The intricate relation between fiction and science

22nd December 2015
Enaie Azambuja

The latest episode of Crosstalks “Imagining the possible” talked about how science inspires fiction and vice versa. The submarine, the helicopter and the atomic power are all inventions that were in some way inspired by the fictional works of authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

Fiction can also be a way to explore future consequences and possibilities of scientific findings. But how important is this exchange of ideas for science? How does the way science is portrayed in popular culture affect the public perception of scientific research? And what could be some of the next big science leaps that we are imagining in popular culture today?

Participating guests were Sabine Höhler, Physicist and Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Joakim Wrethed, Lecturer at the Department of English at Stockholm University, Sara Ilstedt, Professor of product and service design at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, and Chad Orzel, Author and Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Union College.

"There is a need for a vision that can inspire scientists and researchers, and also for ideas to be shared by many so that they walk in the same direction. I remember in 1984 when William Gibson wrote a novel called Neuromancer, where he launched the word "Cyber Space". It described a vague and intriguing digital world where everything floated and thousands of computer scientists all over the world vent about to realise it”, Ilstedt said.

Joakim Wrethed added that "we can see throughout literary history how science pushes fiction and fiction pushes science. There is a reciprocal process going on. And for every utopian narrative that you get, there are at least a dozen dystopian ones. We as human beings are almost obsessed with worst case scenarios for any kind of innovation”.

Collaboration in science is more and more common, but the myth of the brilliant scientist as a lone wolf is still very much used. "Most of what we do is team work nowadays. But the one that gets awarded is the one person, like the Nobel Prize. The team work is usually invisible", Sabine Höhler claimed. Wrethed also stated that "Fiction has actually created this image of the mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein for example."

Chad Orzel, who has a blog where he talks to his dog about physics, explains the importance of viewing the world in simpler terms, trying to understand it: "One of the biggest obstacles to people understanding relativity and quantum mechanics is that they seem really weird. They run counter to your everyday experience due to human preconceptions of how things should work. If you look at the way a dog does. A dog sees the world as a source of amazement and wonder. If you come at physics from that angle, it is a lot more appropriate."

The use of poetic words in science can make it harder to access the knowledge and to reach understanding, the panel declared. "Using literary expressions like Dark Matter and Cyber Space, science and fiction can create a much closed universe around big questions that make it really hard to access for the lay person," Sabine Höhler said.

Have we stopped being afraid of the cyborg?, the panel was asked. "In one sense we have empowered it and made it our own, it is not alien any longer, but we confront other issues, like robots, what will happen. Or changing genetics, X-men.” Technology is everywhere. “There are gadgets we all love. All the information on your glasses, devices sewn into your clothes, we can become cyborgs. We love this and find it unproblematic. Science fiction does not address this, it addresses much larger questions, not at this gadget level. But that is not what is at stake, it is more on the level of genetic engineering, biomedicine, cloning. Those are the monsters we are dealing with nowadays”, not the charger or the devices. Sabine Höhler explained.

“When we discuss innovation we tend to discuss technology. But we also need to talk about social innovation, to change the way we are living, traveling, how we are spending our vacation. Technology is not able to save us, even if we like this to happen. Technology will help us a long way, but we need to be willing to take in the changes technology can provide,” Ilstedt explained.

Watch the whole episode here.

Crosstalks is an international academic talk show, broadcast once a month by two of Sweden’s top universities – KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Stockholm University. All episodes are available online at

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