Monday, December 13, 2010

How science fiction can inform Astrobiology: The recap of a discussion with Jeffrey A. Carver

Yesterday we met with science fiction writer, Jeffrey A. Carver. He was extremely welcoming and helpful in explaining to us much about science fiction, writing, and the intersections of these topics with astrobiology. The reason that we felt science fiction would be an interesting topic to discuss in astrobiology is that science fiction deals with the imaginative, which astrobiology lacks. Astrobiology seeks to understand where life could live, what it could look like, and how we could find it, however, this is intentionally limited by our current technology and scientific knowledge. Astrobiologists use science to try to figure out the same things that science fiction writers imagine. While fantasy imagines the impossible, science fiction narrates the possible.

Astrobiologists may say that much of science fiction is unfeasible, however, science fiction does function within the loose (or even strict) boundaries of science. For instance, NASA scientist Geoffrey A Landis, writes with a very strong science background and even works in the cutting edge of space research. There are other authors that are biologists, physicists, etc. and authors who merely have an interest in science and not a degree, that meld their imaginative stories with science.

Science fiction writers focus on the imaginative aspect of extraterrestrial life and space travel down and this perspective is interesting for astrobiology to take into account. There are new technologies and discoveries that have first been described by science fiction writers. A great example is Arthur C Clarke who imagined geostationary satellites, a global library and light rails well before they were developed. In fact, scientists have gone so far as to test the plausibility of space stations and artificial worlds described in science fiction. Clearly there is some overlap in our imagination and the expansion of the limits of science.

The existence of SETI provides evidence of the overlap between science fiction and astrobiology because the use of SETI to ‘find intelligent life’ suggests that there are sentient beings elsewhere in the universe that will be able to communicate in a manner that we understand and whom would want to communicate with us. This is not much more ‘realistic’ than what we find in science fiction. Indeed, some other ideas in science fiction like cloning, cryogenic suspension, and living on the moon are active areas of research (well, living on the moon was at least at some point an active scientific interest). Clearly, science fiction is not totally unfeasible—animals have been cloned and human bodies frozen after death. Science has just not been able to keep up with the imagination and these technologies are not as practical or useful as they appear in science fiction. New areas of research can even be described as ‘science-fiction-y’ such as the creation of a microbe using artificially produced DNA in the spring of 2010.

Scientists in general, are very skeptical and it is not within the discipline of science to imagine things that are far beyond what we already regard as fact or which are beyond what we can understand using current technology. Thus, astrobiologists do not need to believe that the worlds that appear in science fiction are possible, they just need to understand that science is a human endeavor, and because of this, science may be held back by our imagination. There are many topics in astrobiology that would have seemed far-fetched just a couple decades ago, like the idea of a biocentric universe-- that our cosmology and metaphysics cannot ignore the important interplay between conscious observers and quantum effects—and the two-slit experiment. Though science fiction writers may push the boundaries of the feasible at times, the feasible is a human-centric notion bounded by science. We don’t know what is feasible or not and taking a hint from science fiction writers and expanding our imagination of what life could look like and where it could live is an interesting thought experiment for astrobiology.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing this Kels! I don't really have much to add... Basically Mr. Carver was just super welcoming and such a wonderful resource for us and definitely for future Astrobio classes! Not only did he talk to us about science fiction writing in general, but he also gave us a lot of insight into the process that comes with publishing a book as a science fiction writer. Also, he gave us all copies of his movie novelization, Battlestar Galactica!