Science and science fiction


Ostensibly, both of the logos have a connection to some element of Science; one represents NASA, at the forefront of space exploration in the US, and the other denotes a generic flood warning sign, which we’ll probably have more of as time goes on, as the usual suspects make their appearance on the soon-to-be-soggier world stage.

The reason they appear in today’s post is that at a recent science fiction convention (a ‘con’, in the argot of the age), I had a chance to sit in on some interesting discussion panels; one regarding the Challenger disaster, and one regarding fiction (cli-fi) and some of the stories that were being told in current science fiction world.

The mood of the NASA panel was mixed; while everyone lamented the failure of the Challenger (with of course, the comparison to the Columbia accident), the general view was one of “we shall go on.”  The follow-on comments (some by former NASA folks) varied from “we’ve figured this out much better”, “space travel is inherently dangerous,” and “yes, we were lucky all those years in Mercury/Gemini/Apollo.”   Although the complex system of the Space Transportation System (the official name of the shuttle program) had issues, our “change management” procedures and “safety cultures” did catch up, and we’ve now got better systems in place to deal with future complicated devices.  In spite of it all, they still believed in their systems, and the righteousness of their cause.

The less attended session, on climate change fiction (cli-fi) was more realistic, and with the exception of one audience member, the view was the traditional one (where the world’s weather was going to get weird, sea levels were going to rise, etc).   So, with that basic premise (climate change was coming), the discussion centered around cli-fi books and stories which painted realistic pictures of our possible futures.

One of the panelists, who hosts a radio show on ecological issues, said this telling bit (paraphrasing here):

“Fifteen years ago, when I had scientists on my program, they didn’t speak as normal people would.  They’d use a lot of jargon (which I had to translate), and they were so sure of their science.   Now, when scientists come on my show, they are far, far more erudite and politically savvy, and ready to ‘speak normal English.’  However, in sad twist (and perhaps more frighteningly) – they say that nobody really listens to them.”

The interesting part of all of this was the dichotomy of the two worlds, even among the well-learned and technically astute.   One group was still in the “we must/we will reach the stars,” and the other was in the more realistic camp that most of us in the peak-everything/climate change world are familiar with.

I’m not saying or claiming that folks who attended the NASA panel don’t think that fact of  climate change is incorrect; I think most of them do.  If there was anything to take away from these two groups, is that one still believed in technology (complex systems can be handled correctly), whereas the other accepted the fact there was a limit to our cleverness, and that we were going to have to change the way we lived our lives.




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