How The Science in Science Fiction Works

As a writer of science fiction, I often am confronted with misconceptions about the playground my imagination runs through. What does Sci-Fi have to do with actual science?

Despite several centuries of contributions to society, art and literature among others, few people seem to understand science. I should be more specific, here. Most people do not understand the scientific method, which has and will continue to lead to a lot of bad misconceptions in the popular press and social networks.

Comets Kick up Dust in Helix Nebula (PIA09178).jpg
Comets Kick up Dust in Helix Nebula (PIA09178)” by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Ariz. – NASA – Comets Kick up Dust in Helix Nebula. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.


What, exactly is Science?

To quote Wikipedia : Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

So It seems that science is an activity and not, as is more commonly held, a body of knowledge, which is cool. But the one thing you will note about the definition, if you dig into the subject to any degree, is that science, or the pursuit of it, does not, in any way, shape or form suggest that:

a) we know the answers to the questions about stuff we study

b) that anything science professes is complete or true.

You see, despite all of the high esteem in which we hold the study of science, much of it is based upon models and ideas that are supported or refuted by experimental observation. To make a short point of it, it is based upon a belief system.

Science and faith

Now, before I am dismissed for a religious apologist, please understand, that I am a scientist by education and profession ( For 35 years I practiced the commercial application of geophysics in the Petroluem industry but not pure research…which may taint me in the eyes of some purists, but so be it.)

Every scientific “fact” or principle which we presently ascribe to currently falls into the realm of belief. You see, the fundamental axiom of science involves the proposal of an hypothesis, followed by experimental observation and the incorporation of these observations into a theory that is, normally, continually evaluated by new experimental observations. This process is continued until a situation arises where the experimental observations cannot be adequately explained by the present theory. When this happens, deep thinkers work hard to develop new, updated theories that incorporate all of the observations and the cycle continues.

So, you see, we never really know the truth, we only accept certain theories about the truth, which amounts to a certain form of faith. As no sane person would try (or be capable of) reproducing the body of experimental observations to demonstrate the validity of a theory, he/she must accept that the observations made by those who came before are valid. In other words, he must believe what has come before. In many respects, this differs little from religious belief.

When do we get it right?

So how do we know when science gets it right? We don’t. We only know when it gets it wrong when our theories do not explain our observations. When our theory explains our observations, it does not mean our theory is right, it only means that our theory is one possible explanation for things.

In no place is this better illustrated than in the realm of modern physics. We have multiple competing theories like String Theory, Loop quantum gravity, and others I am sure, which attempt to explain the nature of the universe, all using arcane forms of mathematics to explain themselves and make themselves conform to the growing body of experimental and observational data. They can’t all be right. But they can all be wrong and thrown out if a newer, better idea turns up in some theorist’s churning brain down the road.

Big Data & Any Data

Science has a constant need to be fed by more data. Whether derived from impressively expensive experiments like those at the Large Hadron Collider, or the observations from space based telescopes like Kepler or the venerable old Hubble, one thing is clear; the appetite for data is huge and shows no signs of fading. The cool thing about science is that it is not just confined to the super sexy big press grabbing stuff mentioned above. Biologists can find data about bugs in the Amazon rain forest or in your own back yard. Geology can be studied by measuring seismic movement around active volcanoes or by hiking near a rock outcrop looking at hand samples.

What has any of this to do with Sci-Fi?

Nothing and everything! Hard Sci-fi tries to restrain its flights of fantasy by framing the stories to the existing framework of scientific theory. Soft Sci-fi is less concerned with adhering to the existing state of scientific theory and more in the potential technology derived from it ( think FTL, Light Sabres and shape shifting telekinetic space aliens). Both branches share elements of the other to many degrees. Hard Sci-Fi may be more concerned in working within the confines of existing theory and so, limit its play in fantastic tech. Soft Sci-Fi may gloss or completely avoid discussion of the actual science behind its ideas in order to put forth an entertaining story. Both have advantages and disadvantages and are equally fun to read when well executed.

Because theories are subject to modifications with new and different observations, the scope of ideas we can explore within the genre expands hugely.  Playing “what-if” scenarios around ideas like: “What if we discover tunnels on the far side of the moon?” does not invalidate current scientific understanding, but explores the logical outcome of the consequences of such an hypothetical observation.

My point is that science is not a fixed body of facts that we must slavishly adhere to, but a process of exploring nature, whether that be the nature of the universe or the nature of mankind’s response to that exploration process. It is the human journey of that exploration that makes for the most interesting stories, in my opinion.  The possibilities are endless to the active imagination.

I still think old Bill Shakespeare said it best in Hamlet (I paraphrase it here): “There are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of by your philosophy.” Therein lies the purpose and fun of writing Sci-Fi: Exploring the possibilities of the exploration of science.

What are your thoughts on the role of science in Sci-Fi? What kind of the art form do you like? Let us know in the comments below.


Pax Vobiscum

  • Ien Nivens says:

    I find your descriptions of hard vs. soft science fiction helpful. As with most genre boundaries, of course, there’s a lot of in-between-ness to consider. I’m equally happy reading Richard Brautigan or Greg Bear, but I tend to prefer my science neat. What I mean is, if I’m reading science, that’s one thing, but if I’m reading fiction, I don’t want it interrupted by a lecture on Schrodinger. If it comes dressed as dialog, I get allergic in a hurry.

    I get what you’re saying about science, religion and the need to take large bodies of knowledge on faith, and I know your intent here is not to make an argument in favor of science over religion, but of course there is a significant difference between the two. That difference is hard to pin down (maybe you can do a better job of it), but I think it comes down to this: that the entire body of scientific knowledge is subject to revision at any time by anyone capable of disproving it, in whole or in part. Therefore, nothing in science is sacred. The scientific process itself, and the provisional nature of scientific theorizing, make science non-religious. As you suggest when you say we “must accept that the observations made by those who came before are valid,” this is not so much a requirement (which it would be in a religious context) as it is a convenience. If we did not also distrust the observations of others, we would not be doing science, and we’d still be looking for canals on Mars.

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