Hard Science Fiction = Easy Science Communication

Four years ago I was reading I, Robot by Isaac Asimov in my bedroom. There was nothing new about the fact that I was reading science fiction, but I can still recall this very moment in time – the first time I read something by Asimov. The more I read, the more I noticed subtle uniqueness’s about Asimov’s approach to sci-fi. At some point while reading half of the book in a single sitting, I realized what Asimov’s secret weapon was: he was using science fiction as a covert tool of science communication. I remember this so vividly because it was what first made me want to start writing my own sci-fi.

Isaac Asimov by Rowena Morrill
Portrait of Isaac Asimov by Rowena Morrill

Asimov was a biochemist who wrote an incredibly high volume (his bibliography has over 500 entries) of fantastic books. He is perhaps most known for I, Robot (bearing only a little resemblance to the movie staring Will Smith) – and his Foundation series.

Sci-fi can be used to get people excited about the possibilities of the future, that much I had known. This was more than that. Asimov was sneaking many bits of real science into his writing. His characters were detectives, and they went about solving mysteries in a very scientific manner. He took then-leading-edge scientific knowledge about atomic power and newly discovered chemicals and put them into action (I, Robot was published in 1950, so the science isn’t as accurate as it originally was). His books were Trojan horses, allowing science to invade the reader’s mind under the façade of story telling.

There really aren’t enough novels within this stream of science fiction, often called ‘hard science fiction’. There are some, like the astronomer Carl Sagan’s Contact, and computer scientist Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, but there is certainly room for more.

There so many are others that get the science right, like Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (which I did enjoy), but hold an “anti-science” perspective. Where are all of the rest of the sci-fi stories that celebrate science with optimism?

If you know of any modern hard science fiction that are “pro-science” (especially anything that packs in some humor), please leave it in the comments!

How Frequently Do Students Dropout?

‘Dropping out’ is something that is frequently discussed in academia, often in the context of “don’t [insert verb here], or you will end up as a dropout”. Since it is such a commonplace term/warning/fear,  it surprises me that people generally don’t know how likely it is to occur. What are the dropout rates?

It doesn’t help that ‘drop out’ numbers aren’t easy to pin down. Universities don’t always track or flaunt their drop out rates – possibly especially in cases that would look bad on the university. The most information available is on ‘completion rates’, that is: the rate of students that started and finished a program at a particular university. This rate does not distinguish between students who flunked out, switched universities, were promoted from one category to the next without graduating from the first, or met some more tragic end – it isn’t the antonym of ‘drop out’ rates, but it is related, and it’ll have to do for now.

In Canada, it seems that the higher level of education you are in, the less likely you are to complete your program:

completion rates for different academic levels
Sources: High School, Undergrad, Masters, Doctorate.

That trend does not suggest that the longer you stay in a program the more likely you are to dropout – you’re actually more likely to dropout near the start. Of course, it isn’t that simple of a rule – the numbers change dramatically with the demographic. Countries, schools, and programs all have different rates of program completion. This is just one way to view a portion of the data. The numbers are different in American universities – especially for undergrads, where the average freshman is just a coin flip away from either graduating or dropping out. There are also some exemplary universities, like the University of St. Andrews, where purportedly only 0.05% of students dropout. There are also some horror story settings, such as one university where the average time-till-drop-out for doctorates was 6 years, meaning that the average ‘quitter’ there leaves after 6 years of worth of work – with no degree.

Disciplines also have some impact on the completion rate. For doctorates and undergraduates, students of the physical sciences are more likely to complete than are humanities or social science majors. For instance, the completion rate for PhD doctorates in Canada ranges from 52-83% in the sciences, and from only 40-59% in the arts. There wasn’t the same trend happening for Masters students, but there are certainly still differences.

completion rates for various graduate programsBased on one study, the reasons doctoral students say they throw in the towel for are generally either: personal problems, ‘departmental issues’ (ie. bad advising), or the wrong fit. I would be curious to see if the different disciplines have different rates at least in part due to differences (or perceived differences) in funding and hire-ability (any info or thoughts on this in the comments would be appreciated).

There is some good news, at least for Canada, where some of the dropout rates are… dropping. Fewer high-schoolers dropout each year:

dropout rates for high school students are improving

Whether this trend is similar for other levels of academic study, I am not sure. One thing you probably noticed from the above graph is that males still dropout more often than females. Stay in school, kids.

There are also some interesting lists of college dropouts who turned out more or less alright. Instead of going into a big discussion about what I think these numbers all mean for education, science, the economy, and the future, I will introduce you to the comments section and leave that up to you!

How Are Scientists Really Depicted in Film?

I stole plutonium so I could mess with the space-time continuum? Great Scott!

Its Alive! (dr. frankenstein and his monster in the 1931 film)

It is easy to imagine some scientists from movies that you’ve seen and to quickly make an assumption that they are typically depicted in one way or another. Images of Dr. Frankenstein from the classic 1931 film, and the ‘Doc’ (Dr. Emmett Brown) from Back to the Future immediately sprang to my mind – odd, asocial characters that reanimate dead bodies and steal plutonium to power time-travelling DeLoreans. I held the hypothesis that the vast majority of fictional scientists were inattentive, mad, unattractive, male, and villainous, but I wasn’t sure if that was really the case. The images of science in film has a strong impact on (and is a reflection of) how the public perceives the scientific endeavour – and so, it is an important thing to investigate. I did some reading, and found an obsessive study that looked at 222 films and quantified a number of things. Here is what they found.

The Data

In these Hollywood films, scientists were typically white (96%), American (49%), male (82%), and between the ages of 35 and 49 (40%). Roughly a third were single, and another third had never been in a relationship. This may be because these fictional scientists don’t get out much; 42% of them work in solitary labs at home, peerless and without public authorities (35% work in secrecy).

The majority of Hollywood films about science are dystopias. More than 60% of the discoveries/inventions in the stories are dangerous, causing damage 58% of the time (it gets ‘out of control’ 35% of the time), and of course, 48% of the discoveries are kept secret from the public. The horror movie is the most represented genre in science films, whereas there are hardly any science films in the comedy category.

But what is not to laugh about? I mean, if these stereotypic representations aren’t far enough from the truth to be laughable, how about the actual science: only 47% of the films deal with non-fictional areas of science. That leaves a majority of films about completely made-up scientific fields of science (14.5%) or real fields that are at a fictional level of development (39%).

Doc Emmet Brown from Back to the Future in his DeLorean
A homebuilt, plutonium-powered, DeLorean time machine? Great Scott!

Trends for Future Films about Science

Younger scientists are making a larger appearance. A study from 2003 suggested there might be a trend towards showing more youthful scientists, but in their study only 24% of the scientists were between 20 and 34 years old.

The mad scientist stereotype dominated earlier films, though the female scientists very rarely seemed to play this role. These stereotypes are breaking apart – there are now some scientists that almost seem like real people (yes, with friends and ethics), more female scientists are getting screenplay, and the scientist-as-hero archetype is becoming a more popular trend. It’s about damn time, too; some credit is due. Computers and pain killers didn’t make themselves, you know.

I’m really happy about these trends, because I think we need to see more scientists like Eleanor Arroway from the movie Contact – a female scientist that works [mostly] in a group, shows compassion, and deals with real scientific struggles (namely, a male-focussed hierarchy and funding cuts). We need to hear about good things in science. We need to see scientists save the day instead of destroy it. I think, most of all, we need at least some films about science that are comedies – films that show science in a positive light, that show it can be a good time, and not just a scary, intimidating nightmare.

Dr. Arroway from the movie of Carl Sagan's Contact
Small moves, Ellie, small moves.