ScienceOnline'09 - interview with Blake Stacey

The series of interviews with some of the participants of the 2008 Science Blogging Conference was quite popular, so I decided to do the same thing again this year, posting interviews with some of the people who attended ScienceOnline'09 back in January.

Today, I asked my Scibling, Blake Stacey from the Science After Sunclipse blog to answer a few questions.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? For example, what is your Real Life job?

Nominally, I do "complex systems modeling and analysis", but the projects I work on are hush-hush. It's all very need-to-know. I could figure out what I'm doing, but then I'd have to kill myself.

What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?

A hammy Shakespearean over-actor. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, and who would have thought the old man to've had so much blood in him?

I see from your blog that you wrote a science-fiction novel. What's that about?

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Until Earthset is a tale of forbidden love, murder most foul and artificial intelligence, all set in an alternate 1968. Why I wrote it -- well, the compulsion to invent imaginary people and make them suffer is probably just one of those delightful spandrels we've inherited, a side effect of our brains thinking in narrative terms. After the fact, I was able to invent several justifications for my hobby. For example, we keep having arguments on the Blogohedron about the relationship between science and art, about how scientific accuracy works in fiction and all that, and it's nice to have a little practical experience in the matter. To a stuffy audience, I could sell my novel as a 130,000-word thesis on The Two Cultures Question (TM), but really, it's a murder mystery with robots.

Do you think science fiction has an obligation to be scientifically accurate?

Well, let's break that down a bit. "Science" is (a) a community of people using (b) a set of methods and tools to build (c) a body of knowledge which sometimes (d) gets applied to make technology. If the characters in your story investigate something wholly fictitious, like an alien monolith, using the practices which real scientists would actually employ, are you being "accurate"? Even stories not expressly written to be didactic build up our mental image of the world. Now, you could try to use fiction in an "educational" way to convey the facts of science, to transmit the data about our discoveries, but you can also use it to illuminate the methods of the trade and the social mores of the profession. Think of a novel like Contact -- or, to pick an extreme example, the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. The scientific knowledge base of the story is fanciful, but the travails of the characters do call to mind issues about science as a profession, such as the ways people (and women in particular) have had to balance career and family. Art is generally better at raising questions than providing answers. If you're looking for hard data in fiction, if you want to find the blueprint for a perfect society in a made-up story, well, peace be with you in your quest. But that's only half the picture. In the age of Open Access and Google Scholar, we can dig up any particular datum we need, if we know how to look; the challenge is having a clue on how to start, and knowing how to handle what we bring back. The former requires an understanding of the broad strokes of scientific knowledge, and the latter depends on good critical thinking skills. A science education has to teach both, to have any worth at all, and science fiction can help us explore science-as-method even though we've yet to dig up that monolith in Tycho crater.

At ScienceOline'09, Henry Gee argued that creating science fiction requires the same kind of imagination as doing science, because both start with inventing hypotheses about the world and then exploring what they would entail.

Yes, I'd say there's a great deal of truth in that. In science, hypotheses survive when they mesh well with the data, whereas in SF, the conjectures which endure are the ones which make for good stories. (Our understanding of the strong nuclear force has advanced quite a bit since 1972, but Asimov's The Gods Themselves hardly suffers for having arrived before quantum chromodynamics!) There's this notion afoot that if a scientist doesn't like a movie which has some science-talk in it, this has to be because the science was bad! This is rather like saying the only reason a plumber can dislike a movie is because it doesn't show anybody using the bathroom. Now, I don't want to make a blanket statement here, but I do know a few science people, and from what I've seen, they're plenty willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a story -- except when the story itself isn't good enough to suspend disbelief for!

With one book down, where will you go next?

I'm taking a stab at mathematics education, partly spurred by my own unhappy memories of high-school mathematics classes, which in retrospect turned out to be four years of almost wholly wasted time. Coming from someone who went on to get a physics degree, that's pretty harsh! I happily deal with abstruse mathematics every working day, but you couldn't pay me to sit through Pre-Calculus again, so something must be off here.

And you'll be speaking on mathematics education at ScienceOnline'10?

With Maria Droujkova, yes. For all I know, we'll be demonstrating our spiffy computer graphics to an empty room, because we'll be scheduled at the same time as some "civility in communication" session, to which everybody will go so they can argue at each other about how best to be a nice person.

Is there anything that happened at this Conference - a session, something someone said or did or wrote - that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

Finally meeting Brian Switek of Laelaps and Dr. SkySkull of Skulls in the Stars was fun, because we share enthusiasms even though we work in different fields -- Brian and I have gotten righteously steamed over "textbook cardboard", for example, which he finds in palaeontology and I in physics. But you asked if anything changed my views, which isn't the same as reaffirming them. That's more difficult to say. I can tell you, though, that meeting Stacy Baker's high-school students was a blast: I skipped out on the sessions of the last day to chat with them instead. They provided the questions, I tried to bring the answers. If anything at the conference changed the way I think about the biz, it was that conversation. When you meet the people who are poised to benefit the most from good science communication, the quarrels you used to have on the Blogohedron look downright silly.

It was so nice to finally meet you and thank you for the interview. I am looking forward to seeing you again next January.

Likewise. Thank you very much for the opportunity to ramble.


See the 2008 interview series and 2009 series for more.


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