Friday, July 11, 2008

Interview with Malin Sandström

After the interview with Peggy Kolm, blogger at Biology in Science Fiction, I have sent some questions to Malin Sandström, who is bringing science news to the Swedish part of the blogosphere at Vetenskapsnytt. Sorry that it has taken me so long to get around to posting this!

What came first, your interest in science or in science fiction? To what extent are they aspects of the same interest?

I am actually not sure. Probably I did not make that clear division between "science" and "fiction" when I started reading books, but I definitely had more opportunities to nurture my interest in science. The first science fiction I remember reading and can place in time was Gibson, and then I might have been... eleven? twelve? Old enough not to be immediately evicted from the "grownups" section of the library, at least.

Of course these interests have parts in common. I think the underlying theme in good science and good science fiction is partly the same; neat logical threads between known things, nevertheless leading to the unexpected unknowns. And science often makes for good stories, even if it is not usually framed in that way. Reading a scientific paper with "story-teller" eyes can be quite revealing, and it also gives you a few pointers on how to improve your own papers.

In your experience, do scientists read science fiction?

I'd guess more do than are willing to admit it ;-) But sadly, I'd also say that most scientists I have met seem to read very little apart from their academic litterature. (Makes you wonder how many get all the way down the Contents page of Nature to read Futures... I'd love to see those reading statistics.) The few booklovers I've met among my collegues are quite often sf readers, though. And if you go from my part of the field - natural sciences - to the more interactive and reflecting social sciences, I'd expect to find more readers, hopefully also more sf devotees.

What is the role of science fiction for the communication of science? Is it useful, is it negligible, or is it just a source of misconceptions?

It can be useful, but I think you would have to pick and choose rather carefully to avoid misconceptions and get an overarching theme together to communicate the science you want. But as a medium for communicating the excitement of science and pointing out ways to think about science, it has a lot of potential. For instance, what will individual identity mean if we ever will be able to produce human clones? If we add prostheses and improvements to our bodies and psyches, at what point are we no longer human? These questions are still inching their way into the general public discussion, but they've been in the books and short stories for more than twenty years.

What do you think about the portrayal of scientists in science fiction? In other forms of literature?

I actually have no set opinion on this any longer. I'd normally go with my gut reflex and say "bad! All stereotypes!", but I was at a seminar at the PCST-10 conference i Malmö last week where they discussed the development of the portrayal of scientists in the culture, and they had a lot of positive counter-examples for both sf and general literature. Let's just say it varies, and it is getting better - but the scientists I know are definitely more normal :-)

If you read Swedish, make sure to check out Vetenskapsnytt!


Scrypt said...

Googling the phrase, "Do scientists read science fiction," I chanced on this page. Congratulations on producing a thoughtful interview on a blog with a felicitous title. I'll be looking up Sandström elsewhere and exploring your archives here.

Åka said...

Welcome here! (I had to look up the word "felicitous", I'll add it to my flashcard program if I remember it!) Be sure to look at the other interviews in this series.