Fiction can also be a way to explore future consequences and possibilities of scientific findings. But how important is this exchange of ideas for science? How does the way science is portrayed in popular culture affect the public perception of scientific research? And what could be some of the next big science leaps that we are imagining in popular culture today?

Participating guests were Sabine Höhler, Physicist and Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Joakim Wrethed, Lecturer at the Department of English at Stockholm University, Sara Ilstedt, Professor of product and service design at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, and Chad Orzel, Author and Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Union College.

A vision that can inspire scientists and researchers

"There is a need for a vision that can inspire scientists and researchers, and also for ideas to be shared by many so that they walk in the same direction. I remember in 1984 when William Gibson wrote a novel called Neuromancer, where he launched the word "Cyber Space". It described a vague and intriguing digital world where everything floated and thousands of computer scientists all over the world vent about to realise it”, Sara Ilstedt said.

Joakim Wrethed, Lecturer at the Department of English at Stockholm University
Joakim Wrethed, Lecturer at the Department of English at Stockholm University

"We can see throughout literary history how science pushes fiction and fiction pushes science. There is a reciprocal process going on. And for every utopian narrative that you get, there are at least a dozen dystopian ones. We as human beings are almost obsessed with worst case scenarios for any kind of innovation”, Joakim Wrethed added.

Science is leaving the ivory tower

"Science is leaving the ivory tower. What we see is a leaving of traditional disciplines which have worked for a long time, making students experts in special fields. But it does not work that way any longer, and we get cross disciplinary study fields like business engineering etc. And today we have urban growth etc which cannot be addressed by these disciplinary fields. Otherwise we would not sit and discuss crossing boundaries like in this talkshow Crosstalks”, Sabine Höhler, Physicist and Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies at KTH Royal Institute of Technology said.

Collaboration in science

The panel also discussed the difficulty of cross disciplinary work in science. "If you are working cross disciplinary and in huge teams, it is very difficult to get funding and publication. There are things that are not working so well in the academic system", they explained.

Collaboration in science is more and more common, but the myth of the brilliant scientist as a lone wolf is still very much used. "Most of what we do is team work nowadays. But the one that gets awarded is the one person, like the Nobel Price. The team work is usually invisible", Sabine Höhler said, and Joakim Wrethed added "Fiction has actually created this image of the mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein for example."

Alienating understanding

Chad Orzel, who has a blog where he talks to his dog about physics explains the importance of viewing the world in simpler terms, trying to understand it: "One of the biggest obstacles to people understanding relativity and quantum mechanics is that they seem really weird. They run counter to your everyday experience due to human preconceptions of how things should work. If you look at the way a dog does. A dog sees the world as a source of amazement and wonder. If you come at physics from that angle, it is a lot more appropriate."

The use of poetic words in science can make it harder to access the knowledge and to reach understanding, the panel declared. "Using literary expressions like Dark Matter and Cyber Space, science and fiction can create a much closed universe around big questions that make it really hard to access for the lay person," Sabine Höhler said.

"Using words like Dark Matter both in physics and in literature is interesting because they both describe something that we try to get at but we don't quite get there" Joakim Wrethed added.

Today’s monsters in science

Have we stopped being afraid of the cyborg, the panel was asked. "In one sense we have empowered it and made it our own, it is not alien any longer, but we confront other issues, like robots, what will happen. Or changing genetics, X-men.” Technology is everywhere. “There are gadgets we all love. All the information on your glasses, devices sewn into your clothes, we can become cyborgs. We love this and find it unproblematic. Science fiction does not address this, it addresses much larger questions, not at this gadget level. But that is not what is at stake, it is more on the level of genetic engineering, biomedicine, cloning. Those are the monsters we are dealing with nowadays”, not the charger or the devices. Sabine Höhler explained.

“When we discuss innovation we tend to discuss technology. But we also need to talk about social innovation, to change the way we are living, traveling, how we are spending our vacation. Technology is not able to save us, even if we like this to happen. Technology will help us a long way, but we need to be willing to take in the changes technology can provide,” Sara Ilstedt, Professor of product and service design at KTH Royal Institute of Technology explained.

Watch the whole episode here.

About Crosstalks

Crosstalks is an international academic talk show, broadcast once a month by two of Sweden’s top universities – KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Stockholm University. All episodes are available online here.