Friday, February 22, 2008

Interview with Mike Brotherton

Update: added a final question with answer at the end.

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of interviews with interesting people about the relationship between science and science fiction. It will be fun to see various angles on it. Of course I do this mostly out of my own interest: I want to know what thoughts and experiences others have on this subject. At the same time, I hope that this will be of broader interest, and that my readers will appreciate it. Share and enjoy.

First out is Mike Brotherton, "Hard SF Writer" as he states on his blog. Mike is also an astronomer and a professor at the University of Wyoming.

Now: questions and answers!

Someone asked me if reading science fiction has influenced my choice of career. I'm not sure, actually. What about you, what are your thoughts about the relationship between your interest in science and science fiction?

I can't ever remember not liking science and anything that involved science, including science fiction. Discovering how things worked, the mysteries beyond the everyday, were always interlinked in my mind. When I was six, I wanted to be an astronomer or a paleontologist; that was the same age I first saw Star Trek. Furthermore, good scientific research requires imagination, which science fiction has in great abundance. Good science fiction, in my opinion, requires strong grounding in science.

What do you think: does science fiction have any effect on the
public understanding of science, or is it only people of a scientific mindset who read sf anyway?

Science fiction has a tremendous impact on the general public in movies and TV. The written form is more generally reaching the folks scientifically inclined, true, but it's important to realize that science fiction fans fill all sorts of technical roles in our society from scientists to computer support to engineering and more. These are the people who are in positions to make a lot of decisions about how technology is used and what demand there is for it, the movers and shakers if you will in our modern civilization. And without their support, and at least the positive appreciation of the more general public, support for science would wane and research dollars
would dwindle.

Science fiction can be more dangerous, in my opinion, than people appreciate. A steady diet of movies like Jurassic Park that consistently show scientists as arrogant and blithely releasing
dangers into our world does erode public support.

You teach a course on science and science fiction. What have you
learned from that? Any interesting experiences to share?

Teaching this class really helps me sharpen my critical eye about how to communicate science effectively, appreciating the rare times it's well done, and being frustrated at how often it isn't. I marvel at the ingenuity of some of my students, the love-inspired effort they sometimes apply. On the other end of the spectrum, I also realize just how many years I've put into learning the science and the writing both to do it as well as I do (which isn't badly, but I have
plenty of room for improvement).

One of the things I do in my class is have us watch the old classic DESTINATION MOON, a movie from the 1950s about a rocket that goes to the moon. Written by Robert Heinlein, the story was designed to educate the public about how very possible this feat was and to inspire support. It gets a lot of science right, and has a great scene with Woody Woodpecker explaining how rockets work, something that wasn't general knowledge to the extent it is today. I asked my students to write a scene doing the same thing, and got some nice relationships to more familiar experiences like released balloons and jetting squids. The more abstract the concept, the more important it
is to find comparisons to every day life, even if it seems impossible at first.

What do you think about the portrayal of scientists in sf. Do you recognize yourself?

There are some good and accurate portrayals. Ellie Arroway in CONTACT comes to mind. There are more and better examples in books; Gregory Benford's TIMESCAPE is a good one. I can see myself in those characters.

More often, they're nerdy guys in white lab coats and some kind of ridiculous stereotype (Dan Akroyd in MY STEPMOTHER IS AN ALIEN), or nearly the opposite, with Daryl Hanna's ROXANNE or Val Kilmer's super cool dude in REAL GENIUS. Beautiful people played as if the science is a secondary part of who they are, when the reality is nearly every scientist I know lives for science and loves it. We're so talented to get where we are, we could make a lot more money in a different
field, if we cared to. We don't, usually.

What about the portrayal of sf among scientists? Do you ever get
strange reactions if you tell people at work that you are going to a science fiction convention?

My department and campus at the University of Wyoming is generally supportive of my efforts, and I try hard to bring up the positive synergies between science and science fiction. I've gotten NASA and the National Science Foundation to fund some of my science-fiction-related outreach efforts (e.g., the Launch Pad astronomy workshop for writers, see Bringing in grant money and bringing in high-profile visitors gets positive notice.

And just the same way I have some cachet at science fiction conventions for being the guy who also does real science, a lot of scientists are science fiction fans and they think it's cool that I write novels. Some of my biggest fans are scientific colleagues. The negative folks, the few there are, would actually have to read my books to be too critical and that's usually too much effort. When I travel to give science talks, I'm often asked to also give science fiction talks. The latter typically pull bigger audiences.

Writing takes a lot of time and effort. How do you balance it with work and the rest of your life? Do you have any special writing habits, or designated writing times?

The answer is that the balance is often imbalanced, where I emphasis one or the other for extended periods. The astronomy thing always gets some effort, but I do go months without writing seriously.

Once I start writing on a novel, I write 2-4 hours per day, 1000 words a day, nearly every day, and keep up the momentum through the completion of a first draft.


Again, If you want to know more about Mike Brotherton, here's his blog.

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