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Are Textbooks Science Fiction?

by Joan Slonczewski

Today I have the great pleasure of hosting my friend Joan Slonczewski, who will discuss how textbooks can fire the imagination of future scientists.  Dr. Slonczewski is Professor of Biology at Kenyon College where she teaches, does research in microbiology, and writes a leading undergraduate textbook, Microbiology: An Evolving Science (W. W. Norton). She is also an SF author well-known for incorporating real science in her fiction, as highlighted by her justly famous A Door into Ocean.  Her recent SF novel, The Highest Frontier (Tor/Macmillan), shows a college in a space habitat financed by a tribal casino and protected from alien invasion by Homeworld Security.

When the film Avatar opened, it drew many critiques based on science. The planet Pandora could not exist around a gas giant; the neural-linked ecosystem would have no predators; and the Na’vi should have six limbs, like other Pandoran fauna. The greatest flaw was that the Na’vi have breasts, although their class of creatures are not mammals. Non-mammals having breasts would be an error unthinkable in real science.

Yet I wonder what might happen if an introductory textbook in biology were to receive scrutiny similar to that of Avatar.  If non-mammals should not be shown with breasts, does it follow that true mammals, named for the mammary gland, should indeed show breasts? The typical textbook section on “mammalian diversity” shows scarcely a mammary gland. One would never guess that we drink milk from cattle, mares, camels, and reindeer. The more modern books do show prominent breasts on a human. In other words, a view of life surprisingly similar to Avatar.

I first saw the fictional aspect of textbooks from the viewpoint of a science fiction author writing a college text, Microbiology: An Evolving Science (W. W. Norton).  As a fiction author–my book A Door into Ocean won the Campbell award–I well know the dilemma of “hard SF,” which aims to invent a future world of gadgets that don’t yet exist based on science that actually does. Even “hard” science fiction often dodges inconvenient points about exceeding the speed of light, breathing the air on any planet where the starship lands, and mating with the seductive native “aliens.”

A textbook, I thought, would be different. My coauthor John Foster would correct what I wrote, and our publisher provided a throng of editors and expert reviewers. The art budget paid for stunning visuals from a first-rate graphic arts firm whose artists actually check details in the primary literature.

Our early illusions about textual perfection fell away in the light of reviewer comments based on errors entrenched in other books, and editorial “corrections” that often made clearer English but muddier science. But the art process was what really made me think of fiction. Early on we chose a “palette” in which color conveys information: DNA was purple, RNA was blue, proteins red, yellow, or green. And cell interiors, with their nucleus, mitochondria, and so on, offered a rainbow of colors from lilac to salmon. Our color-coded figures are more than informative; they are gorgeously attractive, so much so that prospective adopters have been known to caress them on the page.

But DNA is not “really” purple, and RNA is not really blue. Chloroplasts are indeed green, as typically shown, but mitochondria are not red aside from a few of their iron-bearing proteins. And what of individual atoms as ray-traced blue and red balls and sticks? This aspect of science art goes beyond fiction–it is fantasy.

Despite their limitations, the visuals in a textbook illustrate in that they form a pattern in the reader’s mind; a pattern that deepens understanding of a concept. This aim of illustration is actually shared by the best science fiction. Frank Herbert’s Dune illustrates how water scarcity drives an ecosystem. Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood illustrates how organisms trade genetic identity for survival.

So if textbook art is “fictional,” what needs to be “correct”? The mental patterns formed by the text and art need to be honest; to spark genuine insights that lead to understanding. A cell’s nucleus is not “really” lavender in color, but the colored shape draws attention to the nucleus as a compartment enclosing the precious DNA. By contrast, an image depicting the nuclear contents as spilling out of the cell would not yield insight, but confusion. A troubling new group of textbooks aim to sow such confusion–books with titles like Exploring Creation with Biology and The Lies of Evolution.  Such books aim to inoculate “inquiring preteens” against the founding principles of biology, geology, and cosmology.

If deliberate confusion is the worst sin of any book, the next worst sin is boredom. Teachers can make students read the most boring book; but will they stay awake?

A key decision we made for Microbiology: An Evolving Science was to tell stories. We told how Bangladeshi women taught the world to fight cholera. How life began out of atoms formed by stars that died long before our own sun was born. How a high school boy testified at the Scopes trial that humans evolved from microbes. How Louis Pasteur as a student discovered mirror symmetry in biomolecules–a tool that astrobiologists may use to reveal life on other worlds.

A textbook, like science fiction, should raise questions. Is there microbial life on Mars–and what might it look like? Textbooks should take the reader to new places where we’ve never been–and perhaps could never go, such as the interior of a cell, the electron cloud of an atom, or a planet where people have three sexes.  Like science fiction, a textbook should inspire people to learn more about real science, and even become scientists.  After Jurassic Park came out, some scientists felt embarrassed by the book’s technical flaws and its portrayal of money-mad dinosaur cloners.  But so many students came to Kenyon College wanting to clone dinosaurs that we founded a new program in molecular biology.

My latest work of fiction, The Highest Frontier, has already drawn complaints. The space elevator won’t work; the casino-financed satellite can’t be built; and the aliens could not really evolve like viruses. Let’s hope at least the book inspires students to pursue virology.

Athena’s coda:  Readers of this blog know the reasons why I detest Avatar, which go beyond its sloppy science; so do some attendees of Readercon 2010, because Joan and I had a lively exchange about it in a panel.  Even so, I entirely agree with what Joan says here, as attested by The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction.

In my essays and talks, I have repeatedly used A Door into Ocean as an example of outstanding “hard” SF that does not trumpet its hardness and also contains the additional layers and questioning of consequences that make it compelling fiction.

I also had the privilege of reading the penultimate version of The Highest Frontier.  The novel is an unusual combination of space opera and grounded near-future extrapolation — and Harry Potter aficionados would love it if they found out about it (unfortunately unlikely, given the proliferation of unlinked subgenre ponds in speculative fiction).  It’s fascinating to compare and contrast it with Morgan Locke’s Up Against It, also from Tor.  Both are set in beleaguered space habitats where cooperative problem-solving is the only viable option; both literally brim with interesting concepts, vivid characters and exciting thought experiments.

The two novels are proof of three things: women can write stellar hard SF; scenarios for a long-term human presence in space that ignore biology (very broadly defined) are doomed; and I need not despair of finding SF works that engage me… provided that authors as talented as these continue to be published against least-common-denominator tides.

Images: 1st, a Sharer of Shora (from A Door into Ocean) as envisioned by Rowan Williams; 2nd, Slonczewski’s microbiology textbook opens with the NASA Phoenix lander and asks, “Is there life on Mars?”; 3rd, a glimpse of the habitat in The Highest Frontier.

20 Responses to “Are Textbooks Science Fiction?”

  1. Caliban says:

    Very interesting points. This is the tension in science, of course, of what features are important and which are, for the moment at least, not. Physicists like myself tend towards the most reductionist, the winnowing of most features to get to the central issue; many biologists by way of contrast celebrate “diversity” of form and the many pathways. I’m simplifying of course. A very interesting book on this topic is “Objectivity” by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison; they argue convincingly that over the years the idea of an “objective” portrayal of a topic swings between an ideal “norm” and a catalog of variations.

    Most of all, I’m reminded of a favorite quote by Picasso, which I often use in my talks (especially when I have heavily abstracted a system)

    “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand,”

    though of course I often substitute “math” or even “science” for “art”…

    — Calvin

  2. […] post: Astrogator's Logs » Blog Archive » Are Textbooks Science Fiction? September 27th, 2011 | Tags: best-science, brood, butler, frank-herbert, how-organisms, […]

  3. Astronist says:

    Re Avatar: when I saw the film, I thought it was quite obvious that the Na’vi were intended to be mammals, belonging to the genus Homo. The avatar form itself was said to be a genetic hybrid between human and Na’vi, indicating that James Cameron is either brain-dead, or hinting strongly at our close kinship. I assume that a sequel will show how the Na’vi were brought from Earth a million years or so ago and transplanted into the Pandoran ecosystem, complete with the obviously genetically engineered neural link with other species, and who did it, and why, and where they are now.

    The ostensible message of the film is the rejection of modern civilisation as evil in favour of a return to a mythical pre-industrial state of bliss and oneness with nature. However, this is contradicted by the facts that the film itself is rooted in modern American capitalism and employs new technology. It therefore only makes sense as a sort of joke: the blissful Eden must turn out to be technologically contrived, as the film itself is.

  4. Athena says:

    The Pandorans only make sense in the way you describe, Stephen. They’re Hollywood’s equivalent of Le Guin’s Hainish genetic engineering experiments (including the justly famous Gethenians). I also agree about the Edenic pseudo-idyll — it can only survive on very high-tech dodges.

  5. Walden2 says:

    If my film made over two billion dollars and rising, plus the added revenue from the upcoming Disney theme attractions (not kidding), I wouldn’t care if my characters were biologically accurate, either. :^) Just keep the dough rolling in.

    I also recently learned that Cameron may have also been influenced by the SF novel The Jesus Incident.

    Very little has been released about the sequels due in a few years. First I heard they were going to explore the other moons neighboring Pandora, then they were going to check out the Pandoran ocean world. Who knows? It will be interesting to see if Avatar has the same public pull in 2014 or 2015, when the next films arrive.

  6. Athena says:

    I read the very long Wikipedia synopsis of The Jesus Incident. It sounds absolutely nothing like Avatar, except for the name of the planet (Pandora).

  7. Walden2 says:

    Why scientists should read science fiction

    By Hannah Waters | September 29, 2011 |

    Republished with scant edits from the previous iteration of Culturing Science on July 20, 2010. A great blog post about fiction inspiring science by Uta Frith reminded me of this old friend. Hat tip to Princess Ojiaku.

    I didn’t really grow up reading science fiction. Sure, I was (and am) completely obsessed with some fantasy novels (e.g. Lord of the Rings), but never made the leap to becoming a true sci-fi enthusiast.

    It wasn’t until I started studying science more fully that I developed an interest in speculative science fiction. Many of the stories deal with technology taking over civilization – but embedded within this framework is a great deal of excitement, along with some deserved anxiety.

    Full article here:

  8. Walden2 says:

    Athena, quoting from the Wikipedia entry for The Jesus Incident:

    “The setting of James Cameron’s Avatar bears great similarities with that of The Jesus Incident. The planet has a globally interconnected, sentient plant which all lifeforms on the planet are dependent upon. The planets even bear the same name, Pandora, and each features a conflict between people with technology (Shipmen in the book, the Company/Marines in Avatar), and people subjugated by technology (clones in the book, and native people in Avatar).”

  9. Athena says:

    Except that Herbert’s Pandora is almost entirely ocean, the sentient entity is kelp and the network does not include the land animals.. etc, etc.

  10. Dylan Fox says:

    I remember in GCSE physics we were taught that electrons orbited in nice neat shells in simple configurations that allowed the atoms to bond to one another. When we were taught about electron shells a A Level (the next degree of complexity up), one of the first things we were taught was that electrons didn’t orbit in nice neat shells, but in complicated patterns of probability. Thing is, the understanding we had gathered at GCSE with its inaccurate descriptions was just as valid–the same reactions happened in the same way, and the hypothesis we were able to construct about atomic interactions were just as correct. Sure, the simplification was a fiction, but it was a fiction which allowed us to explain the actual processes, and form and test predictions with a degree of accuracy. Surely that’s the point of science–to look at what happens, and to make predictions about what will happen, and then to test those predictions.

    Someone once called them, ‘lies to children’. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that kind of fiction. It’s when the fiction doesn’t lead to understanding, doesn’t lead to testable predictions that there’s a problem.

    Just my 2cents 🙂

  11. The “simplifying fiction” is necessary in teaching science. But it does create barriers to understanding. For instance, it is taught that microbes are single cells that don’t “develop,” then it turns out that many microbes have complex developmental processes. The “master molecule” view of DNA delayed understanding of horizontal gene transfer by a couple of decades.

    About the high-tech Eden, that is basically the state of all “indigenous peoples” today. Wherever people exist in a supposedly untouched state, such as the Nicobar islanders, they do so by virtue of laws and barriers sustained by our high-tech society. This is equally true of “wilderness” zones which are all parks maintained by technology.

  12. Walden2 says:

    This book looks very interesting, just from reading the two online sample sections alone:

    Lab Coats in Hollywood
    Science, Scientists, and Cinema
    David A. Kirby

    March 2011
    6×9, 264 pp., 74 illus.
    $27.95/£19.95 (CLOTH)


    There is also an interview with the book author here:

  13. Athena says:

    Larry, the book sounds interesting but expensive… which is often the problem with lay science books.

  14. Walden2 says:

    Sad to say that is a typical price for such books these days, and in fact that is actually a bit cheaper than some I have seen.

  15. Walden2 says:

    Gas ‘n’ Air

    This week, a selection of papers discussing the recently discovered faster-than-light neutrino effect

    kfc 10/01/2011

    New Constraints On Neutrino Velocities

    Superluminal Neutrinos Without Revolution

    On the Possibility of Superluminal Neutrino Propagation

    The Hypothesis of Superluminal Neutrinos: comparing OPERA with other Data

    Relativistic Superluminal Neutrinos

    The OPERA Neutrino Velocity Result And The Synchronisation Of Clocks

    A Possible Statistical Mechanism Of Anomalous Neutrino Velocity In OPERA Experiment?

    A Comment On The OPERA Result And CPT

    Superluminal Neutrinos And Extra Dimensions: Constraints From The Null Energy Condition

  16. coolstar says:

    Avatar is actually quite “literate” in terms of its science when compared with J.J. Abrams’ abomination in the “reboot” of Star Trek. I had no trouble (well, not much, the floating mountains being an exception; unobtainium I can live with. unexplainium, not so much) suspending disbelief for Avatar while that was impossible (for this professional astronomer) for Star Trek.

  17. Athena says:

    I detested the Star Trek reboot, for reasons I explained in a guest essay at Centauri Dreams. On a larger note, we tend to dislike errors in our specific discipline, because they’re glaring to us, making suspense of disbelief impossible.

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  19. Walden2 says:

    If you read one of the sample chapters from my link to the book Lab Coats in Hollywood above, you will find that the science consultant on the Star Trek reboot, Carolyn Porco, was asked ONE question by the producers during the entire film, and that was where was a good place to hide the Starship Enterprise in the Sol system to avoid detection by the Romulan bad guys.

    That film was just awful all the way around. I do not look forward to the next one, as I doubt the makers have learned anything from last time, or probably even care so long as the money keeps rolling in.

  20. Walden2 says:

    I was not quite sure where else to put this in your blog, Athena:

    Revolutionary ‘DNA Tracking Chamber’ Could Detect Dark Matter

    An unlikely group of physicists and biologists plan to build a dark matter detector out of DNA that will outperform anything available today

    The Physics arXiv Blog

    Monday, July 2, 2012

    Perhaps the greatest and most fiercely contested race in modern science is the search for dark matter.

    Physicists cannot see this stuff, hence the name. However, they infer its existence because they can see its gravitational influence on the structure of galaxies and clusters of galaxies. It implies that the universe is filled with dark matter, much more of it than the visible matter we can see

    If they’re right, dark matter must fill our galaxy and our Solar System. At this very instant, we ought to be ploughing our way through a dense sea of dark matter as the Sun moves towards the constellation of Cygnus as it orbits the galactic centre.

    That’s why various groups are racing to detect this stuff using expensive detectors in deep underground caverns, which shield them from radiation that would otherwise swamp the signal.

    These experiments are looking for the unique signature that dark matter is thought to produce as a result of the Earth’s passage around the Sun. During one half of the year, the dark matter forms headwind as the Earth ploughs into it; for the other half of the year, it forms a tailwind.

    Indeed, a couple of groups claim to have found exactly this diurnal signature, although the results are highly controversial and seem to be in direct conflict with other groups who say they have not seen it.

    There’s a a straightforward way to make better observations that should solve this conundrum. The dark matter signal should vary, not just over the course of a year, but throughout the day as the Earth rotates.

    The dark matter headwind should be coming from the direction of Cygnus, so a suitable detector should see the direction change as the Earth rotates each day.

    There’s a problem, however: nobody has built a directional dark matter detector.

    That’s why a revolutionary new idea from an unlikely collaboration of physicists and biologists looks rather exciting. The group brings together diverse people, such as Katherine Freese at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, an astrophysicist and one of the leading thinkers in the area of dark matter, and George Church at Harvard University in Cambridge, a geneticist and a pioneer in the area of genome sequencing.

    These guys say they can overcome the problems with conventional dark matter detection by using DNA to spot dark matter particles.

    Their detector is unconventional, to say the least. Its basic detecting unit consists of a thin gold sheet with many strands of single-strand DNA hanging from it, like bead curtains or a hanging forest. Each strand of DNA is identical except for a label at the free hanging end, which identifies where on the gold sheet it sits.

    The idea is that a dark matter particle smashes into a heavy gold nucleus in the sheet, sending it careering out of the gold foil and through the DNA forest. The gold nucleus then severs DNA strands as it travels, cutting a swathe through the forest.

    These strands fall onto a collecting tray below, which is removed every hour or so. The segments can then be copied many times using a polymerase chain reaction, thereby amplifying the signal a billion times over.

    Since the sequence and location of each strand is known, it is straightforward to work out where it was cut, which allows the passage of the gold particle to be reconstructed with nanometre precision.

    The entire detector consists of hundreds or thousands of these sheets sandwiched between mylar sheets, like pages in a book. In total, a detector the size of a tea chest would require about a kilogram of gold and about 100 grams of single-strand DNA.

    The advantage of this design is manifold. First, the DNA sequence determines the vertical position of the cut to within the size of a nucleotide. That kind of nanometre resolution is many orders of magnitude better than is possible today.

    Second, this detector works at room temperature, unlike other designs which have to be cooled to measure the energy that dark matter collisions produce.

    And finally, the mylar sheets make the detector directional. Each sheet should absorb the gold nucleus of this energy after it has passed through the DNA forest. Any higher energy nuclei, from background radiation or cosmic rays for example, should pass through several ‘pages’, which allows them to be spotted and excluded.

    With the device facing in one direction, a dark matter particle strikes a gold nucleus, propelling it into the DNA forest. But in the other, the gold nucleus is propelled into mylar sheet where it is absorbed. That’s what makes it directional–the detector should only record events coming from one direction.

    This should allow the device to spot the change in dark matter signal each day, which in turn should make the detection much less statistically demanding.

    That’s a fascinating idea that’s likely to generate much interest. However, it’s not without some challenges of its own.

    First up, nobody really knowns how rapidly-moving, highly-ionised gold nuclei will interact with single strands of DNA or indeed with forests of them. This is something the team plans to study in some detail before a detector can be built.

    Then there is the challenge of making DNA strands that are long enough to present a reasonable ‘forest’ for gold nuclei to pass through. Church, Freese and co say they’d like strands consisting of 10,000 bases to create a forest that entirely absorbs the energy of a gold nucleus passing through it.

    By contrast, off-the shelf arrays offer DNA strands with only 250 bases or so. These guys say they’ll probably have to settle for strands of about 1000 bases.

    The DNA strands also have to hang straight down, rather than curled up. That’s a tall order over the area of a square metre or so that the detector will cover. At this scale, electric and magnetic fields trump gravity and these are likely to be a nuisance, particularly when it comes to collecting the severed DNA.

    So the team will have to devise some kind DNA ‘comb’ that straightens the hair. One idea is attaching a tiny magnet to the free end of each strand, allowing it to be pulled downward.

    The DNA strands will also have to be made from carbon-12 and 13, since carbon-14 is naturally radioactive and would otherwise produce an unwanted hiss of background noise. Using only very old carbon, in which all the carbon-14 has decayed, should do the trick.

    Finally, there is the significant engineering challenge in making metre square DNA arrays, collecting trays that catch the severed DNA strands and fitting them altogether into a working detector.

    There are more than a few unknowns in this approach which makes it high risk. But there is also high potential pay off because other designs for directional dark matter detectors are huge, complex and potentially vastly more expensive to build and run. That makes this approach exciting.

    The discoverers of dark matter are a shoo-in for a Nobel prize. Given these stakes, we might see some investment in this idea sooner rather than later.

    But there are also reasons to be cautious. A small but vocal minority of physicists say dark matter doesn’t exist, that other ideas better explain the structure of galaxies.

    If they’re right, we’ll one day look back on these efforts in the same way we think about the search for phlogiston or the debate about the spontaneous emergence of lower life forms: as a mildly amusing cul de sac of 21st century physics.

    Ref: New Dark Matter Detectors using DNA for Nanometer Tracking