Why I... believe science fiction helps our understanding of science fact

May 27, 2005

"Do you relish science-fiction films but do not have quite the same feeling about science?" Physicist Leroy Dubeck asked this question in 1993 and then, in his book Fantastic Voyages: Learning Science through Science Fiction Films , showed how a love of sci-fi can improve your science life.

None too familiar with fission and fusion? Forbidden Planet or Aliens might help. Need to brush up on your immunology? Fantastic Voyage is the answer. And length contraction? Quiet at the back there. Check out Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home .

If you follow Dubeck's method, then 2005 is a good year for stimulating interest in science. Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has finally made it to the big screen. George Lucas's final Star Wars prequel , The Revenge of the Sith , will reveal still more of respiratory disorders as Anakin Skywalker transforms into the evil but wheezing Darth Vader. And on the small screen, a reborn Doctor Who has gone from strength to strength.

Now the Science Museum has the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy exhibition with a little help from the makers of the new movie. Visitors will be able to counter the movie's Deep Thought - Adams's ultimate intelligence - with the museum's own Cray supercomputer. But can all of this science fiction and fantasy - purists of science fiction will bristle at the terms' counterpoint - play a strategic role in the teaching of science and technology? How realistic is Dubeck's philosophy?

Well, for those students sufficiently interested in such literature, television and cinema, the answer is probably yes. But their numbers are likely to be small. The majority of students will have little interest in sitting through science lectures copiously referenced with examples of aliens and time travel.

But science fiction has a more subtle educational role. It can inspire, stimulate and entertain us - as the work of Adams demonstrates. The Science Museum has a rich tradition of juxtaposing science fiction with fact, revealing the power of science fiction to inspire future scientists. Its Space Gallery, for example, pays due reverence to authors such as Jules Verne, who inspired the rocket pioneers, and Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who 60 years ago this October published his seminal scientific paper proposing extraterrestrial relay stations - today we call them communications satellites.

In 1995, the museum staged a special exhibition of the life and work of Clarke, who, perhaps more than anyone else, is renowned for bridging science fiction and science fact.

The story of Dan Dare, Britain's own space-travelling comic book hero, also reveals the interweaving of science fiction and fact. His creator, Frank Hampson, spoke of how V2 missile attacks in the Second World War inspired him to create a fictional hero who employed rocketry for good.

Dare's exploits influenced in turn those young scientists working on Britain's space projects of the 1960s. The museum duly displays some original Dan Dare artwork (nearby looms a grim V2 ) alongside representations of space-age technology from the Soviet Union and Britain's own Sir Barnes Wallis - inventor of the bouncing bomb and supersonic aircraft.

In the 21st century we simply cannot afford to lose interest in the subjects of science and technology - they are too damned important for that. Through these fields we are now, indeed, dabbling with life, the universe and everything. If Adams's comedy and invention brings us just a little closer to appreciating this reality, then we should be able to cope - even if the answer is 42.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy exhibition opens at the Science Museum, London, on May 28.

Doug Millard. Senior curator, ICT and space technology The Science Museum London

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