JUST YESTERDAY, I concluded a six-month entanglement with the Vorkosigan Saga, a science fiction collection by Lois McMaster Bujold that took me through about 20 novels, novellas and short stories and countless worlds. In true space opera fashion, the series details humanity’s expansion through the galaxy, depicting civilizations in distant star systems and colonization workarounds on air-thin planets and space stations.
It was a literary adventure that also got me even more excited about research here on Earth than I already am.
I started reading about Tau Ceti’s proximity to our Solar System and its dust disk that could be home to planets in the habitable zone. I spent some time reading about wormholes, or Einstein-Rosen bridges, which I didn’t know are consistent with Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
I’m certainly not the only one moved to investigation by artistic representations of space and astronomy.
Last summer, I watched a session of Insider’s Guide to the Galaxy on “Science Fiction in the Stars,” hosted by astronomy educator and SkyNews writer Chris Vaughan and RASC outreach co-ordinator Jenna Hinds (the replay of the session is available at youtube.com/RASCanada). Viewers brought up their favourite canons, including Star Wars, Firefly, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Expanse, Battlestar Galactica, “anything by Larry Niven” — the list goes on.
Delving into the fictional universes, Jenna and Chris pointed out stars from famous shows on a star chart while mentioning asterisms — like the “Stargate” near HIP 61466 — and speaking about different types of systems with exoplanets, like TRAPPIST-1. They spoke about Bayer designations; Menkar or Alpha Ceti, for instance, was called Ceti Alpha in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan when Khan Noonien Singh was marooned there.
Personally, these truths in the fiction draw me into these subjects in reality. And for some, these depictions of science can lead to species-advancing inspiration.
Robert H. Goddard — the name behind NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center — is considered the father of modern rocket propulsion. He had just read H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds when he climbed his family’s cherry tree, looked at the sky and he felt inspired to build a device that might reach the Moon or even Mars and decided to devote his life to the task.
In another famous example, the Milwaukee School of Engineering gave James Doohan — the actor who played Star Trek’s Montgomery “Scotty” Scott — an honorary doctorate after half their students said in a survey that his character inspired them to choose engineering as a career.
And 2018, an article published in the MIT Technology Review wrote that scientists had studied the way researchers involved in human-computer interaction use science fiction in their work, finding not only that science fiction plays a significant role, but that its impact is on the increase.
I’ve still got a lot of sources of inspiration on the shelves to get through. Next up: Contact by Carl Sagan and Dune by Frank Herbert.
What are your favourites — any suggestions? Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll compile a list to share on our website.