Monday, April 13, 2015

The importance of proper science in fiction

This post also appears in my other blog: Middle PhD Crisis
“I have an issue when they get the science wrong because they didn’t know better, or they presumed that the correct science would have somehow handcuffed them in their storytelling. My biggest issue is when they get the science wrong where, had they told it right, they could have told a better story. I have no patience for that [laughs]. Really no patience for that.”

- Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson

When I read for pleasure, I often gravitate away from non-fiction, having a lot of that in the articles I have to read for work. However, that doesn't mean that I don't enjoy fiction books that deal with science. I do have a problem with fiction books that are a bit too lose with their science background.

I love science fiction and fantasy, you can tell as much just looking at my shelves at home. And as long as whatever phenomenon is going on makes sense in the constructed universe, I can go along with it. However, sometimes in other genres you will stay in our universe (i.e. General Fiction) and that's when stumbling upon misconstructed science terms or theories make me shudder.

A couple of years ago I read a book that kept using the term germs to describe pathogens. While a lot of people use this term, it's pretty much the same as using the term cooties. We have words for infectious or non infectious organisms, why not use them? In the case of this book, it bothered me particularly because the author had a Ph.D in Medical Microbiology. Sure she got it in 1962, but still.

The same way that CSI (any city really) has me rolling my eyes when they do a full genetic background of the suspect in three hours, or when I encounter things like "He invented the DNA", it touches my nerves. While it can seem like a small, inconsequential thing (for the record, no body "invented" the DNA, it was discovered), it can lead to bigger mistakes or misinformation for the general public. And most of the time, this "incorrect" science is the product of not doing their research properly.

Once again, if you are building your own universe, you can make up your rules, and the book might be amazing. But sometimes you just have to look things up and get them right. You can vulgarize as much as you want, but keep the science (or really, the subject you decided to tackle) proper. I get the feeling that we talk about this more with movies and TV than we do with books. The quote I used above is from Dr. Tyson referring to the errors in Gravity. But it applies to a lot of works of fiction. It's a shame really to know that the work you are constructing could've been so much better if you would've done a bit of research.

Some authors will plainly say it: I went for a fictional world because I did not want to do the research. That is fine and up to a certain extent understandable. But, and I know I am repeating myself here, if you have decided to stay in our universe, just with fictional characters...get your facts right. That's all.
What are your thoughts? What are your best examples of proper science in fiction? your worst? Let me know in the comments.

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