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.

Dia­monds in the Sky

Q&A: Bri­an Mal­ow, sci­ence come­di­an

Relat­ed post: 
Sci­ence Come­di­an in The Man­i­to­ban

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  • Tara

    1:53 pm

    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

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

  • George

    8:57 am

    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

    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:

  • Brian

    2:57 pm

    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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