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How I swapped my ivory tower for the world of science fiction

63 points5 daysnature.com
karaterobot4 hours ago

What is this article? She just released a book, but it's a non-fiction popular science book. I assumed this was about a lifelong academic switching careers to become a full-time science fiction writer, but all I know based on this article is that she's been teaching at community college for about two years, and has written exactly one science fiction short story.

queuebert4 hours ago

I was expecting it to be someone like Vernor Vinge and was excited to learn about a new author I could read, but instead we got some lazy box ticking.

observationist4 hours ago

I gave the source and positioning of this post a lot more thought than i usually do; it's a weird one.

bookofjoe harvests content and posts from many sources, he's one of the many people contributing to the inbound firehose of links and stories.

Not sure how or why this got bumped to the top ten; maybe people see "sci fi" and/or "ivory tower" and a piece of content will get engagement? TBH it reads a little like a publisher's fluff piece, or a writing assignment given to a high schooler.

Some of the commentary is enlightening - she says "Writing fiction is about telling stories and it’s about people and human interaction" This is something you learn when Shakespeare is brought out in elementary school. This is something you should learn if you pay the slightest bit of attention to the stories you read, if the authors are N. K. Jemisin, Ursula K. Le Guin and Becky Chambers, Dan Simmons, and Ray Bradbury, who she mentions in the article.

Any good author writes stories about people; the great ones tap into our expectations and take us for a ride, bringing us to unexpected insight, or opening our eyes to a new constellation of human variables. The authors she mentions are almost universally well known for insight into what makes people tick.

This seems like an aspirational fluff piece intended to market the non-fiction book and land the author an advance so she can write fiction. This isn't intended as a criticism; god knows we can all use whatever we can get. She's apparently in a position with connections that allowed her to get such an article published about her; maybe one of her friends is a publisher or editor, or author? Whatever it is, she hasn't written her fiction book yet, so maybe she needs a breakout of some sort.

This is one of the weirdest pieces of content I've seen land on the front page, almost like a personal blog leak or something. I hope she gets a huge boost and gets to chase her dream.

js22 hours ago

> I wanted a number name. I think seven is the best single digit number. It’s the number of bodies in the sky that move relative to the ‘fixed stars’ — in other words, the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. That’s why seven is such an important number cross-culturally: it represents all things that wander in the heavens. It’s also the number of variables in the Drake Equation, and Seven of Nine is my favourite Star Trek character. There’s a lot going on there.

George Costanza was way ahead here:

https://youtu.be/NRUdaWZ4FN0

Lichtso2 hours ago

> why seven is such an important number cross-culturally

I think it is more likely Miller's law [0], that is the average number of "registers" a human mind has [1].

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miller%27s_law#In_psychology [1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magical_Number_Seven,_Plus...

UweSchmidt6 hours ago

"...but as far as themes go, I’m more inspired by [authors who are] usually clearly anti-capitalist, criticizing scenarios used in Golden Age science fiction — such as building cities on Mars or expanding beyond the Solar System — by portraying them as capitalist hellscapes."

The golden-age optimistic science fiction placed humans on a stage in the future with aliens, and confronted both with challenges on a far greater scale than earth. The implication that today's problems would surely be solved, was not only a nice escapism but also helped to form a fundamental mindset for the solution of said problems. From terraforming other planets to thinking about carbon dioxide globally, from a war with aliens to seeing the futility of wars on earth. From the absense of actual capitalism or communism on that distant colony in space that lived in harmony, to being open minded about new solutions in everyday politics.

It does not seem clear if pessimistic science fiction, from an author not from the "ivory tower" but the trenches of education in community college, written with an educational message front and center, can have the reach and cultural impact as the stories from the past. Will the classroom in space convince where the daytime job didn't?

jerf2 hours ago

I think it's a bit ironic that a story that is polemic first and story second is actually less effective as polemic than a story than is story first and polemic second or third or even lower. Classic age science fiction was often polemic, but it works because the stories were prioritized above the polemic and generally decent.

Of course like any genre, "polemic first" has things that occasionally transcend their genre even so, but those are also as always the exceptions, and authors really shouldn't put all their chips on being one of those exceptions. If anything the odds are probably worse than most.

CC: Hollywood, Disney. You'd be better propagandists if you paid more attention, much more attention, to stories.

queuebert4 hours ago

I read the author's short story from the article, and your comment is by far the better piece of writing.

delichon6 hours ago

For good or not capitalism is efficient at incentivizing people to exploit resources. It's easy to project that into guessing that at least our early forays to heavenly bodies will be propelled by that impulse. It's probably the reason that earthly new world cultures are more capitalistic than the old world's. Some ideologies promote exploration more than others. You don't have to like it to predict it.

UweSchmidt5 hours ago

The point of sci-fi is to lay off the most obvious and current convictions and impulses and to imagine other possibilities.

BobaFloutist4 hours ago

There are way too many kinds of sci-fi to sum up the genre in one convenient statement like that.

Some sci-fi seeks to lay off the most obvious and current convictions and impulses to imagine other possibilities.

Other sci-fi slightly exaggerates the flaws and assumptions of our world, and tries to logically extend them into a future in which they make even less sense, to demonstrate their absurdity.

Still other sci-fi creates a world exactly like ours except with one significant technological advance, and tries to imagine where we'd go with that.

Still other sci-fi takes what we know of how humans behave, puts them in completely unfamiliar settings, and uses those settings to explore the nature of people, rather than focusing on the technology.

And some sci-fi, arguably the most fun, if not necessarily the most educational merely starts "Wouldn't it be cool/weird/fucked up if..." and just keeps going until it runs out of steam.

a-french-anon5 hours ago

But still use your medium as a vehicle for a very obvious and current "understanding" of politics... with the completely natural "I love Science^tm" veneer tailor-made for Reddit, nice Hugo award material, I guess?

Oh, just noticed it's nature.com

UweSchmidt4 hours ago

Can no one in this thread grasp the possiblity a neutral, non-prescriptive way to tell an inspirational story set in the far future that is not a vehicle for anything?

slothtrop4 hours ago

The point is whatever we want it to be. Pulp adventurism and space exploits was as popular as anything else. Even the ideological books are not necessarily tantamount to "space communism" (see: Neal Stephenson).

+1
anthk4 hours ago
thrance4 hours ago

Space exploration and scientific missions has always been funded by states, so pretty much the inverse of capitalistic impulses. SpaceX does no scientific missions, focusing on the only somewhat profitable part of the space industry: putting satellites in orbit. Also it receives massive grants of public money. There are no economic incentives to colonize Mars.

50403 hours ago

>There are no economic incentives to colonize Mars. Perhaps, but much has been said about the vast fortunes asteroid mining could unlock.

sickofparadox6 hours ago

This person has been demoralized, and unknowingly wishes to inflict that fate upon everyone they come into contact with. The frenetic obsession with "capitalism" and the hopelessness of the future is simply the claw of the crab, pulling its victims back down into the bucket.

anthk5 hours ago

Funny you say that when capitalism has no morals beyond profit.

Just have a look on what Boeing it's doing.

queuebert4 hours ago

Boeing's bad decisions were not based on shareholder votes, but rather a cabal of bad actors. You could have this happen in any economic system. In fact, Boeing planes, even with all the cheating, are statistically safer than those produced by the former USSR.

agos4 hours ago

I would hope that today's planes are safer than 40 years ago!

jowea2 hours ago

Surely those bad actors were motivated by profits? The shareholders might not have voted for a "profits over safety" motion but the entire system created the incentives that led to bad actors acquiring their positions and doing bad stuff. And the system here is shareholder focused capitalism.

Although I agree this could happen in other economic system too, in a communist system it could be simply an order from above for example.

+1
anthk4 hours ago
istultus5 hours ago

The market (which I think is what you mean when you say "capitalism," a word devoid of content) is an abstract thing and indeed has no morals. Humans do. They act together to reduce harm, usually, given our arc of history. When humans form totalitarian "anti-capitalist" regimes they usually go about killing a few million other humans. Hurray for their superior morals.

FredPret4 hours ago

Boeing is a good example of capitalism working.

Go and look at their financial statements. Look at their stock over the past half decade.

It's all deep in the red. They're still alive because their past achievements are significant enough to carry them through this and they will probably still be salvaged.

Otherwise they'd be long bankrupt, freeing up immense human, physical, and financial capital to go do something else.

In other words, the system is built to allocate resources to companies based on performance - of course that doesn't mean each company always works perfectly.

Pointing to a bad company as an example of capitalism failing is like pointing to a lazy civil servant and saying we should abolish all government.

slothtrop4 hours ago

> capitalism has no morals beyond profit.

Liberalism does, to the extent the goal is human flourishing. Denigrating Capitalism for not being about morals makes as much sense as denigrating a tractor for not being about morals. Capitalism is merely what is employed as a tool (in part, as we used mixed-market economy) for the economic branch of our system.

+1
anthk4 hours ago
sickofparadox5 hours ago

Its very funny how many creatures have convergently evolved into crabs.

KittenInABox5 hours ago

I don't really find such science fiction pessimistic. In the way this "golden age optimism" is arguably just coddling humans with lies about the harm that they do, science fiction that critically examines the systems being built and suggests ways to repair. Ways to empower. Ways to unify against systemic harms in a way that includes all people. We have the entire solarpunk genre specifically for how humans can build a more unified, equal future.

I also disagree with this depiction of Golden Age science fiction. Ursula Le Guin and Marge Piercy were doing this well during this period.

UweSchmidt4 hours ago

I do think post-war Scifi was optimistic as it reflected the general sentiment of the times, with increasing prosperity, scientific and social progress, and tangible examples of the ability to unite for a common cause and accomplish megaprojects in general. Environmental issues were beyond the horizon, and today's societal divisiveness even further out. Civilization succumbing to technological addiction and stagnating scientific progress were considered as disappointing and unlikely timelines.

ChrisMarshallNY2 hours ago

I think Gregory Benford is an astrophysicist, as well. He's done fairly well.

For myself, I tend to prefer fantasy, over SF. SF tends to have Big Ideas, and the characters are there to help the Big Idea strut its stuff.

In fantasy, the characters are usually the fulcrum of the story, and the world is built around their stories.

hannofcart5 hours ago

Does it bother anyone else that the picture featuring the author shows a blackboard containing seemingly unrelated equations just to make it look "this-is-high-brow-complex-mathy-stuff-that-I-am-an-expert-in"?

Why would someone who wants to be taken seriously as a scientist pose in front of something like that?

itishappy5 hours ago

She teaches physics at a community college. These are community-college-level physics equations.

It's a staged picture, but most hero shots are. I'd say this is worse than most, but not by much. Check out the rest from the series:

https://www.nature.com/nature/articles?type=career-q-and-a

Also, pretty sure she's leaning into the "Mrs. Frizzle" vibes.

KineticLensman5 hours ago

> Does it bother anyone else that the picture featuring the author shows a blackboard containing seemingly unrelated equations

The central equation on the whiteboard is actually the Drake equation [0] which as per TFA is the subject of her next book. So it at least is directly relevant.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_equation

gus_massa4 hours ago

Yes and no.

The photographer needs a nice photo, she needs the article to sell books and not get traped again in the ivory tower. Eveyone is happy. It's part of the job. Like politician using a suit and smiling. (Aparently smiling people with suits don't steal or start random wars.)

I looked at the equations, they look correct but so unrelated that made me chuckle. I imagine she was chuckling while writing them. I'm not sure if there were one or two persons writing that, probably one (but two persons writing random (correct) equations is more fun).

The equations have a nice flow, the space/kerning and vertical aligment are correct. It looks like whoever wrote them understand the equations. [1] It's not a proof that she is a genius, but it's small bonus point for me.

The last "2" in a^2+b^2=c^2 is too low, it looks like she made a mistake guessing the space necesary to write the equation and had to make a emergency correction. It happens to the best. Anyway, it's horriblely unrelated to the other equations [chuckling], almost trolling.

If I have to guess, she first wrote the Drake equations as a sibling comment says, it's in the center and very well written. The photographer asked for more equations, so she added the gravitational force equation. Then another and another. And then some equations in between.

It's very difficult to write something meaningful on the spot. I'd need like 15 mitutes to thing what to write and perhaps another 15 to write it. So a random wall of equations is silly but difficult to avoid.

[1] A few years ago we had two exams that were identical. One of them had a similar good flow, but the other had the same numbers/symbols in almost the same position, but they were horrible aligned, like if someone just copy the number/symbols without understanding anything at all.

tzs3 hours ago

Anyone recognize all the equations? I only recognize a few specifically and can sort of guess the general area of some of the rest.

From left to right then top to bottom:

1. No idea. Based on the E sub λ, the use of Planck's and Boltzmann's constants, and the e^(hc/λkt)-1 I'd guess its the energy of something at wavelength λ and temperature t. I don't recall ever seeing energy have a factor of 1/λ^5 before college was over 40 years ago so I might have forgotten.

2. Momentum change required to change the speed of a mass by Δv?

3. No idea on the one for dt/dλ. Nothing from the left appears explicitly on the right.

On to the second row.

4. Pythagorean theorem.

5. No idea.

Next row

6. The Drake equation.

7. Definition of average velocity.

Next row.

8. Position of free falling object in a 1 g uniform gravitational field in a vacuum.

Next row.

9. Something thermodynamic.

10. Newton's law of gravity.

11. Looks like half of this is blocked by her head, but given that it is next to Newton's law of gravity, and has 8 Pi G in it which also appears in general relativity a lot, and that it has on the right side the ratio of jerk to acceleration (assuming a is acceleration), I'm going to guess something to do with relativistic gravity.

Next row.

12. No idea.

13. The most famous equation in the world.

14. Newton's second law.

15. Too much is cut off.

Final row.

16. Seems to be calculating the ratio of successive terms of some sequence. Partly cut off but can see Planck and Boltzmann constants so guessing we are back at thermodynamics. I'll go out on a limb and guess it has something do with entropy.

16. Too much is cut off.

soneca5 hours ago

I think it was there to show she is a teacher, rather than a scientist. The legend says so. The image itself is of a very typical teacher. It didn’t bother me in any form. It not even looked as “high-brow” to me (a serious picture of her looking to the horizon or a typical “writer pose” looking into the camera would look more highbrow to me)

dan-g5 hours ago

The author teaches physics at a college, so I’m not sure why you say this is unrelated? The article is largely about her career path and how she ended up as an author and teacher.

tzs4 hours ago

> Why would someone who wants to be taken seriously as a scientist pose in front of something like that?

She was probably asked to, knew that the photographer probably has a much better idea of what the publication wanted than she did, and so did what was asked.

She would not have worried about it making it hard to take her seriously because she almost certainly knows that everyone who she needs to have take her seriously has seen hundreds of similar articles with their accompanying similar photos and know how that works. Many have probably themselves been in "whiteboard of equations" shots or the also popular "in front of overstuffed bookshelf" shots.

constantcrying5 hours ago

Yes.

They obviously aren't what you would find in any university class, where you do things like derivations and don't just write random formulas on the blackboard. So it is a staged picture just trying to show off to people who don't know any better.

brnt5 hours ago

HR, outreach and/or recruitment departments organise those sorts of things and you may just be selected because you are photogenic. Also, serious scientists are not above self promotion; it's arguably their most important skill.

spratzt6 hours ago

From one fantasy world to the next.

swayvil5 hours ago

Using science fiction to discuss politics is like using the Starship Enterprise to drive down to the corner grocery.

Politics is small. Exploring the edges of reality is large.

jowea2 hours ago

In addition to the already mentioned irony of bring up ST, what do you think of say, Starship Troopers? Sure there is some scifi that's about some mind screwy science but there's more to the genre.

Anyway I like Asimov's classification, social scifi is political: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AsimovsThreeKind...

queuebert4 hours ago

Science fiction allows us to explore the ramifications of theoretical political systems in a way that is not possible in reality except over very long timescales and with extremely cooperative citizens.

AlexandrB3 hours ago

I would argue that this is not really true. You can't really understand the ramifications of theoretical political systems with thought experiments in a book or movie for because political systems are complex and ramifications thereof are harder to predict than the stock market.

A lot of sci-fi instead seems to recontextualize common human issues into an environment where existing political pre-conceptions can be avoided. Obvious examples are things like the half black/half white episode[1] of Star Trek TOS or "Measure of a Man"[2] from Star Trek TNG. These are pretty highly regarded episodes and neither really has anything to do with the Federation of Planets or its political system (in fact there are very few episodes that deal with these topics). Instead they're explorations of racism and what it means to be human/sentient.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Let_That_Be_Your_Last_Battlefi...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Measure_of_a_Man_(Star_Tre...

queuebert3 hours ago

You're right that political systems are far too complex to get perfect in a thought experiment, but I would argue that thinking about it ahead of time can't possibly be worse than blindly forging ahead.

KittenInABox5 hours ago

Funny you talk about the Starship Enterprise... Star Trek is super political lol

havblue4 hours ago

I think it's reductive to say it's political. Trek at its best asks philosophical questions and explores the arguments. At its worst there's the "warp travel causes pollution, let's implement a speed limit" episode. Sure, you can reduce the Cardassians to being bad mid century Europeans. But you can also think of them as ruthlessly following the standards of utilitarianism. (Also bad) Saying it's just politics is lazy.

jowea2 hours ago

I guess it depends on the episode, and I do prefer when it's more abstract, but when do you think it's political if indirectly advocating for example gay rights or environmental protections isn't?

swayvil4 hours ago

And it stinks when they go that way.

TOS went there a little. STD goes there all day.

mpalmer4 hours ago

TOS went way further than you give it credit for. Different things were controversial and "of-the-moment" when the original aired.

KittenInABox4 hours ago

They've been super political since season 1??

anthk4 hours ago

Eh, scifi has been doing politics since the beginning. Be in America, be in the Ussr, be in Europe to denounce social issues. Tarkovsky, Orwell, Bradbury, Asimov...

swayvil3 hours ago

When we contemplate the edges of what could be, some think "what if I had more money?". Others think, "what if the world was a giant cupcake?". Those second guys are the scifi fans. Those first guys like politics.

Joel_Mckay4 hours ago

Most science fiction is just lazy writing about current pop-culture trends, or stories gleaned from other areas of fiction. It is a difficult genre to navigate for quality...

George Lucas was considered a genius for "allegedly" copying this film scene-for-scene:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hidden_Fortress

https://archive.org/details/the-hidden-fortress (1960*, Akira Kurosawa)

The original film was entertaining, and still worth a gander... unlike the poorly generated article =3

fsckboy2 hours ago

those are two great links, wow! thank you.