Astronomy in Science Fiction

When I attended the University of Texas, in Austin, back in the last century, I took a few astronomy classes and the most interesting one was called “Astronomy in Science Fiction.”

Through the fog of memory that sits like interstellar dust between me and Total Recall, I can only say with a level of certainty limited by more than just Heisenberg’s equations that we read at least one novel for the class – Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – and numerous short stories,Tau Zero by Poul Anderson including the classic “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov and a few Larry Niven stories.  I’m pretty sure “There is a Tide” was one of them, and perhaps “The Hole Man.”  I recommend them all.

We read the stories and then we discussed the astronomy and science concepts contained in them.  It was fun and educational, a great way to teach and learn science.

Mike Brotherton had a similar idea, which is not terribly surprising, considering he’s both an assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Wyoming, and a science fiction author himself.  He’s written two hard-SF novels – Star Dragon and Spider Star – and some short stories, one of which is featured in his new anthology (one of the perks of being the editor of a book is the increased odds of being included in it).

Diamonds in the Sky is available for free online and was funded with a grant from the National Science Foundation.  How cool is that?

According to Mike’s website, its purpose is…

“to provide stories with ample and accurate astronomy spanning a range of topics covered in introductory courses.  Instructors in high school and college may these stories useful, as some students may learn concepts more easily through story than from lecture.  Fans of science fiction with good science should also enjoy these stories.  Contributions include both original stories and reprints from some of the top science fiction writers working today.”

One of the stories, “Planet Killer,” is co-written by my friend, Kevin Grazier, who is a planetary scientist at JPL and the editor of The Science of Michael Crichton, The Science of Dune, and the upcoming The Science of Battlestar Galactica (he’s also science advisor to Battlestar).

I mentioned Diamonds in the Sky in the new article about me at The Manitoban Q&A: Brian Malow, science comedian.

Early in the interview, student journalist Trevor Bekolay asked about the role of storytelling in teaching science and we talked a bit about science fiction’s influence.  It was certainly a big influence in my life – and continues to be.  I credit Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Larry Niven, in particular, with captivating me early on with their creative use of real science concepts in their science fiction.

It’s a great way to get acquainted with science – in the context of an engaging story.

Check out Diamonds in the Sky for free online.

Links:
Diamonds in the Sky

Q&A: Brian Malow, science comedian

Related post: 
Science Comedian in The Manitoban

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Discussion

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  • Tara

    1:53 pm
    Feb-26-2009
    Reply

    The idea of funding for science fiction is a wonderful one. I believe that science fiction and real-world science are strongly interlinked… certainly there are plenty of scientists out there who got their first taste for their field by reading (or watching) SF.

  • Brian Malow

    8:24 pm
    Feb-28-2009
    Reply

    … and then it’s only “one small step” to funding for science comedy!

  • George

    8:57 am
    Mar-2-2009
    Reply

    The idea is very cool and with merit. The old Sci-Fi Masters ( and yes I know some of them hated that term) used hard science to base their stories on all the time. Even though the science changed (rather what we know or think has changed) the stories still had a “real” feel to them, even when they had bizarre situations. Modern authors would benefit from a science refresher course now and then. :)

  • Andrew Fraknoi

    2:50 pm
    Sep-28-2011
    Reply

    Some nice suggestions for stories. For readers who want a longer list, I keep a web page on science fiction with good astronomy, organized by topic at:
    http://www.astrosociety.org/education/resources/scifi.html

  • Brian

    2:57 pm
    Sep-28-2011
    Reply

    Thanks for the comment, Andrew. And that’s a nice long list! I appreciate the many references to Gregory Benford books and stories, and also Robert J. Sawyer. Thanks!

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