Changing the Public Perception of “Mad” Science

October 9, 2015 § 4 Comments

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Scientists aren’t always depicted in the most flattering of lights. The stereotype that those who commit much of their time to experiments and scientific investigation are “mad scientists” is a trope that has been overused in literature, comics, and film, and it paints quite an unsettling picture of experimenters as extremely eccentric or insane hermits devoid of emotions or social skills who live their lives in laboratories tucked away from civilization. While the nature of scientific research no doubt requires one to spend hours performing experiments, analyzing data, and writing papers, this is far from a projection of a scientist’s personality and is simply the nature of any extended learning process.

This “process,” however, seems to be what keeps the general public away from the science scene. While scientific journals and documentaries about laboratory work may try to engage the common person in the discoveries being made daily in laboratories around the world, the public is not having it. The jargon is intimidating and the theories are complex. So what can be done to create a mutual understanding between those who do science and those who do not?Capture 5Capture

There are dozens of STEM programs—including everything from NASA Robotics Internships to Destination Science summer camps—seeking to involve kids and young adults in scientific activities. So why do kids participating in the “Draw-A-Scientist” Test (DAST) still create the same image of an unkempt, unsmiling, lab coat-clad man when asked to draw a picture of a typical “scientist?”  Some disconnect between actual experiments being conducted and information relayed to the general public prevents children from illustrating a scientist as a happy, tidy, female inventor or explorer. This clearly demonstrates the need to emphasize that there are not two different groups at odds here. Scientists are not “them.” They are “us.” We are all, in a way, engaging in this systematic methodology in our everyday lives. For some reason, people seem to have an inherent suspicion of scientists, believing that they will use the knowledge they acquire against us when in reality, most research is done for the greater benefit. Although we might not be fully knowledgeable on the research being done in nearby labs and universities, the unknown always creates opportunities to learn.

And this is where science fiction can come into play. Science fiction can be the bridge that spans the gap in appreciation between the public and the scientific. Sci-fi is not written to educate. It is created and imagined to explore, redefine, and inspire. Scientific journals might not be the most alluring magazines to read while unwinding on a Friday night. But novels, on the other hand, can present the same ideas and similar material in a more attractive and accessible fashion, generating a greater interest for scientific discovery. As more and more science fiction films and novels have been released in the past decade, public interest in this genre has increased as well. Hopefully, these forms of media will prompt more people to regard scientific work, and those who perform it, as valuable to them and society.

References and Further Reading:

  1. The Draw-A-Scientist Test http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/sce.3730670213/abstract;jsessionid=D380FD12DDF9ED2CDB0F4B4EE07CA6F1.f02t03
  1. Images

http://ed.fnal.gov/projects/scientists/index.html

-Bushra Rahman

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. . . Goes It So And

September 3, 2015 § 2 Comments

“It will only be a little pinch.”

Doctors always say that. I think they say it more for themselves than for the patient. A little asterisk to fluff their conscious. They hurt you, but they tell themselves it is to help you. They hurt you, but it only hurts a little bit. You tell me when the last time was that you got a shot and it didn’t hurt. The shots that don’t hurt aren’t described as a little pinch, they don’t need to be.

In the years since the civil war, Earth was simply a shell of a civilization. The neighborhoods still stood, but no community to be found. The office buildings still kissed the sky, but no businesses to fill them. There was no economy. No politics. No trust. But there was pain. The civil war took our humanity but it didn’t take our pain.

I was sick of the pain. Fight or flight had served our ancestors well, but I was never one for running, nor fighting really. I was the perfect candidate for the study: weak, depressed, and desperate.

My thoughts were interrupted by the searing pain inflicted by the hundreds of needles suddenly in each vein. No wonder they strapped me down, I thought, running suddenly seemed like the perfect hobby. I could feel the glistening serum fill my veins. With each and every drop I could feel myself changing.

I drifted home after that. What a quack. If anything I was in more pain. My back ached; my knees ached. When we learned how to travel faster than light, so did our knowledge. Cancer was stomped out like a bug within days. Nearly half our population had moved to Mars. But each day we lived with pain.

My disappointment clung to me like dirt. I needed a shower. I scrubbed until my arms were raw but I couldn’t wash away my disappointment. As the steam cleared I looked in the mirror. Terrified, another being looked back at me. His forehead was broad, nose flat, and head rounded. I moved. He moved. I blinked. He blinked.

I was the monster.

I tried to scream but it was a screech that rang out. I needed to see the doctor. I needed to know what was wrong with me. And so I went.

Running down the desolate streets, my backache gradually turned into searing pain. Hunching helped. And so I went.

When I barged into the office the doctor didn’t look surprised. Instead, he looked relieved. I tried to explain my terror but I couldn’t find the words. And so he went.

“I understand your terror. You sought relief from your pain, but to treat your pain would be to treat a symptom, not the cause.”

“Civil war spread like a disease after the human intellect doubled and tripled. It was John Stuart Mill that said ‘it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,’ but he did not account for the emptiness and desperation that accompanies dissatisfaction.”

“The desire for perfection was a virus that ran rampant after that. We tried to regroup but it was too far-gone. It is only through regression to our primitive selves that can truly cure the pain that civilization suffers from.”

“Consider yourself ground zero for the civilization that is to evolve.”

And so it goes. . .

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S. Jamison

Science Fiction and The Face Off Over Full Face Transplant Surgery

August 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

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Richard Norris, before and after his face transplant surgery. Photograph from Reuters.

Die Another Day, the 2002 installment in the James Bond franchise, is not especially renowned for its emphasis on scientific accuracy. The climax of the film is the revelation that the villain underwent gene therapy to give himself an entirely new face in a secret clinic in the Caribbean (the location conveniently giving Bond girl Halle Berry ample opportunity to romp around in a bikini while chasing bad guys). While this cinematic plot twist is more fantasy than science, in reality surgeons have recently been making advances in face transplant surgery. In March of 2012 Richard Norris received a full face transplant at the University of Maryland Medical Center, replacing his entire face from hairline to collarbone after serious disfigurement from a 1997 gunshot wound. Although this procedure restored him to a normal life and gave him the confidence to re-enter society, it has prompted serious controversy about its ethics. Face transplants require organ donation from a person still technically alive on life support, though in a non-responsive, vegetative state. The new face is a compilation of the donor and the receiver’s original face, since facial features are determined by the outer layer of skin and underlying skull structure.

However, the future of face transplant surgery could be interesting to explore through science fiction. This surgery was previously opposed in Europe by the Royal College of Surgeons in the UK and by the French National Ethics Advisory Committee due to ethical concerns about performing such a dangerous procedure for purely cosmetic reasons. Technique might advance to the level where ordinary patients might choose to go under the knife to become more beautiful, creating unreal standards of beauty. What would happen, for instance, if a famous person went into the non-responsive state required for donors? Could someone else assume their face?  Although the patient is not supposed to end up with the donors’ exact looks because of bone structure, in theory if two people had similar features it could be possible in the future that someone could have a dead person’s face. Already transplant recipients have to be carefully screened because of the strong link between the face and identity. Psychological trauma can occur due to the shock of externally becoming someone else.

So possibly the Bond villains’ assumption of a new identity is not so far-fetched, after all. The revolutionary advance from partial to full face reconstruction could have fascinating criminal, societal, and psychological ramifications that should be developed in science fiction.

Katy Cesarotti

2112

October 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

Rush is my favorite band in the universe.  Not only is their musical ability unparalleled by any major bands of today, the subject material of their lyrics is philosophical, profound, and often deals with fantasy and science fiction.  Currently, I’m listening to their concept album 2112, a 21-minute megasuite depicting a man who rediscovers rock music in a dystopian future, only to have his discovery rejected by the priests of the Temple of Syrinx; he then runs off, is shown a vision of the “Elder Race” by an oracle, and kills himself in despair of not living in such a free world.  If you’ve read Anthem, by Ayn Rand, this plot should sound familiar, sans the depressing end.  In any case, the music and lyrics fuse perfectly in creating the plot of the story.  I’d highly recommend spending the time and listening to the track.

Rush has inspired me before; I’ve used quotes from their songs on essays all throughout high school and on all manners of applications.  Now, when it comes time to think of a scifi story of my own, they once again pull through.  This story would be set in the far future and have the same theme of discovery, but aside from that the message would be entirely different.

It is the year 2504.  Earth has become uninhabitable, surrounded by a dense fog of carbon dioxide and methane, its surface temperature upwards of two hundred degrees Fahrenheit.  The majority of life is dead of cataclysmic storms and tremendous heat waves.  The only exceptions are archaea living near volcanic vents and the colony of ten thousand humans living on the Moon, a colony started by some farsighted scientists which is focused on terraforming the moon so that spacesuits are no longer necessary and the population can increase.  Having learned their lessons from the past, the founders of the colony set up an idyllic collectivist society, a society in which the benefit of the individual is subordinated to the benefit of the community.  Each member of the colony has a specific job, the people live in peace, and the overall conditions and culture are almost tribal in nature.  Unfortunately, these people have forgotten the true horrors of the distant past, and now carry on their society out of habit.  There is scientific progress, but a sense of history is lacking.

Obviously, also lacking is a resource supply, since the Moon doesn’t have much to offer on its own.  Thus, each month a crew of colonists makes a trip back to Earth to collect things like water, metal ore, and other necessary supplies.  Unfortunately, on one of these trips a young explorer falls through a crack in some rock, and a la Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood makes a discovery–more accurately, a rediscovery–of gold, all the gold bullion left behind in the ruins of Fort Knox.  Struck by its beauty, he takes a nugget, and mentally notes the location of the mine.  As more trips to Earth are required, he continually volunteers, each time taking back more and more gold, until he holds a vast fortune, or what would have been a vast fortune on Earth five hundred years earlier.  Eventually, he unveils his riches to the community.

The colony is in awe of this new, shiny metal, and because it lacks the historical knowledge of all the conflicts caused by gold over the years, does not know better than to make any attempt to seize it.  A bitter jealously develops, and at some point a good amount of the gold is stolen by the man’s rival and some of the rival’s followers.  Naturally, this sets off a violent conflict.

In the midst of this conflict, another resource ship returns, this one bearing another explorer who has fallen through the ruins of the Library of Congress and discovered the history of war on Earth.  Meaning to stop the war on the moon, he returns, but is killed in the fighting.  Eventually, the moon war is won by the original discoverer of the gold, who establishes a dictatorship and begins to pollute the moon with factories built to produce arms.

This is a pretty depressing view of human nature, I guess.  Hopefully we can save THIS Earth so that we don’t even have to resort to the moon.

Zach B.

Indifference…And Worse.

September 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

Although I have personally liked science fiction, most of my family and friends do not usually share this enthusiasm. To them, science fiction is merely another form of entertainment, just like cartoons, popular music, blockbuster movies, and video games, only differing in subject. Their usual attitudes toward science fictions range from indifference and polite disinterest to concealed disdain. Using my acquaintances as samples, even though the number of people with whom I have attempted to discuss science is small, I have also gotten the feeling that the current mainstream culture generally regard science fiction with little interest and respect.

My immediate family does not give science fiction credit much credit, unfortunately due to my enthusiasm for science fiction. Indeed, whenever we get to discuss science fiction, even remotely, it is often lumped together with other forms of “entertainment.” Most of the time, it is difficult to hold any meaningful conversations into science fiction, as my family simply DO NOT care. What is important to them is rather the usage of science fiction as an entertainment, not its content nor formal features nor distinctions from other genres. In plain words, all they want to do is figure out how to get me off of “that stuff.” In my experience, my family haven’t once treated science fiction as a serious, intellectual discourse, instead only to view it as another childish leisure activities.

Unfortunately, even my peers do not take science fiction seriously. As long as it is “fun,” they are fine with anything. As a result, not many of my friends make the distinction between Lord of the Rings, Batman: the Dark Knight, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nor do they often think of science fiction as a mirror to reality, or even the possibility (or impossibility) of realization of SF scenarios. It is also next to impossible to talk about science fiction with my peers, since they will simply label me as a nerd and drop the subject.

From my interactions with my family and friends, as well as from the media, I have come to the realization that science fiction is still sidelined as a subculture, a separate entity that only the “nerds” and “geeks” enjoy or take seriously. Furthermore, many people seems to believe that the more recent science fiction in movies and video games are extremely male-oriented. In other words, they are made for lonely nerds and geeks. On January 21, 2008, Fox News denounced a popular SF video game series, Mass Effect, for one single sexual scene. However, their reporting was particular inaccurate. Not only they exaggerated the circumstances of the particular scene, one of their experts has never played the game, and seems to consider the notion rather ridiculous.

Nightly Thoughts

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