Launch Pad Diary
July 11, 2010 8:27 am
Here I am in another airport, starting another travelogue. In previous adventures, I’ve traveled to exotic lands, or to Florida. This time I might go to the moon, though, or other stars. I’m on my way to the Launch Pad Writers Workshop at University of Wyoming.
The concept of the workshop is pretty simple. Teach real space science to science fiction writers and editors so that they’ll get it right, and promulgate real exciting science to the public (rather than the dumb rubber “science” too often found in sci-fi books, movies, and TV shows). NASA funds the program, though it’s a helluva lot cheaper to send a writer like me to Wyoming on Jetblue than to send an astronaut to orbit.
We’ve got a pretty dinky, fragile planet. There are some possibly fear-mongering, possibly exaggerated reports that the Deepwater Horizon disaster could wipe out 90% of all life on Earth. (Imminent methane explosion, I hear.) That kind of makes worries about the fact that the Red Sox are in third place or whether the barista at Starbucks put too much syrup into my green tea soy latte a few minutes ago seem insignificant.
But human life is not insignificant. To us, anyway. We live, eat, breathe, reproduce, perpetuate our species, express ourselves and make art. We ponder our existence and the meaning of life. We write stories and we investigate the world and the universe around us.
Science fiction, as a genre, has at its heart that exploratory, questioning spirit. What if? How does this work and what if it worked differently? What if we didn’t just cross continents but galaxies? What if the strange new people we meet have four eyes, or none?
I got my college degree in cognitive and linguistic sciences in the 1980s. In those days, the cutting edge of the scientific frontier was on interior questions, like how do our brains work? I know it’s hard to remember this, but in those days there were still psychology professionals who believed Prozac wouldn’t work, and who treated the brain as if it were a black box more akin to a mystical oracle influenced only by arcane ritual than like a machine that could be engineered. The look inward, that had once been as mystifying to people as staring up at the sky had been to primitive humans, was becoming less of a mystery. New techniques and tools for measuring what was going on at a cellular level were rapidly leading to breakthroughs in our understanding. And meanwhile, cyberpunk was the hot new subgenre of science fiction.
Here we are twenty years later, and we’ve now got the technology to allow a quadriplegic to manipulate a computer cursor using external electrodes touching his skin. (No surgery or “implant'” needed.) The cyberpunk future has arrived.
But cyberpunk is an upstart young cousin to the venerable space opera. The roots of science fiction are in the outward–and upward–look, not the inward look. What’s up there? What’s out there? Space exploration and science fiction have an entwined history, as well. The narratives we tell, about what we might find “out there” are often as much about ourselves and the events of human history on our own planet (continental colonization, war, exploration, et cetera) as they are about what science suggests we might find. The mere idea that we might someday travel to other planets the way we used to cross oceans is enough to spawn an entire genre of storytelling. But the more we know, the more inspired our imaginations can become. By “our” I don’t just mean writers, I mean readers; I mean humans.
Diane Martin said, in her welcome speech this weekend at the Readercon science fiction convention, that she hears from astrophysicists and DNA researchers and other scientists all the time that they are inspired by science fiction. Some of them were inspired as children, and some of them are still inspired in their research as adults, by the stories they take in.
So that’s part of our job. Look outward, ask why, and inspire others to do the same. At Launch Pad, they’ll have one week to bring us up to speed on everything science knows about looking outward. In the past 20 years there have been huge leaps forward in our understanding of the solar system and the universe. Water on the moon, the Mars landers, extra-solar planets… our knowledge has grown incredibly in the 20 years since I took my last college astronomy course.
And now they are calling my flight. I will travel halfway across the United State today, to a state I’ve never visited before, but my imagination will be traveling to the reaches of the galaxy.