Can Science Fiction Save Science?

By Mark Rodgers“Reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”  C. S. LewisSeveral years ago (2005 in fact) I read a short story by author and romanticist EM Forster entitled The Machine Stops, a dystopian science fiction tale that raises questions about our growing dependence on technology.  In the future, man is forced to live underground, fully dependent on The Machine for sustenance.  Remarkably, written in 1909, Forster anticipated such technology as the Internet, television and robotics.
Higgs BosonI put my hand to the plow later that year and wrote a film script inspired by the short story, but with a backstory that Forster left out.  What was the global catastrophe that would make the surface of the earth uninhabitable?  My thesis was that in pursuit of the Higgs-Boson (also called The God Particle) to unlock the deepest mysteries of the universe, a chain reaction of black holes was initiated within the CERN Collider, destroying the earth's ability to sustain life.  Little did I know that a few years later, in 2008, a lawsuit would be filed to stop the collider from firing up for fear of ... the creation of a black hole!

Smug with my prediction (I even had talked to a physicist who thought my theory was unfounded) I was reminded of the amount of science I explored in preparation for the script, from quantum mechanics (particle physics) to cosmology (black holes) to genetics (The God Gene).  Since its birth at the turn of the 20th century (the first modern use of the term was in 1927), science fiction has fueled the imagination for the possible ... and equally important, it has been an organ for meaning.Art and Science connect through creativity. 

2005 seems to be an important year for this connectivity in my life.  In our newsletter this month we are highlighting again an article about The Giver, which that year Michael Flaherty, the founder of Walden Media, shared with me.  I read it on the flight to LA for meetings several of us from DC had to discuss engaging the culture, and will never forget the impact it had on me ... so much so that I read sections of it aloud to Mel Gibson and Patty Heaton during a small meeting we had together.  A dear friend, Ralph Winter (X-Men, Fantastic Four) is producer of the film being released on August 15.images (4)An Organ of Meaning.  The Giver is a story of a "perfect" world with no hate, no color, no discrimination, no hunger and most of all, no pain. The main character, Jonas (Brendon Thwaites), spends time with the Giver (Jeff Bridges), who is the community's sole keeper of memories.  Jonas uncovers the dark secret of his community and the reveal challenges the utilitarian and utopian views of the far left.  In addition to Bridges, the cast includes Meryl Streep and Taylor Swift.   Life, tradition, history, family and liberty are all themes explored creatively and powerfully through the book.  You can get the flavor of the film from the "featurette" trailer, and even this snippet will remind you of the power of science fiction as an agent to explore meaning.  This is one of the reasons that C. S. Lewis explored the genre in his own fiction writing.  Arthur C. Clarke wrote in 1983 that "No less a critic than C. S. Lewis has described the ravenous addiction that these (science fiction) magazines inspired; the same phenomenon has led me to call science fiction the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug."Leaders in the sciences know this to be true, in fact I suspect that many of them were inspired into their vocations by reading Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land on an idle summer afternoon.  In a fascinating turn of events, NASA, in some ways representing the concerns of all the sciences, took the initiative recently to partner with a publisher to develop books "to inspire young adults to examine the rewarding careers that science and technology have to offer."

Pillar to the SkyTheir first joint venture is "Pillar to the Sky" which explores "the concept of trying to solve very real problems of the 21st century -- dwindling oil supplies, increasingly dangerous pollution levels -- through construction of a space elevator that could enable unprecedented access to space."    According to NASA the goal of the series is to raise awareness and inspire the study of the STEM subjects, science, technology, engineering and math, while educating the general public on the significant role NASA plays in everyday lives.  Sounds like fiction, not fact.
Watching the documentary Particle Fever about the CERN collider and the Higgs Boson, what struck me was the importance of this effort, and the innate interactivity of art and science.  They share the need for creativity, the pursuit of truth, the expression of beauty, the revelation of harmony and maybe most importantly, the ability to transcend what we know and explore the mysteries of the cosmos.
It is my sense that we are on the precipice of a new Golden Age of science fiction filmmaking.  Certainly, technology can distract us from deep reflection, but ironically science fiction may just be the "organ" God uses to encourage it. Historically, the best sci-fi storytelling has been on the page, not on the screen.  But that has changed.  Whether through Blade RunnerThe Matrix or The Giver, science fiction films are the organ in society raising our consciousness, exploring the mysteries of meaning, and helping us navigate the future.
And entertaining us with good stories, told creatively, to boot!