Awesome Con, says its website, celebrates "all aspects of geekdom and pop culture, with a wide assortment of comic books, collectibles, toys, games, original art, cosplay, and more." Now in its second year, Awesome Con occupies the convention center in Washington, DC. Hoping to find some science amid the science fiction, I attended this year's con, which took place during Easter weekend.
Among the people I met on the exhibit floor was Mandy Sweeney, who was staffing the booth of the future Museum of Science Fiction. The new museum, Sweeney told me, still needs to raise money, but the project is sufficiently advanced that Sweeney and other members of the museum's executive team are looking for sites in DC.
This image appears on the back page of the Museum of Science Fiction's prospectus.
When the museum is up and running, one of Sweeney's responsibilities will be managing educational outreach, which is central to the museum's mission. The museum's prospectus cites President Barack Obama's 2009 Educate to Innovate campaign to move American children from the middle to the top of the global STEM education rankings:
The museum will support this campaign by engaging children and young adults through a variety of exhibits and educational programs designed to interest them in creative STEM-related careers. The museum’s education staff will collaborate with educators and school boards early in the planning phase to ensure effective engagement with students. STEM skills are, however, only one element needed to drive innovation. The Museum of Science Fiction has the potential to motivate students to pursue not only STEM fields, but also the arts, and develop the curiosity and imagination necessary for effective innovative thinking and problem solving.
I'm glad that the museum aims to promote the arts and the sciences. Science fiction is, after all, a combination of both. But my conversation with Sweeney had me wondering: Does science fiction inspire children to take an interest in science?
Certainly, when I go to Comic-Con in San Diego, I encounter young people wearing T-shirts covered with Maxwell's equations and other manifestations of science geekdom. But if those students were like me, their interest in science predated their interest in science fiction.
To help answer my question, I went through the autobiographies of the 21st century's Nobel physics laureates, which you can find on the Nobel Prize Foundation's website.
Only two laureates mentioned science fiction. Roy Glauber, who shared the 2005 prize for developing a quantum theory of optics, wrote that he read the "great adventure stories of Jules Verne, Alexander Dumas, and Walter Scott." Theodor Hänsch, whose prize for high-precision optical spectroscopy was also awarded in 2005, wrote, "I eagerly read popular science and science fiction books from the public library."
As a fan of science fiction, I was disappointed by the result of my modest investigation—until I realized that I might have asked the wrong question. Physicists who win Nobel Prizes are, ipso facto, innovative and talented. Their imaginations might not need the fertilizer that science fiction can provide. But what about the rest of us?
Science fiction involves the concoction of characters and plots, as do other literary genres, but it goes further to invent technologies, societies, species, planetary systems, and so on. Whereas Charles Dickens vividly and accurately described the real London of the 19th century, China Miéville imagined a vast London-like metropolis, New Crobuzon, whose population is made up of humans, nonhumans, and primitive robots and where the laws of physics can be bent.
So the importance of science fiction to science could indeed be, as the Museum of Science Fiction puts it, to "develop the curiosity and imagination necessary for effective innovative thinking and problem solving."