Is Great Science Great Science Fiction?

by Andrew Crumey

Durham Book Festival debate, October 2013


Whoever thought of the motion for this debate must have the soul of a poet, since it's open to so many interpretations. Does it mean that science is really some kind of fiction? Or that if you want to write good science fiction you need to get the science right? Or that there is some kind of equivalence between science and literature? The operative words appear to be "science", "fiction" and "great", so I shall concentrate on those.

Let's suppose you're at the home of a friend. They have a young child, a girl, let's say, four years old, and you're sitting at the dining table with her. Your car keys are on the table, you need to leave soon, but first you go to the bathroom. You come back to find your car keys gone, the girl has an innocent look on her face, and in the middle of the tablecloth there is a noticeable hump. You play along with the game. "I wonder where my car keys have gone?" you say theatrically. Then you reach under the tablecloth and retrieve them.

What you have just been doing is science. You made an observation: hump on table. You made a hypothesis: that's my car keys. You tested the hypothesis by reaching under the tablecloth. The hypothesis was correct and you drove home. Science is not some special, mysterious activity performed only by highly trained people allowed to call themselves professional scientists. It's something we all do every day. We do it because we believe ourselves to be living in an objectively real world where some things - definitely not all - can be reliably predicted and explained. There's a philosophy called solipsism which holds that everything is a dream inside one's own head, and I invite anyone who seriously holds that view to go to the top floor of a tall building, open a window and step outside. They will, I am sure, quickly become convinced that gravity and the hardness of the ground are perfectly real and predictable things.

Science is evidently not fiction, but to make the point I used a fiction, a little story about car keys. Fiction, like science, is not the preserve of some special group, it's something we all do. And by fiction I don't simply mean lies or untruths. The story about the car keys was something you knew to be untrue, but could imagine as if it were true - the same thing we could say about any novel.

We all do science and we all do fiction. We could generalise the latter to say we all do art. Are science and art really the same sort of thing? There are lots of similarities: both involve imagination, creativity, perhaps the development of skills and special techniques. They can stimulate wonder and delight. Or frustration and boredom. But that just concentrates on how we might feel about the activities, not on what they are.

Science is founded on our belief in objective fact. Art is founded on our belief in subjective value. Science is the communication of fact, art is the expression of value. Consider these statements. "The Earth orbits around the Sun". "Beethoven was a great composer". "Hurting babies is bad". "Two plus two equals four". I consider all of those to be true statements, and I'm sure you do too, but they're different kinds of truth. Earth's orbit around the sun is a scientific fact. Beethoven's greatness is a value held by the culture we live in. Being nice to babies is a value held by all human cultures, regardless of what they might think about Beethoven. And two plus two is four is a mathematical fact, a truth of logic rather than experience or observation.

Let's go back to fiction. The four-year old girl who hid your car keys grows up to be a physicist who discovers a new kind of energy wave which turns out to be the preferred mode of communication for an advanced civilization on a starless planet only half a light year away. At last we can converse with extraterrestrials.

We would need to find a way of understanding one another, which would take a long time, but ask yourself, what would those aliens think of the four truths I offered? The easiest one for us to communicate to them would be "two plus two equals four". We might spend a few years doing nothing but exchanging mathematical theorems, but at least we can be reasonably sure that although alien maths might look completely different from ours, it nevertheless has to be somehow equivalent, because that's what maths means. We count in base ten because we have ten fingers; maybe they use base six or a hundred, or they don't recognise a concept of counting - but they would have some concept that we could understand as counting, and we might eventually be able to ask, for example, how many other planets they had been able to contact apart from our own.

Then we would work on making them understand the truth that "Earth orbits the sun". And after many more years, if we could get really good at talking to each other, we could tell them our opinion on hurting babies, though me might find that the aliens are like some creatures on our own planet and have evolved to eat their own superfluous offspring, an activity they consider perfectly natural and reasonable, and no worse than snacking on a stick of celery.

Sending recordings of Beethoven symphonies to the aliens wouldn't be too hard. Making them understand that this is our idea of entertainment would be harder. Making them appreciate its greatness would be as impossible as trying to get them to laugh at our jokes. We can appreciate greatness in art because we understand something of the culture that produced it. Our knowledge of early nineteenth century Vienna may be limited, but it's a lot better than any alien could ever manage. What elevates certain art works to the status of greatness is a long discussion in its own right, but we can agree that greatness in art is a local phenomenon.

Is great science the same? We transmit the whole of Euclid to the aliens and get their own version sent back. We find, for example, that they have a concept recognisable as prime number, and they're aware that the number of primes is infinite, which is exactly what Euclid knew. We move on and find a way of translating calculus - it turns out they have a theory of dynamics which they use in their own version of engineering. Should we be surprised at all this? Not really; remember that the only reason we're talking to each other is that both civilisations were able to develop a system involving a certain kind of energy wave discovered by that girl who once hid your car keys and has now won the Nobel Prize.

We could define "great" science in many ways. Most influential, surprising, economically productive, intellectually satisfying. I suppose it matters to writers of potted science histories, or the Nobel Prize committee, though in other respects it doesn't matter at all. Science is not about being great or average, it's about being right or wrong, and in our conversations with the aliens it's correctness that counts.

Art, on the other hand, is never objectively right or wrong, which is not to say that it can't express subjective truth. Hurting babies is bad if you're a human, not if you're an alien. Beethoven is a great composer if you're a twenty-first century citizen of westernised culture, while the aliens, it turns out, don't have anything at all that we can recognise as art, or religion, or even emotion, and seem to get along perfectly well.

What I've offered you is a very feeble piece of science fiction. How might I make it better? I could try to make the science more accurate: I need to specify this mysterious "energy wave", so I'll tell you that it's a modulation of the Higgs field, produced using a successor to the Large Hadron Collider. That might improve the content of my story a little, but as any serious reader knows, you can't judge fiction solely by its content. What also counts is how it's told; its style, the depth of its characterisation, the vividness of its description. That's true whether you're writing science fiction, crime, romance or anything else. When it comes to great fiction, the content can seem almost incidental. Does anyone read Moby-Dick because they want to know about whaling ships? And in science fiction, the science doesn't need to be great, it only needs to be convincing enough for the purposes of the story.

With science what matters is content, not style. To the scientific mind there may even be a feeling of suspicion towards style, a fear that it amounts to subterfuge. The artist might harbour the same misgivings about content - a picture that appeals because it shows a horse, a novel that wins favour because it is about newsworthy events. And while scientists might be suspicious of polemic, science always has a point to make, an argument held to be true. To use an ancient metaphor, scientists are witnesses in the court of nature. Their discourse is always a lesson, it always has a message. And that is completely unlike the art of fiction. We don't want novels to preach at us, we want them to raise questions without necessarily offering an answer, leaving it up to ourselves to make judgements. Characters express views, but who can say if they are the author's view? We are in no doubt about the scientific views of Einstein or Darwin; we cannot be so certain about the views of any novelist, unless they choose to express them outside of a novel.

If I really wanted to turn this little speech into genuine fiction, I would need to set aside my desire to win an argument, my desire to convince you that I'm right and the other side is wrong. I might put all that I've been saying into the mouth of an imaginary character, who for the purposes of the narrative I shall call "you". I might even let the Nobel Prize winner come and have dinner with you in this ongoing fiction, so that the two of you could reminisce about that time many years ago when she hid your car keys and it made you think of the great difference between science and fiction, between the organisation of empirical fact and the expression of subjective value. But then she reminds you that when Galileo wanted to present his theory he chose to write it in fictional form, as a dialogue. Which leaves you wondering if the whole thing might be a little more complicated than you thought.

But my present purpose is not to produce a fiction, it's to present an argument about real human activities. Science is not fiction and fiction is not science. Great science and great fiction are totally different things, and need have nothing to do with one another. The motion for this debate allows for wide interpretation, but I can't think of any I feel inclined to support. Consequently I am very happy to oppose.