SF Builds Scientists - Official!

Jonathan Cowie unearths some hard data demonstrating that SF inspires an interest in science

Proportion of UK physics graduates turned onto their subject by...
Science fiction26%
SF in general10%
Star Trek7%
Star Wars3%
Arthur C Clarke3%

To the hardened rationalist science fiction seems to be inconsequential nonsense: Of the genre's readers at school SF can stimulate an interest in science. This last forms one of the bases for Concatenation's ten year mission but so far there has been little quantitative evidence... until now. It is well established that the membership of university SF societies is invariably dominated by those studying science courses -- this has been the case certainly since the 1970s and is a trend that shows no signs of waning. Then following its launch in 1987 the Concatenation 'Desert asteroid' survey revealed that 52% of those attending the UK Eastercon (annual national) SF convention held qualifications in science or had jobs related to science, engineering and technology (SET) . The big question arising from this is whether those scientists who read SF are turned on to SF by their interest in science, or conversely turned on to science through their fascination with SF? Now this question has been answered, at least with regard to UK physicists.

While Concatenation, with the charitable assistance of many strategically placed within the UK SF community, can gather much data on SF, slightly bigger guns are essential to conduct similar exercises relating to British science, engineering and technology. At last this has happened. The knight in shining armour in this instance is the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, known to those in the trade as PPARC. For those not in the trade, a research council is the body that decides which science projects will receive (central) government funding, and other than PPARC there are research councils for biology (BBSRC), medicine (MRC) and the other key areas of SET, as well as one for the social sciences. What PPARC has done (1996) is to conduct a detailed survey of physics students in 42 university departments building on a similar survey in 1995 conducted by the Institute of Physics (the professional body for physicists).

Among other questions, to do with future studies and subjects of interest, the survey focused on what attracted the students to take up physics in the first place; students could nominate one or more reason. Heading the list were school teachers who positively influenced 62% of students, followed by television 51% and non-school books (which presumably includes SF) at 48%. These 1996 results were broadly similar to those from the earlier 1995 survey except significantly that today 51% of students cited TV (as opposed to 48%) and 22% films (against 9% in 1995) as areas that stimulated an interest in physics. So far so good.

Surprisingly, although teachers and school classes rated highly, PPARC noted that combined with the anecdotal comments the students were allowed to make as part of the survey "it is clear... that there is some dissatisfaction about the methods and level of physics teaching both at GCSE and A-level". [GCSE are British mid-school exams whereas A-levels are end of school exams used for entry into university.] Given this, the non-school factors are all the more important in turning people on to SET. It is here that SF scores.

In building on the 1995 survey, the PPARC study specifically looked for named magazines, books, authors and TV programmes that respondents cited as particularly influential. 31% of the students mentioned specific examples. Of this subset, 26% mentioned science fiction or gave specific SF examples; here the top citation (7%) was Star Trek (see table), while 10% mentioned SF in general.

While more quantitative data is required if hard-nosed arguments that SF is to be seen as central to a wider role in furthering the public appreciation of science, recent years have seen SF used as an educational vehicle. The Natural History Museum and the Science Museum have respectively used Jurassic Park and Star Trek as the basis for exhibitions that have attracted tens of thousands of visitors. And though there is this positive link between science and SF, it has to be recognised that many are confused by the 'fiction' in SF and fact. Witness the huge following of astrology, or the belief in UFOs (as opposed to that of the possibility of extraterrestrial life). This might be an argument for educators and science popularisers in leaving SF well alone, though that would be the easy way out. Perhaps the real challenge lies in helping people learn to discriminate between SF and pseudo science. Either way, such is the slowly growing body of evidence that key players in the public understanding of science (PUS) will be hard put ignoring the possibilities SF has to offer even to those who do not end up as scientists: the Concatenation Eastercon survey also found out that out of all those attending the convention 78% watch science fact programmes such as Horizon or The Sky at Night. The question now is, when will firm links be established between PUS organizations and the SF community? Be assured that Mystic Meg does not have the answer.

This article originally appeared in a print edition of The Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation (1997) SF builds scientists - Official!, 9, p5.


Update: Chinese SF also has links with science and technology. See the news item on the 2007 Chinese conference and mini China SF profile.

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