Let’s look at a few examples. American inventor Simon Lake was captivated by the idea of undersea travel ever since reading Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” in 1870. Lake’s innovations included ballast tanks, divers’ compartments and the periscope. His company built the Argonaut, which earned him a congratulatory note from Verne. It was the first submarine to operate successfully in the open ocean. Igor Sikorsky, inventor of the modern helicopter, was also inspired by a Verne book, “Clipper of the Clouds”, which he had read as a young boy. Sikorsky often quoted Jules Verne, saying “Anything that one man can imagine, another man can make real.” Robert Goddard built the first liquid-fueled rocket after reading an 1898 newspaper serialisation of HG Wells’ “War of the Worlds”. As Goddard would recall later, the concept of interplanetary flight “gripped my imagination tremendously.” There are also numerous examples of Star Trek tech which has become a reality. For example, automatic sliding doors and also the design of the first mobile phone. Researcher David Smith described it best when he deduced that there is undeniably a link between science fact and the ideas that emerge in science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction authors are inspired by actual scientific and technological discoveries, but allow themselves the freedom to project the possible future course of these discoveries and their potential impact on society, perhaps remaining only weakly tethered to the facts. “Scientists, in turn, often derive inspiration from the imaginative possibilities that exist in fictional worlds, but are constrained to follow the laws of nature that apply in this world,” he said. “The inventions in fictional worlds seldom transition to the real world – at least not in the way they are first imagined. So the cloaking devices employed by Romulans in Star Trek may not be directly adaptable to science, at least not in the way they are first imagined by the television shows.” Enabling the science symbolically to attach itself to the future imagined by the Star Trek saga and similar narratives, it lends itself to new blueprints for future science. Smith said his team had succeeded in taking the prospect of invisibility from the realm of science fiction and fantasy to reality, providing what amounts to a blueprint for a cloaking device. In much the same method, scientists have been able to prove that Carrie’s mind control abilities, Iron Man’s cybernetic helmet, lightsabers, Captain America’s shield, Batman’s grappling gun, and Wolverine’s rapidly healing skin are within reach. Let’s face it, who wouldn’t want the chance to recreate an epic weapon used by a childhood superhero? More importantly, the use of science fiction may attract women and girls into the historically underrepresented STEM sectors. After all, there has not only been a rise in women giving the genre a chance, but also an increase in female sci-fi writers. What we’re seeing is the generation that grew up with “Harry Potter” and raised on dystopian novels such as “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent”, enter university, and very soon the UK workforce. Essentially, researchers at the Universities of Pittsburgh and Michigan found that more women had the highest scores on both the math and the verbal portion of the SAT test than their male counterparts. However, it is the art and the story behind something that is lacking in most syllabi.
How many engineering teachers include a fiction book like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Player Piano” in their syllabi? Do many math teachers read aloud “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo? And how many science teachers quote the poetic observations of David George Haskell? Ideas like these should be a part of all STEM curricula, and it seems that experts agree. In 2006, researchers in Spain discovered that stories stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life. And in 2012, a team of researchers from Emory University found that similes and metaphors can activate sensory portions of the brain. The importance of storytelling in science has been growing over the last few years as scientists work to communicate with the general public and stimulate more critical thinking about important issues. So if, as the study shows, female students with high ability in both math and verbal areas tend to steer away from STEM careers, maybe it’s time to bring more of those verbal skills into the STEM classes for the benefit of these students – especially if we are to lure them into the space sector. By Shané Schutte
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