Monday, July 27, 2015

Scientists who Write Science Fiction

Gregory Benford, the science fiction writer and physicist from UC Irvine, will be presenting our physics colloquium at Vanderbilt in October -- the talk is free and open to the public, so drop in if you are in the area. Benford belongs to that rare breed of active research scientists who have also carved out a career in science fiction. "But wait!" you say, "What about Isaac Asimov -- he had a Ph.D. in chemistry. And Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke both had technical backgrounds." All true, but all of these guys, and many others like them, left science to pursue a writing career. In fact, the most famous of these is probably Michael Crichton, who is actually "Dr. Crichton" (with an M.D.) He was conducting postdoctoral biomedical research while launching his writing career. The fact that many people don't think of him as a scientist turned science fiction writer is probably because many SF purists would not consider his work to be "true" science fiction (and some physical scientists would not consider biomedical research to be true science!)

Conversely, many scientists have dabbled in science fiction, writing a few short stories or one or two novels, without ever intending to make a career out of it.  I would certainly put myself in that category. In my own field of astrophysics, there's Don Clayton, who's famous for his work on nuclear reactions in stars, and Craig Wheeler, who works on supernovae.

All of which makes Benford's parallel career as a scientist and science fiction writer all the more remarkable. In fact, I know of only one "Nobel-Prize class" scientist who also had a major science fiction writing career. Can you guess who? The answer is after the break.

The answer is Fred Hoyle. Note that I chose my words carefully. Hoyle should have shared the Nobel Prize in 1983 with Fowler and Chandrasekhar -- there were some political issues that hurt him. And Hoyle wrote a number of well-known science fiction novels -- my favorite of these is October the First is Too Late.

It's no surprise that most people either abandon scientific research for a career as a science fiction writer or remain in the world of science and write science fiction on the side, without devoting themselves equally to both. It's a bit like asking why more athletes don't play baseball in the summer and football in the winter, or why more neurosurgeons don't spend half their time doing dentistry. Someone with an aptitude for two different fields of endeavor will naturally gravitate to the one they are better at and enjoy more.

But here's one remarkable exception: Cleveland Browns quarterback Frank Ryan took his team to the NFL championship in the early 1960s, earned a Ph.D. in mathematics, and served as a math professor at Case while still playing professional football.  Amazing!


Gregory said...

Didn't know of Frank Ryan but must look into his math...

Crichton wrote I think 4 suspense novels to finance his med school tuition and get writing experience, then wrote ANDROMEDA STRAIN as both novel and screenplay at once. He told me this when he taught at UCI.

I spoke with Hoyle on this and was surprised he'd read my work; I'd read all of his. My EATER is a direct tribute to him.

Gregory Benford

Unknown said...

Interesting aside about Hoyle and SF. The relationship between image growth (as in the visual field) and time-to-contact was first noted by Hoyle in The Black Cloud. This quantity is known in the vision community as tau, and specifies the size of an object to its rate of expansion so as to give time-to-contact. It's an important quantity in cognitive science in studying how people and animals do catching and collision avoidance.

Andrew Fraknoi said...

Very interesting blog. For a much longer list of science fiction stories with reasonable astronomy or physics in them, many written by scientists, readers may want to check:

Andrew Fraknoi (Foothill College)

Robert Scherrer said...

Thanks! Your website is one that we referred to when we put together the syllabus for our course. It was extremely useful.