chrichton. At least he didn't insult a scientists' intelligence with his stories.